Posts Tagged Labour

What future for housing democracy under Labour?

Disappointing news that the Labour Council has rejected LibDem proposals to consider balloting tenants on the future of council housing management in Islington.

I should declare an interest as Homes for Islington (HFI), Islington’s ALMO, is my freeholder. As a leaseholder, I’ve had a generally good experience of them. The few pieces of work they’ve done on our relatively-modern property (repainting railings, upgrading communal aerial) have been carried out efficiently. The railings in particular were a good job well done, going from a rather peaky eau-de-nil to a glossy black, with minimum hassle.

However I also know of too many cases where the sheer size of HFI has left a small issue festering into a major grievance, because it was not dealt with promptly in the first place. As well as major concerns over the cost of major works, and the frustration leaseholders feel when presented with huge, mandatory bills.

No-one wants to go back to the state that Islington council housing had reached by the late 1990s. When I was first a councillor, Labour presided over squalid estates where postmen feared to tread. Tenants were desperate for a change and voted whenever they could to transfer out to housing associations. Money was wasted and there was no accountability.

The ALMO was supposed to achieve the best mix between getting the perceived better management of housing associations, while retaining secure council tenancy and rents. Most pertinently, it was the only option at the time for getting vital Decent Homes money out of the Labour government.

Now that’s been done, is there a case for taking the service back in-house when the ALMO ends? The arms-length structure has led to perceived buck-passing between HFI and the Council, made worse in the many council-owned street properties where Partners for Islington – the company contracted to deliver long-term management of decent homes works on period properties – is also involved.

If Labour are truly going to look at all the options, it seems strange to rule the in-house one out. And wrong not to let residents have their say. The LibDem council held a consultative ballot before bringing the ALMO in. Labour’s attitude to housing still seems to be “you may live in it, but we know best”.

I’d look at every option, but whoever the landlord is, my preference would be devolving more money and power to tenants & residents by setting up TMOs, housing co-ops and other forms of self-management, within a community housing framework.

The best-run, safest and most attractive estates in Islington are those with the most empowered residents. Not those who see their T&RA as a stick to beat the freeholder, but those who get stuck in and help run their estates themselves. You get better accountability, better value-for-money and residents who feel pride, not frustration, when they look around their neighbourhood.

For this to work the freeholder must devolve enough money and support to make the estate self-management viable, and there must be clear, simple and consistent demarcations of responsibilities between the different tiers. But it can be done, as shown by estates like the Half-Moon tenants’ co-op in Barnsbury.

This afternoon I’m joining the St. Mary’s Path Estate Tenants’ Association, and their landlord Islington & Shoreditch Housing Association (ISHA), to celebrate the great work they’ve done in providing positive activities for residents of the estate and the wider community, through having just such a good partnership.

Islington Labour please note.

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One freeze we’d welcome

It’s council budget time again in Islington.

Islington’s Lib Dems first took control of Islington Council 10 years ago following the Hillrise by-election, where the level of council tax was a crucial issue. Under Labour, Islington had the highest council tax in the country and some of the worst services.

The LibDems pledged to cut the council tax and then to keep it below the London average, while improving services: a promise they’ve kept ever since.

Last year, controversially, Labour councillors took advantage of the hospitalisation of Lib Dem Cllr Donna Boffa to force through a council tax rise, rather than the freeze that LibDems wanted.

Islington residents who might have forgotten life under Labour will have taken note that on the one day in a decade when they had a majority, Labour put up our taxes.

This year Liberal Democrat councillors will be proposing a council tax freeze again, and it looks as if they’ve got Labour to concede. We’ll find out at the Council meeting next Thursday.

Labour not putting taxes up? It must be election year….

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Life of Brian

Some news today that’s both very surprising and very welcome, to me at least.

Brian Haley, a very senior (in experience, not age!) Labour councillor in Haringey has joined the Liberal Democrats.
This is a real coup for Haringey Lib Dems and the wider party. I worked with Brian Haley on the North London Waste Authority and London Councils, on issues like extending recycling and protecting the Freedom Pass.

London politics can be very partisan, and changing team isn’t easy. I imagine Brian is having quite a tough time at present, but I’m certain he’s made the right choice. There are always some people in other parties you like and respect, and Brian is one of those. He will be most welcome in the Liberal Democrats.

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Weak-willed Labour MPs veto 10:10 at Westminster

Lib Dem MPs have been leading the debate on fighting climate change by trying to get the Government to sign up to 10:10 this week. Having been at the 10:10 launch, I was delighted to see this motion tabled – and I’d certainly have voted for it if I was in Parliament.

10:10 is the initiative to get individuals and organisations to commit to start reducing carbon emissions right now, by reducing 10% by the end of 2010. Islington Council has signed up and so have many individuals (the Fox-Turnbull household is doing its bit by replacing our old boiler with a combination one).

With endorsement from so many campaigners, including the 38 Degrees pressure group, and with the Copenhagen summit coming soon, this would have been both popular and good, the right decision at the right time.

After all, we are the first generation to understand the full impact of climate change, and the last to be able to do something about it.

So did Labour embrace the opportunity? No they did not. Despite many individual Labour MPs and ministers pledging to back 10:10, when it came to the vote they rejected any commitment to specific action by the Government, voting through an amendment full of vague praise for existing schemes instead.

Warm words and photo ops from Labour politicians are a waste of time if when it comes to taking real action now on the environment they refuse.

It’s no surprise that Islington South MP Emily Thornberry was among those vetoing 10:10. She has already failed to vote against Heathrow expansion; and she helped kill off the Fuel Poverty Bill.

Signing up to the 10:10 initiative would have made the Government’s commitment to action clear ahead of the Copenhagen summit. But once again we will get words without action. It’s shameful that weak-willed Labour MPs let the Government whips defeat this vital move.

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Time for a Citizens’ Convention?

Yesterday’s Guardian has more voices in support of a Citizens’ Convention to reform our political processes, kickstarted by the expenses scandal.

Among various luminaries of the reformist left and centre are a number of Lib Dems, including Lib Dem Voice editor Stephen Tall, and Liberal Youth chair Elaine Bagshawe. Their cause is honourable, but there is an air of deckchairs and Titanic in a lineup which features no Tories at all.

Lib Dem blogger and democracy campaigner James Graham argues that pre-election legislation is essential to tie the hands of any incoming government. That’s not terribly democratic – if Labour did that on an issue we loathed (and there are lots of examples from ID cards to Heathrow, nuclear power, Trident renewal or new databases), we’d be the first to complain.

As it is, I can’t see a dying Labour government giving up legislative time to anything other than damage limitation. This will be the palliative care parliament.

The real chance for reform will come from electing MPs with the right mandate. James also points out that MPs of all parties have backed the Convention by signing the EDM (although Emily Thornberry, unsurprisingly, has not). But the only ones from a party committed to electoral reform are Liberal Democrats, which is why maximising the number of Lib Dem MPs is so important.

So yes, let’s keep writing letters. But let’s deliver them in our key seats too!

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Council tax: will Labour eat their words?

Islington residents will have smiled wryly at the claim that Labour-led boroughs will be freezing the Council Tax next year.

As we know all too well, Islington Labour put up our council tax this year, to pay for their pet project of universal free primary school meals. Given that families on low incomes already get free meals, Islington Labour’s scheme is redistributing money from poorer council tax payers to richer parents. There are also concerns about whether this will distort the ‘free school meals’ tally on which many government grants to Islington depend. Plus it’s not at all clear that schools have the infrastructure or the budgets to deliver free school meals across the board. Even school meals champion Jamie Oliver has doubts that this is the best use of limited funds.

As Islington’s lone Green councillor, Katie Dawson, said at the time, “I’ve become increasingly nervous about how the free school meals will be funded. I’ve agonised over this and taken professional advice and remain unconvinced that going into a recession it is wise to empty all the coffers of the council.”

Other councils piloting free school meals – like Newham, Wolverhampton and County Durham – are getting their schemes subsidised by central government. If national Labour think this is such a good idea that they will fund it elsewhere, why do they expect local council taxpayers to pick up the whole bill in Islington? And if Islington’s Labour MPs really have clout on behalf of our community, why didn’t they get us into the national pilot instead? It seems they care more about posturing than policy.

Meanwhile the Lib Dem council is taking real action to improve things for local kids. There’s a new uniform grant for children starting secondary school. Record results at Key Stages 1 and 2, and the best GCSE results ever, show the difference we’ve made. Nationally, Lib Dem plans for a pupil premium would see class sizes halved for 5-7 year olds. By contrast Labour’s policy is not to cut class sizes but to cut teachers.

When Labour ran Islington, we had the highest council tax in the country and some of the worst services. Since then Lib Dems have regularly cut and frozen the council tax; and even in years when it’s gone up, it’s stayed below the London average. Then this year, the first time Labour had a majority in the Town Hall for a decade, they put the tax up again.

Judge them by their deeds not their words.

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A real chance for fair votes?

Do you remember your first vote?

Mine was in the 1983 General Election, when Labour and the Alliance got equal shares of the vote – but dramatically different results. That was so obviously unfair that I became an instant convert to fair votes, and I’ve supported electoral reform ever since.

Over the years we’ve seen fairer voting systems arrive in Scotland and Wales, for Europe and for the London Assembly. But as we all now know, despite many (broken) promises from Labour, we are still waiting for reform for council and Westminster elections.

It’s no surprise to me that there is a correlation between ‘safe’ Parliamentary seats and the likelihood of MPs being guilty of the worst expenses scandals. That’s what happens when our supposedly democratic system takes power away from the voters.

In marginal seats, defensive MPs are trying to exploit the weaknesses of ‘first past the post’ to cling on to power. At the last election, here in Islington South & Finsbury, the Labour MP Emily Thornberry had a majority of just 484 votes ahead of myself, the Liberal Democrat challenger.

With the polls confirming that voters are turning away from Labour, she is now desperately talking up the Conservative vote to bolster her position.

I wish that all parties’ votes carried equal weight. But the sad truth is that with our flawed electoral system, they do not. For example, voting Conservative or Green in my local constituency just helps Emily Thornberry – a firm opponent of fair votes – stay in place. So in this seat, the best way to get fair votes for all voters in Islington is to vote Liberal Democrat next time.

Public anger about the state of our politics gives us a golden opportunity to press for the reforms that are so badly needed.

A wave of campaigns have sprung up. Take Back Power sets fair votes at the centre of a range of reforms. Vote for a Change and Make Votes Count are calling for a fair votes referendum on polling day: Unlock Democracy and 38 Degrees want a citizens’ convention to bring forward plans for reform. That idea has cross-party support, including from Islington North Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn.

Both approaches would give the electors, not just MPs, a say. It all makes Gordon Brown’s approach -vote for us now and you’ll get a referendum later, on one voting option only – seem a pretty poor offer.

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