Happy birthday (and international women’s day) Fatima!

After a slow start, I’ve come to know some brilliant women in my life.  (I’ve even helped raise some!)  On International Women’s Day, I want to pay tribute to one of them on what is also, fittingly, her birthday.

That’s Fatima, standing second from the right of the back row in this Ahmad-Robbins family photo.  She came to live in the UK four years ago after her life in Syria was turned upside down by war.  Like all refugees, Fatima wanted to live her life in peace with her family, friends and neighbours .  Now they’re scattered to the winds and don’t know if they’ll ever see each other or their country again.

Fatima was forced to leave her home with her two children and after a sometimes difficult journey, was able to join her husband in London.  She escaped the trauma of one place, but replaced it with the alienation of another.  A strange home in a strange city.  But from the moment she arrived, Fatima has spread love, kindness and strength all around her.  In the process, she’s helped her two daughters settle into school, where they’ve both achieved outstanding academic results and equally importantly, followed their mum’s example as caring, generous members of our society.  Meanwhile, Fatima has given unstinting support and care to an older woman with dementia – my mum – a labour of love for which we can never thank her enough.

Fatima’s English is getting better, but my Arabic isn’t, so we’re not always able to communicate directly.  But what I see in Fatima, as well as a person of immense courage and resilience, are human qualities that transcend words.  Fatima gives life to a thousand expressions of solidarity and compassion.  Her deeds are the most eloquent refutation of bigotry, prejudice and racism.  In a metaphorical and literal sense, Fatima is international woman.

 

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Three Big Problems with Project JC

I hesitate to enter these waters.  If there’s one thing we don’t need it’s more pontificating about the state of the Labour Party, its leader and the left.  As someone once said ‘the point is to change it’.  But like many others, I’m increasingly worried and frustrated that the huge potential harnessed by Jeremy Corbyn’s election is in danger of changing nothing.

This is not primarily about the individual.  I don’t know Mr Corbyn and my only brief personal contacts have confirmed the view that he’s a decent fella with a genuine commitment to social justice.  I can’t comment on his leadership qualities (which is a bit of a fake science anyway), but if his style is more consensual than autocratic, then that’s a good thing.  The election of a genuine socialist and trade unionist as Labour leader was a great moment.  I would probably have re-joined the Party if I’d thought they’d have me.  The fact that they probably wouldn’t is indicative of the first problem.

Until Corbyn’s election, the Labour Party had been in decline as a democratic, participative, campaigning organisation for most of my life.  Yes, it could still win elections, but the organic sinews of a party rooted in working class communities had been withered by long-term social changes, short-term political opportunism and bureaucratic manoeuvres.  That can’t be reversed overnight, or in 17 months.  However, as I understand it, the foot soldiers for beginning the process of making the Labour Party more relevant to people’s everyday lives is Momentum.  Leaving aside the organisation’s internal issues, the major problem I perceive with Momentum has been its failure to adequately engage with grassroots campaigns and this is linked to its initially confused, but eventually prescriptive attitude to membership.  Requiring that members of Momentum can only be members of the Labour Party excludes many of us who might otherwise have been enthusiastic to work within a broad alliance to oppose austerity and neoliberalism and who knows, maybe join the Labour Party at some later point.  Momentum’s narrow dogmatism has reinforced those on Labour’s right wing who have conspired for years to exert central control over the party, while taking it ever further away from being a socialist organisation.

The second problem is linked to the first and concerns the mainstream political culture which privileges an inner-core of apparatchiks over the rank-and-file.  That’s true of all hierarchical organisations, but part of the appeal of Project JC was a sense that it would do things differently.  I’m not sure it has.  To illustrate this, I think of two encounters I’ve had with Mr Corbyn since he became leader.  The first was last July when I bumped into him at Euston station.  He was on his own, buying a magazine and chatting to people in W H Smiths.  The second was in October when he was surrounded by staff and advisors and appeared unable to relate to an issue which, three months earlier, he’d naturally connected with.  Of course, we all have our off-days and there’s no question the incredible strain he’s been under will take its toll.  But I think this contrast reflects the way the political establishment strangles any attempt to devolve power away from its sanctum.

This in turn feeds into the third problem which is the appearance that Corbyn and his allies are being held hostage by the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).  Again, the assorted right-wing, Blairite and careerist MPs were never going to relinquish power easily, however big Corbyn’s mandate from the party membership.  But just like media hostility, that’s a given.  The task for Project JC was to move beyond the Westminster constraints and appeal to people who have become disillusioned with mainstream politics.  The Copeland result and the Stoke turnout show that it’s not happening.  Last week I spent some time in Hull and I’ve rarely felt more sympathy for those who lash out through UKIP, Brexit and worse to remind the establishment they still exist.

There are no simple answers to these problems, but at the moment, it feels like Project JC has run out of ideas and is in danger or running out of road.  Here are three suggestions for things that could be done.

  1. There’s been a lot of talk of Corbyn’s use of three-line whips lately, but I think the party leader should instruct every Labour MP to attend the Save Our NHS march this Saturday. Some, of course, will be there anyway, but imagine a phalanx of 228 MPs joining their constituents to defend one of our proudest achievements.  Those who don’t should be named and we can draw our own conclusions.
  1. There are hundreds of empty shops in places like Hull. Labour should rent one of them for two weeks and use the time to develop a real dialogue with local people – and not one based around the attempt to win votes.  John McDonnell and his colleagues have lots of good suggestions for how to rebuild the economy, but they haven’t penetrated working class communities and don’t engage them with the process of developing local campaigns for change.
  1. The Labour Party, including Momentum, needs to own the issue of housing. It remains a massive problem for millions – either directly or as a proxy for other frustrations – and one where the government is failing spectacularly.  It’s a political open goal that’s constantly being missed.

It’s not too late.  The Tory government is gathering superficial strength and confidence, but in reality is weak, divided and faces huge problems it has no answers for.  It’s time for Project JC to stop moaning and start organising.

 

 

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Cathy and Daniel

Sorry to name-drop, but I’ve been spending a bit of time with Ken Loach lately, the man and his work.  On 2nd February, ‘Axe the Housing Act’ jointly-hosted a special screening of ‘I, Daniel Blake’, with Ken doing a Q and A, at the Genesis cinema in Mile End.  We were overwhelmed by the response.  All the tickets sold within 48 hours and we had to arrange a second slot later in the evening.  Overall, about 1,000 people came through the door.    This is testament to the esteem in which Ken is held, both as a film-maker and someone who uses his position to speak out against social injustice, but also to the power of a film that depicts a feature of contemporary Britain with sympathy and understanding instead of condemnation and judgmentalism.  Whatever complacent Tories and their media say, Daniel Blake’s experiences are shared by millions of people.  That’s why there are now hundreds of local screenings scheduled in communities around the country (something I don’t think has ever happened with a film before), which I’m sure pleases Ken as much as a BAFTA.

On 12th February I was asked to say a few words at a screening by the Socialist Film Co-op of ‘Cathy Come Home’.  I hadn’t seen it for a while and was very struck by the links between two Ken Loach films separated by 50 years.  Cinematically, there’s an obvious consistency in style – there’s one scene in ‘Cathy’ where the Ray Brooks character shows children how to light a storm lamp that has an almost exact parallel with Dave Johns in ‘Daniel’ – but that’s not my field.  What the two films also capture is how current housing and social policy is turning the clock back.

‘Cathy Come Home’ is often credited with having woken the country up to a crisis in its midst when it was first shown as a BBC television play in 1966, which in itself seems a long way from the current unreality TV diet of escapist dramas and talent shows.  The housing charities Crisis and Shelter both emerged from the after-shock, although they’ve become incrementally less critical of the policies that create the conditions they exist to alleviate.  Cathy’s experience follows a downward spiral from hope to despair that has become all too familiar.  ‘You’re only two pay cheques away from being homeless’ has become a cliche because for many, it’s true.

As she and her family fall out of the relative security and independence of council housing, Cathy becomes increasingly itinerant, subject to the vagaries of the private rented market and dependent on paternalistic philanthropy.  But shocking as her story still is, what’s more alarming is that the situation for people in a similar situation today is even worse.  I had some passing behind-the-camera involvement in ‘I, Daniel Blake’ when I took the actress who plays Katy (Hayley Squires) to meet Ariam who I’d got to know when her life took a similar turn to Cathy’s (read Ariam’s story here).  Ariam was relatively ‘lucky’ because unlike Katy, she wasn’t rehoused hundreds of miles away, as has become almost the norm.  Of course, at the root of the problem is that, unlike 50 years ago, we’ve virtually stopped building council homes.  Today, like Cathy, people are finding their lives distorted and damaged by the abandonment of housing policy to the whims of a market even this Tory government admits is broken. But as Peter Marcuse (or possibly his dad: I can nevr nail down the quote) has said, we don’t have a housing crisis because the system isn’t working, but because that’s the way the system works.

Edits from the Ken Loach Q and A at the Genesis are here.

 

 

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Learning from Red Vienna

In the week the UK government unveiled a housing policy that will never work, I was in Vienna learning a bit about one that did.  The wave of radical politics that swept the world after the Russian Revolution and the First World War left an indelible mark on the Austrian capital. ‘Red Vienna’ was short-lived and ended disastrously, but its legacy is a city where 30% of the population live in municipal housing and another 30% in some other form of State-funded, rent-stabilised, non-market accommodation.  Unlike many other cities, Vienna has not privatised its housing and although the pressures to do so are growing, the Viennese might resist.  According to someone who lives there, street homelessness is virtually unknown.  This may be only one indication of a successful housing policy, but in my five days there, I didn’t see a single person sleeping rough.

What happened to Vienna’s housing between the wars has parallels with many other places, including the UK.  At the turn of the 20th century, the city had a level of urban deprivation that rivaled Victorian slums elsewhere.  The rate of deadly infectious resulting from insanitary, overcrowded housing led to tuberculosis being known as ‘Viennese Disease’.  Although the city had pioneered advances in urban planning, this was primarily used as a showcase for the grand, imperial buildings that dot the Ringstrasse.  Always a city of immigration, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918 increased the population surge that had made Vienna the fifth biggest city in the world.

The aftermath of war and revolution brought demands for better housing and social conditions.  The environment in the inner city had become so had that thousands of people left for the nearby countryside where they appropriated land and built there own homes and self-sufficient communities.  These ‘settlements’ resemble the inter-war plotland movement in the UK and the mass post-war squatting of government land that fed into the pressure for increased investment in council housing.  In Vienna, a progressive social democratic administration, elected in May 1919, undertook a municipal house building programme that created 60,000 homes, the most famous of which is the massive Karl Marx Hof in the Heilingenstadt neighbourhood, a 40-minute walk north of the city centre.

The first and most obvious thing to say about Karl Marx Hof is its architectural monumentalism.  It’s almost possible to imagine members of the Politburo standing on the balconies waving and perhaps it’s this image that feeds much of the hostility to municipal housing.  Construction began in 1926 and the official opening took place on 12th October 1930.  There were 1,382 flats to house 5,000 people, with on-site nurseries, dentist, library, youth centre, post-office, shops and laundries (one of which now houses the Red Vienna museum), but the majority of the site was laid out as gardens and play areas, part of a city-wide provision of social welfare and recreational facilities that was also happening in many other places, reflected in the physical similarities between Karl Marx Hof and some council housing in the UK.

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The Quarry Hill estate in Leeds, began in 1934, demolished in 1978. See Municipal Dreams here.

The Quarry Hill estate in Leeds, began in 1934, demolished in 1978. See Municipal Dreams here.

Around the time work was staring at Quarry Hill, Karl Marx Hof was a bastion of resistance to the rising threat of Austrofascism, led by the Christian Social Party, predecessor of today’s neo-Nazi Austrian People’s Party.  Following the Anschluss in 1938, Karl Marx Hof was renamed, but restored to its original title in 1945 and preserves it despite the onslaught of corporate branding.  A similar restoration has so far eluded a council block built by Bethnal Green Borough Council in 1927 and named Lenin House, but now known by the anodyne Cambridge Heath estate (and privatised).

 

'Lenin' House, Cambridge Heath Road. Another fascinating Municipal Dreams post here.

‘Lenin’ House, Cambridge Heath Road. Another fascinating Municipal Dreams post here.

The appalling consequences of the defeat of Red Vienna are enshrined in a plaque on the wall of Karl Marx Hof commemorating those residents who, like thousands of other Viennese, lost their homes and often their lives under the Nazis.

20170208_114819Wandering around the Karl Marx Hof conveys a sense of civic pride that is another reason why neoliberalism can’t live with municipalism.  Building again on this scale and form may not fit with 21st century sensibilities.  But it’s another reminder of a philosophy to housing and society that goes beyond the illogic of the market that even the UK Tory government admits is ‘broken’.

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Son of a bus driver

I never thought being the son of a bus driver could be so fashionable.  Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, never stops telling us that he’s one, nor does Tory minister Sajid Javid and I understand John McDonnell, Labour’s shadow chancellor,  is one too (although he doesn’t go on about it as much).  I’ve recently seen two films about bus drivers – both of which I identified with to some extent – and also discovered that someone whose music has meant a lot to me over the years was also a bus driver’s son – Bruce Springsteen.

My dad drove a London bus, based at Upton Park garage, from the year before I was born (1964) until he retired in 1990.  He hated it.  Before that he’d had a succession of menial jobs, one of which planted a seed of asbestos in his lung which killed him about fifty years later (in January 2007).  Dad always said he never intended to do the same job for so long, but he valued the hard-won security and conditions that are so scant for most workers now, including bus drivers.  The money wasn’t great, but with overtime and my mum’s better wages as a teacher, it helped contribute to what was my very comfortable childhood. There were downsides.  Shift-work meant dad was often absent, even including some Christmas Days (although on reflection, I’m not sure he minded that too much), but the hardest thing, even for a child, was seeing someone feeling trapped by his circumstances, something dad went through a period of blocking out with alcohol.

But despite doing a job he disliked and was even, at times, embarrassed about, I think dad also felt a strong sense of identity with being a bus driver which perhaps chimes with its current place in the cultural zeitgeist!  Although it doesn’t have the same physical or social qualities as some other working class occupations, like mining or docking, there was a deep sense of solidarity based on strong unions and camaraderie, which may not be immediately obvious to outsiders.  Dad would sometimes come home in a furious temper because a colleague had failed to abide by the lore of the road which required drivers to share the burden of passengers and look out for each other.

These things fed in to some of my earliest childhood memories of ‘bus trips’ to Margate, when families from the garage got together for a beano.  Although dad never got involved in it (he hated sport too!), like many workplaces of the time, London Transport had its own sports ground (at Osterley) and many clubs and societies.  I used to go to the garage with dad quite often where my treat (apart from sitting in the cab of a real Routemaster) was playing snooker or table tennis, followed by a visit to the canteen.

While providing a necessary public service bus workers, despite doing a mundane, unglamorous job, created an environment in which they demanded respect and the ability to live a life beyond work.  Although passengers were sometimes a source of frustration – dad often joked the buses would run a lot more smoothly without them – there was also a strong sense of public service.

Threats to these conditions sometimes led to strikes which dad was always a strong supporter of.  He avoided taking positions in the union, but he was always to the forefront of picket lines and eternally unforgiving of anyone who crossed them. Needless to say, he would have had one of his rages if the Labour politician son of a bus driver had encouraged strike breaking as Sadiq Khan has.  The idea of a bus driver’s son becoming a Tory MP would have moved dad beyond anger.  During his time, ‘One Man (sic) Operated’ buses were introduced – after a fight – and London Transport was broken up into smaller units.  Dad said these things were intended to weaken the union, cut jobs and wages, atomise the working experience and lead to privatisation.  Lo it came to pass.

Few of these issues are portrayed in Jim Jarmusch’s film ‘Paterson’ or Robert de Niro’s ‘A Bronx Tale’.  The first of these features a bus driver who’s also a poet.  On the face of it, that’s a romantic conceit, but one of the things that got my dad through the grind of his job was his love of the arts.  He didn’t write poetry, but he could quote chunks of Shakespeare, had a deep knowledge of classical music and liked nothing more than going to the theatre, opera or a concert.  By his own admission, he was an intellectual snob, but without any formal education, he’d absorbed the definition of ‘culture’ imparted by public libraries, the BBC and the Communist Party.  By contrast, de Niro’s bus driver, with his young son sitting behind him on the route as I sometimes did, is a paragon of working class male orthodoxy, but this was also a part of my dad’s character.  There was an upright respectability about being a bus driver which, as the de Niro character tells his son, contrasts with the dishonest money grabbing of gangsters.

A lot has changed since dad drove a bus, but some of the fundamentals haven’t.  At the root of the current disputes in the transport industry is a refusal of workers to sacrifice either their conditions or a vital public service to the corporate gangsters who only want to maximise profit, even if it’s at the expense of our safety.  I heard one RMT rep. say ‘we will not allow the railway to be dehumanised’.  This is a critical point, not just for those who use public transport, but those who work in it.

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St Michael’s Gate, Peterborough: Housing Nadir?

[Support the St Michal’s Gate tenants, demo and lobby Peterborough town hall, 6pm 14th Dec.]

It’s become difficult to be shocked by our housing crisis.  (I see the government now refers to the ‘housing challenge’ and some others don’t like calling it a ‘crisis’, but it’s a bloody crisis if you’re at the sharp end of it, which millions are.)  Whether it’s the insanity of the London market, the greed of developers, the demolition of council estates by Labour councils or the omnishambles that is the Housing and Planning Act, we’ve become too accustomed to the inability of our political system to deliver a basic social and physical necessity.  But there’s a situation in Peterborough that’s a parable of this failure and maybe marks a new low point.

At St Michael’s Gate there are 74 households threatened with eviction by a private landlord whose signed a contract with Tory-controlled Peterborough City Council to house some of its growing number of homeless families.  Ergo, people are being made homeless to house the homeless!

Meeting of Peterborough Trades Council 24th November with St Michael's Gate residents and campaigners.

Meeting of Peterborough Trades Council 24th November with St Michael’s Gate residents and campaigners.

The background is slightly more complicated than this fundamental absurdity suggests, but the situation is symptomatic of the grotesque mess we’re in.  The latest in a succession of private landlords at St Michael’s Gate is a company called ‘Stef and Phillips’, essentially a property investment company linked to an estate agents, but marketing itself as ‘a leading provider of social housing solutions’.  You can read its self-justifying statement about St Michael’s Gate here.  Basically, Stef and Phillips will make more money by replacing current tenants with new ones.

It was put to me by a BBC journalist this week that, ‘they own it, they can do what they like with it’, but this myopic view depends on seeing housing as nothing other than a private speculative investment vehicle – precisely the ideological motivation for the Housing and Planning Act.  The fact that there are 16 children at risk of being made homeless for Christmas presumably doesn’t fit with this credo.  Faced with this, it’s perhaps not surprising to hear that some current St Michael’s Gate residents are struggling not to blame the currently homeless families who could replace them for their plight, a graphic illustration of the pernicious divisiveness of the housing crisis.  According to a local Labour councillor, predictably, the local Tory MP, instead of reflecting on his government’s policies, has said the root of the problem is migration.

As I think I managed to explain to the BBC, the real issue here is the decades-long failure to invest in new social housing, particularly council housing.  This has created the scarcity upon which parasitic, profit-seeking landlords feed.  Before striking the St Michael’s Gate deal, Peterborough Council were spending £1 million to Travelodge to house homeless families, part of the £3 billion a year we’re currently spending on temporary accommodation.

The St Michael’s Gate families are fighting back though.  They’ll be lobbying the Council on Wednesday 14th December, meeting from 6pm at the rear entrance of Peterborough town hall (PE1 1FA).  All welcome.

 

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Trump means Trump

In the past I’ve used this blog to express (confess?) my strange love for America, so I feel compelled to say a few words about recent events.  I don’t want to add to the deluge of pontificating punditry, some of it a bit hysterical.  As with Brexit, I think people should try to avoid making too many sweeping assumptions and judgments about what Trump’s victory means.  But I was wrong.  I didn’t think he could win, based on a flawed assumption that there are too many female, non-white and generally good-natured people in the US (although it is, of course, important to remember that the vast majority of Americans DID NOT vote Trump).

I first encountered the new President-elect on my first trip to the US in 1986 when I visited his Ozymandian phallus, Trump Tower.  I’d never seen anything quite like it.  Even in a city of monuments to greed, it had an ostentatious vulgarity that staggered me.

Trump next invaded my consciousness in 2007 when I was doing some research about the struggle for decent, affordable housing in New York City.  I read about a Brooklyn apartment block he owned (one of many in the city) which had enjoyed some degree of rent control in return for government subsidies to the owner/developer.  That agreement was coming to an end, so Trump was looking to sell his ‘asset’ (a very common scenario in the US, which has led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of homes for people with low-incomes).  But it was the language he used to explain his decision that has stayed with me since.  He said ‘Great to keep it, great to sell it’.  With the bombastic arrogance we’ve become accustomed to, Trump showed a wanton disregard for the people whose lives he was about to disrupt.  That attitude is typical of many other private landlords and property developers, but this man is now the President.

Here’s the thing I find missing from the current coverage.  Trump’s election marks the ultimate triumph of the profit-driven corporate landlord – and nothing could more clearly nail the grotesque lie that he is an ‘outsider’ or friend to working class people.  Time will tell what a Trump presidency means in practice, but one thing is certain.  The situation, already dire, for Americans in housing need will get worse.

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