The Keith Veness column
When you’re a member of an “ultra left” group or one of the “keyboard warriors”, it’s always dead easy to spout off – usually by saying what you are against like “anti-cuts”, “anti-austerity”, “anti-racism” etc. In real life on the doorstep or in the workplace, most folk don’t really care what you are against, they want to know what you are for and what you would do about it. We used the slogan “prosperity – not austerity” to get Barry Lewis elected to the County Council from Margate and found that chimed rather well with a lot of electors.
However, once you get to run anything, whether it’s a union branch, elected council or even just a local community group, life often comes down to hard choices that slogans or blogging are not much use for. That’s why I want to use this month’s column to look at the “no-win” situations elected representatives come up against.
Currently the “big issue” on many local authorities is parking and this is a clear cut case of “how to lose friends and cease influencing people”. Before the London elections, Paul Merry wrote to me asking if there was a “a socialist programme on parking”? I had to write back to say there is absolutely nothing in the collected works of Marx and Engels on the subject, no mention of it in Trotsky’s “Transitional Programme” and locally Kier Hardie and James Connolly never broached the topic. Even liberal bourgeois sources like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are silent on whether you have the right to own three S.U.V.s and park them free of charge outside your house. Nor is reference made to your inalienable right to drive your kid three hundred yards to school and then block the school entrance.
This is an issue where everyone demands that the council should do something urgently about parking – then screams blue murder when it actually does. Lots of local authorities seem to be in breach of the law following the “Barnet” case where a High Court judge ruled that all monies raised from “on-street” parking charges must be used for traffic-management measures, as they have been using fees and charges to block gaping holes in their budgets caused by massive Government cuts.
Whilst knocking on doors for the aforementioned Councillor Merry on election day, I came across a nice Irish bloke who always voted Labour but was outraged that the council had started charging him “to park outside my own front door” and he then went into a rant about people from Forest Gate (just over the boundary in the next borough) along the lines of “they come over here, stealing our parking spaces and blocking our roads – bastards!”. I had to tell him this was the most parochial bit of bigotry I’d heard for many a long year. Briefing readers are very welcome to join in this very thorny debate.
Another great “no-win” issue is that of sites for Roma or Irish Travellers. Most people think these are oppressed minorities with colourful life-styles that add to diversity and should be provided with public sites for their vehicles – but not in my bloody backyard mate! Labour governments in the 1970s passed legislation requiring councils to provide sites with facilities for a prescribed number of caravans and vehicles but exempted “Inner London” boroughs from these requirements. Readers might be surprised that Brent, Newham and Haringey are not considered “Inner London” and it was in the latter that I witnessed a council meeting when my old friend Bernie Grant was Leader and they were considering a “travellers site”. Dozens of residents packed the public gallery and one very vocal black woman kept screaming “They’ll lower our house prices”! Bernie finally lost it, stormed over to her and called her …. well I won’t repeat here the exact words but they were pretty hard-hitting! In the end, Haringey sited the traveller’s pitches in the municipal car park to avoid any more outraged residents.
In Hackney (which wasn’t even legally required to do so) the Council does provide 27 pitches. When these were initially suggested, the usual middle class “nimbys” kept turning up at every meeting. In the end the Council found a large site on an old greyhound track, next to the motorway and with only the council’s transport depot as a neighbour but full marks to my former employer doing better than any other London Borough. [This site subsequently disappeared under the Olympics development in 2012 but the Council re-homed all the travellers on three smaller pitches next to council estates – whose tenants are invariably more diverse and tolerant than the middle class home owners].
So it certainly isn’t easy being a public representative and there is often a “no win” problem you get dumped with!