Food, Days Out and Travel stories from Brighton, London and the Rest of the World


Conversations with Tony Benn, a Woman of Action and Cityclean strike at a Brighton Fringe event 11 May 2013

~ Conversations with Tony Benn, Brighton Fringe 2013 ~
Sometimes it happens that you go to something and have an idea of what it will be like and it turns out to be nothing like that at all. Brighton Fringe event, Conversations with Tony Benn was certainly one of those times. Attending the event for a chance to listen to a man I admire for his integrity, Tony Benn arrived late due to unforeseen circumstances, which meant we heard very little from Mr Benn and instead heard a great deal from a young woman with as much integrity, intelligence and rhetoric as the man himself.

Ellie Mae O'Hagan spoke so convincingly and honestly about where, in her opinion Labour has been getting it wrong, how UKuncut turned tax avoidance into a major issue and her dream of taking Tony Blair to account that I have transcribed rather a lot of what she said.

We also heard from the GMB about how Cityclean and the street sweepers are being treated unfairly, so there are some timely notes regarding this ongoing dispute as well.

Ellie Mae O'Hagan on Labour
"Labour still thinks it is in conversation with the Daily Mail, that the Daily Mail and public opinion are the same thing and it isn't. For instance with regards to nationalisation of public services, 61% of people want the railway to be nationalised. Labour have said nothing about that nor have the national papers. If Labour could see beyond the headlines and see what people want and what matters in people's daily lives then they would go a lot further with their social democratic message. If you said to the average person on the street, 'you're rail fare is too high and we are going to do something about that, we are going to take control of that', no one I know would turn around and call you a communist. People would say, 'yeah my rail fare is too high and I'm really glad you are going to do something about it'. Labour needs to be braver about those things. Labour has a strange fixation with destroying their values so that they can get into power and then protect them, which is a really bizarre view. For example Ed Ball has said, there is a need to continue with the public sector pay freeze so that they can presumably get into government and protect public sector workers. It's a strange logic - we can't rock the boat so that we can get into power and protect people. But actually what this does, it doesn't look after people, it actually legitimises right wing ideas so that when you get into power there is no actual left wing space to move into, in order to push forward left wing ideas. When you get into power things are politically impossible because you've been agreeing so much with the right wing that you've created a consensus.
Ellie Mae O'Hagan, Claire Wadey and Tony Benn 

That's what happened with Blair and Thatcher, the things Thatcher did at the time were incredibly radical by everyone's standards at the time but because she did it and Blair followed suit now the idea of totally nationalised public services seems like something you would only see in Soviet Russia. It's only because political consensus has moved so much in the last thirty years that now it seems so difficult to achieve. So, Labour needs to snap out of that line of thinking, we need to force Labour's hand, and as my Dad always says (and he's my main political compass) politicians aren't leaders they are followers. Public opinion changes and political leaders try and catch up with it. Gay marriage is a good example of that. The public were, what is the big deal about that and then David Cameron starts saying - yeah I've been asking the same thing, which obviously he hadn't.

I'm very excited about the people's assembly that's coming up, I think that will be a really exciting starting point for us all. We need to change people on the street by convincing them that there is an alternative and then the politicians will follow suit.

Ellie Mae O'Hagan on tax avoidance

UKuncut, which I have been involved in since its inception is a campaign that started in October 2010 when a group of about thirty people went and occupied a Vodafone shop to protest against the fact that Vodafone were avoiding 6 Billion in tax while at the same time 7 Billion was being cut from the welfare bill. At the time tax avoidance was a non issue. I remember I was called up a lot to talk about it in the media and it was really impossible to talk about. You'd get, well everybody does it, there's nothing you can do about it. Last week, I went on Sky News and debated with Len Shackleton from Institute of Economic Affairs, (big fan of Margaret Thatcher) and I didn't have to say anything and I won the debate. In three years it's become public opinion, just from using the publicity created and having tax experts jump and backing it up with facts and figures and keeping it in the public eye, from there it has turned into a national scandal. Even the Daily Mail runs campaigns about tax avoidance now. And I don't think that would have happened without grass roots direct action.

So what I say to you is, why don't we go out there and do something. Quoting Tony Benn - the politics of today are discussed in rooms like these (to paraphrase), the politics of tomorrow are discussed on the streets.

Labour forgot what it is there for. People don't see things in terms of left and right, people see things as single issues. We should focus on the issues that improve people's lives.

We need to remember that the left doesn't really exist as a political force any more in this country, it has been totally smashed by capitalism. The decline of trade unions in this country had a huge impact on the left in this country and the fall of the soviet union has allowed capitalists to argue they are the only organisation in society that can work, that this is the only thing that exists and that you have no alternative, which has been a very strong and persuasive argument. We were attacked and we lost but I also think, when Tony Blair came into Parliament we won by a landslide, we could have done whatever we wanted and we did nothing. Well, we did some good things, the minimum wage and civil partnerships but compared to what we could have done, we did nothing. In my opinion Tony Blair, who has often been described as a pragmatist, wasn't a pragmatist, he was an ideologue. He really believes in the new right and the third way. We squandered our opportunity in power because of him and I dream of one day holding Tony Blair to account for it."

Cityclean - the strike begins

Cityclean workers will be going on a 7 day strike from 14 - 20 June 2013, with a march through Brighton and Hove led by GMB General Secretary Paul Kenny on Saturday 15 June and an indefinite work to rule following the strike. Mark Turner, the GMB branch secretary, said “Cityclean have undergone three years of pay freezes and now the Council is seeking to implement cuts to their take home pay of up to £4,000 a head.” Representing the GMB at the event, Rab McKenna - stated that this is due to Green Council Leader Jason Kitkat, who continues to insist that these forced pay cuts are essential in order to bring the Council into line with gender equality rules. "In 2010 Cityclean wages were reduced under single status and now less than four years later the Green council is attacking wages under single status again. We have a number of female staff who will suffer these cuts as well."

Claire Wadey, Sussex LRC Chair added - One full time member of staff has calculated that their own total loss will be £4,463.53 to their annual salary. Pay should be equalised up, not trampled down. Council Chief Executive Thompson has suggested that the funding gap may be as low as £440,000, which could easily be funded by a cap on the salaries of the highest paid staff. This could save at least a third as much again rather than the measure they are currently implementing.

To support Cityclean click on the link and sign the petition.

The event ended with an opportunity to queue up and speak to Tony Benn.  As people reached the front I could hear them telling him stories of how he had influenced them or a member of their family, with someone's Aunt deciding to become a nurse because of him.  Another man had brought his two young children so that they could meet this iconic figure.  It was such an honour to watch the effect that he had had on these people.  Once the queue had ended Mundial and I stepped forward to mumble something.  I tripped over my words and felt rather inadequate.  He smiled at me with the most wonderful sparkling eyes.

With that I will leave the man himself to have the final word.  When asked about his view on showing support to people, he said, "if someone is really serious (about something) I ask myself, can I help them, should I help them, how can I help them and if I can help them, then I must help them." Powerful words whatever your political persu

Photographs provided by @Mundialphoto, blog
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