Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Archive for April, 2010|Monthly archive page

A Life

In R. Drury on April 30, 2010 at 2:22 pm
Local Councillor & former helmsman at FoD Radio, Roger Drury, considers the 2010 General Election through the lens of the political influences that shaped his life.

I remember going to a local school hall in London with my Dad. It was a packed hall in the early 1960’s – crowds, lots of voices and people taking part. It was an election meeting that had a tingle of excitement that I’d only otherwise experienced at a football match. I must have been about 10 or 11 at the time.

My Dad, now 96, was a committed but consenting Labour supporter in the days when it was passed like an inheritance from generation to generation. My mum never clearly stated her preference and I sometimes wondered if her aspirations might have led her to vote otherwise.

Was it really all so easy and predetermined? Now that same area is represented by Iain Duncan Smith and returns mainly Lib Dem and Tory councillors.

In London the GLC was the big change in politics, connecting to real life in 1970’s communities, culture and public transport.

I lived in Oxford for 15 years, where politics was active but too often the focus was on faraway campaigns, and when local issues were raised too often they did not register. But there were moments. I took part in a campaign to resist the closure of a state nursery; we worked with parents to occupy the building and kept it open, set up a silk screen workshop to design and produce posters, and ran a carnival to celebrate the action.

During the miner’s strike, Oxford was famously twinned with Maerdy, the only pit in South Wales where not a single miner broke the strike. The banners and support of many Oxford colleges and community groups were part of the procession that marched back to work in May 1985. The Labour Party, of course, kept its distance – but the universities voted down a proposal to give Madam Thatcher an honorary degree in the same year.

But May Day was the excuse to bring out the banners, march to the beat and bring people together. And that was what I found when I moved to the Forest of Dean in 1986 …May Day with guest speaker Eric Heffer at the recently condemned Coleford Community Centre. Even then, though, Labour councillors in office were gradually moving away from any influence from debate and towards self-importance.

I stood as a Labour candidate, things were so bad – a good friend Roger Cook actually got elected. He battled for a few years to be heard. The Party in Coleford gathered monthly, always outnumbered by the previous tenants of our meeting room, using Weight Watchers. We would exchange latest news, going through the motions, but not having a policy that might inform members how they should react to decision making when representing the Party.

At the last local elections I contacted all the parties and set up a live broadcast on Forest of Dean Radio, which in its short life covered live those elections when Diana Organ won, and when Mark Harper won, with link-ups from across the Forest from ordinary people. A team of volunteers broadcast from the count until three in the morning.

Forest of Dean Radio tried, but has not survived. It asked young people to lead with questions to MPs and candidates, asked those in bus queues and elderly people on their phones. It travelled to London on the ‘Save Our Services’ train and interviewed Mark Harper on the demonstration, live from opposite the Houses of Parliament. 5,000 people were at the Speech House rally for the same campaign, thousands march in Cheltenham on a County demonstration – on each occasion the views and voices of local people took the lead.

Now we have a General Election, steered by the money of those in power. Nothing new, but now they are so arrogant we know more about it. Murdoch’s Fox News controls radio and TV in the USA and apparently is the source of information for 50% of the population there. However, people didn’t listen and chose to elect Obama.

Have we a similar choice of light, hope and change…and why? In Kings Cross, London, citizen ethics have grown a truly local community that speaks, exchanges and documents the detail of life that goes on(largely ignored by mainstream media unless some scandal is involved). It’s about thinking small.

So maybe in this uniquely created place where we live, that has more dispersed and different aspects, we should meet to argue.

There will be an event on June 6th (at Hopewell Colliery, starting 11am) to commemorate the stand made by 2,000 foresters led by Warren James, a church-going local man, to oppose the Crown Commissioners who wanted to enclose the Forest with fences and deprive local people of land to cultivate and maintain livestock. There was no vote for working people then. The laws were completely in the hands of their ‘betters’.

The act of voting is now a right, but the passion to make a choice on something you can believe in still seems distant.

Make candidates work for their votes, set them tests. You still don’t have to vote for them, but you will have some control over what goes on and it might reveal a few truths…

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REVIEW: Stories from a dark & Secret Land

In R.Richardson, Reviews on April 30, 2010 at 1:26 pm

‘NOTHING TO ENVY: Real Lives in North Korea’
by B. Demick (Granta £14.99)

A satellite photo of Asia by night shows a dark hole where North Korea should be. There is not enough electricity to keep the lights burning.

This compelling new book tells the story of six North Koreans and their families, as told to an American journalist over a period of seven years. All of them have defected to South Korea, and have settled there with varying degrees of success and contentment. The stories are interspersed with an account of the history of this beleaguered country over the last thirty or so years.

DIVIDED BY WAR: After the Korean war of 1950-53, the division of the country was confirmed with South Korea as a capitalist state supported by the USA and North Korea, a hard-line Stalinist regime. In the 1960’s, supported by the Soviet Union, China and other Communist states, North Korea did well. Its leader, Kim Il Sung, created a viable economy with heavy industry flourishing, collective farms providing adequate food, schools and health provision almost universal. Everything, of course, including food distribution was state controlled.

But then came the collapse of the Soviet Union – and, as former Communist countries began to turn to the West, they were less inclined to do specials deals with North Korea for food and fuel. The country was sucked into a vicious spiral. Factories closed and farms which depended on electrically powered irrigation systems and chemical fertilisers could no longer supply the country’s needs. Coal mines depending on electricity for their equipment closed down, further exacerbating the fuel crisis.

FAMINE: The situation was made worse by floods in the mid-nineties and many of the more vulnerable among the population starved to death. The UN Food & Agriculture Organisation estimated that by 2002, 57% of the population were malnourished.

Against this background, the human stories told in Barbara Demick’s book bring the reality of life in North Korea. There is MRs Song, a factory worker and mother of four, a model citizen. Her day-to-day existence, working six days a week, providing for her family and attending ideological training after work is described. She was unwavering in her faith in the system for many decades. “I lived only for Kim Il Sung and for the fatherland,” she told the author. But at last, living conditions spiralling downwards, through the persuasion of her daughter she left her native country behind and with forged papers, escaped to a new life in South Korea, aged 57.

The other lives detailed in the book are equally fascinating. They include that of Dr. Kim who worked  long hours in a hospital, a job which included long treks to the mountains to gather medicinal herbs. When, after years of agonising, she too takes the route to South Korea she finds that her qualifications count for nothing. But in her final conversation with the author she has decided to go back to medical school, aged 40, and qualify all over again.

Another character is Hyuck, one of the Kochebi or ‘wandering swallows’ – homeless children who frequent the station at Chongjin. His journey, finally, to South Korea is particularly arduous, and for some time it is hard for him to find a niche in a very different country.

‘ON THE BRINK’: In 2007 we reviewed the excellent North Korea on the Brink by Glyn Ford, which describes in much more detail the politics of the country, and which suggests ways forward – ways in which the country might be encouraged to engage with the wider world. In particular the country’s programme of nuclear weapon development in put into context.

Efforts must be directed towards ending the isolation of North Korea and giving its people more choices in their lives. This gripping narrative leaves on full of admiration and sympathy for the courage of those who have lived under this harsh regime for so many decades – and for those who still do.

Ruth Richardson

When ‘X’ Marks the Spot

In Dinosaur on April 30, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Election time is here again! It’s time once more to face the hustings. As politicians of all shades and colours pound the trail to win our votes, the campaign to decide who’s going to be in the hot seat over the next few years is well under way.

I must confess that over the past forty years I have voted Labour on each and every occasion. But once, as a much younger dinosaur, I did cast my vote for a Plaid Cymru candidate. Well, I was living in a Welsh constituency at the time. But for many of us dinosaurs, voting labour is a habit that’s very hard to break.

There have been times when the choice hasn’t been easy – and I’ve even felt a certain sympathy with the old anarchist slogan, ‘whoever you vote for, the Government always gets in’. But we gained the vote after a long, hard struggle against those who believed that the likes of the working class or women (along with those certified lunatics or criminals) were far too irresponsible to have a say in deciding who should be elected. The vote was a hard won privilege, and should be used, not abused.

telling it how it isn’t

As I write this, the election bumf has been slow coming through the letter box, but no doubt it will increase in volume as the local campaign gets going. But one early piece of electoral propaganda to come my way was a copy of ‘Focus’, the Liberal Democrat’s occasional news sheet.

Whenever it’s time for us to vote, the Lib-Dems come up with somewhat spurious figures to show that only they can possibly win the election against the sitting incumbent. They’re at it again. On the basis of a couple of selective Council by-election results, they’ve set out to ‘prove’ that they’re on their way to victory.

FLYING LOW WITH BRITISH AIRWAYS

Faced with new demands and new pressures, it’s not surprising that cabin crew working for British Airways had reached the end of their tether. But they received no sympathy from the airline’s Chief Executive, Willy Walsh.

When they voted overwhelmingly for strike action, all they got from him was a stream of vituperation and insults aimed at their union, Unite – who he accused of “trying to break the company”. Why, Willie, would Unite try to break a company that provided employment for its members? Come on, let’s try to be logical about this.

It seems to me that Mr Walsh wanted confrontation. Perhaps he should try a sideways move to BA’s cut price counterpart, Ryanair. But no, I forgot Ryanair already has a blustering, anti-union boss.

I try not to fly myself, unless I have to – but remind me to add British Airways to the short list of airlines to be avoided.

TACKLING CLOSING TIME

With pubs going down like ninepins it’s not surprising that many of those who like to go out for a quiet drink with their mates are feeling unhappy when their local close its doors for the last time. After all, it’s a social thing, isn’t it?

In some areas customers have taken matters into their own hands – and taken over the pub and run it as a king of local’s co-op. One such pioneer of the trend was the Old Crown, Hesketh Newmarket in rural Cumbria.

Now the trend has spread to gritty urban Salford (just down the road from neighbouring Manchester). Here locals were given three weeks’ notice that the Star Inn was to close. They weren’t at all happy, so they clubbed together and raised enough money to take it over. It’s now back in business as a community-owned co-op.

All I can say is CHEERS! I hope that the local ale slips down a treat!

OBITUARY: Michael Foot

In John Wilmot, Obiturary on April 21, 2010 at 1:19 pm

The death of Michael Foot in March robs the Labour Party of one of its last voices of conscience – a journalist and writer of note, an MP of long standing – and briefly leader of the Party at a time when its fortunes were at their lowest ebb since the early 1930s. His was a voice that spanned generations – the George Lansbury of our time.

Like many on the left, Michael Foot was lampooned and derided in the media during much of his political career – particularly when he became leader of the Labour Party in the early 1980’s. What sort of Prime Minister might he have been we’ll never know.  He was elected leader at a time when Mrs Thatcher and her Tory Government had slumped in the polls – but by the time Foot led Labour into the election, the invasion of the Falklands on a wave of populist fervour had restored Thatcher’s popularity and she was being hailed as ’the iron lady’.

Foot also faced the breakaway of the ‘gang of four’ (David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Bill Rogers and Shirley Williams), who founded the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which briefly became flavour of the month. Their renegade movement effectively split the opposition, and Labour went down to crashing defeat. To the victor went the spoils – and that victor was Thatcher. We all know what happened next!

It’s significant to record, however, that Labour’s manifesto in 1983 called for more public investment, the nationalisation of irresponsible banks, tighter lending controls, corporate regular, job creation – and the cancellation of Trident. If only New Labour had listened when it came to power in 1997, we might not be in the mess we’re in now!

Michael Foot was also a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (an issue that divided Labour for many years) and took part in CND marches along with this wife Jill Craigie. He was also on the editorial board of Tribune for many years when it was an influential voice on the left.

Through triumphs, adversity and defeat, Michael Foot remained a man of principle. Occasionally the pressures of office caused him to compromise but he never surrendered the central core of his beliefs.

JOHN WILMOT

THE UNPALATABLE TRUTH

In C.Spiby on April 9, 2010 at 3:01 pm

As unpalatable as it is, it is my opinion that the Tories can only lose the coming General Election: only some cataclysmic embarrassment or folly can surely deny them the helm of the country now. And while that is not entirely impossible, it is unlikely.

Having not voted Labour since they took us into Iraq in 2003, the time has come to reassess my support. Do I cast a losing vote? Do I opt for the Lib Dems in hope they become the main party of opposition and thereby fulfil the meagre hopes I have of it creating some space between them and the Tories, unlike what we had between New Labour and the Conservatives? If we want to remind ourselves of just how bad things are, think of the worst of New Labour and you’ll find that the Tories voted in support of that policy (Iraq) or want even more of the same (PPP, PFI).

As a paid-up member of the Communist Party of Britain I am expected to vote for any CPB candidate standing in my constituency and, where there is none (and there isn’t in the Forest of Dean), then I am to vote Labour on the premise that, despite all the Party’s own rightful criticisms of it, we still stand a better chance of putting pressure on Labour than we ever will with the Tories. I think this is a mature approach. Were Labour even likely to return to power.

Of course neither I am under any delusion that the British communist party (the CPB) will be forming a government any time soon, but it seems the chances for Labour are heading that way too.  Is their directive, then, a waste of my vote?

I fully expect our Conservative MP, Mark Harper, to retain his seat in May, as Parliament itself swings to the blues. I therefore remain undecided as to how best oppose the right-wingers, bearing in mind that New Labour, on the whole and in my opinion, is only slightly to the left of Cameron’s crew. I am also mindful that we need to be careful of the far right using the vacuum of a low turnout to make their own terrible gains.

One option I have never used before is the spoilt vote. I agree with many on the Left (if not the entire spectrum of politics) that a stay-at-home no-show, irrespective of how disenfranchised we are, is an offence to all those in history who fought for suffrage.

The difference today, however, is that while those who fought for suffrage believed in their representatives we do not. Do we for one moment believe that those same champions of democracy would sit idle while our choices saw us disenfranchised? Absolutely not! A high increase in the number of spoilt papers would send a message that i) the people remain unconvinced with what’s on offer and ii) but we remain engaged in politics. After all, it’s our politics because it’s our society, not theirs: politicians need to heed these warnings and return to being the executors of power – our power!

So, if I am convinced (despite recent polls putting the lead to the Tories as slim and the expectation of hung Parliaments) – which I am – that the Conservatives will take power in May, I contest it is to the long-view that we are to look now.

It is my prediction that David Milliband will become Leader of the Labour Party following its imminent trashing at the next General Election.

On the surface he will halt any reference to the New Labour project in all but spirit as he continues the trend in embracing the centre-right, middle class vote above and beyond the grass roots of his own Party. In the face of defeat and low turnout we will be told the Party is learning the lessons of the Blair/Brown years, while at the same time reminding us of their successes (some rightful, others diabolical (Iraq), PPP, foundation trusts etc.) as well as the advent of its longest term in government for Labour in its history.

Only after the second term of the Tories and the second defeat of the next Labour Party will we really have a chance to demonstrate that a refuelled, grassroots Labour Party is our only true hope for the left. If then the Party isn’t for our taking, be that by its mechanisms or our own impotency, then it is unlikely it ever will be. At that juncture our historical ties to it (trade unionism, socialist and social democratic support writ large) need to be thoroughly reassessed. It will be a critical time in labour and political history.

To help us begin that long journey I urge unaffiliated members currently lacking in a Party home join the Labour Representation Committee. We MUST build the movement of the Left back into Labour during the recess of the coming Tory darkness. You can do this with or outside of a union, as a private member as long as you are not currently in a political party other than Labour.

There is much work to be done. If you need a shock as to just how much is to be done then I also urge you to get a copy of the documentary film ‘Taking Liberties’ from your local library or DVD rental service. In only an hour and a half it will remind us how difficult the road will be, but, more importantly, also how essential it is to begin that journey back to a civil democracy now.

Only then can we even hope to demand proper socialism take its rightful place back in our Party.

LRC, c/o PO Box 2378, London, E5 9QU

OBITUARY: Ralph Anstis

In A.Graham, Obiturary on April 9, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Ralph Anstis, who died in February 2010 aged 89, was an adopted Forester – but he did more than most to record the history of the Dean, its people and the events that shaped their lives.

I have many of his books on cluttered bookshelves, and they’re always a useful point of reference – as well as a pleasure to read. He wrote the definitive biography of Warren James (whose life is being commemorated at the beginning of June this year).

His fact-based novel Let the Hero be the Hungry Man was adapted as a play, and performed in Parkend. He also wrote Blood on Coal, an account of the long and bitter minders’ strike of 1929 and the impact it made on those who worked in the Forest coalfield.

He was a prolific writer, turning out book after book from his own imprint ‘Albion House’. His wife, Bess was also a stalwart of the Forest of Dean Local History Society, and I’m sure must have shared in much of the research that went into Ralph’s books.

Both of them were supporters of the Clarion, and occasional contributors to our columns. Bess’s last piece in the Clarion was a reminiscence of the Co-Op as she remembered it in her younger days. It was published in the summer of 2005. She was already in poor health, and sadly she died the following year.

Ralph was born in London, worked in the civil service, and he and Bess moved to the Forest in 1979. Apart from his writing, he involved himself in the local community. He served on the West Dean Parish Council, was a governor of two local schools and became a volunteer Press Officer for Forest Stop the War (the local contingent aligned with the national Stop the War movement opposing the 2003 invasion on Iraq). Like many of us, he learned to love the Forest, both for its peace and its people.

But after the death of Bess, his own health also went into decline and finally he was forced to move from his home in Coalway to be nearer his family. He died in a retirement home in Epsom and his funeral service took place in Leatherhead.

Ralph was a quiet, softly spoken and unassuming man, but one who tackled his research and writing with dedication. Those of us who have our homes in the Forest owe him a great debt for recording and illuminating the lives of those who’d helped shape the communities we take for granted today.

Thanks, Ralph.
AG

PRE-ELECTION EDITORIAL COMMITTEE COMMENT

In Editorial on April 9, 2010 at 2:51 pm

As voters it is becoming increasingly difficult to decide how we should react to the campaign for our vote.

Back in 1997, the Clarion joined in the general celebration when ‘New’ Labour swept to power. At last, we thought, the grey Major years were over. We didn’t support the sweeping changes that had transformed our Labour Party – the abolition of the old ‘Clause Four’ in the Party’s constitution, or the general downgrading of Labour’s traditional aspirations and policies. But, hey, for most of us it was still our Party. Many of our readers had worked hard to steer it towards victory – and, before the election, many of us had joined in the debate as the leadership attempted to redefine and re-brand the Party. Indeed, it was out of this debate that the Clarion itself emerged.

In 1997 it was still too early for that sense of betrayal. That was to come later. Indeed, in the opening months of Labour’s new government, there were decisions that we supported, such as the introduction of a national minimum wage, and the recognition of trade unions at GCHQ. We applauded the announcement of an ‘ethical foreign policy’, by Robin Cook. But maybe that was the honeymoon period. Gradually a feeling of disillusion did set in – reaching a peak when the Blair government took us to war in Iraq in 2003 and well over a million took to the streets of London in protest. By then , any notion of an ethical foreign policy was dead in the water.

For many, Iraq was a defining moment. But there were other areas where traditional Labour supporters felt betrayed. The use of ‘Private Finance Initiatives’ in the NHS and beyond. Policies on housing and education, and the downgrading of the public sector. But still Labour supporters continued to vote for the Party they’d always supported. They still saw it as their Party – though an increasing number of those less committed merely stayed at home on polling day.

Now, if opinion polls are anything to go by, it’s quite possible that Labour could be defeated in the forthcoming election. The Government has faced a Tory resurgence under Cameron, and the recession has damaged Labour’s ‘you’ve never had it so good’ image. But at this stage in the game, opinion polls remain volatile, and the Tories have slipped on their own banana skins recently, so nothing should be taken for granted. Be that as it may, the question facing the Clarion is, how should we respond when it comes to casting our vote?

As far as we are concerned, voting Conservative is NOT an option. Neither is staying at home on the day. We may feel a sense of powerlessness, but we can and should still use our vote.

Many on the Left may decided to vote for the party that seems most likely to meet their aspirations. In the two Wyedean constituencies – the Forest of Dean and Monmouth – there will be a choice between Labour or Plaid Cymru (in Monmouth), or the Green Party (in the Forest). Or, for some, the Liberal Democrat option might be seen as a preferred alternative. Some may argue voting Plaid or Green in our neck of the woods is a ‘wasted vote’ – but such a claim should have no impact on those who really want to give these parties their support. After all, it’s their democratic right. It’s what political choice should be about.

However, there will be those who will lend their support to the party that is most likely to deny power to the Tories. Both the Forest and Monmouth constituencies previously elected hard working Labour MP’s, but both seats were lost at the last election. There is a strong case for rallying the Labour vote as our one chance to eject the Conservatives from these two seats.

There are, of course, those who will still feel themselves frustrated, even disenfranchised, by the choice on offer. Here, the Clarion believes that a spoiled vote is better than no vote at all. At least it makes a point {and is counted (Web Ed.)}. So if your view is really is ‘a plague on all your parties’, then don’t just boycott the polls. Turn up at the polling station and actively spoil your ballet paper. Make it clear why you choose not to vote for any of the candidates on the ballot paper!

The Clarion is published by a collective, and inevitably represents slightly differing viewpoints. Reader, of course, will make up their own minds!