Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Archive for August, 2012|Monthly archive page

EDITORIAL: 100 issues – as we were saying…

In Editorial on August 31, 2012 at 7:49 am

There’s something special about reaching the 100th edition of a paper like the Clarion, It’s like scoring a century. It’s something to celebrate.

When our first issue was being prepared, back in January 1996, we faced different issues than we do now – though it’s interesting how many of them weren’t all that different after all. The Forest had a Tory MP, Paul Marland, and a Tory government was in power at Westminster. It was the final years of the Major Government, and the implacable regime built up during the Thatcher years was beginning to crack.

Meanwhile, the Labour opposition was in the process of being re-branded. It was to become “New Labour”, proclaiming the message that it could administer capitalism just as efficiently (but more humanely?) than the Conservatives. The annual Labour Party conference became a showcase for the leadership – rather than a forum where policies and resolutions were debated with passion and commitment. Socialism, it seemed, had become a dirty word. It just wasn’t in the “New Labour” vocabulary. That’s why the Clarion was proud to proclaim itself as “the only Socialist paper in the Dean”.

Trends such as these presented the new-born Clarion with plenty of issues to debate. And there were more immediate campaigns to focus on. Trade unions at the GCHQ centre in Cheltenham were still banned, and our first issue carried an article by Mike Grindley, outlining the case for trade union representation at GCHQ, The first issue of the Clarion was on sale at the annual GCHQ march and rally in Cheltenham, at the end of January 1996.

And then came the decision by the Major Government to dispose of Forestry Commission woodland to private investors. The Clarion immediately backed the campaign to save our Forest. In the summer of 1996, we wrote: “We could live to see a situation where woodlands are merely cultivated for commercial gain … where “leisure” facilities and tourism are tied to big business and restricted to a few commercially exploited “theme” centres in the Forest – whilst our right to roam freely will be replaced by a right to use a few designated footpaths and cycleways.”

The attempt then to commercialise the Forest was defeated. But it was to re-emerge in 2010 – to be beaten back by an energetic campaign by HOOF, with similar campaigns in threatened woodland areas throughout the country. Now, the threat may have receded, but it hasn’t necessarily disappeared.

THE THREAT OF PFI:   Another interesting parallel with today was the threat to Gloucester Royal Hospital at the end of 1996. The Tory Government had decided that a new hospital should be built on the site of the present one, paid for by private capital. The NHS Trust would lease back the new hospital building and surplus land would be sold off – for, amongst other things, the building of a new private hospital.

“The scheme is part of the Government’s ‘Private Finance Initiative’, and the NHS ‘partner’ in the scheme is a body called United Healthcare.” we wrote.

Paul Marland, our Tory MP at the time, commented that he was “very concerned at the attitude of some union members, who made it clear they totally opposed the plans to provide a new hospital at Gloucester.”

The plans would have cost the NHS some £15 million a year in rent alone. As it turned out, nothing came of it. But the PFI approach to hospital building, dreamed up by the Tories, was to be taken up with enthusiasm by the “New Labour” Government under Blair. And now, it seems, the chickens are coming home to roost.

PFI has now become an increasing burden for many NHS hospitals, who now find that they are facing losses of millions of pounds, and cannot pay their debts

According to a report in Tribune (June 29), the financial problems facing the South London Healthcare NHS Trust “are just a tip of the iceberg”. A combination of under-funding by the present Government plus the legacy of past PFI deals means that another 22 trusts face similar cash crises.

Tribune quotes Geoff Martin of London Health Emergency as saying: “the poisonous cocktail of the great PFI rip-off and years of gross mismanagement has now been revealed.” Of course we were all warned. At the end of 2002, the Clarion reported:

“PFI comes in a number of forms, but the one we’re probably most familiar with is the “lease back” variety in which a private company is contracted to build, let’s say, a school or hospital, which it then leases back … over a period of some thirty years. This means that we, the taxpayer, have to keep paying out until such a time as the property is past its sell-by-date. And it doesn’t come cheap. According to Professor Allyson Pollock, PFI schemes in the Health Service were increasing costs four-fold compared to traditional public funding.”

We can blame New Labour for pursuing such deals as these – but when latter-day Tory leaders get all pious about the situation, they should never forget – and neither should we – that they thought of the idea first.

ALL CHANGE:

But back in May 1st 1997, the Tories went down to crashing defeat, Marland lost his Forest of Dean seat and New Labour took over the reins of Government.

For the Clarion it was a case of mixed emotions. We couldn’t help but celebrate the defeat of the Conservatives. As we said after the election: “Socialism is not on the agenda this time round. But we should be prepared to expect more caring policies; that protect and revive the welfare state, give hope to education, go some way towards closing the yawning gap between between rich and poor, and set about restoring civil liberties taken from us by the Tories.”

Readers can judge for themselves how far these aspirations were achieved under Blair. As for us, we’ll have to fast forward again – to the end of 2002, and the decision by Blair to back Bush’s ill-judged decision to invade Iraq.

MARCHING AGAINST WAR:

On the 15th of February 2003, four coach loads of demonstrators left the Forest to join the march against war in Iraq. It was the biggest demonstration ever to take to the streets of London, attracting between one and two million people (depending on whose figures one accepted).

It was this act, more than any other, that discredited Blair in the eyes of millions of voters. No longer was he viewed as the “wunderkind” of UK politics.

As we said in our “Comment” column (April/May 2003), “In the face of unprecedented worldwide opposition, Bush and Blair have chosen to go to war…

“There have been massive demonstrations against war throughout the world, including the biggest ever march and rally in London on February 15…. and the Prime Minister has faced his biggest rebellion to date amongst Labour MPs. At the end of the debate on March 18, 139 of them voted against war (including our own Diana Organ).”

Of course since then we’ve discovered that Blair failed to consult adequately with Cabinet colleagues, and there were no “weapons of mass destruction” to be found in Iraq. Well, certainly not on the Iraqi side.

And the chaotic aftermath of war lingered on in Iraq. Four years later, in 2007, We asked why the country had rapidly disintegrated whilst US armed forces stood by.

The Clarion reported that no thought had been given to the fate of the country after the war was officially over. “There was talk of “reconstruction”, contracts were awarded to (mainly American) companies, a “slush fund” was hastily put together – which promptly vanished into a multitude of pockets without trace. Meanwhile the country continued to disintegrate.”  

Looking at Iraq today, can we say that any of the stated objectives were achieved? There were NO “weapons of mass destruction”. True, there was “regime change” – but when we went to war, that wasn’t on the agenda. And that unhappy country still hasn’t gained the stability that was promised.

The Iraqi war provided the first major revolt by Labour MPs in the Commons. But more were to follow – including the establishment of “foundation hospitals” within the NHS. In May 2003, 63 Labour MPs voted against the plans; and the Clarion quoted Frank Dobson as saying that foundation hospitals would become a “cuckoo in the nest” and would set “hospital against hospital”. We added: “make no mistake. This Bill is about privatising our hospitals. It will give the private sector a new way into the Health Service…” (Clarion, June/July 2003). Since then, critics have suggested that it was this measure that provided the Tories with the foundations for their Health & Social Care Act, passed earlier this year.

ENTER CAMERON, STAGE RIGHT:

By 2007, the Tories had a new leader in David Cameron. He tried to project a new, softer, image for his party, one that was greener, more humane, and willing to “hug a hoodie”. But by the beginning of 2008 his mask had slipped, with his plans to cut the number of long-term unemployed. They would be “forced back into some semblance of work whatever the pay, conditions or suitability. They will be removed from the unemployment register, whatever the cost to themselves or their families,” we wrote.

Cameron’s model was based on the system used in the state of Wisconsin, USA. We were warned back then that the ugly face of Toryism hadn’t gone away

And now, half way through Cameron’s term of office, we have experience of what Tory Government means during a time of recession. But further comment will have to be covered on other pages and in other editions of the Clarion.

AND NOW A WORD FROM OUR EDITOR IN CHIEF – Alistair Graham…

A SOCIALIST VOICE FOR THE FOREST!

The first issue of the Forest Clarion appeared in mid-January 1996 – in time for the march and rally for trade unions rights at GCHQ in Cheltenham. But the genesis of our paper had been during the previous year, when a small group of us got together to plan a new magazine that would reflect the aspirations of many on the left, at a time of great political change.

Planning a new journal from scratch was no easy matter. For a start, money had to be raised, a printer found – not to mention the thorny question of how our goals should be reflected in the pages of our slim magazine. The Clarion was to be tied to no political party. It aimed to be an independent voice from the start, encouraging debate, informing its readers – and covering topics far wider than the boundaries of the Forest of Dean (later we decided to include the Wye Valley in our title and coverage).

We hope that we’ve maintained both that independence and spirit of debate over the years. At the start, we were feeling our way, but as we produced those first few issues, it all gradually came together. We worked out a statement of aims, which appears on the back page of the Clarion, which ends with the declaration that we aim “to provide a platform for that debate, to keep readers informed of issues that we regard as important and to support campaigns in line with our aims.” And these have remained the key principles that we’ve tried to maintain.

As a paper produced by an open collective, we have no rich backers or any “sugar daddies” to provide funds. We have to pay our way. At times it hasn’t been easy, but we’ve soldiered on. So far, thanks to the support both of our readers and our printer, we haven’t missed an issue!

The Clarion will carry on – hopefully for as long as our readers feel a need for it.

AG

LEFT INSIDE: Why we need to shout ‘Post-New Labour’ is the Labour Party for us all

In C.Spiby on August 31, 2012 at 7:33 am

Putting aside the debate about Ed Milliband’s populist immigration speech (as that deserves a whole article in its own right), the recent performance of Labour is otherwise a welcome shift to the left. While I might be convinced that I have joined a different party to that of the ‘New Labour’ period, it is with regret that the public are not so sure. And this poses our biggest single problem.

Here’s why I think I am in a ‘post-New Labour’ Labour Party.

For activists, one of the mistakes New Labour made was when it stifled inner party democracy. It created a gulf between those who made policy and those who fought to make it and, indeed, campaigned on it and lived by its principles.

Angela Eagle, the new Chair of the National Policy Forum, however, rightly seeks to redress this. She wrote to me stating that she understood “how frustrating it has been for those…with expertise, experience and ideas to engage in a meaningful way with the Party’s policy making process. That is why I’m so committed to changing it. We need to open it up, and give everyone a voice and a stake.”

Send your demands for a Labour Party policy programme more representative of its members’ wishes to PIP@labour.org.uk.

On the other hand, I read from the minutes from the FoD CLP Executive Committee meetings that its pre-occupation with the ownership of its meeting place in Lydney is still taking up precious time. All the while local people endure the most aggressively sustained attack on their livelihoods I for one have ever known. With backdoor taxes like refuse collection charges and parking charges, the danger of our community health services under threat of removal from the NHS, and our very woodlands returning to insecurity, now is the time for Labour to locally step up its game. In the face of an anti-democratic Council, local branches need to re-engage with the issues facing local people. Ownership of the boxing club site and whether local or national Labour hold the title to the site is, frankly, not on their agenda. We need to get it off ours!

Compare this to Andy Burnham and his team who, meanwhile, has done a great deal to expose the gap between Ministers’ rhetoric and what’s really happening in our NHS (read online at www.YourNHS.com) . The Tories are cutting 6,000 nurses, Labour pledges to protect them. One of the good things about the last Labour government was its investment in the NHS, with the net result that waiting-times were drastically cut. Under the Tories it is rising again.

Now that it is threatening the continuance of services of at least one hospital, Labour could do more to distance itself from the debacle of PFI (just one reason why I could never join New Labour), but in the meantime I am pleased with the 5 pledges:

1. Protect NHS founding values;

2. Prevent postcode lotteries;0

3. Guard against longer waits;

4. Promote collaboration over competition;

5. Put patients before profits.

The antithesis of these characterise the awful Health & Social Care Bill the Tories passed a few months ago. And that is why Labour has promised to repeal the Bill at the earliest opportunity. Only a Labour victory would enable us to do that.

Ed Balls too got it right on petrol duty. This saw the Tories cancel the expected hike the very same day Ed’s article appeared in the national press. “But the price of crude is down.” Argued John Humphreys on BBC Radio’s Today programme. Ed quickly reassured him that it may be down in the last month, but the price isn’t trickling down to the forecourts quick enough. To ordinary people, the price is still way too high, increasing the duty will make matters worse both for households and struggling industry. It might seem a long time ago we paid less than a £1 per litre but recently it got to nearly half that again.

My point is that Labour is at its best when it represents the ordinary lives of working people. The Shadow Cabinet is delivering on this. As long as Ed himself steers clear of pasties, we’re doing alright.

Our task, to all on the left, is to build confidence in this “post-New Labour” Labour so we can halt a Tory stronghold nationally and locally.

There is much to be done. It is up to us to move the national story away from the legacy of Blair and Brown and onto the party that truly reflects ordinary working people. This is the Party with the only viable chance of reversing the health bill, halting the attack on ordinary livelihoods, stopping the sell-off of our Forests and building against the kind of unfettered profiteering  Conservatism is ideologically grounded upon.