Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Let’s all be posh

Nearly choked on my breakfast at the weekend to see the Independent’s article A class act: Unironic 'posh chic' is here, before heading off to prepare a lecture on the financial crisis.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s unarguable that the last few years have seen the ascent of the posh – at least in England – parallel to times getting harder for most of us. Big draughty houses celebrated in Downton Abbey and the urban equivalent in the revived Upstairs Downstairs (which I can’t help loving). Kate Middleton and her husband, whatever his name is. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
And the knock-on effect on fashion is undeniable. Hunter wellies for trudging through the mud at summer music festivals never really went away. Burberry trenchcoats. Padded jackets for the shooting. Pronouncing Hermès correctly.

The contrast is instructive. Why do so many people want to look (quietly) rich when times are hard?

I think it’s a form of self-preservation in insecure times. If you can’t be sure about whether you’re going to keep your job or your house, you can at least look like a person who doesn’t have to worry about that sort of thing.

But it’ll take more than a Primark padded jacket to keep the wolf from the door over the next few years. Might be better off thinking about some kind of political action. Which, of course, can still get pretty cold, muddy and wet, so hang onto the Hunters for now.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Would you like to volunteer? Probably not.....

Labour EC meetings are really not like this.....
February is the busiest month of the year for me. So it’s the worst time to receive a nominations paper for the AGM of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland, and have to decide whether I want to spend another year on the Executive Committee. Which, on balance, I do.

But the process this year has made me think about the difficulties of getting people to devote some of their spare time to running a political party, and most specifically to running the Labour Party in NI.

Part of the problem may be that we can’t stand for elections. We can’t offer anything to people who want a career in politics, at least if they want to stay in Northern Ireland. Although that means we don’t have to deal with unscrupulous types who don’t care which party they ‘represent’, some want to be politicians in order to do good and change the world (stop laughing at the back there). They are the ones who will put in the work. We want them and we need them.

Another problem, linked to the first, is that in NI we have no access to paid staff, with the exception of an organiser in the Compliance Unit (love it) who sends out the AGM notification and ballot paper. For this I pay £43 a year. Everything else has to be done locally, which means EC members are likely to actually have to do some work. Very offputting for those who like the sound of their own voices but mysteriously disappear between meetings.

More fundamental, though, is the pressure of modern life. I’ve been very struck by the number of issues, both work-related and personal, that have affected my EC comrades over the past year. Certainly in my own case I have to be extremely careful not to take on too much, due to the demands of my job – and paid work must come first.

Of course, not everyone is up to their eyes in their job. Some are unemployed or retired, and we have great contributions made from both groups on the EC and in the Party more widely. But they don’t cover the complete range of skills and knowledge which we need. The EC of a political party is like any management team – you need to get the right people in, and then give them the job that best suits their abilities and aptitude.

I wonder if all the people we need are there amongst our 350-odd members, and we just haven’t been able to communicate to them how much their contribution would be welcomed. We are in the process of building a branch structure, which will help with getting new people involved. But I also wonder if difficulties with finding volunteers are more widespread. If we are all too busy to be part of something wider than work and our family, civil society suffers and that’s not good for any of us.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

East Belfast speaks out again

To Ashfield Boys School this evening for the third East Belfast Speaks Out, the second that I have attended. The panel this time was:

·         Michael Copeland MLA (UUP)
·         Sammy Douglas MLA (DUP)
·         John Kyle (PUP) Belfast City Councillor
·         Chris Lyttle MLA (Alliance Party)
·         John O’Dowd MLA (SF) Minister for  

The event was described by the organisers as ‘a "Town Hall" style meeting between the people of East Belfast and their elected representatives’ – covering the parties at Assembly and council level and thus including the PUP. There was some protest about the selection by an SDLP member on social networking sites prior to the event, but the individual did not pursue the matter in the meeting, perhaps having understood that if the SDLP ever mange to get elected to anything in East Belfast then they’ll be included.

My only issue was the lack of women on the panel – there are female councillors and MLAs in East Belfast (and an MP), so where were they tonight?

Anyway, the evening was a cracker.  Mark Davenport chaired again, very well considering the pace of the meeting and the number of people who wanted to speak. It must have been exhausting. Feedback from last year had obviously been heeded. This year there was no warm-up act – that wasn’t why we’d bothered to turn up to a cold school hall on an even colder night. And the priority was to ensure that as many people as possible were heard – 24 questions in all. The theme was ‘How responsive is the Assembly to the real concerns of the electorate’? but, not surprisingly, it was only loosely followed. Give the number of questions, it wasn’t possible for all panel members to respond to every question. Last year the panel spoke too much. This year, I’d have liked to have heard more from some of them, particularly Chris Lyttle who seemed to me to be the quietest – and no bias, I did vote for him. I was most impressed with Sammy Douglas, but sadly I’d never vote for the DUP so that has done him no good.

The 24 questions varied from the deeply personal to the more abstract, with a focus on education perhaps due to the presence of John O’Dowd, perhaps because it’s important to people. The audience included lots of young people and women, both well represented amongst the questioners.

I was particularly interested in the replies to a question on the impact of the Welfare Reform Bill, which raised the question of whether parity with Britain would be challenged and if so how. John O’Dowd was most emphatic that the Bill had not yet been passed and stated ‘let’s break parity on this issue’ – but he didn’t seem to understand that there would be a financial penalty for departing from a unified benefits system. The only realistic approach is to try to plug the gaps with other budgets, which means directing more of the block grant towards the least well off. I was also interested in the almost total support for the regeneration of the Maze/ Long Kesh including the Conflict Resolution Centre, justified (correctly in my view) by the combined potential for jobs, tourism and a positive act of remembrance.

The panel were, of course, asked if they supported integrated education. As usual, the answer was either yes or a qualified yes. It really makes you wonder why there are so few integrated schools...  

Other subjects covered included:

  • Educational underachievement by young men
  • Helping young people not in education, employment or training
  • Is it time for politics based on economic and social issues rather than on the border
  • The continuing mess that is the transfer test
  • Supergrass trials
  • How to support the unemployed and help them back into work
  • Should there be a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland?
  • Funding for education including special educational needs
  • Need for social housing
  • Noise from Belfast City Airport
  • Corporation tax
  • Likelihood of Peace IV funding from the EU
  • Services for people with mental health problems
  • Cuts to the health service
The only serious disruption came from a man who ranted on about politicians being corrupt and useless, wouldn’t shut up and then left. I assumed he was an unhappy and perhaps disturbed individual whose life had gone very wrong, and was shocked to find out later that he was from the Occupy movement. I would have been sympathetic to them before, but no longer.

The panel wasn’t as high profile as last year, but were clearly more aware of local issues and in several cases obviously in touch with their individual constituents. When asking is the Assembly doing its job, the jury is still out, but there’s no question that some local representatives at Stormont and in Belfast City Council are working very hard to help their constituents as best they can.

P.S. Congratulations again to Alan in Belfast for comprehensive tweeting at #ebso