12 Nov 2011

Brent Fightback, Brent Takeback: People's Assembly

Brent Fightback organised an excellent public meeting on 12 November 2011, pictured, at the Harlesden Methodist Church, Harlesden. Attendance picked up throughout the day, with elected representatives (ahem) the most patchy. We saw Cllr Butt and former MP Dawn Butler in the audience only at the beginning and Lee Jasper did not show for his billed contribution to the opening speeches.

The second hour was given over to a workshop, in which local people got a chance to introduce themselves to one another (split into two groups) and to voice their fears and (ocassionally) hopes. Alas mobilisation against savage cuts - whether the local libraries, forthcoming caps on housing benefit, the threat to local nurseries - were recurrent themes. In our workshop we had a good debate addressing questions such as 1. Were not the voters partly to blame for electing their councillors in the first place, even though they now felt betrayed by them? 2. Did local councillors really have their hands tied by the national coalition, as some councillors present were claiming? 3. What was the proper role of voluntary, grassroots-led initatives either as a means of redirecting political energy into something seemingly more fruitful or in its own right? Leroy Simpson, chair of Harlesden Town Team spoke eloquently about the need to engage youth, in particular, through a can-do attitude. Some voiced concerns about the danger of letting our elected off the hook by such means and I entered in a plea that the two approaches were not necessarily exclusive - and that we certainly must continue to challenge the politicians who failed us, and to mount political alternatives through that route. After all, we were being taxed, locally and nationally, not to have to pay for everything all over again, let alone to have our politicians frustrate our lifechances.

The closing session (pictured above) was a Question Time-style debate. The chair was flanked by two Labour councillors to one side, and two anti-cuts campaigners to the other. Janice Long (Harlesden), Jim Moher (Fryent) and Lesley Jones (substituting for Cllr Moher towards the end) were questioned on topics ranging from political accountability, libraries cuts, the unaffordability of the new civic centre, loss of a local community centre, loss of anticipated housing benefit leading to foricible eviction, and depletion of mental health services. Sarah Cox and Pete Firmin added their criticism, and sometimes disdain, to that of a well-informed audience.

To my own question, What is the cost of financing the debt on the £102.4m headquarters over 25 years?, Cllr Moher answered £25m. But how is that £25m going to be found, if not through cuts elsewhere, year on year? All this, in addition to the increased expenditure on a captial project, which could hardly be met by the savings of co-locating council buildings alone.

Cllr Long had a tough time persuading the masses that if they did not implement the cuts agenda (going so far as outlining the scenarios they were encouraged to plan for at away-days), then they would simply be imposed upon us by unelected bureaucrats. Was it as though the Labour administration had spent sleepness nights tormenting themselves over how they could not avoid axeing half of the borough's libraries? It didn't look like they could have acted any less responsibly, or done more to damage the lifechances of young and old of our community, had they tried.

Of course, one has to thank the councillors who did take the trouble to attempt to justify themselves. Yet the music that they faced was not as inveitable as they might like to suppose.

I was left reflecting on the concern of one delegate that the Brent anti-cuts campaign could have been called something more positive. Some already responded that nothing less affirmative than a fight was required, and that it was not of our choosing. I think this is right, but that does not mean that Brent Fightback is not other things besides. Brent Fightback is also: Brent Comeback. Brent Blowback. Brent Takeback. We need to take back what rightly belongs to us, including our local democracy. Take Ownership.

Other reports: Martin Francis on Wembley Matters.

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