I do think so-called liberal parliamentary democracy in this country(Britain)is old and tired.That does not mean i want to see it ended but i do want to see it transformed,not just adapted and reformed.I don’t think i personally have any clever answers but i do have some thoughts.i certainly think we need a thorough and rigorous transformation at all kinds of levels-local,regional,national and internationally.
I think my thoughts are best placed in a context,rather than abstract blueprinting…….
On Wednesday(17/04/2013)i attended one of the Brent Connects meetings in Kilburn.I’m not sure whether this was the 2nd event chronologically or the second within particular communities across the borough,but either way,it might have some value.It took place within what i have long known as the State…..once a cinema,then a bingo hall,and amongst other things various kinds of performance areas.Apparently also known as the Gaumont,a name also long associated with cinemas,though i’m not sure about the reason for its association here.Currently it is used as a Church-underused twice a week,and showing all the signs of faded,neglected glory.Whilst i don’t have much against “church”or temple or mosque or other places of worship,it is of concern that churches do seem to move into such faded jewels and that in the process the wider community,rather than being invited in is actually locked out.This,it seems to me does nothing for the image of either church or public space,where the public is frozen out.
It is good that the church allowed the local authority to host this meeting in such a location.A pity,though that there was little publicity at the entrance,and arriving only a moment late,not much of a welcome….
Such meetings always start late.Never mind.I admit to a certain cynicism about the attitude of”mainstream parties”to democracy.It does seem to me that the Tories only operate an outward looking democracy when they are compelled to do by law or circumstance.usually when they require our votes.I always feel that the Liberal Democrats wre always trying to prove or demonstrate their interest in their version of community politics/organisation/development which for me has always been a peculiar verson of what the wider activist or community work world would truly recognise.Indeed,the last time i remember”it”looking like anythigrecognisable was in the days when Peter Hain led the campaign against the Sprinboks(rugby?)tour in 1971,in the days when he was a Young Liberal.Mostly since,they have manipulated populations to entirely their own ends and sold”us”short.This is acriticism i continue to make of them locally and elsewhere,though i do not doubt the sincerity and commitment of some particular Liberals to some things,some of the time.Then there is Labour,who seem to operate such democracy also as neccessary or to go through the motions in some way-consulting,or thinking they can dragoon us as some kind of stge army,in which ultimately the experienced and the expert rise to the top of some kind of Fabian hieracrchy.
Within those limits,those criticisms though i give credit where it is due-this is better than nothing,better late than never,better something than nothing.What was certainly a smart and an appropriate move,was in a discussion focussed on the revival,regeneration of Kilburn,both Councils should be involved,as Kilburn itself sits astride both the boroughs of Camden and Brent.
I had seen no material about this meeting before or indeed after my arrival apart from a posting on Brent Fight back page of facebook,so my thanks go to Brent Fightback and its members/participants,not the Council.No information,leaflet,agenda was avilable to me on arrival-no one handing anything out,nothing on seats….not good.
The chair started and introduced councillors from both boroughs as well as from wider Local Government Association and each made an opening 5 minute or so statement in relation to the matters in hand to be addressed.A female resident of Brent was also introduced although it seems we,the”plebs”of Kilburn/Brent don’t have names…which i find disrespectful of both the speaker and us the electorate,reduced to audience.
To his credit the chair did make efforts to allow a wide range of participants to speak.They did not seem particularly chosen,nor to be pre-arranged nor plants,and he did seek to find contributors from all around the hall,taking us in groups of 3-4,attempting to summarise concerns and then seeking even handedly to elicit responses.
Even i managed to elicit his attention in the second round of contributions from the floor.Without wishing to appear arrogant,my looks,age,dress tend to make me stand out.My difficulty is that less mobile and agile these days i often cannot stand fast enough nor keep my han din the air long enough.this time i did not stand either to get attention or to speak,and i did not have to sit for 10,20,30 minutes using”body langauge”in the hope of getting to speak.
Most platform speakers had tended to emphasise business aspects of regeneration.Whilst not a problem of itself,i am concerned that without “evidence”to demonstrate why,business has tended to become the filter through which everything else is perceived.Most people seem to be far too respectful of this,which tends to be self limiting.
I think i am of ruder stuff,and i never did just accept the formal or unspoken rules.I opened with a criticism of what appeared to be a hierarchical,patronising and disrespectful attitude of politicians to residents/audience/electorate.To the chairs credit,i/we got an apology,although i still only know the resident speakers name as only caroline,but never mind.I went on to suggest that any business plan would be absurd without considering that tax and benefit changes impacting directly on 1100 families across the borough reducing their income and therefore their expenditure by at least £100pw,and with the potential for the deportation by ethnic/class cleansing would impact on income to the borough both to businesses and the council,inviting comment.Others talked about the cultural impact and the need to rectify that Kilburn did not seem to celebrate its Irish or other ethnic cultures,let alone the working class.I was however prevented from making the short point that i was not just concerned about business but about the quality of life of working people in Kilburn.i have no wish to credit myself with something too much here,but i do suspect that the chair suspected a dangerous line of comment and questioning here.i therefore got no chance to make constructive suggestions,though the constructive suggestions from a predominantly working class “audience”was indeed rich.
I do critically suggest that this meeting was subtly focussed to keep it firmly on business and determinedly light in tone,although this increased for me a strange sense of disconnection from the real world.Business at some level,ably assisted by a”subservient”council,might be able to generate some optimism but it was also as if we were in some bubble away from the deepest economic crisis since the 1930s!I think we do have to re-orient public discussion and public space firmly into a subtly different direction..It seems to me we need to recognise austerity in order to defend not just immediate living standards but also in order to re-expand a vision for the future based on the real economic and social stability and wellbeing of the majority of people in the community.Over here that community is poor,in need,working class but need not be locked into such deteriorating circumstances or conditions.
Amongst other issues there were discussions about how stores encroach further onto pavement space,about inadequate waste disposal arrangements,the kind of mix of retails outlets,the development of the market/kilburn square and of public,entertainment and cultural space like the Tricycle and the State(the building this meeting took place in)itself.
Few if anyone disagreed about encroachment,waste disposal,or wanting the mix to exclude payday loan sharks,betting shops and poor quality/unsafe food outlets.Some suggested the return of small-scale light engineering/manufacturing.I would also wish there to be public,state and voluntary sector agencies on the street offering services to the community EXACTLY in such a time of austerity,like law centres,CAB/citizen advice bureau,credit unions….but i doubt this will get a look in.If we really cannot have the style of such services of the 1960s-80s,then perhaps we can still have spaces in which some kind of surgeries can operate to help…..
There was also some debate about the underuse of and inability of the church now occupying/owning the State,to use the space fully and how it might be encouraged or if necessary compelled to share that space.Clearly people had ideas about how it could be used,many saw it as an important focus or beacon.It should not be beyond our colective wit to put heads together to organise that even if it requires compromise.I and at leats one oter for example were struck by one speakers concern about social enterprise and the needs of young people.i disagree wth tying young people to certain commitments and to orenting everything on business for them,but i do think there ought to be many more construcive outlets for young people than there are,not least in”representing”themselves politically,socially,culturally,fully.
Apparently the council consulted”parliamentary committees”2 years ago with their concerns about benefit changes and loss of income for families and the borough but the answer appeared to peter out into a loud silence about purpose and certainly about outcomes.Again i felt this allows a kind of unanchored optimism about real prospects into the future.
After speakers from the platform summarised,there was a brief Soapbox presentation by speakers from Palestine Solidarity Campaign/Committee,led by a young woman who was both the 1st and i believe only young person to speak,who spoke about the campaign to ensure that Veolia do not pick up public sector contracts in Brent to deliver public sanitation services,because of their complicity in the illegal occupation of Palestine by Israel,through sanitation projects,building railway infrastructure etc.It is shameful that members of the audience appeared to silence the young speaker,rather than a more considered request to the chair of the meeting.Whilst the young woman put up a spirited defence of her right to speak,she should not have been left to do so alone,but should have ben actively more defended by the chair,as after all she had been invited by the meeting to speak.That interruption did not aloow her to clarify the connection between Kilburn/Brent and the issues at hand,although i acknowledge that now nearly every issue involving Israel/Palestine is fraught with difficulties that sometime smake public discourse like walking through a minefield of words and more.Even as an experienced activist myself,i admit i am affected too.Yet being supportive of Palestine and oppossed to the oppression of Palestinians,does not or at least need not make me/us anti-semitic or opposed to the rights of self determination of jews either.Does it?
I’m sure there is much more to say.I know my comrade Kierra Box has also written on Brent Fightback/facebook about this.I may well make further comment when i have reviewed and considered my notes.
In the meantime,i don’t know whether Brent Connect is part of what Council Leader Butt meant by a new and consultative relationship with the community when he took over leadership of the Council.I would say it does not make up for the closure of and theft from the community of books from”our”libraries,nor the breakdown in talks to look at alternatives.Nor does it excuse Cllr.Butts failure to meet his commitments to the Counihan-Sanchez family.But,i would give it a guarded welcome in which we can seek to make those we elect accountable.The problem with notions of consultation is that it can always be dishonest as other consultations about NHS provision are proving in both NW and S London.They also enable those consulting to control the feed of information and to further edit and select what,if anything they act on.
That said,while it lasts,it does also provide further opportunities for those of us active in the community to network and make links.Perhaps as well as seeking to use the tiny amounts of money to galvanise a different kind,a better kind of democracy in our communities,we can also demand that this initiative allows us to organise our own way within its umbrella.If it does not then we need to continue to seek organisational and democratic forms to meet our needs entirely independently of any power structure.
IF NOT NOW,WHEN?and if you won’t do it,we won’t wait!