Friday, June 15, 2007

Thank the Lords
The political story of the past week has to be the rejection by the House of Lords of the controversial Bill to exempt MPs from the Freedom of Information Act. Perhaps the most stunning result was that NOT ONE Lord bothered to support it. It’s a far cry from what prevailed with our MPs in Lewisham.

If ever anyone still needs to be convinced why politicians are so despised (and I know how that reflects on me personally), then you need look no further than this awful proposal. Originally put forward by the Opposition’s David Maclean (Penrith and The Border), the Bill sought to protect the contents of private letters between MPs and their constituents. The fact the Bill got as far as it did is nothing short of a total disgrace: The Freedom of Information Act already prevents the disclosure of confidential letters containing personal data. Critics said the real motive for the Bill was the embarrassing release of information on MPs’ travel expenses and allowances earlier this year. In some instances, MPs had notched up costs of hundreds of thousands of pounds. When the House of Commons voted in favour of it on May 18 (78 MPs for versus 25 against), it was aided and abetted by two “closure motions” – a Parliamentary device designed to stop opponents who want to kill off a Bill by talking it out of time. It had been nearly twenty years since two closure votes were used on a Friday session of the Commons. And how did Lewisham’s MPs stand up and be counted?

Jim Dowd, MP for Lewisham West actually voted FOR the bill. Bridget Prentice, MP for Lewisham East, while not voting for it, didn’t exactly rail against it either. Quentin Letts writing in the Daily Mail on May 19 was dismissive of, as he described her; a “Justice Minister” pretending the whole thing was nothing to do with the Government. And what of the final member of this borough’s Parliamentary trio? At least Bridget Prentice’s fence sitting was neutrality of a sort. But Joan Ruddock, MP for Lewisham Deptford, did her damnedest to push it hard. As a member of her party’s Parliamentary Committee, she signed off on an emailed plea to her fellow colleagues to come out and vote in favour of it. But did she even bother vote herself? No. Is it possible to have hypocrisy within hypocrisy?

It seems to me that at a time when this country is facing ever more of its sovereignty being signed away to Brussels – the Prime Minister will be signing a new treaty over there on June 22 – that we look to our elected representatives to protect us and our interests. Fat chance. They are more pre-occupied with their own political careers. In fact, it is rumoured that Mr. Blair is eyeing the post of “President of the EU Council” – a post suspected to be part of the Treaty he will sign next Friday. But as the disgraceful attempt of MPs to be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act dies a rightful death, we must contemplate a few things: How is it that the much-derided House of Lords is once again rescuing the nation from itself, even if it has been stuffed with cronies from the ruling administration? Does this not suggest the power of centuries-old tradition overcoming the lure of personal vanity? And what of MPs? Is this not a clearer case of their not representing their constituents’ interests via their party but that of pushing their parties’ interests via those they claim to serve?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Bellingham 500 says no to ex-Councillor (and Mayor) Bullock
Over 500 residents of the ward of Bellingham support a referendum on the future of the executive Mayoral system in Lewisham. This rebuke on the leadership of Mayor Steve Bullock is all the more surprising considering he once represented the ward as councillor for almost twenty years from 1982 to 1998. And rubbished efforts last week to get a referendum consultation passed.

The residents were invited by my party to sign a petition as part of the activities of Bring Back Democracy, a cross-party campaign that seeks a return to the Leader and Cabinet system of local Government used by the majority of the country’s local authorities. The signatures were gained between late February and early this month, and what was surprising was that we got so much support in such a limited period of time from barely one-third of Bellingham’s polling divisions – we expected much more resistance from a so-called solid pro-Government ward, and certainly one that Mayor Bullock had cut his political teeth on.

It seems to me that the remarkable support from Bellingham is in stark contrast to Mayor Bullock’s comments on April 18 where a proposed consultation on the referendum was lost by four Councillor votes. He said then "I now hope that everyone can concentrate on doing the best for Lewisham residents rather than campaigning to undermine the democratic will of the Lewisham electorate." We have shown that if the people of Lewisham are asked, they certainly can express their will against one man having near absolute power while 54 elected councillors can only stand by and watch.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Bring Back Democracy: The Fight Begins on January 15 2007
Come out in your tens, hundreds, and thousands even! The fight to regain democracy in Lewisham formally starts at that community battleground of 2006 – the Ladywell Leisure Centre on Monday January 15 2007 at 8pm in the Palms Bar. In an unprecedented show of cross-party co-operation, practically every political entity of worth will be represented in a united front to say NO to Executive Mayoralty in Lewisham. And the public are ALL invited!

Organised by the Bring Back Democracy movement, a petition has already begun to back a planned Councillor-led motion asking Lewisham Council to commission a referendum on whether we should continue having a directly elected Mayor. The dynamic duo of John Hamilton, Independent Mayoral Candidate of 2006, and Nick Ingham are leading the efforts to return power to the people. They and a number of hardworking politicians have put together a compelling case. Consider the following: The original Mayoral referendum in Lewisham was held on 18th October 2001 by postal vote. The “Yes” vote was 16,822 (51%) and the “No” vote was 15,914 (49%). With turnout of only 18% this means that only 9.2% of electors actually voted in favour of introducing the new system. The result was controversial with the Electoral Commission noting that “the number of ballot papers which could not be included in the count because of invalid declarations was greater than the difference between the yes and no vote.” And what has Lewisham got? A directly elected Mayor that appoints a cabinet of up to 9 councillors, but is not required to include members of different parties or to delegate any power to cabinet members. The Mayor only needs the support of 1/3 of the elected councillors (18 out of 54 in Lewisham) to approve the annual budget and policy framework documents. The Mayor can make almost all other decisions without needing to win a vote of councillors or the cabinet. Elected councillors have no authority other than to scrutinise the Mayor’s decisions and can only recommend that any decision be reconsidered.

It seems to me that this is a mockery of democracy. It is true that Steve Bullock was re-elected as Mayor in 2006 but did the electorate REALLY know what they were voting for? Any successful referendum would NOT force him out of office in his current term. If he were to resign, or be found criminally negligent (and thus have to quit) or died in office, then the whole charade would come to an end. Otherwise, he would see out his term in full. This is a lot more reasonable than what currently passes for respecting the will of the people. And while the Prime Minister himself has praised Executive Mayoralty, there is no way he would wish for such a system to be imposed at Westminster. Or would he? Hasn’t he and many others gone along with another project that sees the concentration of political power in the hands of the few? Where the will of the majority is ignored as directive after directive is relentlessly pursued, making a farce of our elected representatives? The fight for democracy truly starts in Lewisham…