Last week I spoke at a packed meeting at the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith Broadway organised by Labour for a People’s Vote. On 18 October I will be back there addressing the European Movement’s rally to Stop Brexit.
It’s no surprise interest is ratcheting up locally as well as nationally as, after two years of dithering, the Government will be forced to make decisions on Brexit in the next few weeks – or rather it will have to seek agreement from Parliament, the EU, and I hope from the public on what now happens.
There are three options. None looks likely to have an easy passage.
• No Deal
No Deal is the preferred or accepted choice of right-wing Conservatives. They barely deny that it would be economically and logistically disastrous, but would be happy to inflict the consequences on us because it would sever all links with the EU next March. It is made more likely if we fail to negotiate a deal with the EU, but there is no majority for No Deal in Parliament.
• Chequers or an alternative deal
The Chequers Deal has no friends except May loyalists. It suits no one but her and will be rejected by the EU and Parliament. Variations would mean moving closer to the EU – accepting the Customs Union and Single Market in practical if not literal terms – or further away – a Canada-style free trade arrangement. The first option would split the Tory Party permanently, so she won’t go for that. The second, despite Labour Opposition, might get the support of enough Remainer Tories if they could solve the Irish border problem. But they can’t, so this also looks dead.
• Stalemate – leading to an election, public vote or both
I gave my predictions in the last newsletter on what would unfold between now and April and they are not quite unravelling yet. If we cannot agree on a Deal, something – however temporary – is likely to be stitched together to get us past the Article 50 deadline. My bet is we fudge next March – technically leaving but acting as if we are still in for another two years, agreeable to the EU because it is less disruptive than a cliff-edge departure.
What then? The current Parliament will not vote for a new Referendum. Too many MPs believe they are bound by the 2016 result. Conservative MPs will not vote for a General Election just because Brexit isn’t resolved. However, Theresa May will have had her chance and failed. Like Cameron she will bow out, no doubt to be replaced by an ideological Brexiter in a leadership election, probably next summer.
Lacking a mandate and with the clock ticking again on how Brexit will be managed, the new Prime Minister will finally have to call a General Election, perhaps in spring 2020. The Tories will stand on a hard Brexit platform, what about Labour?
Our current policy calls for the softest of Brexits – doing the minimum of economic damage while sticking to the letter of the Referendum result. The problem here is that the softer the deal the more it requires the UK to accept EU rules without having a say in how they are made. This ultimately leads to the conclusion that we should stay in and continue to exert our considerable influence on the way rules are made while benefitting from the best trade market in the world.
I see the best achievable outcome as a Labour Government elected on a promise to hold a People’s Vote between the deal it can negotiate and staying in the EU. Giving the public the chance to make a final decision with the options and consequences known.
None of this is perfect and we cannot ignore the wasted decade of austerity and Brexit that has set the country back in an unprecedented way. But it does hold out the hope for a return to some kind of political sanity in the foreseeable future.
Labour in Liverpool
In the meantime, I was pleased to see the Labour Conference also focusing on the normal business of government: housing, schools, the NHS, the economy, and the inequalities and injustices that have become an increasing feature of how our society is organised.
Jeremy Corbyn’s speech has won over some of his doubters in the media by putting forward a well-constructed plan for reviving the economy and helping those left behind by austerity.
There is a limited amount we can do without being in power nationally, but locally some key battles are being fought.
At a rather grim recent meeting with the local health service, they told me they were looking to make cuts of nearly £20 million this year (that is before next April) and a similar amount the year after, around 10% of their budget.
One route they are seriously looking at is reducing the opening hours of doctors’ surgeries in the evenings and weekends and closing the urgent care centres (UCCs) at our local hospitals at night.
Not only is this pretty dramatic in itself, long-term observers of health policy will note that these are exactly the services that have been expanded over the past few years in an effort to relieve pressure on A&E and justify the closures of A&E departments at Hammersmith and Charing Cross.
Reducing UCC hours would mean no 24-hour walk in service at Hammersmith and additional pressure on the A&E at Charing Cross.
You might think this would at least suggest that plans to close the A&E at Charing Cross were off the table, but it does not. The demolition plans are on hold not abandoned, and the fire sale of NHS assets is actually being stepped up nationally to use land sales to plug gaps in budgets.
Meanwhile H&F NHS has been landed with a bill of at least £12 million this year by a private company, ‘GP at Hand’ which, by siting its Skype-based service in the borough, has added 30,000 patients to local lists. Some but not all of this will be paid by NHS England.
Neither H&F Council nor the Greater London Authority has the power or resources to reverse the effects of austerity on our public services. Indeed they are its biggest victims. Local government has lost a barely imaginable 50% of its funding since 2010, more than any government department. And the big ticket items at City Hall – TfL and the police – have seen their budgets cut by hundreds of millions of pounds.
So I am reassured by the many local residents who think our Council is doing a good job – both in running basic services efficiently and looking after the most vulnerable. That was certainly the message of last May’s local elections.
On housing, there are hundreds of new affordable homes being built. The sadness here is that the previous Conservative administration actually disposed of so many council houses in its bizarre attempt at social engineering that there is a lost generation of families forced to live in poor and overcrowded conditions.
On policing, despite losing £600 million and facing a 20-year low on police numbers nationally, Met police safer neighbourhood teams have increased to three officers per ward area and the council is funding 50 extra officers for town centres and hotspots.
On transport, the four-year fares freeze and hopper tickets are making a real difference to travel costs, while major investment in HS2, Crossrail and the underground will vastly improve the borough’s infrastructure over the next few years.
It is good to see the Mayor and the Council working together on these big projects. The developments at Old Oak and Earl’s Court/West Ken now look set to produce thousands of new affordable homes, as well as saving the West Ken and Gibbs Green Estates from demolition. The plans for Olympia and for Imperial College’s new White City campus are also very impressive, but we must ensure that the benefits of this investment are shared with the existing communities, in particular those hit hardest by the cuts of the past decade.
I spend much of my time lobbying to make these schemes work in the interests of residents. But what neither I nor other local politicians can do is release the funds needed to unlock sustainable development. The next test, this autumn, will be the outcome of the bid for £250 million of Housing Infrastructure Fund monies to build 13,000 new homes north of the Grand Union Canal LINK. If the Government fails on this, we will see they are not serious about addressing the housing crisis.
New tube, new buses
Speaking of major transport investment, last week I passed through a non-descript but high security entrance to the new Hammersmith Control Centre for the sub-service tube network (that’s the District, Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan Lines to you and me).
In a large hanger, replete with screens showing CCTV of the network and diagrams of where trains were moving along the lines, I was introduced to the computerised train-based control system that will be replacing traditional signalling (some of it dating from the 1920s) between now and 2022.
Section by section the lines will be upgraded, meaning improvements in reliability, flexibility and safety. In combination with the better capacity trains this should mean a noticeably improved service. The Piccadilly and Central Lines are part of a similar project for the underground lines.
Of course, I couldn’t resist lobbying again for the restoration of the timetabled service from Earl’s Court to Olympia. Once the Earl’s Court junction becomes part of the upgrade in 2020 I can see no reason why this can’t be done. Indeed if the Olympia Exhibition Centre plans go ahead there will be eight million annual visitors demanding it is done in four years’ time.
Not to be left out, London Buses wanted to show me their proposals for route changes coinciding with Crossrail opening next year. These are partly to serve the new stations, and partly to break up longer routes which are unreliable when passing through congested areas. Some are controversial. You can see the full proposals for west London here.
But my eye was caught by the proposals for Askew Road (and not just because I live there). I get more complaints about the 266 bus than all others put together. From next May it is no more, or rather it comes no nearer the borough than Acton Town Hall. In its place are TWO new routes: the 218 running from North Acton to Hammersmith and the 316 from Bromyard Avenue via Hammersmith to Townmead Road, SW6. Not only a more frequent service but one that might actually turn up.
A hat tip to the Askew ward councillors who have campaigned for these improvements for years.
Know your boundaries
Disappointing but not unexpected news when the final versions of the Government’s skewed review of Parliamentary boundaries was published two weeks ago. Despite hundreds of objections from H&F, Shepherds Bush will become part of a curious windmill sail-shaped seat with Willesden while the rest of the borough is (confusingly) labelled Hammersmith &Fulham with a hard border along the Goldhawk Road.
This review is already seven years in the making having been abandoned once. It was David Cameron’s way of increasing the number of Tory seats relative to other parties without the bother of actually winning them in an election.
But there remain strong doubts as to whether it will happen even now. The convoluted and eccentrically-shaped seats that have resulted around the country have made many Tory MPs unhappy as well, even assuming Mrs May is still there to push it to a vote in the Commons next year.
Lest we forget
Two events recently made me reflect on the debt we owe to migrants and citizens of allied countries, in peace as well as war.
Last week Sharon Sandy of H&F Age UK organised a conference on Windrush, which was both a chance to explore the history of the generation who came from the Caribbean to rebuild Britain after the Second World War and to offer advice to those who are now being discriminated against despite up to 70 years of service to this country.
I was proud to speak and pleased that the Home Office sent advisers along. If you know someone who is affected and having trouble with housing, benefits, employment or nationality, let me know. But as I pointed out, alongside my 25 Windrush cases I have 3000 open immigration cases in total – Windrush is only the tip of the iceberg, a danger signal that should alert us to our broken immigration system. And all the more alarming as we look set to subject over three million EU citizens to similar uncertainty and disrespect.
The second event is an exhibition you can still catch until 4 October at Manbre Wharf W6 9RH, just south of Hammersmith Broadway off Manbre Road. Entitled ‘Singularity of Peace’ it is organised by the Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation and tells the story of Muslim soldiers who fought in the allied armies of the First World War. An absolutely fascinating account of soldiers from India, the Middle East, and Africa, it will change your perspective of WW1 forever. If you can’t get there, there is a book by organiser Luc Ferrier titled The Unknown Fallen.