Every financial cloud…

It’s been a long while since I’ve written a post but I feel compelled to speak out about the current situation our council is facing.

If our estimates are correct about the government’s agenda, between 2010 – 2020 we will have been forced to make over £100 million worth of cuts. That’s money taken away the local services we all love – our children’s centres, leisure facilities and street cleaning services amongst other things.

Having sat in budget meetings and agonised over the figures, I can honestly say that these decisions are some of the hardest we’ve had to make but unlike the NHS or the government, local councils cannot legally pass an unbalanced budget. If the books don’t add up, the government will quite simply send in a commissioner to take over the council and that alternative is far worse. Make no mistake about this Conservative government and the coalition which preceded it, they have intentionally drained council budgets, forcing local decision makers to impose cuts and increase taxes resulting in the suffering of residents.

Social care is a prime example. The elderly population is living longer and growing as a result. Instead of taking responsibility and building a comprehensive strategy, the government decided to decimate council budgets and give local authorities the opportunity to increase council tax for social care by 3%. Whilst this may appear to some like a solution, it ducks responsibility and passes the burden on to struggling local people.

Even in the face of such terrifying prospects, I want to speak about some of the ways I believe a Labour Council has made a difference. Here’s the top ten.

  1. Keeping the libraries open
  2. Working in partnership to tackle antisocial behaviour and crime
  3. Creating a housing company
  4. Free parking
  5. Securing funding for South Street
  6. Building a new swimming pool
  7. Ensuring children have enough school places
  8. Supporting the voluntary sector
  9. Signing UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter
  10. Building new houses

Have a great Christmas!


How the Tories see young people

So after a particularly long Reading Borough Council meeting I’m sat here in my room, unable to sleep because I’m so wired about some of the debates we’ve had tonight.

Tonight was the first time I’ve presented a motion, seconded by Cllr Ashley Pearce and envisaged by Ellie Emberson, the Member of Youth Parliament for Reading. The motion (which can be found here on page 2 and reported on in Get Reading) is all about reaffirming votes at 16 and asking Councillors to provide unbiased political talks based on Bite the Ballot resources at schools. This aims to inform young adults about political processes and encourage them to register and vote.

The motion passed with full support from the Labour benches, Liberal Democrats who submitted a good amendment and the Greens. However the Conservatives, as per usual, gave a shockingly offensive contribution based on archaic perspectives of young people. The Tories, via Councillor Robinson, suggested that young people should not be able to vote as they did not contribute as a result of being in full time education. To say that in the presence of young people who spent the best part of a Tuesday evening listening to politicos babble on – is problematic enough. More concerning though, is that this perspective clearly excludes a large group of young people who work part time, are active in their communities, do charitable work and undertake caring responsibilities. From my personal experience for the past 11 years, since the age of 15, I have worked to support myself and in that time I have paid national insurance and taxes to the state. As a young adult, I also sang in retirement homes and was chair of a local youth club.

The trauma didn’t end there however, the right to vote was cheaply likened to the ability to purchase a phone contract or get a tattoo. Hmm.

Subsequently, it was argued that votes at 16 would be beneficial to the Labour Party because young people would not remember the record of the last Labour government. My response was simple, the record of this current Lib Dem and Tory coalition government is robbing young people of education maintenance allowance, tripling tuition fees and making vulnerable families suffer at the hands of ideologically damning policies such as the bedroom tax and benefit cuts.

The result of tonight is that local politicians will be in Reading schools talking to young people about politics and voting. The Tories have exposed themselves this evening as having outdated, inappropriate views of 16 and 17 year olds, enough for me to question whether any of them have spoken with this age group at all.

It is crucial that we encourage and inspire the next generation to take part in the decisions which affect their lives. Politics currently fails young people and we cannot allow that to continue any longer. Taking action like this is the whole reason I got involved in politics in the first place and with or without the Tories, we will do what we can to ensure every young person has the chance to shape the society they live in.


Supporting our health workers on strike

Today I was up early at 5.30am doing my day job and supporting UNISON health workers on strike at the Royal Berkshire Hospital. Our pickets included nurses, ambulance workers and admin staff amongst many more and received national and local coverage on the BBC front pageReading Now (who have kindly quoted me) and Get Reading.

The strike today marked the first NHS pay strike for our members in three decades. We were joined by a range of unions but most excitingly the Royal College of Midwives who had their first strike in over 130 years. This perhaps demonstrates the gravity of the current situation around pay. Across the country over 400,000 members took part and locally, a symphony of car horns, bike bells and pedestrians clapping signified considerable support for our members.

The industrial action took place following a decision by the government to ignore advice from the independent pay body to reward staff a 1% pay rise. However, one staff member told me that she had lost £3000 since 2010 and another remarked about countless additional unpaid hours she puts in to make services better for patients. The hypocrisy of ministers who have awarded themselves a 9% pay rise and who waxed lyrical about how much they loved the NHS at party conferences over the last month, is astounding.

In my opinion, NHS staff have looked after me since the beginning of my life and will continue until the end. They have birthed me, nursed every single sporting injury (and there have been many) and kept me an all round healthy individual. I could not appreciate the work they do more and the good spirits with which they carry it out, despite the immense pressure.

Strikes are not decisions taken lightly. In this austere environment, many members cannot afford to lose a day of pay. I truly believe that staff at Royal Berkshire and other hospitals across the UK want to give the best care possible and would not choose to inconvenience patients if they weren’t at breaking limit. I have also seen some of the conditions which staff are forced to work in and I have heard their stories about pay. When members tell us that a 1% pay rise is a mere £1.99 extra each week, then I feel compelled to act.

Thanks for all the support today, whether you beeped, tweeted, smiled or waved. It kept our spirits high in the rain.

 

RBH Strike Picket


The Life of a Labour Councillor

It’s been just over 6 weeks since I was elected as a Labour Councillor for Katesgrove Ward in Reading.

Now the excitement has died down, I’m finally developing some perspective on what life is going to be like. I can tell you three things – I get to meet some incredible people and hear some heartbreaking stories, I balance a full time commuter job with a representative post which is a challenge and I feel genuinely interested in and responsible for what happens in my local community.

The last week has been long and rewarding. Monday evening was our Labour Group, where councillors talk about upcoming issues and plan for meetings, Tuesday was full Council, Wednesday I was supporting the Southcote By-election and Thursday canvassing in my own ward. On Friday, I went to a charity event against Female Genital Mutation and a friend’s birthday party before canvassing again on Saturday.

It’s non-stop, a learning curve and there’s always more to do but I’m convinced that we can achieve so much in Reading together. I’m passionate about my neighbours, bothered by anti-social behaviour and genuinely concerned about the decisions we will have to make this year, as a Labour council under a ConDem government. That said, politics is a battleground and we will keep fighting in Reading for the best possible for local people. 

That’s all for now.

Sophia

 


Thank You.

On the 23rd May 2014, I was successfully elected as a Local Councillor for Katesgrove Ward.

After selection almost a year ago, the current Labour Councillors Rose and Matt, party faithfuls like Tony Short, Emmett Mckenna, Arjun Mittra and Guy Gillbe and members in the ward and in Reading as a whole have been supportive of me from the start. Young Labour and Labour Students at the University have canvassed and delivered. Dave, Debs and Trish did a phenomenal job running my committee room and I have even had support from non-party members. All of these people have dedicated their personal time (and money!) week in/week out to helping me get elected.

In the last days before the election, local shops and takeaways came out to support me in force, displaying posters and passing on the message. Of course, I have to thank the electorate for choosing me with 49% of the vote in a ward where 5 candidates including myself were standing.

Katesgrove has also made history by electing the first ever black (African/Caribbean) woman in Reading. I am incredibly proud and I know you are too.

Labour has strengthened council leadership, after gaining 5 new seats in the latest elections. Congratulations to all my fellow Labour colleagues and commiserations to those who did not get elected, you fought a great fight.

It wouldn’t be right for me to end this blog without mentioning Pete Ruhemann. After almost 30 years on the council, Pete died this week. My thoughts are with Jo Lovelock, his wife and our council leader, his family and friends.

I look forward to working with all of you in the future and doing my absolute best to serve this community. It’s been a fantastic rollercoaster so far and we’re just at the beginning of what we can achieve together.

Thank you.

Councillor Sophia James

 

Our newly (re-) elected Labour Councillors

Our newly (re-) elected Labour Councillors


PMQs, Politicos and something about pots…

So today is Wednesday – for some people this is simply ‘Hump Day’ when you’ve passed the midweek hump and think you might actually survive the rest of the working week. However for the politically engaged Wednesday has a second meaning. It is the one day of the week when all the politicos tune in religiously to BBC at midday in a desperate attempt to get the most retweets about PMQs (Prime Minister’s Questions).

If you’ve never seen this theatrical embarrassment before, you’re in for a treat of a largely white, upper class, 80% male audience roaring over speeches and pointing stubby fingers whilst John Bercow, the Speaker of the House tries to maintain some kind of “ORDER”.

At the weekend one of my dedicated canvassers had the misfortune of knocking on the door of a man who proclaimed that politicians all “piss in the same pot”. This man had apparently not realised that said candidate was just upstairs and when I responded, that actually “I prefer to piss in a toilet” – the shock on this individual’s face was striking.

It wasn’t my choice of language, it was shock that I actually responded like a real person. When I went to university, I immediately joined the hockey club. As a school leaver, I was keen to meet new people and keep up a sport I was passionate about. I neither joined the Labour Club, nor attended student council meetings or even voted.  The change happened when I got into an argument with someone in second year, who challenged me to do it better if I thought I could. The result was that I ran for a position on my student union council, ran a number of campaigns and progressed to a full time representative at my Students’ Union. This was the beginning of my journey which developed into Reclaiming the Night in Leeds with over 300 other women, leading anti-fascist demonstrations, celebrating Pride and starting up a Disabled Students’ Society. My approach to politics has always been one of action. To see something wrong with the world and try in any small way to put that right.

I think people are looking for a special something, a special quality which makes you able to ‘do politics’ but it’s not like that. It always starts with an issue, something you truly care about and will fight for and the opportunity to have your voice heard.

I’m not trying to defend all politicians, I am not even completely comfortable referring to myself as one but I do know a lot of decent candidates, who simply work hard and want the best for the people around them. To navigate the political class is more difficult for some than others but I do think it is too easy to write off anyone involved with politics and in some cases, to use that as an excuse for flirting with the right. Clearly, the political leaders of this country need to better reflect the people in it. This is not something we should ever compromise on and in actual fact will lead to better decisions and improved living standards for working people.

So this is my plea to you… politics has, is and will change your life. From the potholes which damage your car and the expansion of your local school, to the child support you get paid and whether you ever get to buy a house. The people who represent you have a lot of power to influence your lives. The next time we rock up to the door, remember that we made the effort when others might not but more importantly, challenge us. Make us work for your vote. Those career politicians and privileged politicos do exist but unless you get involved and alter the balance, they will continue to dictate your life and it’s about time you had it your way…


Charities, Cuts and the Big Society

It’s been a while since I last wrote a blog but this particular issue has been niggling away at me.

I’m not much of a runner, any twitter followers will know that I play for Sonning Hockey Club and the most weekends hit the badminton court with some older comrades from the Labour Party. Next month I’m running the 5k Pretty Muddy Race for Life, at which point (all being well) I will join a long line of distance running Labour Councillors such as John Ennis and Matt Rodda. Besides being a generally good thing to do, my interest in charity fundraising has been encouraged by the increasingly brutal cuts forced on to the third sector by this government.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations reported earlier this month that charities had lost over 1.3 billion pounds in the most recent spending cuts. At a local level charities will lose a significant 43% of their funding as a result of budget restrictions passed on by local councils. I am pleased to say however that in Reading at least, the Labour led council decided to protect the third sector budget.

Charities have a long history of supporting our public services and in many cases providing them. Direct cuts to the public and third sector are giving the green light to outsourcing and privatisation.

Over the holidays, Cameron claimed that Jesus invented big society and that he and his party were continuing that good work. Personally, I fail to see how cuts which disproportionately affect impoverished communities, disabled people and other vulnerable groups could possibly be a realisation of this.

The problem is that whether the cuts hit mental health, homeless provision or women’s charities, the end result is always the same. These cuts cost lives.

And naturally, here comes the fundraising plug:

http://www.justgiving.com/sophiajames

Stephen Sutton who raised £3 million for cancer research.

Stephen Sutton, a terminally ill young adult who raised £3 million for the Teenage Cancer Trust