Monday, 3 January 2011

It's a pretty dark start to the year: but the onward march of real democracy is the cloud's silver lining...

2010 was a dark year - the culmination of several years of economic gloom caused primarily by the failure of Labour and Republican governments here and in the US to properly regulate the banking sector began to be translated into tax hikes, benefit cuts, job losses and public service reductions.

And, as the increasingly smug-sounding David Cameron said in his New Year's message, the worst is yet to come: a lot of the 'heavy lifting' will need to be done in 2011.

Cuts in local government funding will see hundreds of jobs go in Brighton and Hove, from the council and Sussex Police.

Those jobs that remain will be paid less than ever before, with thousands facing pay freezes or below-inflation rises. It would take a 2.5% hike - a privelege enjoyed by few - just to eliminate the rise in VAT which comes into force tomorrow.

A recent survey of private businesses has found that the news is hardly any better from that side of the fence: more than half are planning wage freezes or pay cuts this year.

Those on benefts are likely to fare even worse: Shelter has warned that families face homelessness thanks to government reforms of Housing Benefit - especialy those living in London and the South-East, including Brighton and Hove.

And with a wholesale review of all benefits and tax credits due too - a review that's bound to reduce spending on the neediest, not boost it - who really knows on which thumbs the screws are likely to tighten next.

Of course costs keep marching ever-higher too: just this week rail fares between London and Brighton have risen by about 8%, despite the Lib Dems pre-election promise to resist any increases in rail fares.

But there is a silver lining to all this - well, a political one anyway.

First, there's the local annihilation of the Liberal Democrats. They've only got two councillors left: one of them (David Watkins) has been deselected and the pair are reportedly not talking to one another, finding themselves on different sides of the right-left divide.

After the student fees debacle, and their lies over rail fare hikes for commuters (not to mention the whole propping up a Tory government thing), their days are surely numbered locally.

Secondly, and far more importantly, is the resurgence of popular engagement in the political process. Almost every week now we see protest and demostrations to try and prevent something or other, or defend the rights of someone or other.

It seems fewer and fewer of us are prepared to have politics be something we engage in once every few years, when elections come around. Where the Tories on the council see an unruly rabble, and the police see a potentially lawless public order situatuon, I've really enjoyed seeing a resurgence of botom-up politics.

(Oops, I'll probably get another official complaint made against me for saying that - it can only bring the office of councillor into disrepute, surely)

Just in the last fortnight, for example, internet campaigns have sprung up around rail fare increases (look out for the activists at Brighton Station over the next week), and plans for the new Sainsbury Local on St James's Street: it seems the commnuity-led campaign against the supermarket has materialised ver more quickly than I predicted.

And just to prove I'm not writing this in a bah-humbug way, here's my favourite pic anyone's send me today - Father Christmas working closely with the National Elf Sevice (groan) at the Tarner 'All Different, All Equal' event a couple of week's ago.

Ho ho ho!

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