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Scraping the barrel of austerity
I don't often start the newsletter with a call-to-arms. But the more I think about the plan to scrap free TV licences for the over 75s, the angrier I get.
Firstly, it is a full frontal attack on some of the poorest, most vulnerable and lonely people in our society, many of whom rely upon their TV to keep in touch with the outside world.
Secondly, it's the fact that the Tories are knowingly breaking an election pledge they made less than two years ago to maintain the free licence benefit.
But what really sticks in the craw for me is that the Government are using the BBC as cover to effectively scrape another £750m in austerity cuts.
The BBC's official consultation even asks people to help them decide whether the TV licence should be means-tested.
The sub-contracting of austerity management out by the Tories to the BBC is a shameless and cynical abrogation of the government's responsibilities.
If you agree with me, please take a minute to fill out this form pledging your support for my campaign to keep the TV licence free for the over 75s.
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Standing with Harry
There have been so many wonderful messages of love and support on social media this week for the indomitable RAF vet and Labour activist Harry Leslie Smith who has been very poorly in hospital in Canada.
The hashtag #IStandWithHarry has been trending around the world while his son John has been using Harry's account to keep us updated from bedside in Ontario. The latest is that Harry, who has been touring the world highlighting the plight of refugees, is doing well - which is really good news.
He may be 95 but it is far too difficult to imagine a world without Harry engaging with his 250,000 Twitter followers, championing the NHS, speaking up for refugees and decrying austerity.
His last missive said: "I don't care if I die on this refugee tour. I've had a full life. What angers me is there are millions of refugees whose lives and hopes have been thwarted by war. If I can make a little bit of difference in that, I've done my job."
Harry makes a difference every day by inspiring and challenging us. Through his wisdom of years and extraordinary life experience during the Great Depression and World War Two, Harry also reminds us of the values we should always hold dearest, and fight for the hardest.
Harry and I in 2015 - (He's the healthy
looking one on the left)
I had the honour of sharing a platform with Harry three years ago during the General Election campaign just after he wrote his brilliant book Harry's Last Stand. He's a truly great man.
And I am sure you would like to join with me and wishing Harry a speedy and full recovery.
The Age of Brexterity
There can't have been many more dispiriting weeks in politics than the one we've just witnessed. Theresa May's disastrous "deal" has plunged her party, and her Cabinet, to new lows of backstabbing, disloyalty and sectarianism.
The ultimate betrayal, however, has been of the people of the UK. People voted to leave the European Union. But they didn’t vote for food shortages, problems with medical supplies, the loss of workers' rights, or not to be able to sell goods to the European markets. And they voted to bring sovereignty back to the UK, not to see sovereignty taken away.
Yet that is where we sit today, facing arguably the biggest peacetime crisis in this country's history. The PM doesn't even appear to have a majority in her own Cabinet, let alone her own party - and definitely not in the House of Commons.
If she can't get her disastrous deal through Parliament, then the country needs a general election. If we don’t get an election, then - in line with Labour conference policy - Jeremy Corbyn, Keir Starmer, John McDonnell and I have all been explicit that a people’s vote is still on the table.
What is absolutely certain is we in the Labour party cannot support this deeply flawed deal which will leave working people facing a double whammy - the callous Tory cuts of austerity alongside the calamitous threat of collapsing economic investment caused by this failed Brexit.
The Age of Brexterity is dawning and it needs to be stopped.
The sacrifice we shall never forget
(Dartmouth Park Remembrance Service this morning)
It is both a privilege and a duty, shared by all of us, to honour the sacrifice of all those who served in The Great War which ended on November 11th 1918.
Today, as we mark the centenary of the end of what was then the greatest military conflict the world had ever seen, I was honoured to lay a wreath at the war memorial in West Bromwich in Dartmouth Park.
Earlier this week I was asked to speak on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition in the House of Commons debate to mark Armistice Day. I used the occasion to thank those organisations like the Royal British Legion who have done so much to recognise the sacrifice and the contribution of the First World War generation.
The Legion was formed just after the war. The poppy, of Flanders fields, is their emblem.
But they do not just commemorate. They also run impressive modern campaigns relevant to today’s veterans too, providing them with financial and emotional support.
What is most remarkable about them is not just the inspiring work they do in the days and weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday. It’s the work they do all year round. Remembrance should be something we do all year round.
My call to speak in the House came after an address from the Bishop at Lambeth, Rt Revd Tim Thornton, who said:
"War starts in the hearts and minds and souls of men and women like us but peace too starts in the hearts and minds and souls of men and women like us."
To be part of these centenary commemorations, honouring the Fallen from our communities and all across the world, has been the most humbling experience.
We owe so much to all those who served, and all those who gave their lives, in the Great War. One hundred years later, they still have much to teach us.
The great Tory betrayal
You may recall six months ago in this newsletter I wrote in praise of Tracey Crouch for the way she had stood up to the ferocious lobbying of the multi-billion pound betting industry. I said she had stuck to her guns and done the right thing by reducing the maximum stake on fixed odds betting terminals from £100 to £2.
Spin forward to this Thursday when that same principle saw Tracey resign as sports minister in utter despair that Jeremy Wright, the new DCMS Secretary, has delayed the stake reduction.
Tracey again showed courage and principle. I was particularly taken with the line in her resignation letter where she admonished "commitments made by others to those with registered interests" for the delay.
In the House on Thursday, just hours before Tracey resigned, I raised the question of whether the DCMS Secretary had met with Philip Davies, MP for Shipley, since taking office. I have yet to receive a reply. But rest assured I will.
What is clear is that the Tories have prioritised corporate interests over victims, profits over public health, and greed over good. Jeremy Wright should be thoroughly ashamed. For while the bookmakers get to trouser another £900m in the meantime, more lives and families will be ruined by these dreadful "crack cocaine" FOBTs.
However all is not lost. This week an amendment will be lodged to the Budget Bill which would implement the stake reduction in April 2019, as Jeremy Wright's predecessor promised. I very much look forward to joining Tories including Tracey and Iain Duncan Smith, who will table the amendment, in the voting lobby.Read more
The Budget: A red box full of tricks?
Theresa May has promised that “austerity is over”, and today we shall find out the truth as Chancellor Philip Hammond sets out his Budget. Ending austerity means a full commitment to restore the billions of funding taken from our schools, our police, our local services - as well as the NHS - and halting the Universal Credit roll out.
I don’t think there is a politician or a commentator in the land who thinks Hammond’s Red Box will deliver on that. This Budget will not mark the end of austerity. It’s not that it isn’t possible, it’s just that the ideology of the Tories and their weakness in Parliament makes radical change with Hammond and May impossible.
Britain has to survive and thrive in a fast changing world. We need to recast our political economy so that it empowers the next generation of workers whilst giving security - in its broadest sense - to our older and retired workers. If Labour can make a convincing case for how this will be done in a dynamic mixed economy, we will win.
Whatever the future holds, austerity will not end as long as Philip Hammond is Chancellor.Read more
Sweet taste of poison
Why can kids buy doughnuts in school canteens? Most people answer this question by saying “they can’t, can they?” Yet, they can and do, a lot of the time. You see, Jamie Oliver lost the battle to austerity.
The nutritional guidelines are only that, guidelines. There isn’t a mandatory obligation to provide good nutritious food on school menus and outsourced providers sell sugary products to max out on sales to an eager captive audience. Sure, they say they offer choice but what 11-year-old is going to swap chips, burger and a doughnut for salad and a few grapes? The answer according to a group of high school students I spoke to this week is hardly any.
We live in a sugar economy. It’s everywhere and in nearly every thing. From Kellog’s selling their crap packaged with cartoon monkeys to Coke sponsoring sporting events whilst breaking public health guidelines, these wretches are poisoning our kids with too much sugar.
I’m taking a deeper look at our sugar economy in the months ahead. Already I’ve found some great campaigns that encourage a nation of sugar addicts to kick the stuff.
You’ve heard of dry January? Well Southwark Council encourage “Fizz Free February”. Coke has nearly 7 teaspoons of sugar per can, so a child drinking a can a day can remove a kilogram of sugar from their diet in a month.
Well done Southwark. It’s a great campaign that my colleagues in Sandwell are considering emulating. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we can make Fizz Free Feb a national campaign? If there are any advertising guerrillas or digital creatives out there who fancy setting up a grass roots campaign, please contact me ASAP.
And if you’re a Labour Party member or councillor, do you fancy helping make it happen in your area? If so, please get in touch too.
Secrets, money and lies
It has been an unparalleled week on the cyber warfare front. On Monday former UK national security adviser Sir Mark Lyall Grant warned Russian cyber-attacks are now one of the great threats to the survival of liberal world order.
On Wednesday the Atlantic Council published a report entitled Democracy in the Crosshairs which explained how the current Russian regime and other authoritarian states seek to feed money into our politics to influence and subvert it.
Then on Thursday, in an unprecedented move, the Foreign Office publicly accused Vladimir Putin's military intelligence unit (GRU) of orchestrating a string of global hacks including the Democratic Party's HQ in 2016.
That was followed by Dutch detailing of the bungled GRU attempt to hack the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which was itself probing the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury. Later that day the US and Canada piled in with details of cyber assaults on FIFA and the World Anti-Doping Association among others..
Mocking headlines such as “Carry on Spying” and “The Novichuckle Brothers” that followed news of the Dutch debacle were mildly amusing. (Hats off here to the Bellingcat investigative site for its brilliant scoop.)
I am sure Putin is infuriated and, to a degree, humiliated. But let’s keep some perspective here. Putin is a global strategist and, as he surveys his map of the world, there will still be a broad smile on his face.
Putin is a global strategist and, as he surveys his map of the world, there will
still be a broad smile on his face.
His cyber warfare programme assisted the election of Donald Trump, leading to the US’s growing isolation amid deep-blade attacks on the liberal world order; while his other key strategy - to undermine the European Union - is progressing to plan with the the emergence of ultra-nationalists across the continent and, of course, our own Brexit.
The latter , as you know, concerns me gravely. Despite Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s fanfare in detailing the activity of Putin’s spies, we are still no nearer to learning about Russian efforts to meddle in our own politics.
We seem utterly reliant on the journalism of Carole Cadwalladr and the well-intentioned but toothless probing of the Electoral Commission to draw together the suspicious web of Leave.EU funding that swirls around Arron Banks and his Russian friends. The DCMS Select Committee has also called for confirmation of what action our security services are taking. Yet the silence from the UK government on these critical issues is deafening.
That’s why on Thursday I wrote to Jeremy Hunt to ask precisely what investigations are taking place into Russian attempts to influence the EU referendum, and if such investigations are not taking place, to ensure they are now put in place.
It's time we followed the money and the lies and held a Mueller-style inquiry into the subverting of our own democracy. I promise you I will not let this rest.
The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle
While taking part in a UK Music-organised pop quiz to celebrate today's National Album Day, the extraordinary global contribution of this country's music was to the fore.
In recent years it has been Adele and Ed Sheeran that have led the way. But whichever pick you take of all the many lists of all-time best albums, it will be festooned with records by The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd - and let's not forget the more recent contribution of bands and artists like Oasis, The Stone Roses, Amy Winehouse and Stormzy.
It's estimated that the UK music industry contributes a staggering £4.5 billion to our economy each year. Yet the future of this brilliant creative industry is in peril because of this government's blinkered approach to performing arts on the school curriculum.
This week a thoroughly depressing survey of schools by Sussex University suggested music lessons could soon be extinct due to the promotion of the narrow E-Bacc suite of academic subjects. The figures are startling.
The number of schools offering a music A-level had fallen by more than 15% in the past two years, there's a 10% fall in the number of students starting a GCSE music course since 2016, with fewer schools providing it as an option and some offering it only out of school hours.
In 2012-13 music was compulsory for 13- to 14-year-olds in 84% of schools, now that figure is just 47.5%. Eighteen per cent did not offer GCSE music at all; in some schools the subject was taught only as an “enrichment day” once a year. Staffing levels had fallen in nearly 36%, with 70% of surviving music specialists having to teach other subjects to fill the gaps.
Obviously the UK music industry is not all about pop and rock. How on earth is a state school ever going to offer the opportunity and nurture for a talent like the brilliant young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason in the future?
That's why Labour is committed to providing a £160 million arts premium for primary schools and has pledged to return performing arts and creative subjects back to the heart of the secondary curriculum.
Anyway I'm sure you want to know that my team fell short in the pop quiz, finishing valiant runners-up behind the pros from the BPI. They run the BRITS and therefore get paid to know all the answers to the questions.
For a bit of fun, I've set you a pop quiz this week. All the headlines on this week's newsletter are the titles of famous albums. See how many you can get. Answers next week!Read more