Tuesday, December 01, 2020
Sunday, November 29, 2020
ROB (or BOB) STEEL, 31/01/55 – 11/08/20
Although this is an obituary for Rob, it is written for local Green Party members and from the standpoint of Rob’s place in the party. To a certain extent it therefore reads like a history of the party and its constituent members over the years. However, I hope that readers feel that this approach adds to Rob’s story with the Green Party and helps us appreciate some of the contexts in which Rob spent so much time and energy.
In 1979, Rob, as a young local Geography teacher in his mid-twenties, joined a handful of local visionaries to found the Sutton Ecology Party, as the Green Party was called at the time. As ever, the party comprised a small number of dedicated and radical individuals who had a wide and lasting influence in the local community. Amongst the number was a Quaker man in his 70s called Richard Allen whom Rob greatly admired for his clarity of thinking and dynamism. Rob himself threw himself into his new-found political party immediately and stood for election for both the borough council and for parliament as soon as the opportunities arose. As a result of the local Ecology Party campaigning for the 1983 General Election, there was an upsurge in membership in the area and I was present at a stimulating follow-up meeting of about 30 people in the upstairs room at the Sun pub, Carshalton, where we met Rob and many others who were to become ardent members of this still minor political party. For me it was the start of many years of working closely with Rob and the others, acting as their local election agent as well as being involved in much other general party activity.
Rob was already a key figure in the party in the early 80s. He had endless energy to put his increasing understanding of environmental politics into action in the fledgling political party. One lasting amusing memory in the early days was the regular waste newspaper collection which the local group carried out every 2 weeks around a set of a few streets in Wallington. It involved a leaflet drop a couple of days prior to the collection, two people to drive up to Dulwich to pick up the “Eco Van”, about the size of an old Post Office van, and whoever was available to go round on foot picking up the piles of papers left on doorsteps for us and chucking them in the van. A brave volunteer would get up at 6 the next morning to drive this ramshackle van to a recycling site in Croydon and hopefully receive about £30 for it after it had been weighed. They would then have to drive the van back to its home in Dulwich. As this was before the days of any paper recycling by the council, this was quite a revolutionary action on our part – fulfilling our environmental concerns, as well as bringing us some well-needed cash for our funds. Rob always worked flat out at this, but his enthusiasm persuaded many of us to join in the mad venture! Some of the stalwarts at this time were Graham Garner, James Deane (not an American actor!), George Dow and Nick Greaves, whose mammoth ancient photocopier churned out endless members newsletters, along with the ones that would inevitably catch fire in the process! (Remember all those envelopes and stamps too?)
The Council Elections rolled by over the years, with the local Liberal Democrats gaining an ever stronger hold on the local council and claiming to be the greenest London council (they had now started their own newspaper recycling!). This was welcomed by some local environmentalists and members of Friends of the Earth, including those working for the fledgling Centre for Environmental Initiatives, set up by Vera Elliott and later to be called Ecolocal, but Rob kept the Ecology Party members well informed, so that we consistently challenged the Lib Dem environmental claims. He delighted in quoting the considerable number of examples of anti-environment and contradictory actions and policies by various Lib Dem authorities, as well as on the part of the almost permanent Lib Dem MP in Carshalton and Wallington, Tom Brake. However, even Rob struggled to convince some of our members, like Phil Mouncey!
Among the party members by this time were the charismatic Silvia Scaffardi (co-founder of NCCL, now Liberty), Peter and Josie Hickson, Karin Andrews and Sue Riddlestone, Director of the new local organisation, Bioregional. At one of the local meetings we had a persuasive speaker from the Vegan Society, which prompted at least Jim Duffy to switch to a vegan lifestyle, now so common with environmentalists. Neil Hornsby brought his civil servant expertise and successfully persuaded London Transport to adopt his idea of “jogging tickets” for commuters under another name. Heather Jarrett and her partner Bruce gave stalwart service locally, and by now some of Rob’s ex-students from Wallington Boys School were joining the cause, as did Simon Dixon, proof that Rob had been spreading his views in the classroom!
And all the while, Thatcher and her successors would come back into power at every General Election and there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst our little party (as well as amongst many others of course!) and Rob would sift through the details of the Green Party results here and all around the country, declaring that there was no hope for this country and we should all go round to his house and have lots of ale!
In the early 1990s we had a young television journalist by the name of John Cornford join us. His experience and skills with the media of the time were a great boost to the local party, as exemplified by our campaign against a British Rail tree cutting extravaganza in Carshalton in 1992. John and Rob led some of the party to trespass peacefully onto the railway line from a garden in Denmark Road and most importantly got the London television news reporters to film the event and interview John and Rob for us to proudly watch at home that night!
By the turn of the millennium the Sutton Party was reaching out to Croydon Green Party members who had no active party, and we attracted a small but powerful core of members, including Bernice Golberg, Shasha Khan and Martyn Post (the latter of mass leafletting fame!), who went on to get the Croydon Party properly established. While there were a lot of separate issues for the Croydon and Sutton Parties, we were soon collaborating again, because our councils, together with Merton and Kingston, had announced in 2008 that they were forming a waste partnership. “No, they weren’t going to build an incinerator; they were going to consider various options, one of which may be a pyrolysis waste processor”, we were told. The rest of the story is more or less history, as the saying goes. Rob managed to play an active part in the anti-incinerator campaign, in spite of taking on some long term supply teaching posts in various parts of the country. He worked with Dr Stan Prokop, who first informed us of the issue, with his own ex-student Peter Alfrey who had specialist knowledge of birds and the ecology of the Beddington Farmlands and with several others of our own highly motivated party members. Rob, as ever, threw himself into writing well researched and detailed submissions for the Green Party against the council planning application.
While Rob often gave solid and comprehensive presentations at many election hustings alongside his opponents, his forte definitely lay with his writing. First there was his letter-writing on behalf of the party, whether to local newspapers (of which there were up to 3 at one point!) or national. For many years this involved writing very quickly and then of course getting the letter into an envelope to post it in time to catch the appropriate editorial deadline. He had a bulging file of cuttings of letters which had been printed in various papers. Then there was his leaflet-writing for the numerous election campaigns run by the local party. Hardly had an election been called than Rob had composed a first draft for a leaflet and usually the first discussion of his drafts would involve asking him to “tone it down a bit”! But he usually managed a great balance between getting serious information across and appealing to “the masses” in the Sutton wards and constituencies. Then, after the party had carefully calculated what our funds (and leafletters) would enable us to produce, Rob would wave opposition leaflets at us and insist that we needed to put out another leaflet to put the voters right on this or that issue and he would “lob in some dosh” for it. So just when we thought we had done all our leafletting, he was lining up the next lot of boxes!
When Rob got married and moved to his new home in Wiltshire about 6 years ago, it was a dramatic change for the local Green Party. He had been so central to its functioning for almost 40 years! By keeping on his lovely quirky Tower Cottage in Carshalton and lured back by his longstanding connections to The Hope real ale pub, as well as with the aid of IT and electronic communication, Rob managed to keep up to a certain extent with the activities of the local party. Any good organisation tries not to get into a situation where any of their members become indispensable, and both Sutton and Croydon parties are continually moving forward with new blood, but that is not to deny the absolutely vital part Rob played in the party for all those years and the huge gap he now leaves. Whether we knew Rob since his early days in the party or just met him more recently on a brief visit back to the area, or some time in between, our parties collectively mourn the sad, sad loss of such a dynamic and influential party member. May we all learn something from and be inspired by his enormous contribution to the party.
By Gay McDonagh, Sutton Green Party member, September 2020
Sunday, November 22, 2020
|Carshalton Environmental Fair 2012|
|Bob Steel and me|
It seems that every other post seems to be a memorial to a local member passing. And so, it is with great sadness I do this again and write about the death of Bob Steel.
Monday, September 14, 2020
Tuesday, July 28, 2020
Sunday, June 21, 2020
Peter joined the Green party around 1986 while working as a postman at Sutton sorting office, and with his late wife Jose was an active and committed stalwart of the local Sutton party until shortly before his death.
Peter was a passionate advocate for justice and a thorn in the side of his local MP with his frequent handwritten letters. He worked tirelessly to promote and support both local causes and international campaigns and was never afraid of controversy. He attended numerous demonstrations in London for the Palestinian cause. He was an active memberof the local Amnesty International group, for whom he wrote many (again handwritten!) letters. In more recent years he focussed particularly on NHS privatisation and the KOSH campaign to keep the local St Helier Hospital. The front of his house was usually adorned with banners and displays of his current issues, so he really got his messages across to his neighbours!
Peter was also a very talented man with a variety of creative interests, turning his hand to vernacular architecture, pottery, painting and drawing - including a range of hard hitting posters and displays for our campaigns - and, maybe less successfully, the violin! Just before he died, the local adult education college in Sutton put on an exhibition of a range of his work, as they felt it merited wider attention.
Peter’s house was like entering a library-cum-museum, a bit reminiscent of a William Morris house, whom he greatly admired: There were shelves and shelves of books on a huge variety of subjects, many of them really heavy political tomes - which scared off any lightweights around! (And let it be remembered that Peter couldn’t read until about the age of 10 when he was evacuated during the war.) Then there were his paintings and artifices all round the walls, his “barge painted” wooden kitchen cupboards, his doors with painted figures – the list goes on!
When Peter and Jose’s promising son, Shane, was tragically killed as a young man in a road accident near where he lived in St Andrews, Peter responded by raising money to plant trees in Scotland and made many lifelong friends and contacts with Shane’s friends there.
Peter’s death comes less than a year after he lost his wife Jose who had been poorly for some time. He was just beginning to pick up his life again, cycling regularly (he never drove a car) and doing his gym exercises in the local parks when the news of his cancer came through quite recently. We extend our very best wishes and warm support to his surviving daughter Angie as she comes to terms with her great loss. In saying goodbye to Peter, the local Green Party is saying goodbye to a man of great stature, whom some of us have been very privileged to know.
Thanks to Gay McDonagh and Bob Steel for the words above. I was privileged to know him and remember being amazed by his library-cum-museum of a house. In the summer of 2009 I went to his house to pick up a new placard/poster display unit for our stall at the Thornton Heath Festival. Smartphones weren't so smart in 2009, but I did record some footage while there. See below:
He stood in local, London and general elections and was always campaigning, Here I've identified him at one of the Stop The Incinerator demos.
|Peter and Jose|
Rest in Peace Peter.
Tags croydon, greenparty
Thursday, June 18, 2020
Ken Livingstone and David Mellor used to present a show on LBC. In this clip (which I saved from January 2016), Ken Livingstone talks about how, "five million Bangladeshis starved to death over 18 months" during World War II. Moreover, he adds the deaths resulted from a decision to export rice from what was then Bengal (India) towards the war effort.
My jaw dropped when I heard this. I wasn't expecting a discussion on the Salisbury nerve agent attack to cite something that happened in Bangladesh around seventy years ago.
Ken Livingstone says at the end of the clip that, "Great leaders protect themselves and they don't give a damn about the lives of others."
Upon hearing the jaw-dropping revelation back in January 2016, I thought I would ask my dad if he knew anything about this. He was born in what is now Bangladesh in 1935.
His recollection of 1942-43 is indeed one of great poverty and starvation. There was a shortage of food in Rajshahi, a state in the north west. He remembers emaciated bodies lying on the street, close to death or dead The towns had more food than the villages. Everyone around him, literally everyone, was suffering, and owing to the lack of news, he assumed that everyone during the world war was suffering as they were. Until I told him, he was unaware that there was a reason why so many people were starving in Bangladesh.
I had to investigate further. I bought a book which I started reading called CHURCHILL'S SECRET WAR, The British Empire and the ravaging of India during World War II by Madhusree Mukerjee.
I had been meaning for sometime - well four years - to post about this. Over the last couple of weeks a greater awareness of Churchill's views and actions have come to light because someone daubed the plinth of his statue during a Black Lives Matter protest.
Mukerjee's book is well researched and I when I started reading it four years ago, I marked out paragraphs of note (including the very first paragraph of the book - below):
"No great portion of the world population was so effectively protected from the horrors and perils of the World War as were the peoples of Hindustan," Winston Churchill wrote in his 1950 history of the twentieth century's most lethal conflict. They were carried through the struggle on the shoulders of our small island. By Hindustan, or Land of the Hindus, Churchill meant India, which during the war was part of the British Empire.
Britain's wartime prime minister did not discuss in his six-volume account the 1943 famine in the Eastern province of Bengal, which killed 1.5 million people by the official estimate and 3 million by most others. One primary cause of the famine was the extent to which Churchill and his advisers chose to use the resources of India to wage war against Germany and Japan, causing scarcity and inflation within the colony.
Hitler did not comprehend the extent to which the Indian freedom movement, along with other developments of the twentieth century, had weakened imperial controls over the colony. The days of formal empires were numbered- and, ironically, the conflict he initiated would deal the fatal blow. To commandeer Indian manufactures and produce for the war, His Majesty's Government would have to deploy inflationary monetary policies in preference to straightforward confiscation of the colony's products or revenues.
Mukerjee states, a cyclone in 1942 had caused pressure on food stocks but this was nullified by a bumper harvest the following year. Those who want to brush Churchill's involvement under the carpet, usually use the cyclone argument as the reason for the famine.
In truth, a combination of factors resulted in the famine in 1943. Here are some I picked out from Mukerjee's book:
Firstly, prior to the war, India's much vaunted railway system had left the Indian government heavily in debt to the UK. The terms of the repayment for the railway would have been comparable to WONGA. This left India vulnerable to fluctuations.
Secondly, there was a scorched policy to stop Japanese progression from Burma. The Japanese would be denied food and transport if they invaded India. Military authorities had requisitioned all trucks and cars in southern and eastern Bengal, and boats and steamers, the principal method of moving the harvested rice crop from surplus regions to those with shortages, were destroyed.
Thirdly, what harvested rice crop that existed in Bengal had to be sent to other parts of the empire, namely Ceylon, Arabia and South Africa, all of which were better supplied with grain India. There was also a requirement to feed the troops in India. Ninety five percent of the total wheat requested by India to avert a disaster was not delivered. Mukerjee points out that only one quarter of the wheat promised to Bengal by the Government of India actually arrived and most of that remained in Calcutta for the priority classes. Interestingly, Mukerjee points out that the Indian government chose not to explain why it was unable to supply the wheat and instead insisted the province had more than enough rice. This may explain why my dad said, it was assumed during the war everyone was suffering in this way, with little focus on why? My dad's account here is fascinating. He does remember relatives, including his uncles, finding work as Food Inspectors at the time. These inspectors were responsible for the limited stocks - which were stored in 'go downs' - and distribution.
Fourthly, an offer of aid in the form of wheat from Canada was refused. India Office files which should have had information on this during the 1944 famine commission which was conducted in secret were missing.
So, was he a war hero and a racist?
Could it be that if Churchill had a lower opinion - to put it mildly - of Indians, he would have little compunction in taking decisions that caused the deaths of possibly a million people. He famously once said, "I hate Indians. They are beastly people with a beastly religion." I would argue he was probably a war hero and a racist.
One final area to clear up is the number of deaths. Mukerjee's final chapter states:
The population of Bengal in January 1943 was 61.8 million. The mortality rate that year was 6.5 per cent which gives a total of 4 million deaths in 1943. From this figure must be subtracted 2.5 million baseline deaths. That gives 1.5 million for the famine toll in 1943. Doubling this figure, because death registrations were roughly symmetric around December 1943, provides a famine total of around 3 million......... One thing is clear, the figure of 3 million does not include all fatalities from shortages of food because deaths from malnutrition were occurring even in so-called normal tears. If for comparison we were to use the death rate of 2.1 per cent that was the norm for India (rather than Bengal) in 1942, the famine toll would be 5.4 million.
Thursday, May 28, 2020
|Picture from: https://twitter.com/WillBlackWriter/status/1264260846487822337/photo/1|
I sent the email below to my MP. I received a reply - copied and pasted below.
Dear Mr Blunt
As yet I don't believe you have called for Mr Cummings resignation.It is arguably ACCEPTABLE to defend a colleague. This and the power of patronage ensures the Prime Minister will get his wayHowever, defending someone flouting the guidance is potentially going to have a detrimental impact on the governments message. People will just say guidance can be ignored if your "instinct" tells you to do so. This will cost lives.Please call for his resignation. Even the Daily Mail is calling for Mr Cummings to be sacked.Yours sincerelyS Khan
Thank you for your recent email regarding the Prime Minister’s adviser, Mr Dominic Cummings. I have now received over 500 email enquiries on the matter in addition to a large number of calls and posts on my social media accounts. I am reading all the correspondence, but it is not possible for me to reply in a timely way individually to each communication as I would normally do. Instead, I have tried below to respond to the points made and to provide you with a full understanding of my view on this issue as your Member of Parliament, having reflected on the points of view and questions put to me in all the correspondence.
The pandemic and the strategy to manage its threat means we are all living through a new experience. This explosion of correspondence, unprecedented in my 23 years in Parliament, over one long weekend on the actions of a non-elected adviser, which are open to interpretation both sympathetic and condemnatory, itself indicates we are in times strange to all of us. My reaction has been to reflect on the factors that have led to this situation and your decision to take the trouble to communicate your view to me.
There are real pressures created by the measures required to control this virus, as well as the tragic outcomes for many of those directly infected and their families. The harm this virus is doing is outside this generation of humanity’s experience. All of us have had to endure at least massive change and inconvenience, most of us disruption to family and professional life, and the frustrations from the restrictions become more onerous to bear each succeeding day. The correspondence has reinforced this for me in reading about a mother restricting herself to only see her 9 month old baby twice in this period, families’ extreme anxiety about isolated elderly relatives managing their frailties and the probable terminal risk this virus poses to them. Then there is the anxiety about the future that, as this virus retreats, the world will then need to face and work through the societal and economic consequences it leaves behind.
In the UK, these Covid-19 factors are being laid upon the character of our recent politics. A culture of growing polarisation and intolerance for the other’s point of view and, certainly it appears to me, an alarming unwillingness to properly understand why others might have a different perspective, but instead too often to put the most malicious interpretation on others’ motives.
Ironically this great national collective effort to combat this virus’ threat to us all was emerging as an opportunity to bring us together as we all made our contribution in different ways and this would help bear down on this wider polarisation in our politics. The tragedy of the Cummings affair is that like a virus itself, it demonstrates that this polarisation, intolerance and lack of generosity of spirit remains deep in the British body of politics.
That this polarisation has infected the consideration of the merits of the actions of an ill Cummings family could hardly be clearer. In the critical public commentary there has been scant consideration by most, if not all, of the merits of the human judgments of parents trying to serve their family best, consistent with protecting the rest of us, which is the object of the policy on which he helped advise at the most senior level. We have even had a dozen or so bishops threatening to withdraw collaboration with the Government on this pandemic based on this issue alone without having heard the detailed context of Dominic Cummings decisions for his family. In this context one can understand why we saw the unprecedented business of an official giving a full explanation of his personal conduct and submitting to questions on it in the garden of No 10.
My views on the merits changed listening to Mr Cummings during Monday’s press conference. Once I understood that the opportunity to self-isolate as a family unit, within close distance of immediate relatives on an isolated farm, who were perfectly placed to pick up their child caring responsibilities if the virus overtook them, the uninterrupted car journey, even if long, makes complete sense. Of course, this would be a situation available to strikingly few people, but his actions were wholly consistent with the interests of his family and critically the rest of us as well. The family’s 260 miles journey, in a car, was less dangerous to the public than travelling any distance on public transport. He was fortunate enough to have the ideal situation of an empty house, with both sister and parent in adjacent houses ready to provide for his family should they be needed. It was also reasonable for him to collect the other two members of his household from hospital, again in a car without coming into contact with the public. I also accept the reasons for a test drive before driving back the 260 miles, 15 days after his first symptoms which is in line with self-isolation guidance. We can send up the eyesight test issue in isolation but checking whether one would have the strength and endurance to make that long return car journey whilst in recovery from Covid-19, struck me as appropriate and responsible.
The context of his decisions and consideration of their merits also needed to exclude the rumour and innuendo surrounding them. For example, the speculation about a further outing on 19th April based on allegations by two unidentified witnesses, has been strongly denied by Mr Cummings and a formal statement from No 10 confirming this. Reports of the Durham police’s conversation with Mr Cummings’ father were also proven inaccurate when the Constabulary withdrew the suggestion that they gave him ‘specific advice’ about the correct actions to be taken during the coronavirus outbreak to remain in accordance with lockdown guidelines, implying the Police believed they had been broken.
These are the reasons I believe it would be wrong to fire Mr Cummings on the merits of this episode. I understand and personally applaud the Prime Minister’s decision to stand by his man at this time. I was struck by hearing the recent words of the new Labour leader about his duty of care to officials of the Labour Party, to whom he guaranteed due process under his leadership. These are standards that place truth over image and perception. Our default position should be to support them. It is a brave thing to do in my profession as the whole truth and nothing but the truth can very rarely carry the day in a 24 hour news cycle. The difficult experience politicians in a democracy must manage is that a conclusion based on a balance of arguments is then betrayed by truths that support a competing interpretation. It then depends on how you balance up the arguments and factors to bring you to your own conclusion. I much regret in today’s politics it is often seen as some kind of gaffe to accept your opponent’s conclusion might have any merit at all. I would like this intolerance to reduce and for Covid-19 to help widen understanding and for us to look for the best in each other, not least whilst so many people are demonstrating their good values in the actions to defeat this virus.
On the Cummings affair it’s also brave to stand by an unpopular figure as you start with people’s perceptions already tilted against you. I accept perceptions also play a role. It is claimed by a few of my colleagues and in effect by some of my correspondents, that in this emergency, perception trumps truth, because it is perception that will dictate public behaviour and thus how this looks, even if grossly distorted by the lens of a media seeking to sustain a different narrative should be the decisive factor. Depressingly that is often the conventional political response. Dispose of the difficulty even if unfair. Indeed, that is the normal fate of serving politicians but Mr Cummings is not a politician and the Prime Minister has chosen to take the higher and more difficult path of discharging his duty to truth and due process to his Chief Advisor. I believe that decision deserves my support, even though that will not satisfy many of my correspondents.
I hope this long reply has at least managed to explain why I have come to this conclusion and even if you strongly disagree, that you might respect the conclusion just as I understand why you have felt so motivated by the experience of this one small family trying to manage its situation as best as they can within the context of the Covid-19 emergency that you have raised it with me.
Crispin Blunt MP
Member of Parliament for Reigate
Tags croydon, greenparty