28 May 2012: Brian Precious talks to Councillor George Barratt about his fight against the cuts in Barking and Dagenham
Brian: Could you give a brief biographical introduction?
George: I am a working class London bloke who dropped out of school at 15 and got a job as an office boy in a quantity surveyor's office. My membership of the Labour Party has fluctuated, depending on life events and interest locally.
I first joined Labour in 1962, but I have spent time working overseas, firstly in Aden in 1963- 65, then Zambia 1966-72. My experiences politicised me by witnessing anti-colonial struggles, making me realise that I had to take a stand on the big issues unfolding around me. I went on a work brigade to Nicaragua in 1987, and witnessed the achievements of the Sandinista revolution - especially for women - and the horrors of the previous Somoza dictatorship and the growing threat of the Contras. I went on a work brigade to Cuba in 1993, and was shocked by the effect of the US blockade on the island, especially as I was there during the ‘Special Period’ following the collapse of the USSR. The open display of prostitution in Havana was a particular shock. In order to be more knowledgeable, I did a part-time Masters in Latin American History and Politics at the LSE.
More recently, I have been active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and over time have travelled around the Middle East, from Morocco in the west to Iran in the east. I recall young schoolgirls in Tehran trying out their English by asking me if I had read Harry Potter!
Brian: The Special Period was perhaps the lowest ebb of the Cuban revolution. Tell me about your political career at home?
George: I got my first taste of class in Britain in my first job, as a working class cockney boy facing the snobbery of those in the quantity surveyor's office around me. I moved around the south-east and was active in the Labour Party, when I was in the country. I was there on the day when we smashed the National Front in Lewisham in 1977, so anti-fascism goes back a long way with me. I joined the IS when it was becoming the SWP, and later joined the IMG in 1978. I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of the IMG and had my consciousness raised by the feminist stance of the women comrades. I was active in supporting the Miner’s strike, and lived very close to Wapping so I was active against the scabs in the print dispute in 1986.
Brian: Let's move to the present. How did things start in Barking and Dagenham?
George: It was the election of Richard Barnbrook and the fascist BNP councillors in 2006 that got me to re-join the Labour party in Barking and Dagenham. I became a ward chairman, and in the 2010 elections I stood against two fascists in Mayesbrook ward. We didn't think I would win, but we felt we couldn't leave two fascists uncontested. But I was elected! As a Councillor I got an insight into the terrible conditions of many peoples' lives - those with industrial illnesses, learning difficulties, unemployed, those with awful landlords.
I also came to realise that many of my fellow Labour councillors were part of the problem. Their inactivity had been responsible for the BNP advance in the first place. There was a sense of routine, OK at dealing with straightforward problems, but when faced with the savage cuts imposed by the new Tory-Lib Dem government they simply capitulated. They voted through cuts totalling 28% of the B&D budget over 3 years, and they did this without so much as a whimper.
Although we are compelled to obey legislation on local council spending, I felt we needed to make it clear that the cuts were not our fault and that we were on the side of the people who elected us. We should have organised protests and demonstrations, but the council stuck to the mantra of 'having to make tough decisions'. What appalled me was the tone of the Labour group budget discussions. For example, ‘if we cut libraries, there will be a backlash and we won't get re-elected.’ Just self-interest but no principles. By now, I felt I can't do this anymore, and in Nov 2011 I stated my opposition to the cuts in the B&D Post newspaper. Then an anonymous comment from a council spokesperson appeared, repeating the 'tough decisions' line. I gave an interview to Socialist Worker on why I resigned, and I lost the Labour whip in early January 2012. I was told I must 'recant' in order to be re-registered as a Labour Councillor. I refused and was expelled from the Labour Party.
So we had a protest meeting on the closure of the Broadway theatre in Barking, with Ken Loach, and set up Barking and Dagenham Against the Cuts.
Our next event is a half-day conference of community organisations on the cuts at St Margaret’s Centre, Barking on Saturday, June 9th. There will be plenary sessions and workshops on health, council housing, jobs and pensions, and anti-racism. We hope that each of these workshops will precipitate a campaign in that area. We have a badly-run NHS trust, which will get even worse under Lansley, we have the Tories threatening to throw people out of council houses that are ‘too big for them’ even though the residents may have lived there for years. We've had the PCS, NUT and UCU strikes over their pensions but we still have an inactive trade’s council, and we also have had the pernicious local influence of the BNP and the EDL.
Brian: Would you say there is one issue which stands out above the others?
George: People are radicalised over different things. We must get them on board so they see the connections between things. We need people to see that, for example, the council's outsourcing of building services to the Enterprise Group in Liverpool, and to the US multinational office services company Agilysis at their office in Cheshire, are examples of ‘Globalisation comes to Barking.’ We need people to see that the multinationals run down Ford Dagenham to make cars on the cheap elsewhere, and that is the reason for the unemployment here. This reduces purchasing power in the economy and that's why we see so many pawn shops here in Barking and an economy that runs on debt and payday loans.
Brian: What would be your solution to the crisis, especially if you were leader of B&D Council?
George: I think there is a consensus on this, but action is needed at central government level. We need to nationalise the banks, start a major public works programme, especially building new council houses, raise taxes on the rich and recover the billions in taxes unpaid by multinational corporations. While Margaret Hodge was Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, she exposed the massive tax avoidance of Vodafone, Goldman-Sachs and 25 other multinationals running up huge tax bills and not paying them! We are not all in this together!
Brian: I recall Julian Assange and Wikileaks and their exposure of massive tax-avoidance by companies. I also note the media's focus on 'benefit scroungers'.
George: Yes! A woman working as a barmaid and getting a few quid cash-in-hand is light years away from a multinational owing billions of pounds in tax! The economic solution I just outlined would raise the money to actually get things going to provide for need, not for profit.
You can join the half-day conference on the cuts on 9 June at St Margaret’s Centre, Barking, for sessions and workshops on health, council housing, jobs and pensions, and anti-racism.
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