The Harmony Party UK’s organisational structure

As part of the #MeetTheMovement series, The Canary spoke with the founder of the Harmony Party UK John Urquhart. They explained about the party’s organisational structure:

We operate by direct democracy but we’re both a singular entity and many smaller ones the larger entity is comprised of.

The components are Assemblies, which can be divided into two types. The larger, Committees and Committee Societies, and the smaller, Working Groups or Societies. Members can join or depart and participate as they see fit. We have both the geographically-oriented Assemblies – our Constituency Societies – and then we have an array of what you might call “topic-focused”, non-geographic Assemblies.

Assemblies can overrule their own decisions, and Society Committee or Committee decisions can overrule Working Group/Society decisions. The Party as a whole at conference can overrule any decision.

(Assemblies can also spawn other Assemblies. A good example of this is how our Operational Working Group is likely to become the Operations Society Committee in the near future: it will need to spawn focused Assemblies for IT and other things as it grows and specialism becomes more viable.)

All of the Assemblies (regardless of scale) have the same structure and the same basic processes for making decisions in common, and all Assemblies have an elected organiser, called a Secretary.

The Secretaries are tasked with ensuring everyone is aware of Assembly events in accordance with the will of the Assembly members; chairing Assembly gatherings; and helping Assembly members find consensus by negotiating between disparate viewpoints during discussion & debate of members. They can also delegate, and can create Deputies, though the Deputies are also directly elected and are NOT appointed.

Whenever there is no Secretary or Deputy in an Assembly, the general secretary undertakes most of these responsibilities.

The Secretaries also facilitate communication between Assemblies, and five key Assembly Secretaries are members of the day-to-day working body, the Secretarial Committee – as am I as Party general secretary.

The SC is constrained to act only within the consensus of the Party. If we don’t, we can be recalled.

Decisions themselves happen in up to three phases. An Assembly might come to a decision by simple discussion – and if there is no dissent whatsoever, that’s fine. It’s done: you’ve got consensus!

If there’s disagreement and it isn’t reasonably simply resolved, the chair of the discussion will call for a formal debate.

At the Moot itself – which can be physical or digital (or a combination of those) – there is a structured, formal debate. If a decision emerges, that’s consensus.

If one doesn’t and there are still multiple options on the table and the Secretary feels the debate has become intractable, then we move to a STAR (Score then Automated Runoff) ballot. The Party uses STAR for all internal balloting.

At the moment all of this is digitally organised – via the central hub for organising, the Party Moot.

It’s the heart of the Party for participation. It’s somewhat similar to a live chat forum but we also have Zoom conferencing and other useful features, and the Operational Working Group is working on more in the background.

Members are sent to the Party Moot by their “digital welcome pack” (we’ve not jumped to physical packs just yet).

You’ll notice that we have no designated leaders in any of this: and that’s because everyone, collectively, is in charge. And that’s kind of the point. If Harmony Party members are elected into office, even locally, it’ll mean you could walk into our meetings – physically or in the metaphorical digital sense – and change local policy just by talking and persuading people you’re right.

So is there another political Party out that there that could revolutionise government just by being elected to it?

I believe we’ve got the power to be truly transformational at every level.

Featured image via the Harmony Party UK


The Corbyn project has days to save itself. Here’s what it needs to do.

The Jeremy Corbyn project, and all it represents, is in turmoil. They say things come in threes, and they have. The project could well be days away from imploding entirely. But it’s not over, yet. Here’s what people need to do. Quickly.

Three setbacks

I tweeted this on Wednesday 27 February:

Some people weren’t happy. So I thought it best to expand on it.

If the “Corbyn project” (in this context I mean him, his values/vision and his supporters both in and out of parliament) had been hit by one setback, then I don’t think there would have been an issue. Two curve balls, and it might have been a middle sized blip. But three and the damage is looking almost irreparable.

This is why.

The Independent Group

Firstly, let’s deal with The Independent Group (TIG). The fracturing of the Labour Party in this manner was always inevitable. To the ‘moderates’, ‘Blairites’, ‘right-wingers’ or whatever your preferred turn-of-phrase is, a Corbyn-led party was never acceptable. So it was a case of ‘when’, not ‘if’.

Now, we have a small but vocal group of ex-Labour and Tory MPs, supported by much of the press and, in part but quietly, by other Labour and opposition politicians. In isolation, the Corbyn project could have managed this.

The Second Referendum

Secondly, we have the giving in to the ‘FBPE’ and ‘People’s Vote’ campaign. I don’t mean this in terms of holding a so-called ‘Second Referendum’. That has always been Labour’s position. I mean in terms of committing to campaign for Remain during such a vote.

This firstly goes against a previous manifesto commitment from Labour. You can argue that the Brexit process has become so fucked that Labour had no choice but to change course. But for me this doesn’t hold water. Not least because after Tory Election Fraud, a third of the UK electorate not voting at all in general elections and people already feeling politicians don’t represent them, by betraying the EU Referendum result Labour has just helped put the final nail in the coffin of the rotting corpse that is UK democracy.

As I pointed out to George Galloway this week, it also reeks of political tightrope walking. Of the top 25 marginal seats in England and Wales, ones Labour need to target in the next general election, 20 of them voted Leave.

But again, even with the TIG formation, Labour’s decision over a Second Referendum wouldn’t have been a complete disaster. It would have been very problematic, but not a catastrophe.

The Chris Williamson issue

Now, we have the suspension of Chris Williamson. Views are extremely divided on this. For example, the Guardian and Novara ‘middle-class-yet-one-of-us-really’ commentators are taking the line that this is the right thing to do, as his behaviour has been problematic for a while. This has been met with anger by some, who see this as a betrayal by them. Wolves. Sheep. False Prophets. Take your pick of Biblical analogies that people might use in reference to them.

Some believe that Williamson is subject to a witch-hunt for hosting a black, Jewish woman at an event organised by a left wing Jewish group – both of who are not the ‘right kind of Jewish person’. Other’s believe he has been misrepresented, as they say the full video of the Momentum Sheffield event where he made certain comments shows.

I couldn’t possibly comment on any of that.

But Williamson is one of Corbyn’s loyalist and closest allies. So his suspension to many appears to be a capitulation by Corbyn in the face of a growing crisis. Now, again in isolation this could be viewed as a move by Corbyn to further show he is acting on the antisemitism we are led to believe is rife in the Labour Party. I’m not a member so I wouldn’t know. But it would have been a move which may or may not have been a wise one.

Now, put all these three events together, and what have you got?

You have the Corbyn project falling apart at the seams. Again, here’s why.

Blow one

Firstly, TIG has removed some of his most vocal critics from the Labour Party. But it has placed them in a position of a fairly sizeable position of power and influence. Backed by some of the media, and offering a left wing alternative in England and Wales unavailable before, there is a clear and present danger from them in any upcoming election. If they had remained in the party, they would have been manageable. But now, they’re rogue. It’s left Corbyn weakened.

Blow two

Secondly, Labour’s Remain Second Referendum position was blatantly a decision removed from Corbyn’s hands. It was instigated by, once again, a group of ‘middle-class-yet-one-of-us-really’ group of MPs – Emily Thronberry and Keir Starmer to name but two – who have publicly bought into the Corbyn project for their own political gain. We’re back to those Biblical analogies, again. They have done this for their own political gain, also – knowing it would destabilise the project. This power-grab has also left Corbyn weakened.

Blow three

Thirdly, the Williamson decision was also forced upon Corbyn. This time it was by the mainstream media, many of his Shadow Cabinet (again, some out for their own political gain) and some of his inner circle. On Twitter, the likes of Owen Jones have come out saying it was the right decision. Electronic Intifada journalist Asa Winstanley is not convinced by his proclamations:

I couldn’t possibly comment.

But once again, this forcing of Corbyn’s hand has left him weakened.

Knock out?

So, all in all, he has suffered a triple blow of sucker-punches in the space of just over a week. Either he and his inner circle have lost self-confidence in what they are doing, or they believe appeasement, whether right or wrong, is the way forward for the movement.

In my opinion? They have made disastrously wrong-footed moves on all accounts.

Corbyn has been left completely undermined, out-of-control of his own party and politically adrift. He has lost control of all three of these situations, all three of which have now critically damaged the project. To think otherwise is delusional.

So, what can be done?

The reality?

This is based on these caveats. I couldn’t possibly say if I agree with them:

  • The TIG is a self-serving bunch of odious shits who need to be exposed as the politically gravy-training bastards they are.
  • A Second Referendum with Remain as an option will only serve to further polarise our already fractured society, alienate many working class people already politically homeless and further embolden the right wing.
  • Williamson’s suspension is antisemitism being used as a political weapon by some people so vehemently opposed to the Corbyn project that there’s no barrel they won’t scrape the bottom of.

If you agree with these statements, then the solution is a complex, yet also simple one.

Rapid collapse

Enough is enough, now. The world, from Trump to Venezuela, from India/Pakistan to the stock markets, from the EU to Sudan and from climate chaos to the genocide of disabled people, is in meltdown. I firmly believe that the corporatist capitalist system we live under is in its death throes. The ravenous opposition to the Corbyn project from the system and its supporters is evidence of this. Not because Corbyn is some ‘Red under the Bed’ communist threat. He’s a democratic socialist for fuck’s sake. But because the project represents a shifting of power into the hands of ordinary people. And that is fucking dangerous for the system and its gatekeepers.

So, if the system is collapsing, then why are we pussyfooting around so much? Moreover, why is the Corbyn project?

To the supporters

Corbyn supporters who understand all of the above: keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t stop. I may not believe Corbyn is the answer, as I’ve always said, but while people are dying in this country he is the best, most immediate solution.

Corbyn supporters who are buying into the ravenous opposition (I see you on my timeline): think about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and what’s influencing you. Step back from yourself and look in, because you’re playing into people’s hands without realising it. Also remember just why you became part of the Corbyn project in the first place.

Corbyn supporters who are acting like this isn’t happening: please stop. It’s not helping anyone.

Allegedly Corbyn-supporting journalists and commentators: I’m not wasting my breath on you.

To Jeremy

Corbyn. Yes, you, Jeremy: stop pussyfooting around.

I know it’s not in your nature to aggressively fight tooth and nail against those who seek to destroy you. You’re a pacifist, therefore by default you’re sadly far too kind and considerate. But this is beyond a joke. You surely must see what’s happening, here. Moreover, you must see why it’s happening. Whether I fully buy into your project or not, I know that you have the system and the establishment gatekeepers on the run. So now is not the time for capitulation.

Stop this. Come out and say what you really think, what you really believe and do it with conviction. You have a third of the country politically homeless. Working class communities lured inadvertently to the right. These people need you – but they need you to be robust. Quite frankly, with many politicians and most of the press hostile to you – what have you got to lose? Many more MPs to TIG. No bad thing – if you stand firmer.

What endeared you to people in the first place was your honest, refreshing style of politics. We need that back again. And, if that means breaking away from the Labour Party machinery, of which parts are now actively working against you, then so be it. I imagine if I did a nationwide show of hands who’d vote for a new, Corbyn-led party over Labour, you’d get a majority. Have a word with the Greens while you’re about it as well, please.

Too many people need you right now. Not least my chronically ill, disabled girlfriend, who was in tears today over the political and social madness that has been unfolding around you.

We don’t need you to capitulate. We need you to be you.

Time is running out Jeremy. So, what’s it going to be?

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#IsItOK The Last Leg just lost its last shred of credibility?

The Last Leg, the flagship Channel 4 comedy show known for its advocacy for disabled people, has just scraped the bottom of a barrel that was already pretty low.

Anna Soubry. On, again.

Anna Soubry was once again a guest on Friday 22 February. I say once again, because her last appearance resulted in uproar on Twitter. This led to host Adam Hills having to acknowledge [from 1:40] on the show that people weren’t happy. He subsequently questioned her on her voting record – to which she gave a non-answer.

Why the uproar? Quite obviously because Soubry was part of the Coalition government cabinet, and subsequent Tory-led one, that pushed through some of the most noxious welfare reforms in living memory. She voted for most if not all of them as well.

“Grave” and “systematic” human rights violations

These reforms were slammed by the UN as causing “grave” and “systematic” violations of disabled people’s human rights, resulting in a “human catastrophe” for them. That was just two of five UN reports into successive governments’ treatment of sick, disabled and poor people since June 2016.

An Oxford University study found that at least 590 people had taken their own lives, due in part to the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) Work Capability Assessment.

Tens of thousands dead

Meanwhile, nearly 30 people a day have been dying on the DWP’s watch, either waiting for benefit decisions or when the department told them they were ready to move towards work. Then, the DWP was forced to reveal 21,000 people died waiting for it to pay them money it owed them.

Sick and disabled people have been persecuted by the Tories, sometimes to the point of death. Hills himself said on The Last Leg that the Tories were effectively carrying out a “genocide” against disabled people.

So all that begs the question: if The Last Leg is such a strong advocate for disabled people’s human rights, why have a guest on who was part of ‘systematically’ violating them?

Increasingly irrelevant

Two reasons.

Since it began, The Last Leg has become increasingly ‘mainstreamed’. It used to be a fairly radical show, especially regarding its view on disabled people’s treatment under the Conservatives. But with ratings come restrictions, and it’s become more and more obvious that the programme is kowtowing to keep its prime time slot.

It’s probably a reflection of the show’s producers, whom one imagines have been salivating at the formation of The Independent Group. Centrist ejaculations all round.

But moreover, and lets be honest, Hills and his co-hosts Josh Widdicombe and Alex Brooker don’t live in the same world millions of disabled people do.

Middle class, utterly detached

Hills and Brooker specifically, having impairments, have probably never had the constant fear of a brown envelope dropping through their letterbox. They’ve probably never had to attend multiple fit-for-work assessments; desperately trying to prove how ill they are just to scrape together a few pennies under Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

And ultimately, these middle class, obvious liberals (the constant baiting of Jeremy Corbyn is a fairly good indicator) probably don’t give that much of a shit. Because if they did, they’d protest at their producer’s choice of guest in Soubry. The carnage her and her ilk have meted upon disabled people is unparalleled in modern Western society.

They don’t give a shit because their comfortable little lives are sustained by their now mediocre excuse for a comedy show, which will happily promote snakes and charlatans like Soubry – who feign care with one hand while metaphorically punching disabled people with the other.

Shameless carpetbaggers

Hills, Brooker and Widdicombe are disability carpetbaggers, making money off disabled people’s misery.

Brooker managed to ask Soubry a question about her voting record on welfare-related issues on Friday’s show. But as usual she fobbed it off with another shameless display of spin.

“Shameless” best describes The Last Leg. Because its hosts and its team should be ashamed of themselves.

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Me and Nicola in 2017

Why I’m giving up writing. For now.

UPDATE: as of January 2020 I returned to writing part time at The Canary.

Hi to everyone reading this.

Further to a discussion with the Canary leadership team I have an announcement to make.

From Friday 8 February I am formally not writing on a regular basis for The Canary anymore. I will be continuing to do the podcast weekly and accompanying music features.

The reasons for this are complicated – but actually very simple. My partner Nicola is chronically ill, as many of you know. Before we got together she had previously been told her illnesses were ‘all in her head’ and mental health-related, even to the point that professionals sectioned her under the Mental Health Act when she was desperate for support. She was not living with any mental health issues. When we met she had been given a Fibromyalgia diagnosis (which, in my opinion, doesn’t exist – it’s a parking diagnosis/bullshit illness when there’s actually other things going on).

Since we met, and pushed the medical profession to take her seriously, she’d now living with:

►Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos/Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder.
►Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME).
►Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS).
►Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.
►Non-epileptic tonic clonic seizures.
►Deformities in her left foot and leg.
►Suspected Craniocervical Instability.

There has been a noticeable worsening in her overall health over the past year, and the time for pussy-footing around this has ended.

The long and the short of it is we have taken steps, many through the private health route because the NHS is essentially useless, to begin trying to improve these conditions. Some of these have treatment options if you ignore the politically and corporate-motivated mainstream medical profession. Because essentially under the NHS, Nicola has already exhausted NICE recommended treatments, all having proved ineffective.

She has given up parental responsibility for her son for a period of time, as she is too unwell to give him the support he needs. Plus he has witnessed her ill-health from a young age and it will give him some much needed respite.

But for me, the current situation with my writing for The Canary and Nicola’s health is unsustainable. I cannot write the amount I need/want and give her the support she needs to try and improve her health. One thing had to give – and if push comes to shove it will be work.

So, to that end, I am stopping writing for a period of time.

Nicola needs my full support, and that’s what she is going to get, regardless of my ‘career’ (which many of you know was never a planned move by me, it just fell into my lap by accident, so I’m not precious about it). I have essentially been performing the role of a full time carer for over a year. I have to cook every meal, do the housework, arrange Nicola’s appointments, support her travelling to them, speak on her behalf at them, manage our finances, supervise her with a complex range of tablets – all of this while also writing around 15 articles a week, recording and editing a podcast on my own, recording the Topple Galloway show, caring for a 12-year-old child and supporting my mother who has dementia.

I am confident in both mine and her strength and abilities, but also those of the medical professionals we are now dealing with, that we now have some of the right diagnoses. But I’m also now focused on trying to improve her health if possible.

If this does happen, she can start to live her life properly for the first time. As I think with all impairments and illnesses, she has the right to do whatever she wants with her life without any pressure or anyone telling her what to do. To that end, once her health is improved, I’ll be returning full time to allow her to follow whatever paths she chooses in this world, without the pressure of the system and state telling her she has to find work. She has sacrificed enough, and been appallingly treated over the years, that she deserves to be as free as she wishes from the shackles of this disgusting system we live under.

So, that’s it. If you have story ideas please email but I’ll still be about on social media, so feel free to tag me in things/DM/whatever.

There are a few people who I’d like to thank for the support – but they’ll know who they are. There are others who I’d like to extend a ‘fuck you’ to, as many people and groups have essentially dropped Nicola like a hot potato or betrayed her when she needed them most. As Mariah Carey said in the song Petals:

So many I considered closest to me

Turned on a dime and sold me

Out dutifully

Although that knife was chipping away at me

They turned their eyes away

And went home to sleep…

Please feel free to donate so I can continue to maintain this site.

Sending love and solidarity to those that deserve it.

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‘Food Bank As It Is’: Mr Topple meets writer Tara Osman

My full interview with Tara Osman, writer of the critically acclaimed play Food Bank As It Is. You can see the play on 5 March at the Chelsea Theatre, south west London

What drove you to take your experience as a food bank manager and turn it into an educational performance piece?

I was extremely disturbed by what I saw at the food bank pretty much from the first day I started working there. I was initially employed as a support worker and had ample opportunity to talk with people about the reasons they were using the food bank. What I realised was that many people were there as a direct result of policies and decisions made by the government and relating to the welfare benefits system, for example the use of sanctions, the long delays in receiving benefits payments when switching from one type of benefit to another (way before Universal Credit was rolled out), the re-assessment of many Employment and Support Allowance claims resulting in people’s claims being suspended and their payments being stopped. I was particularly appalled at the number of children and disabled people we were helping. And I witnessed many people in states of distress, crying and expressing feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, even talking about wanting to kill themselves. I felt as though these stories were not being told and that in general the public had no idea how bad things were and how much the welfare benefits safety net had been eroded. So, I found myself getting more and more angry and letting off steam at the end of the day to anyone that would listen. At a certain point I began to feel a moral imperative to speak out and the idea of writing something for theatre came to me.

What I really wanted was to convey to others what it is like to hear someone’s story of going without food, to witness her breaking down in tears or to be with him while he eats his first meal in five days. I wanted to bring the food bank to life for those who don’t know what it’s like to be in one with the aim of galvanising audiences to take some kind of action after seeing the play.

I had already started writing the play when Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake came out. I found the film to be a very accurate and sensitive portrayal of one man’s treatment by the state, and was incensed when I watched news reports of comments in the House of Commons to the effect that the film is a work of fiction and represents an extreme case. After this it seemed even more important to get the play out there as it is based on real stories and no-one can say it’s fiction.

Parallel with the startling rise in food bank use since 2010 has been the rise in media coverage of them; often mixed but at least pushed into the public psyche. Do you think this has had a positive or negative effect on the public perception of food banks and the wider issues surrounding their purpose and use?

I find that whilst there is more awareness that food banks exist, there is still a huge lack of awareness about who they serve, what exactly they do, and what underlying factors drive their use.

I think people often confuse food banks with soup kitchens and assume that we help mainly homeless people. When I talk with people who are volunteering at the food bank for the first time, they often express surprise at the diversity of our clientele, and it’s true that there is no ‘typical’ person who uses a food bank. Despite this the myth of the ‘scrounger’ still persists, from what I can tell, and is incredibly hurtful for people who use food banks, many of whom talk of the shame of stepping through the food bank door. It’s as though they have internalised the negative view of themselves peddled by certain elements of the press. If there is one thing I would like to ask for from the media it would be to change and challenge the narrative that people have somehow brought their troubles on themselves, or aren’t trying hard enough to manage, because this stigma really hurts people.

In terms of why food banks are needed there is some excellent coverage in the left-wing press but I’m not sure that media coverage on the whole has really got the message across. For example, one of our clients at the food bank recently gave an interview to a London newspaper. The article was poorly written in my opinion and the crucial details of exactly what had happened to bring this client to the food bank were omitted. The comments underneath the online article ranged from supportive to abusive, and I felt that the article had let our client down by not being specific about her situation. For example, it’s not that she was budgeting her money poorly; she actually had no money at all with which to budget as her husband is too ill to work yet has not been granted ESA, and she herself does not have a work permit for this country. People make all sorts of assumptions about food bank clients and they can only be challenged by accurate and detailed reporting. The reality is that there are often very specific and preventable reasons why people need food banks, and there is well-researched evidence available to the media if they choose to look at it.

There is also a specific issue with media coverage of food banks in that almost all the images and statistics cited are provided by the Trussell Trust, which represents about two thirds of food banks in the UK and has a particular model for delivery of its service. The other third are independent food banks who at present do not collate their data as a group. Any figures given on food bank use in the UK are therefore an underestimate. Independent food banks operate in many different ways, for example they don’t always require their clients to have a voucher for each visit, and may be linked to other projects such as community gardens, food co-operatives etc – this view of food banks is not one that is generally reported.

Having said all this, there are clearly many people who are well-informed about food banks and extremely generous in their support of them. Sometimes when we are collecting food for the food bank people will buy a whole basket of food, not just one or two items. I noticed a clear increase in donations and offers of help to the food bank after I, Daniel Blake came out, with many people specifically mentioning the film as an incentivising factor. We have never been short of sanitary towels since that film! (There is a scene in which the female lead has to shoplift sanitary towels as she can’t afford to pay for them).

The Conservative government often argue that the rise in food bank use is due to increased awareness and improved referral services. Do you think this is the case?

The rise in food bank use is a very rough and ready indicator of levels of poverty. We can see in research from many other reliable sources that levels of poverty, deprivation and destitution are increasing in the UK – it would be very strange indeed if none of this increase was reflected in increased food bank use. What we know from research is that people turn to food banks as a last resort and that there are many people who could benefit from food banks but do not use them, either due to lack of awareness or reluctance to use them.

Of course, when any new service is set up and advertises itself, more people will hear about it and more people will refer to it. So, a percentage of the increase in food bank use will be due to increased awareness. This does not mean that demand for food banks is ‘created’ by their very existence, rather that more of the people who are going without adequate food are able to access a food bank.

At the moment we do not measure food insecurity in the UK, unlike in some other countries such as the US. If the Conservative government seriously want to find out whether food bank use is going up due to increased need or just increased awareness, they might do well to sign up to Emma Lewell-Buck MP’s 10-minute bill to measure food insecurity, which is due for it’s second reading in October, and start to measure the extent of the problem.

So, how hard was it to turn something very personal to you into a piece of art?

To be honest, it doesn’t feel like something that’s particularly personal to me, it’s just something that I’ve been in a position to witness and write about, and feel a responsibility to bring to public consciousness. It would actually have felt harder to not write about it, I think I would have resigned rather than continually confront things I felt furious about and yet powerless to change. I’ve written myself into the play as a narrator figure and character as I think it helps to elucidate the issues, to see my journey from someone who thinks she’ll take it all in her stride to a person who is outraged and shattered by what she sees. I would say that working at the food bank has politicised me to a large degree, and this probably shows in the play.

And I have had the honour of working with a group of actors and crew who came to the project as they were drawn to the subject matter and are as committed as I am to promoting social change through theatre. There have been times for all of us, I think, when we have been challenged by the work but we have always supported and encouraged each other. Any difficulties that we might experience are nothing relative to the hardships that hundreds of thousands of people up and down the country are facing every day.

How much do you think art can be used as a force of good within politics? And do you think we are seeing a renaissance of this, or has any politically-motivated art been consumed now by commercial interests?

I absolutely believe in the power of art as a force for good in politics. Human beings react so strongly to the use of imagery, music and story and we can use art in all its forms to help us understand the world around us in ways that we can’t through use of the intellect alone. How much more powerful is it to hear words spoken directly to you by another human being from a stage, who is looking out to the audience, about what happened when his money was cut off than simply to read that such a thing has happened? Art in general, and stories in particular, enable us to empathise with the experience of others, and surely empathy should lie at the centre of political life? Otherwise we end up dividing people into ‘them’ and ‘us’, and that can only end badly. I have found theatre to be a hugely powerful tool in speaking directly to people’s hearts, and I think it is very much under-utilised in politics and education.

One thing I have noticed as a newcomer to the world of theatre is how much it is a world unto itself, like many other disciplines. I like to imagine a society in which practitioners from professions such as medicine, law, social work, teaching, and yes even politics collaborate with theatre makers to produce exciting, relevant and current work that can inform the practice of all concerned. There has to be a way to bring theatre more into daily life, as well as bringing daily life into theatre.

I can’t really comment on whether or not there is a renaissance of political art at the moment, I haven’t been observing that world for long enough to judge. I have seen some very good pieces of theatre over the last year which examine social issues such as housing and misogyny, and I think the increasing use of verbatim testimony indicates an engagement with real world issues. One thing I can say is that the time is ripe for political art, there is so much that we need to fix. I worry that we are sleepwalking into a future that none of us want, lulled into indifference by social media, Netflix and gaming. We need to wake up and take action if we want things to change.

What do you hope the audience will take from the play?

The aim of the play really is to show the often-devastating impact of policy decisions on the lives of real people, to break through the rational defences that people put up when they want to justify ‘tough decisions’. I hope that our audiences will come away with the sense that something is happening under our collective noses that we really shouldn’t be tolerating, that somehow, we have been sold the story that what’s happening is OK when it isn’t.

We always follow the play with an invitation to the audience to give an immediate one-word response to what they have just seen, followed by a discussion with a panel and / or the cast and myself. This is because we want the audience to go away not just with a sense of how difficult things are at the moment, but also a sense of what they can do to help. And by help, I mean to help address the issues underlying food bank use and ultimately make food banks a thing of the past. Quite often people ask afterwards how they can support their local food bank. Obviously in the short-term food banks are a necessary band aid. But really, we want people to focus on the longer term, we want to see a society in which food banks are no longer necessary. So, the discussion is an integral part of the play, and we are currently looking at ways to make it as open and honest as possible so that people feel they can voice anything at all that they are thinking. The strapline of the play is There is no them, only us, and we extend this to political affiliation too – we’re not there to bash the government or people who voted for them, we just want to point out that there are some policies that are really hurting people at the moment, and that surely it is in all of our interests to honour the human right to food. In my view simply attacking one side will only result in defensiveness and mean that we are less likely to attract audiences who could learn from what we have to say. One of my proudest moments so far since performing the play has been when an audience member stood up at the end and said ‘I’m probably more right-wing than most other people here, but I don’t want to live in a society where this happens’.

For anyone in the audience who has used a food bank or experienced food insecurity, I hope that they will feel supported and less alone. Sometimes people have stood up after the play and said, ‘Yes, that was my experience’.

Do you think there is a quick fix to the food bank crisis? Or do we need to see a paradigm shift as a society?

We managed largely without food banks prior to 2010 (there were a few prior to this but they really started to burgeon in 2010). Then came austerity and major cuts to the welfare benefits system, including the loss of easily accessible emergency funds for people in crisis. Does reinstating the welfare safety net (at an adequate level that enables people to live above the poverty line) count as a ‘quick fix’? Or have we as a society moved so far away from embracing the welfare state that this would count as a paradigm shift? The Trussell Trust’s June 2017 report ‘Financial Insecurity, food insecurity and disability’ is a must-read document for those wishing to understand food bank use and gives many clues as to how to fix the crisis; for example, fully one third of households using food banks during the period surveyed were waiting on a benefit application or benefit payment they had recently applied for. Most had been waiting between two and six weeks for a payment. Quick fix: speed up the process, or provide an easily accessible and well-publicised emergency fund to support people while they are waiting.

We need the political will to come up with an ‘exit plan’ for food bank Britain, and we need food banks to focus their efforts on planning for a future in which they are not needed. This may mean that individual food banks look at transforming their services from emergency food aid to a more positive and proactive food-hub model, which all local residents can make the choice to attend (but don’t have to depend on) if they would like to access cheap, locally-grown produce, community meals, school holiday schemes etc (these are just examples).

In my view it is crucial that we nip in the bud any further institutionalisation of food banks and in particular that we don’t go down the route trodden in the US where food manufacturers and retailers are intimately involved in the food bank business and food poverty has become something that provides commercial benefits.

But most of all we need to confront what is happening in the UK head on, look it in the eye and make a decision as a society – do we or do we not think it is OK that so many of our fellow citizens (children as well as adults) are regularly going hungry, sometimes going without food for days? Is this really acceptable? If it’s not then we need to do something about it, and fast.

With thanks to Paula Peters for the image.

A miner from the Hatfield Brigade explains the group’s Christmas single

Joe Solo and the Hatfield Brigade have released a Christmas single, with all sales going to struggling communities in South Yorkshire.

Leslie Moore, a former Hatfield Miner and member of the Hatfield Brigade, said of They Could Not Break Us, which is out to buy now:

When we decided to record this song (which is going to be one of many planned each year until we have enough to fill a full album) we were mindful of the punitive measures continuing in many mining communities. We decided to sing about the fact that for all the deprivation, the poverty & punishment meted out across the coalfields as a result of our communities daring to stand and fight against the full might of the state for a decent future, we are still here. Our spirit was never broken fully – our pockets were emptied, our future stolen, our children cast into the wilderness, yet we are here in defiance singing, as it’s in the most part all we can do to get our voice heard. But it’s a gesture to show our children and grandchildren they must never give up just like mine & your grandparents fought on. We will not sink into the history books as cowed & beaten people. They stole our jobs, our community cohesion and our pensions that we paid for. So we fight on for justice and fair play from politicians that, in the main, do not understand the meaning of those words. This song, although recorded in Stainforth, South Yorkshire (the home of ‘Hatfield Main Colliery’) could be the history of any community in the UK’s coal fields, from Kent to the valleys of Wales, to our brothers homelands in Scotland. And make no mistake – we are a brotherhood of miners, who respect & have defended each other throughout the generations. Make this song your own; this is your village, your town, your community. And wherever working men defend their rights you will find the miners at your side.

You can read about They Could Not Break Us in The Canary’s coverage of the track. And make sure you buy the single here.

Stop Killing Londoners: the campaign group’s demands

Air pollution campaign group Stop Killing Londoners has written to both the government and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, urging them to listen or their peaceful civil disobedience will continue.

Open Letter to Sadiq Khan and the UK government:

Stop Killing Londoners: Cut Air Pollution is continuing our campaign of peaceful civil disobedience, blocking the most polluted streets in the capital until you agree to a meeting to seriously consider the following demands.

Immediate Demands:
The Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) should be extended from the congestion charge zone to the north and south circular roads.
ULEZ should be introduced by the end of 2018.
ULEZ should introduce a robust particulate matter standard for diesel vehicles.

Strategic Demands:
A zero carbon and ultra low pollution vehicle fleet for London. This means an electric vehicle fleet for the capital. The London Mayor and the UK Government to design a comprehensive diesel and petrol to electric scrappage scheme. Subsidies to be provided to individuals where appropriate to hasten the transition. A London plan for a supportive infrastructure for an electric fleet to be conceived and implemented.

An expanded integrated 100% renewable, ultra low pollution public transport system for London.
A pay per mile pollution scheme for residual fossil fuel vehicles.

A hypothecated producer tax for car companies still producing fossil fuel vehicles – the money to be spent within the NHS treating the victims of vehicular petrol and diesel air pollution.
We are also firmly against the expansion of Heathrow and Gatwick airport.

These policy changes have to be seen in the context of not only the avoidable deaths of thousands of Londoners each year from pollution but also the looming prospect of climate breakdown, due to lack of emergency action on reducing carbon emissions. Failure to act is leading to the complete summer melting of the arctic ice within the next decade – an event which the science predicts will rapidly accelerate the increase in sea level rise and extreme weather events. We therefore face an international emergency to prevent the flooding of coastal cities, including London in the coming decades and the catastrophic destruction of our food supplies. Air Pollution is just part of this wider emergency. We therefore ask that you respond to this fundamental crisis and show some leadership and urgency on removing fossil fuel use in our city. To this end, we will escalate our civil disobedience campaign until you agree to meet with us to discuss these vital issues.

One letter details the fierce opposition to another of Theresa May’s government appointments


Over 65 Deaf and Disabled People’s Organisations, campaigners and mental health professionals have signed a letter opposing the appointment of Professor Sir Simon Wessely to lead the independent review of the Mental Health Act as announced in Theresa May’s speech at this year’s Conservative party conference:

“Dear Prime Minister,

We are writing to urge a reconsideration of the decision to appoint Professor Simon Wessely to lead the independent review of the Mental Health Act as announced at the Conservative Party conference on 4 October 2017.

A review is needed to address mental health injustice, yet Wessely’s body of work on ME (or “chronic fatigue syndrome”) demonstrates his lack of honesty, care and compassion for patients. His unsubstantiated claim that ME is driven by “false illness beliefs” has led to patients being labelled as hypochondriacs, treated with contempt by some in the medical profession and stigmatised by society. His recommended treatment regime of Graded Exercise Therapy caused deterioration in function for nearly 50% of ME patients surveyed, yet he dismisses their evidence as unreliable and labels all critics of this work as irrational and extremist.

He continues to defend the notorious PACE trial, a study into treatment for ME/CFS part-funded by the Department for Work and Pensions and widely condemned by academics for misuse of statistical methods in order to produce positive-looking results.

Wessely’s work on ME led him to play an active role, alongside insurance industry professionals, in devising the theories of “malingering and illness deception” which underpinned the Work Capability Assessment. The WCA has had a catastrophic impact on the lives of disabled people. Wessely is resoundingly unfit to lead an inquiry into mental health injustice.

The appointment of Wessely underlines our fears that under the wrong leadership, the review and any subsequent changes to the Mental Health Act will worsen rather than alleviate the current mental health crisis. We urge you to rethink this decision.

Yours sincerely,

Linda Burnip

Co-founder, Disabled People Against Cuts

Denise McKenna

Mental Health Resistance Network

Andrew Samuels

Professor Andrew Samuels. Former Chair, UK Council for Psychotherapy.

Anne Novis

Chair, Inclusion London

Rich Moth

Social Work Action Network national steering committee

Caroline Collier

CEO, Inclusion Barnet

Simon Duffy

Centre for Welfare Reform

Tara Flood

CEO, Alliance for Inclusive Education

Cathy Maker

Director, RUILS

Kamran Mallick

CEO, Disability Rights UK

Emily Morton

Chief Executive, Disability Sheffield

Kathy Bole

Chair, Suffolk Coalition of Disabled People

Caron Blake

Manager, Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People

Dr Jay Watts

Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist

Bea Millar

Person-Centred Therapist

Richard House

Chartered Psychologist and Mental Health Activist

Paul Atkinson

UKCP Psychotherapist

Joyce Kallevik

Director, Women in Secure Hospitals

Eamon Andrews

Communications and Project Officer, Shaping Our Lives

Ellen Morrison

Branch Secretary South East London Unite Community

Andrew Lee

Director, People First

Phil Gosling

Secretary, Regard

Ian Parker

Psychoanalyst, Manchester

Helen Ridett

Nurse and GMB workplace organiser

Alec McFadden

Press Officer Salford TUC

Claire Glasman

WinVisible (women with visible and invisible disabilities)

Ariane Sacco


Rev. Dianne Scott-Fowler

Chairperson, Stockport User Friendly Forum

John Pearson

Solidarity Drop-in Stockport

Ron Alexander

Life President, Dial Southend / Southend shop mobility

Christina Young

Mental health activist, Liverpool

Ellen Clifford

Croydon DPAC

Miriam Binder

Chair, Brighton DPAC

Paula Peters

Chair, Bromley DPAC

Nicola Jeffery

National Steering Group, DPAC

Andy Greene

National Steering Group, DPAC

Anita Bellows

National Steering Group, DPAC

Andy Metcalf

Mental Health Activist Alliance

Michael Harrison

Branch Secretary North East Wales Unite Community

Andy Mitchell

Branch Secretary Somerset Unite Community

Trevor Bark

Branch Secretary Durham Unite Community

Bernie Stock

Branch Chair Durham Unite Community

Zarria Phillips

Branch Chair Bristol Area Unite Community

Rachel Holmes

Branch Secretary Herts & Beds Unite Community

Kate Hyndley

Industrial Liaison Officer South East London Unite Community

Hillel Friedman

Treasurer Norfolk Unite Community

Joan Twelves

Co-chair Lambeth & Southwark Unite Community

Geraldine Murray

Norfolk Unite Community

Ian Nottage

Herts & Beds Unite Community

Carl Backland

Camden Unite Community

Amy Broad

Branch Chair, Peterborough, Chair Fenland & Kings Lynn Unite Community

Susan Pashkoff

Branch Chair East London Unite Community

Amina Mangera

Branch Chair South East London Unite Community

Jacqui Burnett

Diversity Officer Herts & Beds Unite Community

Bernard Miller

Co-Secretary Camden Unite Community

Claudia Dias Ferreira

Co-Secretary Camden Unite Community

Rebecca Rocket

Essex Unite Community

Susan Hagley

Suffolk Unite Community

Rob Lugg

Branch Secretary South West London Unite Community

Robin Sivapalan

Branch Secretary Brent Unite Community

Fred Coford

Islington Unite Community

Sarah Matthews

Branch Secretary Suffolk Unite Community

Martin Beverich

Herts & Beds Unite Community

Steve Ballard

Equalities Officer Haringey Unite Community

Kate Hodgson

Islington Unite Community”


Domestic violence and South Yorkshire Women’s Aid: the council’s response

South Yorkshire Women’s Aid is facing closure, due to a lack of local authority funding. I spoke to Doncaster Cabinet Member for Communities and the Voluntary Sector, Cllr Chris McGuinness, about the centre’s plight. Here’s his response in full.

In April 2016 Doncaster Women’s Aid closed following the loss of its primary funding from Big Lottery. The organisation was not funded by Doncaster Council and the Council did not withdraw funding from the organisation. However, following an approach from the organisation the Council provided wide-ranging advice and support to its trustees, including the offer of potential funding to enable it to remain open whilst seeking new grants and income generation opportunities. Unfortunately the trustees of the organisation decided that it was unable to continue and chose to cease operating.

Following closure of the organisation, a group of people wished to set up a new independent charity to replace the organisation, called South Yorkshire Women’s Aid (Doncaster). Doncaster Council supported the new trustees to achieve this, including providing a one-off start up grant of £30,000 with a view to the organisation applying for new funds and generating operating revenue in order to become financially sustainable. Earlier this month (August 2017), the Council agreed to extend the timescales for spending this grant from June 2017 until December 2017, as the grant had not been fully utilised. It also agreed to vary the funding requirements to allow the organisation greater flexibility to provide services.

The grant funding for South Yorkshire Women’s Aid was provided through the Mayor’s Voluntary and Community Sector Grant scheme, itself a one-off £500,000 fund intended to support local charities, community groups and voluntary organisations, which were able to apply for funding of up to £30,000. As the funding was from one-off resources, the Council made clear the need for organisations to plan their future funding strategy, where required, and ensure the independent sustainability of any associated projects. The fund proved to be very popular and was oversubscribed, with all of the funding now allocated. Throughout the process the Council was clear that it was providing South Yorkshire Women’s Aid with a fixed term grant and that the organisation should not expect further grant funding for these reasons.

On 25th August 2017, the trustees of the new organisation wrote to the Council requesting a further small grant until March 2018 and stated that it viewed the Council as its primary funder to meet the aims and objectives of the charity, indicating that it wished the Council to continue providing funding in future years.

This week, the Council became aware that one of the organisation’s trustees recently resigned and a further trustee had no knowledge of the recent media activity and protest. The Council intends to meet trustees of the organisation in the near future to further understand the organisation’s situation, discuss the current grant and ascertain what measures it has taken to secure additional funding and make itself sustainable according to its operating model.

Since 2010, Doncaster Council has already been forced to cut more than £200m from its annual revenue budget and like other Councils faces further significant funding cuts in the coming years. Notwithstanding this, the Council has prioritised tackling Domestic Violence as a key issue and spends in excess of £1m per year on related services, including:

• An Independent Domestic Violence Advocacy (IDVA) service and coordination of Doncaster’s Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conference
• A Women’s Refuge and dispersed homes with support services
• A Floating support service, helping people in their own homes
• Domestic Violence Helpline

In addition, the government funded Growing Futures project operated by Doncaster Children’s Services Trust focuses on therapeutic support for children and young people, finds new and better ways to keep them safe and help them recover from the impact of Domestic Violence – since the Government funding stream ended, the Council has supported Doncaster Children’s Services Trust to maintain this service. The Council has also funded the delivery of non-criminal justice based perpetrator programmes aimed at men who commit domestic violence in order to reduce the number of repeat incidents. Where delivered by external providers, services are commissioned through an open and transparent process in line with the Council’s legal obligations.

Domestic Violence is wholly unacceptable and can have a devastating impact on victims and their children. The Council will continue to prioritise these services within the resources available to it. However, as with all independent charities, South Yorkshire Women’s Aid must plan to exist without reliance on funding from Doncaster Council, which unfortunately is simply not in a position to provide financial assistance to every VCS organisation facing financial pressures. However, the Council will continue to offer support to these groups in order to help them to secure funding from the wide range of charitable trust funds in existence, and the potential for generating income through charitable activities.