Monthly Archives: March 2010

The Human Rights Festival @ The Ritzy: In The Land of The Free

The Angola prison

In The Land of The Free’  is the horrifying portrayal of one story – among the many to be told – about the injustices experienced in black America to this very day. The Angola 3 have between them spent almost a century in solitary confinement in Louisiana’s state penitentiary. Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox were prisoners at the Angola prison in the 1970s, convicted for the murder of a prison guard shortly after forming one of the only Black Panther prison chapters.

Vadim Jean’s film, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, systematically presents the evidence for Herman and Albert’s innocence, revealing corruption and incompetence at almost every level of the state legal system. The key witness was bribed with cigarettes and a shortened prison sentence, while another witness was later proven to be legally blind. Herman and Albert were joined in solitary by another Black Panther member, Robert King, who was told he was under investigation for the same murder although he was not even in the prison at the time. Now, in 2010, Robert King has been released, but Herman and Albert remain in solitary confinement after more than 37 years. King’s contributions are the mainstay of the film and, fascinatingly, we also hear from Albert and Herman on recorded telephone calls from prison.

The film’s strength is in its straightforward approach to presenting damning evidence against the Louisana state, damaging enough in itself not to need any embellishment.  Vadim Jean, the director, decided to make ‘In the Land of the Free’ after the death of his friend Anita Roddick, who had campaigned for the Angola 3. “Robert King spoke at Anita’s memorial”, he remembers, “and it was like her finger was pointing at me and saying, ‘make a film’.” ‘In the Land of the Free’ has created a small stir in the UK since its premiere at The Ritzy last week; it has been reviewed by most of the major papers. Jean is excited about that fact. “As Robert King says, drop a pebble in a pond and it creates ripples. Hopefully it will create ripples in the US too”.

‘In the Land of the Free’ could be criticised for remaining firmly focused on the Angola 3 without making much broader comment about racism in America, but Jean is adament that he had to tell a personal story. “If you opened the story out, it would have been a five hour movie. For me, it is ultimately a story about the triumph of the human spirit in adversity, as much as it is also political with a small ‘p’. Cinema provides an emotional response and then hopefully draws the audience to the places where they can find the other layers.”

‘In The Land of the Free’ is showing as part of The Human Rights Watch Festival at the Ritzy. Don’t look to this year’s Oscar winners – especially not, dear God, ‘The Blind Side’ – go to one of HRW films instead. My next choice? ‘No One Knows about Persian Cats’.

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Brixton Low Carbon Zone

Leaflets from the day

The Brixton Low Carbon Zone was launched last Sunday with a low key event in the community centre at 105 Angell Rd to inform residents about the new initiative.

Lambeth Council, along with nine other London boroughs, has been awarded £330,000 to help Brixton reduce its carbon emissions by 20.12% by 2012 (geddit?)  ‘Brixton’ Low Carbon Zone sadly does not apply to the whole of Brixton, but it does contain 721 buildings and includes probably the most carbon intensive parts, running from Rushcroft Rd to Max Roach Park and the Loughborough estates. The word ‘zone’ implies that something fundamental changes when you enter it, but in fact the focus is on encouraging people to take action themselves, especially by working together, rather than on implementing top-down change. That’s a good and a bad thing – it is great to encourage community action, but one wonders how far-reaching and persuasive the ‘zone’ can really be in the area.

There are certainly some good ideas. The ‘Green Doctors’ will visit free of charge to give people advice on energy efficiency. Your house can be draught-proofed for free (very envious of this one) or you can measure your power use with ‘smart meters’. Green groups as well as individuals will also receive support to set up new projects.

Even if you don’t live in the zone, new work is being done to involve you too. Kees Frederiks, responsible for the Brixton LCZ, points out that his colleagues also work on Lambeth-wide initiatives. You can become a Green Community Champion and Lambeth Council are working on a carbon trading program called PACT, which will allow individuals to earn monetary credits for their local green group by saving carbon at home.

Like the launch party, though, it is all pretty low key. Remembering to turn off the lights and keep the heating down is useful, but really we need bigger and more decisive action from government and business. Boris?

The stalls at the Brixton Carbon Zone Launch - with lots of greenery of course


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Under the arches…

I never really imagined there would be whole businesses devoted to car window tinting, but Station Rd. has one. Get down there, all you wannabe celebs/criminals.

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Brixton lunch: Etta’s Seafood Kitchen

The windows steam up in Etta’s Seafood Kitchen when the cafe is full. Somehow that sums up what Etta and her daughter provide in their food  – simple, gutsy and warming dishes. Fish soup, fish curry, coriander and garlic prawns, or just steamed fish, all with a Caribbean twist and sourced from Brixton Market. Not much can go wrong there. They also do wonderful fresh juices, such as ‘Etta’s Energizer’ with beetroot, carrot and ginger.  The curry could have been spicier, or more ‘curryish’ in the words of my companion, and there isn’t a huge amount of difference in flavour between each dish, but it’s all pretty damn satisfying for a Saturday lunch. And cheap too.

Prawns with rice and peas

Fish Curry

Fish Curry

Etta’s Seafood Kitchen, 85/86 Granville Arcade, Brixton


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Local democracy #2: The power pledge

People on the street tell Power 2010 what they want from politics (on pink balloons)

Not so long ago, parliamentary reform was little more than the pet project of a handful of dedicated reformists; now it’s the hot new topic.  Data websites are leading the way to ensure accountability, and they are not the only ones interested in fixing the disconnect between local and national politics. Brixtonite and recent graduate Annie Quick, 23, is spearheading the London campaign for Power 2010, a project aimed at bringing parliamentary reform to the top of the election agenda.

Power 2010 is funded by the Rowntree Foundation and it has been rolled out in three stages. From September to November 2009, over 4,500 submissions were made by members of the public with their ideas for democratic reform. These ideas were then distilled into a shortlist using a tool called the deliberative poll – 130 citizens selected by YouGov to represent the population met in London to discuss the submissions and selected 29 proposals, which were put to a public vote. An impressive 100,000 votes were cast and the five most popular ideas are now the basis for the Power 2010 ‘pledge’. They include proportional representation, an elected House of Lords and allowing only English MPs to vote on English laws.

The five ideas for reform are not a blueprint for change, but intended as triggers for debate. Anyone who backs “a majority of the ideas” can sign the pledge. By election time, Quick and her fellow campaigners want every MP to have signed. “I think it will work. We have already had 50 PPCs sign the pledge. The main parties are all working with us, getting their members to vote and providing volunteers. Lots of these parties aren’t necessarily for proportional representation, but they recognise that something is wrong and a debate needs to be had.”

Power 2010 was set up in the wake of the 2006 Power to the People Report, which found that millions had rejected electoral politics while remaining politically active in single issue campaigns and direct action. “The report made a splash and then nothing more happened”, explains Quick. “People don’t want to be told how to change. After the financial crisis, the expenses scandal and the Iraq Enquiry, people started to make the connection between their own lives and politics. I don’t think Power 2010 could have happened two years ago, but now most people have a reaction when you ask them about the state of politics. Power 2010 was established to allow people to have a debate about what real changes need to happen.”

Quick is confident that Power 2010 can make these ‘real’ changes. Others are not so. When I interviewed Richard Pope, he criticised projects like Power 2010 for using vast amounts of money to relatively little effect. “There are similar projects, such as Charter 88, who have got the implementation wrong because they built it either for people like them – internet nerds – or they spent all the money on advertising.” I put it to Quick that many of the people who voted will already have been converts to the cause, and probably “internet nerds” as well. “That criticism was fair for the submissions stage”, she admits.”But it is unfair for the voting stage. We spent literally hours on the streets talking about Power 2010 and talking people through the voting forms. 30% of the votes were from people we talked to in diverse areas. Few of these people would have found out about it independently. It’s about getting grass roots support. We’ve got a big Facebook presence, for instance.”

Quick has a nuanced view of democracy not so different from that of the data websites – it is about making information available for people to make their own choice. “I’m not sure that being representative is the point of democracy. People are ultimatley self-selecting. You need to do all you can to furnish them with the relevant information and publicise yourself, but ultimately you can’t force people who don’t want to be involved. It’s important to us to make our material and website accessible in terms of language and design.”

The main problem I have with Power 2010 is in its name. For the moment, the organisation is not looking beyond the 2010 General Election. Indeed, its current funding will run out a few months after the election. “We are manically busy with the election so it is hard to think about anything else at the moment, although there is a strong sense that something will come out of Power 2010”, says Quick. An electoral debate is all very well, but surely it is essential to think about how the debate can have legs after the election. Wild promises can be made in the heat of a campaign; the hard work comes in keeping politicians accountable to those promises. Perhaps that’s where The Straight Choice can help…

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Interview: Chris Nicholson

Chris Nicholson with Sarah Ludford MEP and a market trader (from right)

Chris Nicholson doesn’t live up to expectations. Or mine at least. The day before we meet, The Independent published accusations from Keith Hill that Nicholson, who is a partner at KPMG, had ‘bought his seat’. I had also heard a fantastic story put about by Labour about him mistakenly buying his house in Wandsworth instead of Streatham. Turns out it wasn’t so much a fantastic story as a fantasy. Instead of the business-like and rather clueless fat-cat I had expected, I got a softly spoken and articulate candidate sitting in a shabby suit and a messy campaign office. Serves me right.

Chris Nicholson is leading the Liberal Democrat bid to steal the Streatham seat from Labour.  This a Lib-Lab race. In the 2005 election, the Liberal Democrats managed to almost halve the Labour lead from 14,270 to just 7,466 votes.  Nicholson thinks it will come down to a thousand votes either way this time around. “We need less of a swing to take the seat than we got last time and we’ve been working very hard! It is eminently achievable.”

It is certainly true that Nicholson has been working hard. He may not be a lifelong resident like Chuka Umunna, but he speaks with clarity on local issues. “I grew up in Moss Side, Manchester, which was a similar sort of area to this. In that sense, this area feels like coming home.” He also feels that his life experience has enriched the way he approaches politics in the area. He was Head of Public Policy at KPMG and, long before that in the 1980s,  Liberal Democrat council leader in Kingston.  “People are cynical of the concept of a career politician. My experience outside of politics and of bringing up a family is something that we’re finding people respond to.”

Nicholson’s biggest bug bear is the way that Lambeth Labour have dealt with housing, especially the transfer of power to the outside organisation Lambeth Living. “The vote on Lambeth Living was something like 42% in favour and 41% against, yet that was taken as being a mandate for change. The new body didn’t have democratic accountability. Senior management had also taken their eye off the ball while trying to get tenants to vote in favour, so there were more empty properties. Rental income dropped and that meant that rents went up and there has been less money for repairs.” Nicholson is especially critical of the fact that Keith Hill MP is now chair of Lambeth Living, despite promises that it would be chaired by a tenant or leaseholder.

So what would the Lib Dems do differently? Nicholson cops out of a straight answer at first. “I know it’s easy to say we wouldn’t have got in that position to start with, but we genuinly wouldn’t have done.” That is easy to say. He goes on, however, to point to the success of resident management groups in Blenheim Gardens Estate and Roupell Park. Later, he emphasises that “as a Non-Conformist, I very much believe in bottom-up politics”. In his view, the Labour Party is inherently “very top-down, centralising and fairly authoritarian.” He applies the criticism to point out, correctly I believe, potential weaknesses in the John Lewis Council.  “In principle, it’s very good. However, the principle and the practice, particularly in Lambeth, would be rather different.  There’s a real problem that democractic accountability is just not seen as important.”

Of course, the Lib Dems when they led Lambeth council didn’t exactly have a good reputation either. They have been accused by many of being inexperienced and difficult to work with. As a parliamentary candidate in 2010, Nicholson can’t be held fully accountable for the Lib Dems’ actions as council leaders in 2006, when council tax rose by 40%, but he defends his colleagues. “There were clearly some things which didn’t go well. What we succeeded in doing was getting three departments out of special measures, getting Lambeth up to being a two star authority.”

For now, however, it is more constructive to focus on the future – if still with half an eye in the back of our heads to remind us of the past. The Lib Dems have launched their ‘four steps to fairness’. They would raise the personal tax allowance to £10,000 “removing four million people out of tax”; put more money into early years education and scrap tuition fees; support green jobs; and create a fairer voting system with an elected House of Lords.  All of this needs money, of which there will be little after the election. Nicholson’s approach to public spending cuts is half-good, half-unrealistic. When it comes to Streatham, he claims that no cuts should be made. We’d be fools to believe they won’t be. But Nicholson prefers to focus on cuts to national schemes – ID cards,  the Trident Nuclear Missiles system, Eurofighters, and Child Trust Funds.

If we strip away their party affiliations, it is difficult to find much of a difference between Chuka and Chris. Nationally, they are both for scrapping Trident, stopping tuition fees, and focusing on early years education. Locally, both promise a regeneration of Streatham High Rd, improved public transport links in Streatham and better leisure centres (arf arf).   “Chuka expresses a lot of views which are Liberal Democrat views, but I am in a party which supports those views and he is in a party which doesn’t.  He also says that he would vote for party policy and what was in the manifesto. To me, that must mean that he’s going to vote for some of those things which he disagrees with.” It is true that Chuka and the Compass group are not a majority voice in their party, although Umunna was adament when I interviewed him about his belief that MPs should not always toe the party line.  It is also true that the Lib Dems are much freer to talk about what they truly believe in as long as they remain the third party in Britain.

Perhaps it is because the election is so close between Umunna and Nicholson that the rumour mill has been racked up a notch. The house-buying story was published by the website Lambeth Liberal Democrat Watch – which I will not link to here – in 2008, but it is still in circulation now. It is, says Nicholson, a “complete fabrication”. “It was my partner’s house, which she’d bought years before, and I lived there for some time before we bought a house together in the constiuency. Of course I knew it was in Wandsworth and not Streatham, but it was where Trisha lived!”

The funding question is rather more complicated. Last week, Keith Hill stood up in parliament and accused Nicholson of buying his seat, because he has donated almost £300,000 to the party in the last three years, much of which has gone directly to his own campaign in Streatham. The figures are all correct – they have been declared in line with the law and are published on the Electoral Commission website. That does not, however, necessarily mean that he has ‘bought his seat’.  Nicholson denies that vehemently.  “It is outrageous that Hill sheltered behind parliamentary privilege to make those accusations. I’m sure that was done quite deliberately, because there were things in what he said which are completely untrue. The figures about my donations are correct, but he then also quoted what had been spent by our Streatham local party, implying that it was all on electioneering and comparing it with his communications allowance. In fact, a lot of the money spent by the Streatham party goes on premises and staff. If you compare how much the Streatham local party spent compared to how much Keith Hill spent, using public and union funds, we spent less. On top of that, the Council produces Lambeth Life every fortnight at huge cost. Chuka has until recently had office accomodation provided by the union UCATT. In fact, we are outspent by some margin by the Labor party.”

It is undoubtedly hard to square the huge amounts of money Nicholson has donated with his views on “bottom-up politics” and desire to reform the political system. Yet he readily gives his support for capping funding. “I would be the first to vote for changes in party funding rules. But we need to have a level playing field and the fact is that at the moment we don’t.” There is a strong, and I don’t think naive, case for arguing that Nicholson, as a rich man and in the knowledge that his party has much less money than its two competitors, has donated to a cause he believes in deeply.  It seems immensely hypocritical of Keith Hill, whose party received £4,962,886 in donations last quarter compared to the Lib Dem £1,055, 717. It is also another example of the unpleasant negative campaigning we have seen of late from Lambeth Labour, a tactic the Liberal Democrats do not seem to have engaged in to the same level.

In the media-obsessed world in which we live, it is hard to avoid the fact that Nicholson doesn’t have the cache or youth of Chuka Umunna. It might too have made the election excitingly scandalous if Nicholson really had been a fat cat parachuted into the constituency, but superficialities aside, we are lucky in this consituency to have two such strong candidates and the neck-and-neck race that will result from that is going to be just as intriguing.


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Windrush latest

After a mini debate on Twitter this afternoon about the first impressions of Windrush Sq., one tweeter sent in some photos from today confirming Jason Cobb’s opinion that “Windrush Sq has something of a beautiful, emptiness & solitude about it. Sadly that wasn’t the point though.” Perhaps it is unfair, however, to expect people to be sitting out on the square and pondering the new traffic system on Brixton Hill just yet. It is freezing cold after all.

Photos: Copyright Damon Hope


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Local democracy 2010: Data for the masses

All over the country, voter apathy is high. How is the national trend playing out in Brixton? What is being done to solve low voter turnout?

Introducing a series on local democracy in the run-up to the General Election, Brixton Blog talks to an e-activist from the new South London Democracy Club.

Richard Pope's diagram of the Democracy Club and the associated democracy websites

Richard Pope is an online democracy evangelist. From his flat in Electric Avenue, he contributes to several different websites aimed at making politics easily accessible to everyone, and has recently  helped to set up the South London Democracy Club. The club met for the first time at the end of February, gratifyingly near the site of the Chartist gathering in Kennington Park.

In the last General Election, voter turnout in all three constituencies to which Brixton belongs was depressingly low. At its best in Dulwich and Norwood, it stood at 58.1% – still 3.3% below the 61.4% national average. At its worst in Vauxhall, it was just 46.9%. This year, voter apathy across the country is expected to increase even further.

Yet Brixton is by no means an apolitical community.  Residents are highly involved in local issues. Last week, 10,000 young people voted in the Lambeth Youth Elections. Pope argues that Brixton is “innately political”. “The first time I went to a police consultancy group meeting, it was buzzing with ideas and politics. People really, really care about what happens in the council. You can just be talking to someone round the pub and they get it; and there are real problems in South London.” Somewhere along the line marked by the Iraq War and the expenses scandal, there has been a disconnect between local and national politics. Richard Pope wants to solve that problem.

His philosophy is simple:  create online datasets which give “normal people more information” about political decisions and, by establishing an online record, make politicians more accountable.

Pope’s main focus is The Straight Choice, a site he co-founded during the elections in 2005. “Things were being said carelessly in campaign leaflets with the expectation that people would just throw them away.” Pope was working on a site called Election Memory at the time, uploading all Lambeth election manifestos onto a single site, but he soon realised that the real problem was with the leaflets. “An anonymous leaflet, which almost certainly came from either the Conservatives or Labour, was put out insinuating some rather nasty things about a gay Lib Dem councillor visiting schools. We wanted to try to catch people when they were breaking the law and make the whole thing more relevant to people’s lives.” The Straight Choice works by encouraging people to scan and upload any election leaflets they receive. The moderators then identify any illegal or “dodgy” claims and shout about them to the relevant bodies.

The online community is tight knit. Pope also works for mySociety, which runs sites like and the Number 10 petitions website.

The newly established Democracy Club is what Pope describes as the “ring around these groups”. It works by giving out weekly national tasks to volunteers, the first of which was to organise a local meeting to coordinate activism in the constituencies. South London Democracy Club met last month at The Dog House in Kennington. Only seven people were there, but it is the data they want to collect, not the number of attendees, that is most important.

They came up with ten questions to put to all candidates running for election in South London. Any newcomers to the Club can suggest additional questions. The initial questions handled the following (hardly surprising) issues: Elephant and Castle redevelopment; Lambeth leisure services; stop and search; neighbourhood policing; council housing; private renting; a South London tram network; car use in South London; local currencies; local business support; and the 17% rise in council rent. The answers from candidates on these issues will be uploaded onto the site so that voters can hold MPs to their word after the election.

The initial questions from the South London Democracy Club

What makes Pope think that any of this will actually work?  “We’ll have all these datasets from Democracy Club after the election which anyone can use as they like, but they will also end up back on the website TheyWorkForYou, one of the biggest political websites in the country.” The people at TheyWorkForYou know that politicians pay attention to the site, because they send angry emails about what’s been put up. “From research, we also know that the users are not normal internet users. The whole reason for all of these websites is to try to make the data as mass market as possible because the data published online by parliament is in a format that is undigestable by the average person.”

The online community behind Democracy Club should be applauded for recognising that apathy is not about laziness or stupidity. Pope makes this very clear. “Voter turnout comes with making politics more relevant to people. Most attempts to get people voting are a bit patronising. They don’t think about whether they have the information available to make what they consider to be a choice. You can’t just force people to go out and vote, you have to give them the information to make their own choice.”


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Labour’s anti-Lib Dem video

There’s something pretty sickening about this new Lambeth Labour video. It’s like a poor man’s attempt at an American-style smear campaign. I’d rather hear about Labour’s own positive plans for the future of the area, thanks.

UPDATE:  The video has been removed from You Tube after a “copyright issue” over an image of Lambeth Lib Dem leader Ashley Lumsden.  @Jason_Cobb gives some good analysis

UPDATE #2 Mar 14: The video has now been re-uploaded onto You Tube, with a new insulting introductory message and a cartoon image of Ashley Lumsden (instead of the original copyrighted image) . I mean, really, how childish can you get?


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