Guest writer Stephen Kingston is editor of the Salford Star
For the past week Salford Star – a seven year old award winning community publication once in print and now online – has been on strike. We have no bosses and, as volunteers, we don’t get paid, so the idea of going on strike seems like madness. On strike against who? On strike against what?
We are on strike to show what Salford would be like with virtually no-one holding the Council and its partners up to account.
Salford, with its ridiculously high poverty figures, is suffering more than most cities under Coalition Government cuts. In voting terms this has wiped out the LibDems and given the Labour Party a ridiculously overwhelming majority of 52 seats out of sixty in the city.
Add to this last year’s first elected Labour Party City Mayor, who now wields virtual total power, and it has very quickly translated itself into the arrogance associated with a one party state…
…A one party state where complying with the law has become an irritation that can be ignored…where legitimate questions from journalists can be binned…where truths are brushed off as lies…and where critical community media and trade unions are dismissed as `extremists’. If Stalin was alive he’d approve.
The Salford Star is not political – whoever was in power in the city would be held up to account. We’ve every right to metaphorically pull their pants down and question what we find. It’s called democracy, transparency, equality and all those other things that, coincidentally, were born in Salford – from the Chartists and Friedrich Engels onwards.
In the past you could expect opposition councillors – a mix of Independents, LibDems and Community Action Party – to attempt to hold the Council to account. They could `call in’ decisions. They could get hold of information and, if necessary, leak it to the press. They could challenge decisions via committees. They could at least be an opposition of some sort.
…Now that opposition is just eight Tory councillors, who represent the more affluent parts of Salford, and have their own narrow agenda which doesn’t include questioning the Coalition Government cuts, sheepishly followed by the Labour Party. Council meetings have become a formality where the Labour Party literally goes through the motions, the Tories mouth some opposition and the vote is a foregone conclusion. Council meetings have become an irrelevance.
You can argue that the Labour Council was democratically elected and has a majority mandate from the people. The Salford Star certainly wouldn’t argue with that. But when that mandate gets morphed into arrogance it becomes another, dangerous matter.
This year, the Salford Council chamber has been occupied by an anti cuts Mental Health campaign group, beautifully titled U.S.U.C. The police were called to another Council meeting when it was halted by Salford Against The Cuts protesters blowing whistles and chanting from the public gallery. Campaigners opposing the Bedroom Tax have occupied housing offices and taken to the streets. People who were horrified at the Salford riots a few years ago now tell us that if there are any more they will probably join in.
In the absence of any proper formal challenge to Salford Labour Party’s omnipotence it’s been left to the community to Do It Ourselves. The Salford Star is the only truly independent community media in Salford – all others rely on funding from Salford Council and its public sector partners, and the restrictions and control that brings.
Operating on less than a shoestring the Star has had to abandon print issues because advertisers, even if they privately support our ethos, are frightened to be associated with a magazine critical of the Council. We’re now online only. Meanwhile the Council and its partners are about to re-launch Life In Salford, a `Town Hall Pravda’ (copyright Eric Pickles) under the control of the `Assistant Mayor for Communication’.
Over the last twelve months, since Ian Stewart has been elected as Salford City Mayor, and virtually all political opposition has been wiped out, the Council machine has turned overtly political. The so-called neutral press office even has a former Labour Party spin doctor in charge. So many requests for comments have not been answered that the Star has almost given up asking for quotes.
Meanwhile, Freedom of Information requests dating back six months were ignored; our legal right to see Council accounts and invoices were blocked, which the Council’s own accounts department says is a “criminal offence”; the City Mayor himself publicly accused us of lying; Assistant Mayor Gena Merrett also accused us on her website of being liars and a “key supporter of an extreme left-wing political party that aims to ‘smash The Labour Council and the Labour Party”, with absolutely no proof, of course. When we tried to drag her to the Council’s Standards Committee for bringing public office into disrepute we never even got a reply.
We’re not Al Qaeda, we’re a community mag. We don’t seek to oppose but to question and challenge. And neither are we playing at politics – Salford Council decisions have seen millions of pounds of public money going towards prestige projects like fountains, bridges, MediaCityUK and Salford City Reds, while financial cuts rain down on services for the poorest in the city. People affected by those decisions – including parents of kids with disabilities, the homeless and those who are losing their homes – come to the Star hoping we can help.
To say that we’re aggrieved to be called `liars’ and `extremists’ doesn’t begin to describe it. To be denied information vital to any democracy is equally unacceptable. But where do you go to complain? We haven’t got the finances to take anyone to court. The national Standards Board for councillors has been abolished, the District Audit Office has been privatised; the Information Commissioner is so swamped, it took us over a year to get justice last time we took a case there. Meanwhile, the puny Tory opposition isn’t going to speak up for us – it doesn’t even speak to us! And Council officers to whom you are supposed to complain have hardly proved themselves neutral.
The only action left to us has been to go on strike – and show what Salford would be like with nobody questioning the antics of the ruling Labour Party regime.
After a week on the virtual picket lines, Salford Council did cave in. All of a sudden, last week, two Freedom of Information requests were answered and accounts details we’d been awaiting for nine months finally arrived, despite being heavily redacted.
For the time being, though, we’re still out on strike, hoping to get some action on the slurs from the Assistant Mayor, but mainly to draw the wider community’s attention to the situation in Salford, where it’s like living in some weird one party state.
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