….not that I’d ever contemplate voting Tory anyway.

The lead up to election day

As most people are probably aware by now, I live and work in Norwich. More specifically, I live and work in the constituency of Norwich North, which, thanks to the disgraceful and hypocritical behaviour of Gordon Brown’s so-called Star Chamber, is about to have a by-election following the resignation of one of the best constituency MPs in the country, Dr Ian Gibson.

The election is due to take place in a couple of weeks time, on July 23rd, and naturally, as a local resident and a political activist, I’ve been taking a very keen interest in things. I haven’t got involved in or lent my support to any particular campaign, because to be honest I’m still unsure as to which way I’m actually going to vote come the big day. Instead, as a bit of an experiment, I’ve been sitting back and trying to approach the whole thing from the position of a “typical,” politically inactive, undecided voter, ready to be persuaded by the force of the candidates’ arguments and policies.

And I have to say I’m totally unimpressed with nearly all of them.

So far I’ve had election leaflets through my door from the Conservative candidate Chloe Smith, from the independent candidate Craig Murray, from Labour’s Chris Ostrowski, and from UKIP candidate Glenn Tingle. From the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the other 8 candidates I’ve heard nothing. Nada. Rien.

I’ve used Twitter to try and engage with them all, posing the question “Why should I vote for you? Answer in 140 characters”, and as of this morning, only Craig Murray and the Green Party’s Rupert Read have bothered to respond.

Today in desperation I sent a message to the Liberal Democrats on Twitter, asking “Why have I had no election leaflets from the LDs, and no one knocking on my door? Don’t you want people’s votes?” They haven’t replied.

And yesterday was the first day that anyone from any of the different campaigns involved actually made the effort to come down my road and speak to the local residents personally. It’s not even as if I live out in the unreachable woolly wilds of Norfolk down a dirt track somewhere, in which case I could understand why no-one’s come-a-calling: I live in the burbs.

So, with two weeks to go in this hugely important by-election, if I really was a totally undecided floating voter, my conclusion is I’d be voting Tory by now.

But I’m not, and aside from my political differences with the Conservative Party nationally, aside from the fact that I’m old enough to remember life under a Conservative government, and even forgetting the naff and sexist letter my 17 year old daughter (who’s too young to vote in this election) received from David Cameron in which he referred to his fully grown adult female candidate as a “girl,” there’s a reason for that.

I’ve had swathes of literature from the Conservative candidate’s campaign, some of it in the form of general election leaflets just posted through my door, and some of it in letter form addressed to me personally. Yesterday evening I stood at my front door and chatted to Chloe Smith herself, and a really nice and personable young woman she is too.

But, and there has to be a but, no matter how pleasant the candidate is, and no matter how good on paper her policies for local improvements appear to be, I have some bitter past experience with how Norfolk Tories really operate: I know exactly how flimsy their claims to care about preserving and supporting local communities truly are, and it’s because of this experience that I would never ever vote for Chloe Smith or her party.

And now for some local history

scan0005In December 2002 I was working as a library manager at Lazar House Library, a small branch library in the Mousehold area of Norwich.

Now despite it’s close proximity to stunning heathland and outstanding countryside, Mousehold was at the time among the 10% of the most deprived wards in the East of England, and among the 20% most deprived nationally. In other words it was the kind of area that desperately needed investment in community services, not cuts.

I’d been managing the library for just over a year, having started in the role in September 2001. It was my first (and last!) management job, and with only 4 staff to line-manage, and working in the oldest library building in the country (built sometime between 1101 and 1119, Lazar House originally began life as a leper hospital. After several centuries during which it served as a dovecote, a barn and a dwelling, it was finally gifted in 1921 to the City of Norwich by Sir Eustace  Gurney for use as a public library), I was loving every minute of it.

I was also a trade union steward, but as library managers are way down the local government management scales, there was no conflict between doing that and doing my job (plus, if there had been any issues between the staff and myself, there were other library stewards available to represent them).

So anyway, it was the evening of December 16th 2002, and I was just about to leave the house to do some Xmas food shopping, when the phone rang. It was my area manager. Phoning to warn me that the local press were going to be reporting the next day on the county council’s decision to investigate what savings could be made from closing 5 branch libraries and 3 museums: “I’m afraid Lazar House is going to be named as one of the libraries under review,” she said, “You need to let the rest of your staff know before they read about it in tomorrow’s papers.”

Just as she’d warned, the next day there it was:  a report in the local press announcing a council review of the potential savings that could be made from closing “a few” local museums and libraries. And my library was named as one of those under review.

Over the next few days as all this started to sink in both the council and libraries management started to vacillate. At first they told us that the naming of specific libraries had been a mistake, and that those particular ones had only been used in the initial report as examples. They’d needed to do costings to illustrate the case for library closures, they said, and the 5 libraries involved had simply been picked at random, they weren’t necessarily the ones they were going to be looking at.

This proved to be a lie, as the names of the 5 libraries under threat, Plumstead Road, Lazar House, Bradwell, Brundall and Hingham, never changed.

Over the next few weeks a campaign to save both libraries and museums swung into action, and naturally I was one of those involved. We stood for hours in Norwich city centre collecting thousands of signatures for a petition; we wrote letters to the local press, did media interviews, demonstrated both outside of the libraries themselves and on the steps of County Hall. And we joined forces with the local Evening News newspaper, who launched their own high-profile “Hands off our libraries” campaign.

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And yes, that’s Ian Gibson in the left of the picture. A constituency MP doing exactly what he should be doing and fighting against cuts to local services.

And here’s me, the one and only time I’ve ever been splashed across the front page of any newspaper.

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The then Poet Laureate Andrew Motion was one of hundreds who wrote to both the council and the local press calling on councillors to save the city’s cultural services, and for a while we genuinely thought the council was going to back down.

But then, in early February 2003, during a packed county council meeting, at the start of which we presented a 21,000 name petition against closures to the Conservative leader Alison King, the Tory administration announced that it had reviewed it’s original proposals, and was now proposing to close just 2 of the original 5 libraries: all 3 museums were to be spared the axe.

Lazar House was one of the two.

Unsurprisingly we didn’t give up. More letters to the press followed, this time with me sticking my neck well above the parapet and challenging claims made by my council employers:

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I did more interviews:

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Local schoolchildren made posters:

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Norwich City Council, who actually own the Lazar House building, offered to waive all rent on the place for a year, to help keep County Council costs down and the library open.

And my UNISON branch, in conjunction with local Labour councillors, organised a public meeting at a local high school, which was attended by over 200 local residents, as well as teachers, county councillors, senior members of the libraries management team, and the Council Cabinet Member for Libraries, Heather Bolt.

Word has it that after that meeting, where locals explained both passionately and movingly why the small branch library meant so much to them, Heather Bolt changed her mind. Apparently the next day she went to Alison King and expressed her view that Lazar House should remain open: a few days later there was a cabinet reshuffle, and Heather Bolt was replaced.

Finally, on February 24th 2003, at another packed council meeting, the vote was due to be taken on whether or not to close both Lazar House and Bradwell libraries. But before that, in a last-ditch bid to save the libraries, Labour councillors submitted an amendment that called for a proposed increase of some £60,000 in the Council Chair’s hospitality budget to be slashed down to £8,000, and the £52,000 thus saved to be used to keep the libraries open.

The amendment was lost by one vote.

The following day the local headlines said it all: “Booze over Books” “Entertainment cash closes two libraries” “Contempt for the People” and so on.

And I received a letter, which I’ve always treasured, from a local family who used the library and who had been stalwarts during the campaign:

“No words of comfort – but I’ll try anyway

Dear Cath

I know we are gutted, and you must be absolutely shattered. We won all the arguments, but they did not want to be seen to have climbed down totally from their original position. It is now on record that this administration values its buffets and booze more than our books and libraries. I hope they choke on their corporate entertainment!!

All the Lazar House staff have been fantastic to our family over the years and I can’t thank you enough for being excellent. There are no magic wands, but I do think that we fought a good fight and I don’t know that we could have done much more.

Look after yourself Cath

Love…”

Local residents kept up their campaign, even staging a sit-in at Lazar House during its final week of business, and refusing to leave until the camera crews arrived. But eventually, just four months after the original announcement of a review of library services, on Saturday 3rd May 2003, Lazar House Library closed its doors for the last time.

And the Conservative run County Council from then on became known as the council that valued corporate entertainment more highly than it valued local services for local people.

Now

So, when I read Chloe Smith’s election literature telling me how the Conservatives don’t believe in cuts to local services, and telling me how they intend to clean up parliament, I can’t help but be reminded of what happened here just a few years ago: I can’t help but remember just how importantly local Conservatives then viewed local services, so much so that they prioritised their corporate entertainment budget over vital public services.

And I think no. You won’t be getting my vote. Not now, and not ever.

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