BEN SELLERS wrote an angry and articulate open letter to Durham County councillors on his blog last month, following their decision to suspend plans to cut the pay of local teaching assistants. As part of our series on education, we are re-publishing his letter below, prefaced with an explanatory note from ILP chair DAVID CONNOLLY.
Plans by the Labour controlled Durham County Council to sack 2,700 teaching assistants and then ‘re-engage’ them with term-time only contracts, involving a 23 per cent wage cut, has led to a long-running and bitter dispute.
The cuts were initially approved by the council in May 2016 on the grounds that if they did not alter the contracts it would face major equal pay claims from other staff working in schools.
But the overwhelmingly female workforce, mainly working in primary and nursery schools, has fought back with strikes, protest marches, rallies, petitions and mass pickets of County Hall.
As a result the council has now suspended its plans and set up a working party with the unions which is reported to be making progress in coming up with new re-grading proposals to solve the dispute.
Nevertheless, the damage done to Labour’s reputation has been immense and Ben Sellers, an active supporter of the teaching assistants’ campaign, has published a hard hitting open letter to Labour councillors on his blog: The World Turned Upside.
Dear Labour Councillor,
Don’t blame me – it was your choice to stand as a representative of the people, for the Labour Party – also known as the People’s Party. If you are now being held to account for your decisions which you have made in the course of that duty, representing that party, that is very much par for the course.
Don’t blame me – I didn’t make you wave through a pay cut amounting to 23 per cent, or more than £5,000 a year, for some of the most valued and worst-rewarded public servants we have in County Durham. I’m not the one who seemed to think teaching assistants washed paint pots for a living.
Don’t blame me – I’m not the one who unquestioningly took the officers’ word for it when they told you that you must vote for an imposed TA contract which was inevitably going to cause such grief and hardship. I wasn’t the one who failed to check out the validity of the legal advice, to research the talk of equal pay claims, and above all, whose conscience didn’t twig. We vote for you to represent us. We don’t vote for chief executives.
Don’t blame me – I’m not the Labour member who made my excuses, walked out or abstained over the crucial vote, when there was still the option of speaking out, of being a leader, a hero even. When there was still the chance to join with the trade union movement and present a solid bloc against Tory austerity. I wasn’t the one who ducked out.
Don’t blame me – I didn’t force you to pick a fight with the county’s equivalent of NHS nurses: incredibly strong women with the respect of teachers, parents, communities, even some heads. You’re supposed to be a politician – aren’t you supposed to think ahead, have a strategic sense?
Don’t blame me – I’m not the one who has invested so much power in one or two ‘leaders’ – the leader of the Labour group and his trusty lieutenants. I even warned you, when you were voting through care home closures, hiving off leisure centres to community groups with hardly a peep, because they were the “tough decisions” you were supposed to make, right?
Don’t blame me – I’m not the one who buried his head in the sand when the dislocation between DCC and local communities was becoming evident. I’m not the one who “objected” when being warned that Labour councillors were becoming divorced from the people they represented.
Don’t blame me – I’m not the one who refused to protest, to join us on the picket line when the frustration became obvious and the anger palpable. I’m not the one who read a prepared “statement” on the steps of County Hall. Neither am I the genius who thought it was a good idea to argue with hundreds on Facebook, justifying the unjustifiable.
Don’t blame me – it wasn’t me who tried to stop a debate being held by the local Labour Party, who attempted to deny members the chance to rectify the mistakes of their representatives at County Hall. Neither was I the person who refused to put up a single argument in favour of the pay cut and imposition of the TA contract.
Don’t blame me – I’m not the councillor who had to go back on everything they had said, who had to backtrack on the legal argument, the equal pay claims which allegedly made compromise impossible, or the ‘non-negotiable’ position of the council cabinet.
It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t the TAs fault, it wasn’t Davy Hopper’s fault back in June, or Tom’s, or Dick’s, or Harry’s fault. Indeed, all of the people you have viewed as ‘trouble makers’ for too long are completely blameless – and, by the way, it won’t be Jeremy Corbyn’s fault if an electoral disaster happens in May. Jeremy Corbyn, who came to the Miners’ Gala, and felt the need to speak out about a local dispute, quite against all protocol. He asked you to ‘sort it’, but you were stubbornly deaf to his plea.
But look, it’s not personal. I’m more than prepared to see it in a bigger context: of a long history of deferential, meek Labour politics in County Durham – where individual councillors have, for too long, gone along with a small group of unrepresentative decision makers (some of them not even elected). You’ve given them too much respect, you trusted them too much – and now they have led you straight down a cul-de-sac.
You have one last chance for a mea culpa. It means no more sniping; no more whispering about those who exposed this sorry mess; no more conspiracies about the teaching assistants being led by this or that group. No more sourness in respect of a new group of prospective Labour councillors who have distanced themselves from these terrible decisions, and tried to revive the party’s name.
It means taking responsibility, starting with a very public apology. Also, a long, hard look in the mirror will tell you one thing: that if you do survive the local elections, and emerge once again as a representative of the people, you should never again take decisions that hurt your own constituents, your own communities and potentially our party’s people, so carelessly. Because, apart from anything else, you know, it’s a real vote loser.
Ben Sellers’ open letter was first published on his blog, ‘The World Turned Upside Down’, on 27 March 2017.