“This is the first time I’ve been in here all week” Jim tells us. He’s spent the rest of the week around the community working with his constituents. After the last election when Labour won a majority in the council he decided there was little constructive work that could be done in the council HQ and spends most time in the community.
The walls of Jim’s office are decked with the flags of various left-wing and national independence causes. On his desk sits a small but rather stately looking Palestine flag on a miniature flag pole. Noticing our wandering eyes he points to the red shades at the window, which he tells us he had changed from the standard West Dunbartonshire council green (with some reluctance on behalf of the staff in charge of decor).
The conditions and challenges faced by his constituents are undoubtedly worsening; 14% of children in West Dunbartonshire live in severe poverty and the area has a high level of joblessness.
“West Dunbartonshire is very similar to a lot of other working class areas; high unemployment, high levels of poverty and fuel poverty. The immediate issues right now are trying to combat the Bedroom Tax and trying to deal with its outcome. Three thousand of our tenants are affected by the Bedroom Tax.
The other issue that’s coming down the line is universal credit, which again will have a huge impact on a lot of our tenants and residents. Those are the immediate things. The other thing we are trying to grapple with right now is zero hour contracts. We’ve just discovered for the first time that the council actually has employees on Zero hour contracts – so we’re mounting a campaign against that.
We are also up against the victimisation of, particularly, young people by the DWP. There are a huge number of benefits sanctions on a daily basis. We are trying to raise that as an issue as well, through the trades council.”
Some of Scotland’s fuel poverty campaigns have actually come from Jim’s own constituents, such as the Campaign 250 – set up by Clydebank-based Anne Lynch. The campaign demands that the soon to be abolished Winter fuel payment to all those on low incomes, students and pensioners. We asked Jim about Ed Miliband’s proposals to combat escalating fuel prices with a temporary price freeze:
“Am I allowed to swear in this interview? The Labour party’s position is just another capitalist position. What we really need to do with the energy industry is just bring it into public ownership, that’s the only way we are going to deal with fuel poverty. Any other so called compromises that are put on the table don’t deal with the issue.
The big six energy companies should be nationalised. That’s how we make sure everybody is able to heat their homes. These big companies are making massive profits. The Labour party is attempting to work within the confines of capitalism, but what we need to do is challenge capitalism.”
With 3000 tenants in the West Dunbartonshire area affected by the Bedroom Tax, it has become the most worrying aspect of Westminster’s austerity measures for local people, but one that Jim and his constituents are determined to fight:
“We took the issue to the council and made it clear –there should be no evictions- for anybody, not just in rent arrears with the bedroom tax but in rent arrears per se. We got beat at the vote and the Labour Party put through a wishy-washy motion which they say will mean no evictions but we’re not convinced of that. So what we’ve been doing is speaking to the trades unions and the tenants movement and we’re building up a network of opposition so that if and when they try to evict anybody we will be ready to physically stop them.
At the moment 60 letters has been sent out to tenants in arrears with the bedroom tax. That’s the first step to eviction. We’ve got a network, and we’ll find out from people we’ve got in the council. We’ll physically stop evictions from going ahead.”
We asked Jim about a recent campaign directed at public sector workers in West Dunbartonshire. The council had put up posters telling staff that if they took a day off work, then care services would be lost to those in need:
“Disgraceful. Actually we managed to get that reversed, and a lot of that was down to the hard work of the trade unions in the council. It was an absolute disgrace the way they were treating workers. They were coming into their work, with these mats stuck to the ground saying that ‘a day off your work could have paid for children in residential care getting looked after” – it was bullying. But the trade unions launched a good campaign and we put a motion to the council as well and they got withdrawn two weeks later.
A wee victory. You don’t get many victories but that was a wee one!”
We asked Jim if he’d noticed an increase in benefits sanctions in West Dunbartonshire:
“Aye, it’s a huge issue in West Dumbarton now. We’ve got three DWP offices. At the one in Dumbarton and the one in Alexandria we’ve seen huge increases. I was dealing with a case there with a young man – four minutes late [for a benefits appointment] and he got sanctioned. Another young man who was dyslexic, and couldn’t complete the Jobs sheet register, was taken off [JSA]. There’s a local independent resource centre in Clydebank who help claimants to fight the system, and they are inundated with so many people being sanctioned.
I’m getting it in my surgery every week. I had a case where a young man was sanctioned, he was told to put down the address of a website he went on to seek employment – he only put down the name – he got sanctioned. And we’re talking about sanctioning people who are only on £57 a week, lowest job seekers allowance you can get. And that affects their housing benefit. The knock-on affect is they can end up homeless.”
Targets on benefit sanctions have repeatedly been exposed by job centre staff to the press, and despite how much the Department for Work and Pensions management deny it, sanctions use continues to grow.
“There’s no doubt about it, there’s targets. We got in contact with the local MP, a Labour MP, and asked her if she could get us the information, the figures for the three benefits offices. In the letter it said there are absolutely no targets. But you can tell when you look at the figures, the Clydebank office was the highest [for sanctions], so it was no surprise that the Vale and Dumbarton numbers were going up to meet the Clydebank levels. Again it’s another tactic by the Tories to attack our class, part of a big attack on the working class.”
Privatization at the council is a real and serious threat.
“We’ve got to convince the unions to stop it dead in its tracks.” Jim states. “They’ve brought in this woman; her title is the ‘Transformation Manager’ – I still don’t know what that means – she’s on £80,000 a year and she’s coming out with all these ideas. The top floor used to be a canteen for the staff – a subsidised canteen which was good – they’ve shut the canteen and spent £400,000 turning it into a hot desk office. It’s all about divide and conquer. The Tories know the public sector is a place where they can sell stuff off to their friends.
Privatisation is the end game for the Tories, they’re trying to suck as much money out of it [public sector] as they can. They are doing it right now in the NHS. They’ve already started in local government. We could be going down to 15 councils instead of 32 – a high level of centralisation. Then you’ll see the privatisers coming in.”
As a long-standing supporter of Scottish Independence, Jim spoke about his vision of the future for local councils and local democracy in the event of a Yes vote in 2014.
“It needs to be different. What we’ve had with consecutive Labour and Tory Governments is democracy being attacked, not just councils but in the Labour movement – tenants, trade unions – it’s been attacked and undermined. 2014 is only the vote, as a socialist I see that as the start. I think what then needs to happen is we need to work to get a left of centre government. And part of that deal has to be more democracy and not just for councils but democracy for communities and trade unions and workers, so that we don’t just put an X on the ballot every five years, but we’ve got a living democracy in our communities and in local government as well.”
We asked him how much independence was discussed amongst his constituents:
“It’s a big issue. We still have a way to go, I think a lot of people are still frightened by it because of what they are being hit with in the mainstream media, all the lies they are being subjected to on a daily basis. I saw that clown Robertson in the papers saying that if we had independence there would be greater risk of a terrorist attack in Scotland (laughs). There’s all that tripe being fed out to people.
But I think the way to convince people is to talk about the Bedroom Tax, to talk about Universal Credit, the cuts in welfare, bad housing, all the issues that are affecting people. And I think if we are to convince people that if we got independence, and we get a left of centre government we can begin to tackle some of these issues like unemployment, low wages, zero hour contracts. Whereas if we remain part of imperialist Britain, we’ve got absolutely no chance of making a dent in these issues.”
Jim Bollan moved a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions motion first in 2009, in West Dunbartonshire council, showing his support and solidarity with that Palestinian people.
“It doesn’t matter where people are getting oppressed, it could be the other end of the world. But if they get away with it there it makes it easier for the capitalists here to get away with oppressing us. It’s about international solidarity. An attack on our comrades whether it be in Palestine or Egypt is an attack on us. We all need to fight together. I represent a part of the world where there’s quite a lot of wealth and a lot of poverty. The people tell me what concerns them. When Israel slaughtered 18,000 Palestinians we put forward the motion to divest from Israel. The response we got from people was incredible. Tenants groups supported it, constituents were writing to the papers supporting it. Because they understand that attacks on Palestinians are part of a bigger attack on the whole working class.”
We asked Jim why socialists should run for positions in representation, whether in unions or parliament or, like him, a local council. What opportunities do those positions afford socialists?
“The first thing it gives you is access for the people you represent. I’m under no illusions that where I sit in the structure here, is down in the bottom, in the carpet, but it gives us access, gives us an opportunity – strangely enough to make a case to senior officers – to suggest things that should be happening. Because if you try and talk to the other politicians, you’ll have no chance. But a lot of the senior officers are looking for political guidance, because the Labour councillors here are bereft of any ideas. So there’s an open door. The likes of me and George [independent] have won quite a lot of victories without having to go through the political system.
First of all I was only involved in the unions, but I realised I wouldn’t get political change just through the unions so I joined the Communist Party, then the Labour Party, till Kinnock took it over, then I joined the SSP. I always felt that if you got elected as a socialist your first responsibility was to your punters and then to your party.
One of the areas we have been successful in is Renton. We used to get battered of the establishment in Renton for over 20 years. They used to say ‘your awful poor in Renton’ so they would bring a project in. They would bring people in with money and there would be no difference by the time they left. We got sick to the back teeth of that and what we did was begin to create an organisation via a community based housing association where we started to own the assets.
That’s the key for any community. At the moment it’s the health board, it’s the government, it’s the council – it’s all those organisations that own the assets. So we decided that if we wanted to play with the big boys we had to own the assets. We owned the houses, we set up a company that could trade for profit off the housing association. We then built a local shop and rented it out. Along with the health board we built a health centre and a chemist. We got an empty community education centre off the council and got grants, we’re in the process at the moment of buying a nursery off the council for £25,000. Through the housing association built a 40 person elderly care home. They are all assets that aren’t owned by the council, they’re owned by the Renton community. For me that’s a small example of how socialism works. Local people own the assets and call the shots.”
And what about the Labour council, and where does he see Scottish Labour headed in the future?
“They have no ideology. There was always a small chance that the Labour party could have changed things slightly for the better for the working class in Britain through parliament, always a small chance. That’s away now – it went when Kinnock got a hold of it.
In Scotland they have no ideals – the crop in here have no background in the Labour movement, only two or three of them were ever in a trade union. They’ve got no experience of any big struggles, no background in the peace movement. They all come in purely just to make up the numbers. Some of them stand to make up the numbers and then are surprised to get elected, don’t know why they are there.
Anas Sarwar, the deputy leader, was at the Town hall the other night – he got booed off the platform! It was about independence. He got booed, they were shouting at him. He was trying to read a speech off a bit of paper. They’ve got no quality.
The only thing holding this lot in here together is, well there’s twelve of them and eight of them work full time as well as being a councillor. They get £25,000 because they’ve got departments and they are working full time on top of that. They only hold 4 meetings a year. Democracy, accountability, accessibility? It’s not happening.”
In a political system dominated by right-wing career politicians, is it hard to stick to your principles and ideals without succumbing to the political ‘game’?
“No. Not at all”. But is there any pressure to conform and toe the line? “Oh yes, of course”. How does he deal with it?
“Just tell them naw (laughs). Tell them to go away. I’ve been reported to the standards commission again, going through the process, and I’ll probably get suspended again, and that’s because I won’t bend the knee. I constantly try and stick to my principles, understand who elected me and why I’m here. And I always try and confront the establishment, whether it’s the officers or the Labour group.
There is that pressure. But I think if you’re a socialist you’ve got a benchmark, you’ve got a barometer. As long as you’ve got that, as long as you know what your politics and your values are that stands you in good stead.”