Labour baroness wants politics kept out of the Forest of Dean


Labour baroness wants politics kept out of the Forest of Dean

Mark Harper, the Tory MP for the Forest of Dean, has ‘concerns’ about job security, but that is all he has in common with the millions of public sector workers whose jobs are currently under threat. This slick politician who spoke at a local anti-cuts rally in 2006 and praised his constituents for fighting hospital closures and NHS cuts, is now telling them to ‘wait and see’ before deciding whether privatising half of the Forest of Dean will be a bad thing.

Sue Powell, Gloucestershire Socialist Party

Locally, Harper is being called a traitor and a turncoat (that’s the polite version). No one is in a mood to wait; they already know how the cuts will affect their community and fear that they will lose the very hospitals they fought so hard to save. No one here thinks waiting until the next general election is a good idea.

A magnificent protest movement, including a 3,000 strong demo in the forest on 3 January, has been organised by HOOF (Hands Off Our Forest). However, under the helm of Labour’s shadow leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Jan Royall, the campaign has declared itself to be “non-political”.

At a public meeting in December, amidst numerous demands to look into the right to recall MPs and unseat Harper she explained: “I know and like Mark Harper … he’s a good MP but I believe he is fundamentally wrong about the forest”. She’s also stated: “Politics is a funny business. Largely because of the way the media presents it, people tend to believe politicians are at each others’ throats all the time… but many friendships are formed across party political boundaries”.

She argues that there is an “entirely non-political reason for opposition”, ie that everyone who lives in, works in or just loves the forest, should oppose its privatisation – “for all our sakes, and for the sake of the forest itself”.

Using this argument she separates privatisation of the forest (which she’ll fight tooth and nail) from the other forests – which she will not campaign for.

As for privatisation, she explains: “Decades ago, Labour used to oppose privatisation for political reasons. We don’t do that anymore. We support what works: privatising our forests isn’t like privatising British Telecom, or British Gas, or even British Rail. Privatisation of technology, or a utility, or even a transport system, is one thing. But privatising our natural environment, our forest, which we hold in trust for our children and our children’s children, is an entirely different matter”.

It’s another example of picking which cuts to oppose, rather than opposing them all.

Someone who came up to the Socialist Party stall during the 3 January rally was convinced “the powers that be have always tried to crush us here because we always fight them”.
Another recalled: “My granddad was a miner, working not a mile from here; my dad worked in the forest – I work in Birmingham in an outsourced sector, they’re trying to change our contracts. The public sector there is being smashed apart. We’ve got a fight on our hands – we need to fight together”.
Another said: “I remember the miners’ and Grunwicks – nothing has changed.”

There is no wall between the Con-Dem plans for forests and their plans to dismantle public ownership and services forever. People in the Forest of Dean see the cuts as a class issue: Losing the NHS would also be a loss of heritage affecting our children. Cuts to local transport, road maintenance, youth and library services are part of the same strategy as forest privatisation.

The latest local media survey shows just 2% in favour of forest privatisation. Only 14% think the government is doing a good job, 81% say they are not. Four days after the HOOF rally, Socialist Party member Lee Hyett accompanied a constituent to Harper’s surgery in the hope of getting the answers which the MP has so far declined to give in public (he has refused all invitations from HOOF to speak at their meetings and the rally). Harper told his constituent that ‘there are not and never have been any plans to sell off the Forest of Dean to developers who would cut down the forest to replace it with recreation parks. All that has ever been proposed is whether a local ‘not for profit’ organisation, a charitable trust say, might be able to involve local people more closely in the ownership or management of the Forest of Dean. I think that is at least worth looking at’.

He also stated that the Forestry Commission would remain unaffected by the government’s proposals.

Lee asked Harper if that meant that he could guarantee job safety for the 49 Forestry Commission workers currently employed to look after the Forest. Harper refused to give that guarantee.

When asked why the usual parliamentary procedure of a white paper preceeded by a green paper along with a consultation process had not been observed in this case, Harper replied that he didn’t know! He denied rumours that he has been provided with a safe Tory seat for the next general election, and did so with a quote reminiscent of the oratorical manglings of former US president George W Bush: ‘Come the next election, I’ll either be here or I won’t be here, but I won’t be somewhere else’!

The campaign to save local libraries has already had a big impact – these campaigns need to be linked together to create a mass campaign together with local trade unions. In the private sector, 200 Unite members at the Ribena plant in Coleford are being balloted for strike action over a wage dispute.

Three thousand people against forest privatisation turning out to face the snow and bitter cold, illustrates the potential for a big campaign against cuts and privatisation. Perhaps Mark Harper, too young for a place opposite his friend Jan in the Lords, should consider a career change.