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Remaking Britain after the EU referendum

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Sun, June 26, 2016 09:05:58
The democratic process has delivered its result, and I have accepted that we now will (and should) leave the EU.

I voted remain, and live on the boundary of two of London's voting areas with the highest remain out-turns in the country (Islington and Hackney). I have been welcomed and am very happy here. However, I spent most of my life living and working in Staffordshire, which has voted decisively for leave. I have deep affection and respect for the people of Staffordshire.

I think the right thing for me to do is to accept the democratic result, and move on work to ensure that the values that matter to me inform the politics of a country that will still be a European democracy, albeit outside the EU. My family is a family of immigrants, who came to England (from Poland and Italy) and were welcomed into it long before the EU was even dreamed of. Integration of successive waves of immigration is in Britain's DNA, and I will do what I can to ensure that this remains the case.

I don't think it right or fair to demand a second referendum. And I don't believe that London can somehow be in the EU when the rest of England is not. Petitions on this topic are not for me. I am also afraid that much of the response I am seeing from my fellow disappointed remainers is counterproductive. Although I don't agree with everything she says, Suzanne Moore - as a self-avowed member of the "metropolitan elite" - has pointed up rather well some of the dangers of what is now being done and said by some of her neighbours in London, who seem to be idealising London as a model of modern Britain, forgetting the abject poverty and desolation which many of its people live in (see They will also not advance their cause by crude stereotyping of those who voted "leave", and who now form the majority. The reasons for voting "leave" are complex and multiple.

Is this vote the precursor of the breakup of the UK into its constituent parts? Although there is an assumption by many that Scotland will vote to leave the Union, the collapse of oil prices since the last referendum (September 2014) makes the economics much less viable, since Scotland would have to give up its 15 billion per annum subsidy from the UK Treasury (14% of its GDP). John McTernan has argued that for all her bullish remarks, Nicola Sturgeon will not call a referendum unless she is sure that "leave" would win, something that is by no means guaranteed.

What we are already seeing is that the vote has thrown both major political parties in England into turmoil. This is a symptom of the gradually emerging realisation that neither Conservative or Labour party as currently constituted can plausibly head up a process of national reconciliation after the Brexit vote.

It was inevitable that the EU referendum would be the beginning of the end of the Conservative and Labour parties as we have known them for my lifetime. They have both failed the British people, and - although it will cause much strife and turbulence - their time is over and I welcome their likely dissolution, and the re-emergence of new political alignments (and arrangements, including proportional representation and an English parliament) which better represent the diversity of political views in this country. Anthony Barnett's extraordinarily prescient "It's England's Brexit" (written on 4th June but seeming a lifetime ago) lays out the terrain with masterly precision. (

Neither party will succeed simply by "shuffling the pack" of their cabinets. They need to split and reform. It may take them both time to realise this, as successive candidates for the leadership discover that their members are now permanently split and ungovernable, because they are now made up of irreconcileable tribes who need to go their separate ways. The task in front of our political system is now to reform itself so that these tribes can face each other in a new democratic arrangement where ALL the voices of our people can exert influence in proportion to their numbers, and where the majority of people can align with political representatives who truly represent their views and interests.

We are facing nothing less than the task of remaking Britain.

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With little conviction or enthusiasm I am voting "remain"

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Wed, June 15, 2016 11:45:07
Whatever the outcome of the UK EU referendum, it will have brought to the surface and solidified two large groups of the English population that - at best - don’t understand each other, and - at worst - detest each other. Roughly speaking the two groups are at their core (A) metropolitan university-educated liberals and cosmopolitans, and (B) white working-class from the regions, including many who are traditional labour voters but are “conservative” on key issues.

In thinking how to behave as an elector, my main concern is to contribute to the best outcome for constructively managing this likely-to-remain endemic fracture in English society (I am assuming that Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are solidly behind “remain”). I am not really hearing the leadership of either side addressing this issue head on. Issuing a timetable for legislative disengagement (as the “leave” leadership have just done) or a prediction of what the next budget would have to contain (as the “remain” leadership have just done) is not an answer to the question.

The outcome of the vote will give one or other group of English politicians a mandate such that they will be the ones who face this issue (as they will have to start doing on 24th June, intensively and persistently). So my voting decisions are beginning to veer towards choosing the English politicians who are least likely to completely mess this up (since none will do it well).

If “leave” wins, the political legitimacy can be claimed by Johnson, Gove, and Farage. Johnson is an unprincipled political operator only interested in his own fortunes who, until 6 months ago was a “remain” proponent. Gove and Farage are “conviction” politicians, but Farage has never held office and has never even been an MP so knows nothing practically about how to get things done, and Gove’s version of “take control”, means government taking control of the people and reducing grass roots freedoms. Are these the people well equipped to manage the fracture of English society? Not very plausible!

If “remain” wins, established political leaders (in the leadership of Conservative, Labour, Lib-Dem, Greens) will have their legitimacy enhanced. Triumphalism won’t work for the nation however. An ability to see (and pronounce that one sees) the issues of the other side, is vital. And here, curiously, Cameron and Corbyn’s somewhat half-hearted support for “remain” begins to become an advantage.

A post-result moment when Cameron and Corbyn stand side by side and pledge to address the disaffection of Group B head-on could possibly save the nation from becoming ungovernable. What could they offer? Well - however it is dressed up - they need to say that London (particularly epitomised by the Westminster political elite, and their sponsors in business and the media) will no longer be allowed to dominate the English agenda as it has for the past decades. In this process they should welcome, possibly even encourage, processes which might split open the two-party dominance of our political life (e.g. proportional representation, further devolution including possibly an English Parliament, etc.). Thanks to Anthony Barnett for helping me see this!

What could encourage such an outcome? Probably a very narrow “remain” victory with substantial abstentions and spoiled papers (indicating everything from “couldn't be bothered” via “can’t make up my mind” and a plague on both your houses” to “wrong question at the wrong time”).

Given the fact that polls are predicting a substantial “leave” lead at this point, and that quite a high abstention is also likely, I seem to increase the chances of the “least bad” result I by voting “remain”.

This may seem somewhat convoluted to those of my friends and associates who are voting “remain” because they feel in their bones more European than English and want to endorse ideals of cross-national collaboration and solidarity that they see a “remain” vote as expressing.

My vote may also seem a cop-out to those of my friends and associates who equally ardently believe that "leave" is the right option. To them I have to say that ultimately they don't have a political leadership I can believe in even though I sympathise with some of the core tenets of the "leave" campaign.

The issue for me comes down to this. Who is best equipped to address the real and deep concerns of both electoral groups, Johnson, Farage et al, or Cameron, Corbyn et al? For all their manifold imperfections I am inclined to think the latter are the least worst option! But they must be held to it if their side wins.

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Iraq, Cruise Missiles, and Brexit

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Sat, June 11, 2016 18:46:45

I have a week to make up my mind what to do with my EU Referendum voting slip (I have a postal vote because I will be out of the country (rather ironically in Germany) on the day of the vote.

Certainty continues to elude me, because it seems to me that so many issues and currents are tangled up in this. It depends on which issues you put in the mix, the weight you give to each one. And the more I think about it, the messier it becomes!

The fact that I am not certain when so many around me are certain is surprising to me. Only yesterday one of my thoughtful friends, someone whose views I deeply respect, told me that if Britain left the EU he did not see how he could continue to live in the UK. That is just one manifestation of the strength of feeling that I see around me. I need to understand why I don’t feel so strongly, and whether this is a profound mistake on my part. This in turn has led me to look back at my political past, and review the situations in which I DID have certainty, to see if I can learn from them.

No-one who knows me will be surprised that the issues which have stirred me most deeply have been issues of war and peace.

In 1981 I joined CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), and for the next 10 years campaigned for the removal of US Cruise Missiles from British soil. I was 100% certain that this was the right thing to do. From 1999 to 2003 I campaigned against Tony Blair’s wars, in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, and, above all – in Iraq. I was 100% certain that Britain should have been involved in none of them.

The issue which went to my political core was Iraq. Indeed, it was in the early weeks after the invasion that I felt so disgusted with my country that I was the one telling my friends that I wanted to live in another country. Quite fortuitously, I had planned a sabbatical term in Montreal, Canada in the Autumn of 2003. Arriving there was such a relief, and I can recall very strongly how I dreaded the time I would have to return to the UK, although in the end return I did.

Why did Iraq generate these feelings in me when the nuclear weapons issue did not?

I think the issue is this. In the 1980s, being against nuclear weapons was a minority view among the electorate. Even at its height, CND’s position never captured more than 30% of public opinion (as demonstrated repeatedly through well-conducted polls). Parliament more or less represented the spread of views in the population, with the majority in most parties supporting the cruise missiles. Representative democracy, as much as I disagreed with its conclusions, was functioning in some fashion.

In the decision to invade Iraq, as David Beetham argued at the time representative democracy totally broke down (D. Beetham, ‘Political participation, mass protest and representative democracy’.Parliamentary Affairs, 2003, vol. 56, pp. 597-609).

The majority of the electorate were against the Iraq War, as demonstrated consistently in polls over a substantial period of time (to say nothing of the massive anti-war demonstrations), yet Parliament was almost monolithically for the invasion. It was the pain of knowing that our elected representatives had preferred to follow the dictates of a foreign president than their own people which made me, at least temporarily, give up on Britain, at an deep and emotional level.

In the case of the EU debate, representative democracy is, again, functioning (sort of). The electorate is split on the issue, and so is parliament, and this is represented in the business community and the media too. In fact the split is far more even than in the case of the cruise missiles, where there was never a moment when the anti-nuclear camp came anywhere near 50%. The Brexit debate has split the country down the middle, with the “leavers” and “remainers” both teetering around 50%.

After my moment of revulsion with the UK over Iraq, I remember deciding that helping Britain clean up its mess was best done from within the UK. My attention, and that of many others with whom I joined in common cause, turned to the consequences of the invasion, and finding ways of putting right the wrongs committed, and avoiding committing further ones.

And I guess that is where my attention already is when it comes to the EU – the aftermath of the vote. Whichever way the vote goes, Britain faces huge – possibly insoluble – problems. If we vote to remain, we leave a whole swathe of the most disenchanted in our society – concentrated in the regions away from the prosperous south - bitter and disillusioned, and even more prey to varieties of extremism. They are not going to suddenly smile and say everything is ok. If we vote to leave, we face seismic constitutional issues, including the possibility of the breakup of the Union, with Scotland being the first to rush for secession, to say nothing of the ripple effect across the EU.

In that sense, which way I cast my vote hardly matters, because we know the vote will disenfranchise around half the electorate whichever way it goes. I am thinking of what we will all think, feel, say, and do on 25th June and beyond. How will we move on as a split country on this matter? And I am not really hearing any clear plan, from either side.

So while I continue to struggle for enlightenment, my voting slip sits on my desk, unmarked, envelope unsealed.

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Can the EU referendum be the beginning of the end of the two-party system in England?

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Mon, June 06, 2016 16:34:22

The more I think about the UK EU referendum the stranger the whole thing becomes.

Consider some facts:

The leaders of the main political parties - Conservative and Labour - have publicly supported the “remain” position. In fact, almost every political party has adopted remain as its official position. That includes the Lib Dems, the Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Ulster Unionists, SinnFein. Only UKIP (with 2 MPs) is officially for “leave”

Yet polls consistently show that the British electorate is divided right down the middle. For instance, the Poll of Polls averaged the six most recent polls, and found 51% in favour of “leave”.

On the other hand, bookmakers are betting that “remain” will win (with 7:2 odds). The timeline of polls produced by the BBC shows no consistent advantage over time for either position:

What follows from this? Well, first of all, and this is hardly something new or surprising, it shows that the leadership of the political parties are not effectively appealing to (or appearing to represent) a huge swathe of the electorate.

Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, it shows that on this issue (and maybe on much else) traditional party allegiance counts for little. In particular, Conservative and Labour members and supporters are deeply split on the issue. This is made even more curious in the light of the widely held belief that neither David Cameron nor Jeremy Corbyn have any instinctive appetite for the position that they are promoting. It has been suggested by some that Jeremy Corbyn’s “body language” adds up to an encouragement for Labour supporters to vote “leave” even though he is not willing to (or cannot) say it.

Thirdly, this issue has the capacity to fracture traditional two-party politics. The animosity and bitterness that has built up between different factions of these two parties is so corrosive that most people are predicting that no kind of “unity and reconciliation” will be possible, particularly if the vote is as close as the polls are predicting. Whichever side loses will not easily accept the legitimacy of the winning side.

And so we face the possibility that both main parties will split asunder, and new smaller political parties may emerge in the wake of the election.

I am one of those who believes that the two-party stranglehold on this country, aided and abetted by the “first-past-the-post” electoral system is no longer fit for purpose, and does not reflect the political diversity which contemporary British politics needs. If the result of the referendum, whichever way it goes, sounds the death knell of this long ping-pong match between Labour and Tory, then this is an outcome worth having. The ascendancy of the SNP in Scotland, the vibrancy of independent parties in Wales and Northern Ireland, and the huge rise in electoral support for hitherto fringe parties such as UKIP and the Greens, shows that our politics is not set in stone. Can this referendum be a truly decisive opportunity for pluralistic politics in Britain.

How does this mean one should vote on 23rd June? In a single referendum, where the total votes cast nationally is the only thing that matters, “tactical voting” as understood in general elections, doesn’t really work. The only thing I have come to so far is the suggestion that if you really can’t make up your mind which way to vote, you should express your inability - not by plumping uncommitedly for one or the other outcome - but by either abstaining or spoiling your paper. In other words, let’s not paper over the cracks, but face up to them. Britain is not a country divided between certain “remains” and certain “leaves” facing each other over an unbridgeable gulf. We are rather a people containing many shades of grey, with all kinds of uncertainties, ambiguities, and unresolved questions. Let the result truly demonstrate this by allowing the “don’t knows” to have their voice. In the system we have, abstaining or spoiling the paper is the only way to make that particular voice heard. And it will count in the political aftermath.

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Labour under Corbyn and anti-war politics

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Fri, August 28, 2015 08:32:01
Even bearing in mind that my friends and associates might contain more people of an anti-war persuasion than average, I have been surprised at the number of them who have told me in the past couple of weeks that they have registered as a Labour supporter in order to vote for Jeremy Corbyn as leader, and that his unwavering and principled stand on Iraq has been a clincher.

If, as many are predicting, the Labour election is now a "done deal" it is now pertinent to ask to how what one might loosely call "the anti-war lobby" consisting of SNP, Greens, Lib-Dems, Plaid Cymru, and a Corbyn-led Labour party can best operate to influence parliamentary and national debate on some of the key issues, including defence and foreign policy.

It is parties other than Labour that have most consistently held out before the public an alternative to the "Washington consensus" these past two decades. The "conversion" of the wider parliamentary Labour Party - if it happens - will still be viewed with suspicion by many as tactical and opportunistic. How Labour relates to other parties that have been torch bearers for the policies it abandoned under Blair will be a crucial test in the eyes of many.

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PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Mon, March 09, 2015 22:17:20

Facebook is a new communication technology. It has only been around for 8 years, and yet huge numbers of people now conduct a great deal of their social and professional lives on it. Because different people use it in very different ways, and with different underlying assumptions, there are all kinds of possibilities for misunderstandings and conflict. Few of us have been taught to use it effectively - we stumble into it - and we probably are only partially aware of its effects on us and others, until we stumble into some unforeseen problem.

Like any tool, Facebook can be used for good or bad ends. It is the behaviour of those who use it (primarily the content that they post, whether originally, or in response to someone else’s post) that determine that.

Facebook is unlike Twitter. Twitter is a public application, where everything you post is instantly visible to the entire world and where the poster has no control over who follows, responds to, likes, or retweets, his or her tweets. That is why injudicious tweets have brought down individuals and organisations. One libellous or insulting tweet could, in principle, be enough to land the tweeter in prison (or worse in some countries).

Facebook allows its users control over the privacy settings. Some Facebook users make their pages public. Many, probably most, don’t. They set up private communities to which they invite and admit selected “friends” one by one.

I see a private Facebook page as, essentially, an extension of its owner’s living room. By setting up a facebook page, I am inviting my friends to “drop in on me at any time”, look at what I am interested in, respond, and point me to things that they are interested in.

But, like my home, my Facebook page is my private space. I decide who comes into it, and if they behave in a way that I don’t find congenial, I don’t invite them back. No-one has a right to be in my private space.

I have nearly 500 Facebook friends. Some know each other, the majority don’t. Every time someone makes a posting on my wall, all 500 of my friends see it. Since the poster does not know who most of these people are, the poster should - surely - take great care to ask him or herself what impact this might have on the other 500 people. Since I am interested in all 500 people, I need to take a view on who will get on with who, what might be offensive or inappropriate for some of my other friends to read, and act accordingly.

To make a set of rules to cover all eventualities is probably an impossible (and perhaps not even worthwhile) task. A Facebook user has to use his or her good sense to respond to the situation as it develops, drawing on general principles of courtesy, fairness, generosity, and - of course - an appreciation of the law.

However, everyone should at least ask themselves the question “what kind of a Facebook community and conversation do I want, and why?”. And then we might ask ourselves the further question “which of my facebook friends show - by their own responses - that they know and respect my “style”?

In general, my priority is to share information and views that I have found (mainly, though not exclusively) about public events and public figures, and - where I feel I have something to say - comment on it. Sometimes I post things with which I agree, sometimes things I disagree with, and sometimes things which I am not sure what I think about, but am interested in other people’s opinions on. The topics I post on include topics on which strongly differing opinions exist, including the wars and international disputes that Britain and its allies get involved with, the behaviour of key British political allies such as the USA and Israel, the behaviour of banks and multinational corporations, and so on. I expect and welcome clear and informed contributions which take different perspectives to the ones I post.

What I do not expect are comments which directly call into question the character or motivation of a person within the Facebook community I have created through my postings. It is the difference between “that was a stupid thing to say” (unacceptable), and “I don’t agree with what you said, and here is why” (acceptable).

There are a few of my Facebook friends who have found the general tone of some commentators to my postings so unpleasant that they have blocked those people from appearing in their own feed. In a few cases, where a comment was directly insulting to another one of my Facebook friends, I have had to delete the comment myself.

I have not yet taken the step of “defriending” anyone, though I have been privately urged to do so on several occasions. I would prefer it that people become aware of the character of my page and operate in a way that doesn’t do injustice to that. But there may well come a time when taking a tougher line is right, both to protect the majority of users, but also to make it clear what steps over my boundaries of acceptability.

Now that internet communication is overtaking face-to-face communication as the main means of interpersonal contact for many people, internet users need to consider their own internet behaviour as thoughtfully and self-awarely as they hopefully consider their personal behaviour when in the direct presence of another person. What you say on the internet is a written record which stays there for the rest of your life, and may be looked at and referred to by many, including those who may wish you harm. It’s little wonder that so many open forums (including those on most online newspapers) are moderated, and comments which violate their codes of behaviour removed.

As always, I’m grateful for thoughtful comment on this issue, and being pointed to published contributions on the same topic.

Postscript: I showed this article to a Facebook contributor whose own contributions I find exemplary. This person added the following points which I think are spot on: “I try to imagine saying the things I write to certain people in person who may read the post. I have friends who are devout and I therefore avoid posting disrespectful things about religions. It’s a small consideration that doesn’t compromise me in any way I think”.... and “One breach of etiquette that I sometimes find myself drifting into is starting a dialogue with another respondent and wandering off the subject of the original posting. To use your analogy of your Facebook page being like your living room, it can be rather like being invited over for dinner and then two of the guests taking over the conversation. Knowing when to call it a day with a topic is a useful bit of etiquette”.

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Tony Benn and the politics of hope: RIP

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Sat, March 15, 2014 09:18:01

An extraordinary sense of bleakness has descended on me at the news of the death of Tony Benn. It feels to me, and I hope I might be proved wrong, that he was the last authentic manifestation of the politics of hope in this country, and that we are now a bereaved people, whether or not we fully realise it.

Whenever Tony Benn spoke, the thing which always shone through for me was his absolute commitment to human welfare and fulfillment, to the exclusion of any other consideration. Whether some of his specific policy proposals were workable was not the point. In everything he said and did, he upheld the principles which must guide humanity if it is not to self-destruct – people and their fundamental needs come first – systems power-structures and policies exist to serve people, not the other way round.

There is much talk about “conviction politics” but this elides a hugely important distinction. Conviction is often destructive, when it is rooted (as it so often is) in fear, prejudice, or hidden agendas (such as the preservation of special interests). Hitler was a conviction politician, so was Stalin. There’s a surfeit of “conviction” in the dreary recitation of fixed positions which substitutes for political debate in most of the world’s media. Only when explicitly guided by principle, morality, and a complete absence of self-interest, does conviction become fruitful. Tony Benn was compelling to, and respected by, millions precisely because he so obviously pursued his deeply held beliefs wherever they took him, with depth and oratorical genius. His loss of institutional power within the Labour Party and parliament gave him a different – and probably much deeper - power in his later years, a power to win hearts and minds across the political spectrum by encouraging people to take hold of and reflect on fundamental truths about the purpose of society and the politics which serve it.

It is sad that the more generous and clear statements about Benn have often come from outside the Labour Party. Too many within the Labour Party are unable, even now, to see him as anything but the person who (in their eyes) kept them out of power for so long and split the party. That is a narrow and small-minded response from people besides whom Benn was a giant.

For being a tireless crusader particularly against the havoc that British militarism has wreaked around the world, I salute his memory, and hope that I may remain as tireless in this cause as he was in his late eighties. In common with millions of others, I was present at the massive demonstration against the Iraq War on February 15th 2003. Tony Benn was, for me, an essential voice at that demonstration, who epitomized and manifested – not only in London but across the world - the deeply held values that brought us there.

This short documentary about February 15th 2003 contains a number of appearances by Benn, including an extract from his speech of that day. It is a suitable testament to his legacy:

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Sainsbury's at Wilmer Place: a travesty of local democracy

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Wed, July 31, 2013 22:33:24
Tonight, the Planning Committee of Hackney Borough Council approved (by a 4:1 majority) plans to build a massive Sainsbury's Supermarket in a crammed plot between Stoke Newington Church Street and Abney Cemetary (a notable and historic nature reserve). This vote came in the face of massive local opposition, growing ever stronger in the face of repeated re-attempts by the developers, Newmark Properties, to bulldoze their way through local wishes. A selection of their ghastly developments can be seen on their web site at

Church Street is one of London's few remaining "village high streets" almost entirely given over to small independent local traders. It is one of the loveliest communities in London, and those who live near it and use it are passionately committed to keeping it that way. Last year I wrote my own pictorial "hymn of praise" to its multiple attractions, which can be found at

A moving video of the last stages of the campaign can be found at . This a real tribute to the broad support of ordinary people for the campaign, whose website at tells the story of the long fight.

The chair of the Planning Committee is Labour Councillor Vincent Stops. His contact details are given at

Below is the letter I wrote to him tonight. I expect he and his colleagues will receive many similar letters. The campaign is not over - but sadly it will have to move to a less comfortable phase for those determined to continue to fight.


Wednesday 31st July 2013

Dear Councilor Stops,

I am one of the thousands of local residents who have been telling Hackney Council that we don't want a Sainsburys on Wilmer Place, ever since the idea was first mooted.

I don't know a single person in Stoke Newington who is anything other than passionately opposed to this.

You cannot imagine that the vote of your committee is going to suddenly make that opposition vanish.

Your committee's decision tonight was a travesty of democracy, and reminds me of the worst behaviour of New Labour while in power.

Tony Blair took Britain to war in Iraq against massive public opposition, and it was, eventually, the end of his political career, and the main reason why Labour no longer governs the country.

I predict that tonight's decision will be the beginning of the end of the Labour Party's far too long stranglehold on Hackney's politics. Many, if not most, of the people I know locally who oppose the development are Labour supporters. You will have strained their loyalty to breaking point.

Yours sincerely,

John Sloboda.

(PS - although I am 20 yards outside the borough boundary, just into Islington, Church Street is the street I identify with and shop on, and will fight to the end of my days to keep it the preserve of small independent local traders, and the very special place that the likes of Sainsburys and Newmark Properties will never understand)

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