The campaign starts here…

It’s going to be one of the hardest-fought in living memory.  The incumbent has worked hard for more than three years to divide the electorate against itself.  It’s likely only one of the players has a real chance of achieving a workable majority.  It’s the 2015 General Election, and it’s just over a year and a half away.  

With this very much in mind, these are the words we need to hear from the leader of the only party set up to represent the interests of the majority:

“Inspired by the brave humanity of the postwar Attlee government, I give this categorical pledge.  We will not repeat the mistakes of the past.  If Labour is returned to office in May 2015 we will scrap Universal Credit even if it is set to be launched later in that year, reintroducing a welfare system which is supportive, civilised and fit for purpose in the 21st century.  

Public transport and utilities will be returned to public ownership and accountability, as part of a modern, efficient and integrated network, with service to consumers not profit to shareholders as the prime motive.  Further, we will repeal the iniquitous Health and Social Care Act 2012, similarly returning the NHS to public ownership and accountability and ensuring the continuation of healthcare free at the point of need.  

We will fund this by making sure that from Day One that tax avoidance – corporate or personal – will no longer be tolerated; any individual or organisation who threatens to leave the UK as a consequence will be free to do so, as they are clearly unwilling to contribute their fair share to the UK community.”

Do it, Ed.

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Gove-ocracy

Staying on the theme of education (and as a parent and a school governor, I can’t conceive of much that’s more important) yesterday I took part in a small but effective demonstration against the “forced academisation” – horrible term – of two local primary schools.  Both are in former mining villages now grown into a larger urban area, historically experiencing higher than average levels of unemployment and health issues consequent on the collapse of the previously dominant industry.

So far, so representative of the neo-liberal UK of the last three decades or so.

By the ‘mobile goalpost’ method of assessment favoured by OFSTED, both schools have been deemed “inadequate”.  They have both been previously inspected and both have been issued a “notice to improve”.  

Both have recently been inspected again by OFSTED hit squads of three or four officials, who observed only “16 to 18 lessons (or part-lessons)” and took written submissions from a total of 36 parents.  Both reports admitted that improvements had been made, but had not yet had time to bed in.  Despite this, the academy order was issued to both schools last week, dismissing the elected governors and appointing a sponsor without reference to parents or staff. Hence the parent-led protest, a march through the rain, and a petition delivered to a Tory MP who has previously blithely dismissed the issue.

Democracy’s great, as long as you fall in line with the decision already made by the Secretary of State for Education…

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What’s next?

Not content with the ongoing destruction of the National Health Service and the social welfare system, Cameron and his cronies now seem to be moving their baleful attentions to our schools.  Note this well; OUR schools, not theirs.

The claim today, via OFSTED – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-22873257 – is that GCSE results in non-selective state schools (based on attainment in key stage 2 tests) are not as good as those in schools that do select pupils on ability.  There are two responses to this: 1) well, DUH!  2) why are you taking us for complete idiots?

Even a cursory reading of the ‘evidence’ in the article will suggest a highly selective and actively misleading presentation of some rather sketchy information.  This in itself concerns me greatly.  Is the government intending to return to the bad old days of a two-tier education system, where a child’s future was decided by academic performance on a single day at the age of 11?  If so, they’ll need to make a better argument than this.  And it will still be a stupid, unfair, divisive and wasteful proposal.

There’s more.  A few days ago, the gnomic Education Secretary attacked the presence in our classrooms of teaching assistants – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2334853/Army-teaching-assistants-faces-axe-Education-department-attempts-save-4billion-cost-year.html – claiming that “research” showed they had a negative effect on results.

Rubbish, Gove.  My experience as a teacher, parent, union official and school governor says otherwise.  Teaching assistants are far more than a mere “Mum’s Army”, wiping noses and reading stories; they are vital colleagues in the nurturing, care and education of our children.  They are highly qualified professionals, or working toward becoming so.  They deserve appropriate recognition and due respect.

Gove seems determined to take us back to 1954.  The rest of us look to a future where all our children, whatever their needs or abilities or background, enjoy equal chances in life.

Finally, try this for an example of where the Tories’ failed concept of ‘the big society’ is taking us – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-devon-22855011…

“Debt” owed – £1.75

Salary of “academy business manager” – around £40k

Cost of a 10 year old boy’s public humiliation?  Incalculable. 

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Peer pressure?

Aaaaand we’re back. To the bad old days of Neil & Christine Hamilton et al, it would appear.

No sooner had it been “revealed” late last week that the BBC’s Panorama programme had allegedly caught Tory MP Patrick Mercer on camera dipping his sticky hands (so to speak) into a crumpled brown envelope full of used tenners, the light of investigative journalism shone into some of the darker recesses of the House of Lords and showed three peers of the realm – one Ulster Unionist, two Labour – also at it. Again, allegedly. Rightly, Mercer resigned the Tory whip and Lord Laird stood down from the UUP, while Lords Hill and Cunningham were suspended from the Labour party.

Such people seem to consider themselves immune to the common honesty and decency that most of us try to attain out here in the real world. Either they do not see that this kind of behaviour is precisely the reason so many potential voters are now entirely disengaged from politics, or they do not care. I suspect it is the latter, and it is this arrogance that will be the eventual downfall of the elite class of ‘machine politicians’ currently dominant, not just in the UK but across much of the world. Our ‘leaders’ are out of touch with the very people they are supposed to serve; one day, they will look condescendingly over their shoulder to find nobody there.

So, given that this latest lobbying scandal is all about dodgy MPs/peers, ‘cash for access’ and fake companies scamming Commons passes, how does the increasingly panic-stricken Cameron propose to deal with it? Why obviously, not by keeping to a promise made in 2010 – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/election-2010/7189466/David-Cameron-warns-lobbying-is-next-political-scandal.html – but by introducing shabby and spurious measures which, far from affecting large-scale individual donations to the Tory party, directly attack the democratic funding relationships between trade unions and Labour!

Until recently, I was a regional chair of UNISON’s Labour Link. Here is how it works. A small proportion of every UNISON member’s subscription goes into one of two political funds; the general fund, for ongoing campaigns which support members in the workplace, and the affiliated fund, used specifically to support political campaigning by the Labour party and UNISON’s links thereto. This is referenced during the joining process, meaning that Jo – or Joe – Member is required to make an active and informed decision to allow an element of their subs to be used to support Labour. I do not believe the same could be argued for the staff of JCB or Sainsburys, for example… http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/03/26/david-cameron-publish-details-private-dinners-tory-donors_n_1379193.html

The Tory-led government’s proposed actions against democratic organisations representing six million people in this country amount to a continuation of a ‘class war’ which many thought was in the past. It isn’t.

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How Britain’s Political parties still campaign in an age of steam

With CLP colleagues, I have again been on the ‘analog’ campaign trail ahead of the county elections on May 2nd, when it is fervently to be hoped that the Tories and LibDems will be – to coin a phrase – handed their collective arse on a plate by a weary electorate ready for change. This is especially true here in Staffordshire, where there is a landslide to be reversed and four years of asset-stripping and mismanagement to be repaired (if it’s not already too late…)

 

But David Hencke is right. We must look to our methods of communication and engage more effectively with voters. Read his excellent blog post. It’s food for thought.

David Hencke

The county council elections are upon us. Ed Miliband goes on a soapbox, leaflets are pushed through doors, canvassers turn up on doorsteps and people are supposed to rush to polling stations.

How brilliantly nineteenth century when  Gladstone and Disraeli drew crowds of thousands or even early twentieth when  Churchill (then a Liberal like Clegg) and Balfour campaigned across Manchester.

Politicians seem wedded to the old ways – like our splendid heritage railways – harking back to the glorious age of steam.

But this is the twenty-first century – the age of the internet, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, and the rise of the blogger. – and the parties still – especially Labour – seem totally oblivious.

Indeed it is said that Tony Blair never communicated by computer – always getting a gopher to do his work – and  Gordon Brown tried to – but I gather his mistyping and mispelling are…

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We need our NHS hospitals – and they need us…

Feet aching and a big dent in my shoulder from supporting one side of the 3m wide and 2m tall Staffordshire UNISON branch banner, I returned earlier from the rally and march in support of Stafford and Cannock Chase Hospitals, both part of the Mid-Staffs NHS Trust of recent tabloid infamy.

And before the inevitable suggestions in certain dark corners of the media that the event involved “the usual trade unionists and other misfits” (copyright: BBC) plus a bloke and his dog, be it known right now that while the police themselves estimated attendance at 30000, Stafford’s MP Jeremy Lefroy suggested 40000 may be more accurate.  There were many families with children and a lot of very game and determined older folk.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many pushchairs and walking sticks on a demo.

Image

Now I’ve been on many marches – it did rather go with the territory in my previous occupation – but it took me a while to work out why this one was unusual.  And as we progressed up the hill toward the hospital, it came to me – the lack of sound.

On every previous event, those involved accompanied their protest with whistles, chanting, horns, even vuvuzelas.  Here, thousands of local people, many of whom had never before experienced mass protest, had become engaged with a cause dear to their hearts and were marching with quiet determination toward a vital resource it had become their expressed common purpose to save.

Each had their story, their personal reason for doing this.  Emma told me of her fear that, should either of her sons need emergency treatment, without Stafford Hospital they would have to go to either New Cross Hospital in Wolverhampton or the University Hospital of North Staffordshire in Newcastle under Lyme, both around 17 miles distant.  An elderly man I met in Market Square was so pleased with his increased mobility following knee replacement surgery at Stafford Hospital and that he was able to stand for a long period at the pre-march rally.

Most poignantly, I spoke with the mother of 15-month-old Orla who, having recently discovered that she could walk, was doing as much of the route as she could on her own two feet.  But Orla was only able to do this because the staff at Stafford Hospital saved her life; hers had been a difficult breech birth, and she would not have survived the longer journey to New Cross or UHNS.

Stafford has a large population, soon to increase further with the expansion of the MOD base at the edge of town; it needs its hospital, with a full range of services including 24-hour A&E cover.

The population of Cannock and its surrounding communities is not dissimilar.  Its hospital, though lacking A&E, is equally necessary – the physical signs of mining industry may have largely disappeared, but its medical shadow remains.

Staffordians and Chase folk alike campaigned long and hard for their NHS hospitals, and will not give them up without a hard fight.

David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt would do well to remember this.

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Thatcher passes, but her influence remains…

Deliberately, I did not blog yesterday, despite the news media being dominated by the death of a frail and unwell 87 year old woman.  It seemed inappropriate to do so, even though I have for more than three decades despised Margaret Thatcher and everything she represented.

Her name first impinged on my consciousness as a small child when, quite suddenly, we no longer enjoyed the dubious pleasure of a third of a pint of warm milk at morning break.  The government had to save money somewhere so the Education Secretary decided that, at the age of 7, our developing teeth could look after themselves.  Adults around me began using the epithet ‘Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher’.  Making the voiceless pay for problems elsewhere is nothing new.

A few years later, following a confusing period of power cuts, no heating oil at school, meals by candlelight around an open fire and wondering why Dad was home from work so early, this same rather shrill woman replaced the seemingly avuncular Ted Heath as leader of the Conservative Party.  This was held to be “a good thing” in 1970s Malvern, because apparently the miners were stroppy and two General Elections within a year was unreasonable.

Politics at the time, to my curious mind, was represented by images of men with sideburns and horn-rimmed glasses, wearing bad suits and worse ties; blokes in overalls walking out of factories to the park over the road, listening to a loud man in a safari jacket, then putting their hands up and deciding not to make any more Austin Allegros that week; Asian women on picket lines being charged by police horses; Britain taking a loan from the IMF; rubbish piling up on city streets.  “Crisis? What crisis?” said the headline.  Then Mr. Callaghan called a General Election.

And the woman in blue won.

I spent much of May 3rd 1979 looking across the playground at the Sixth Form Block, where some of the more politically-aware senior students were recording the results as they came in, on large sheets of paper in the upper windows, visible to much of the school.  Later, on the news, the incoming Prime Minister – the first woman in the UK to hold the office – quoted St. Francis of Assisi at surrounding journalists in rather condescending tones.  Even as a callow youth of thirteen, I did not like what I saw.

The effects were rapid.  We had to share textbooks at school, as there were not enough to go round; subject options for O-level were limited for lack of teachers.  In rural Worcestershire we were spared the devastation suffered in the manufacturing heartlands, but even so Dad had to work away from home for more than a year due to MoD cuts.  He “got on his bike” but refused to disrupt our education by making my sister and me move schools at such an important time; we missed him terribly, but loved him for this.  Still do.

Those defence cuts had consequences in the south Atlantic.  In early 1982, the Argentinian flag was raised on the unprotected island of South Georgia and, soon after, on the Falkland Islands themselves.  In a blaze of patriotic fervour, “the Iron Lady” miraculously raised a Task Force to retake the islands.  255 British servicemen, two Falklanders and untold numbers of Argentine conscripts died.  It’s been suggested that more UK ex-combatants have since taken their own lives than were lost in the conflict itself.  At least the dictator Galtieri’s military junta fell as a result.  I just remember being terrified that, at the age of 16, I and my friends would be conscripted ourselves to fight in a war 10000 miles away near the bottom of the world.

Until the south Atlantic adventure, Thatcher’s popularity was waning, in Westminster and without; afterward, she was unstoppable.  Her privatisation policy, apparently based on a partial and selective understanding of the theories of Friedrich Hayek, began apace.  Nationalised industries were sold off; British Telecom, British Airways, British Petroleum, British Gas, British Aerospace, British Steel, whatever British Leyland was called that week – all broken up in the name of “popular capitalism”, a ‘smoke & mirrors’ operation through which shares rested briefly in the hands of ‘small investors’ before ending (and remaining) in large part with globalised investment funds.

Also, lest we forget, British Coal.  The miners’ strike of 1984-85 remains the defining industrial relations conflict of Thatcher’s premiership.  The miners had humiliated Heath’s government a decade previously, and the opportunity to crush one of the strongest trade unions was too good to miss.  The violence meted out to striking pitmen and the social devastation visited on their close-knit communities across the UK coalfields is still being felt today.  When I moved to Cannock, the town still had a deep mine and an opencast pit; one is now a housing estate, the other given over to landfill, a business/retail park and a container storage yard.

Eventually, Thatcher’s style of leadership became a problem even for her parliamentary colleagues; the Poll Tax riots in March 1990 weakened her authority and, late that year, she was ousted to be replaced by a man who can only be described as her polar opposite within the Tory party – John Major.

I’ll end with a quote from Tony Benn in today’s Guardian:

Margaret Thatcher was a very powerful, rightwing force in society.  She followed her beliefs and had clear objectives.  Her policy was to reverse the trends in modern politics that were made possible by the trade unions being legalised.  She decided to eradicate the power of the unions, undermine local government and privatise assets – and these were the three policies of the labour movement.

It was a major attack on democracy and at first it carried some public support, but then it became unstuck, and in the end, it was rejected.  But ideas always come back and the modern Tory party is influenced by her ideas.”

Indeed so.  Sadly, so was New Labour – and we have much work to do…

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