Thursday, 25 September 2014

All together now…

Dear Ed –

It’s me again. Sorry to bother you. I know how busy you are: what with your eight-month long “job interview”, and developing your ten-year plan; and you must be knackered, after the speech you gave on Tuesday, and all that walking around parks you did, working on it, and memorizing it, and meeting all those people.

However impressed I am that you delivered it without notes – and I can forgive you forgetting certain sections of it (or feigning to…) – what I can’t forgive are the two words missing from it. No: not “immigration” or “deficit”. What I’m talking about are “welfare” and “Sure Start” (okay, three words…) – different sides of the same coin, if you will; that are both to do with, as you put it, “the most vulnerable [who] have been thrown on the scrapheap, cast aside, not listened to [politically] even when they have a case… [who have] been told: you’re on your own.”

Sure Start
Looking at the latter: you are so proud of Labour’s achievements – especially, rightfully so, of our party’s creation of the NHS – “An idea rooted in this party’s character and our country’s history.” But why have you so readily forgotten about children’s centres – also rapidly “sliding backwards under this government”?

Yesterday evening, whilst writing this blog, I bumped into (let’s call her) Anne (after the original Mrs Bard). Okay, we were at home, I admit, in the kitchen, and she’s my partner: but she’s also – currently – a family support worker, based out of a pair of mainly rural, recently-privatized Sure Start children’s centres, in south Warwickshire. In the past few months, her job has been put in jeopardy several times; and now, because of that privatization, she is having to look elsewhere for work: as the part-time contracts on offer (replacing her current full-time rôle) will make our middles squeezed more than ever.

This also means, of course, that the small children she looks after – and worries about – will be lacking a crucial ingredient of care in the most crucial and formative part of their lives. The Tories have decimated early years – and, of course, later – education: but I do not see you on your red steed of togetherness rushing to its rescue, like you appear to be doing with our health services. And yet… and yet, such work as my other half does is on the same continuum as doctors and nurses; and just as valuable. She works alongside, and with, health visitors and social workers – and if the infants and toddlers (and their families) she is responsible for don’t receive the care and input they should, they will only go on to be a burden on and to the country, later in life.

Do you really want to add to the rough, uncertain start these kids already have; to the dirt that the Tories continually wipe their faces in; to the pain that poor, working-class (and usually working – but still impoverished) families must suffer – especially when they struggle to travel (because of decreasingly available public transport, that is no longer ‘public’, but in corporate, profit-seeking hands); suffer benefits sanctions, when unemployed, for their tardiness (or simply because they cannot afford the fares); or spend their days queuing for scant parcels of food?

The poor diet and stress that have become the norms for these people – no longer a hidden minority – will increase the pressure on the NHS. And if “together says that we have a duty to look after each other when times are hard”; and “Together we heal the sick”; why does “together” not also mean preventing this generation from getting sick in the first place?

Whether by accident or design, Sure Start children’s centres – and the critical work they do – have remained invisible to those who don’t need and/or use them: and therefore aren’t seen as important as your beloved NHS. However, they are fundamental to the wellbeing of many young children; and indispensable to their families. (Some of the centres even host those damned foodbanks.) They should therefore be a jewel shining in Labour’s crown just as brightly as Aneurin Bevan’s gift to the nation – but are they tarnished within our party, because Gordon Brown is not the hero that Bevan is…? Surely “giving children the best possible start in life” is more important than one man? (And he did come to your rescue, recently, when it looked like Scotland might raise anchors, and sail towards Scandiwegia….) Come on, Ed: just because your and Justine’s sons haven’t needed such services doesn’t mean these amenities aren’t important to the rest of us….

When I nagged you before about welfare, and your concentration on those fortunate enough to be in employment, your local parliamentary candidate – and only Labour member of Stratford-on-Avon District Council – Jeff Kenner, came to your defence:

I agree with you that phrases like “working people” and the use of the term “hardworking” makes many people feel excluded. I certainly don’t think this is Ed’s intention and indeed I have not heard [him] actually use the latter term (there are presumably people who have polled on the use of these terms and probably come to the wrong conclusion!). I would not take it quite so negatively, though. It is no doubt intended to make the point that most people are working hard and yet still struggling with the cost of living. Committing to abolish the bedroom tax and cutting student fees does show a widen concern about inequality and unfairness.

And yet, here you go again!

Labour is the party of hard work fairly paid. And it’s not the low paid but it’s all working people who should have their talents rewarded.

So our… goal is that all working people should share fairly in the growing wealth of the country. That means, as the economy grows, the wages of everyday working people grow at the same rate.

So, I ask again, what about us poor sods reliant on welfare – “Who are we to turn to?” (And, to answer my own question: the Green Party is looking increasingly attractive.) Where is our share of that wealth?

In your speech you said “Together we teach the young. Together we heal the sick. Together we care for the old.” Do “we” not also “care for… the sick” – especially when they cannot work through no fault of their own; and have no chance of recovery…?

The sound and fury
In an article in The Guardian on 24 June 2014 – Labour’s crisis goes much deeper than Ed Miliband – John Harris wrote how “Labour’s senior figures have done little in the past four years to show they understand the issues they must confront”; and, although your speech makes a little progress in the right direction, I, for one, still remain unconvinced (as you may have intimated). Anyway, just by way of (relevant) diversion, here’s an extract:

On Thursday the IPPR published its 280-page report titled The Condition of Britain, put together with the help of Labour’s policy review head Jon Cruddas and launched by Miliband himself. It is a bold, imaginative and surprisingly plain-spoken piece of work, partly based on an attempt to push Labour beyond its enduring belief in lofty centralism and towards a way of thinking more in tune with our fragmented, pluralistic times.

Its authors claim that “the concentration of power in the central state is holding our country back, fragmenting our public services and making local leaders too dependent on Whitehall and Westminster”. From childcare and housing through youth crime, skills budgets and long-term unemployment [my emphases] to care for elderly people, it insists that any future Labour government should emphasise “genuine devolution of power, and share responsibility for building a stronger society with citizens and civil society”.

If you missed any of this, that’s understandable: Miliband’s people decided to boil down his view of the report into a single headline, apparently driven by panic about what was coming back from focus groups. In keeping with a take that ran from the Sun to the Independent, the BBC’s top line was “Ed Miliband: Young jobless must train or lose benefits”. Says one Labour insider: “It was an attempt to rethink social policy for a different world, but we ended up collapsing it into the 24-hour news cycle with a story about hitting young people who are unemployed. And that was symbolic.”

It really was, wasn’t it?

So, Ed, in an attempt to partly excuse you – along with Jeff – is it that, in sixty-odd minutes, you had to concentrate on the headlines, the soundbites – as you did with that report? Can I take it that “unemployment” – as part of ‘welfare’ – and “childcare” actually are important to you; and that these issues will be addressed?

By the way, when I replied to Jeff, I promised him that I would “stick with” Labour – “for the time being” – and I think it worth repeating what I said to him, so that you can see why this “friend” of yours feels “the country doesn’t work for them. And they’ve lost that faith in the future.”

I would be happier were [Labour], as a party (and a potentially governing one) to, say, adopt (or at least publicize) policies, for example…
  • committing to a better future/existence for those in poverty because of unemployment or disability – a license for local authorities to build truly affordable social housing would be a good start, giving them priority over “rapacious” developers when it comes to planning; as would a benefits system that wasn’t utterly Orwellian;
  • demonstrating the importance of the environment, with regards to the generation of power, the protection of green spaces (no offsetting, please; no building [garden cities] on agricultural land, etc.; increasing subsidies for wind – onshore, as well as offshore – wave, solar power, etc. (even nuclear?), and decreasing those – in the form of tax breaks, especially – available to fossil fuel-based generation…);
  • ensuring that the NHS returns from the brink of privatization, shortens waiting lists (by learning from the private sector), and treats people as human-beings, rather than commodities (a theme that could be applied to government as a whole…);
  • re-nationalizing those (other) services that are, ostensibly, for the public good – e.g. transport, power… – as, sooner or later, the government will reach a tipping point (if not already passed) where so much of it has been sold off, and/or outsourced, that there will be no return, that government itself will just be one huge corporation with no direct relationship with the electorate;
  • legislating for a more realistic rôle for (and government relationship with) the unions, as bodies that truly represent workers (both employed and unemployed), fighting for the living wage for all, ending zero-hour contracts (and not just for those employed on them for twelve months…);
  • paying for all this by a more ‘fair’ tax system – both personal and corporate…
…and, to be utterly honest, returning more to the themes and ideas that first attracted me (and many others) to the party, back in the 1980s: i.e. ‘proper’ caring socialism – rather than moving further and further right; and, in many ways, appearing to echo the mores of the Conservatives: that is, once more becoming a party for the people, rather than appearing to be in awe of (and in cahoots with) corporate greed and power.

I am happy (or at least a little comforted) that you have gone some way to addressing what I believe are not unreasonable “demands” – that not only I, but others, have made of you. If Labour’s mission really is to “restore people’s faith in the future”, I fear it is an impossible one, if it is to apply to everyone. But it would be good if it at least helped the majority – and especially those most in need.

Thank you for reading. As always, I await your reply with eagerness….

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