One of my latest memories of the dying Thatcher government in 1990 was how it seemed that they were in office but not in power, and how they were just picking off sectors of society to alienate one by one.
I see history repeating itself, and the challenge now for Labour is that it should be seen as vaguely representative of the general population – not of the political class. I have no direct experience of how much of a power base Ed Miliband’s SpAds have, but it’s clear that the party still has a major problem in basic communication. How on earth could a massive report recently be summarised as a soundbite of Labour tubthumping over its benefit toughness? It’s struck me and others how Ed’s “inner circle” does seem perhaps rather male dominated? According to Wikipedia, a “patriarchy is a social system in which males are the primary authority figures central to social organization, occupy roles of political leadership, moral authority and control of property, and where fathers hold authority over women and children. It implies the institutions of male rule and privilege, and entails female subordination.”
In fact, a scroll down the Labour shadow cabinet demonstrates many outstanding female politicians. But a whiff of patriarchy still embues how Ed Miliband’s inner circle go about their business, with political selebs in the form of Lord Glasman and Jon Cruddas. Despite Harriet Harman’s enormous influence, it can mean that box office events at Compass or the Fabian Society can appear somewhat imbalanced on issues of family vs. cohabitation. And, in the ever feisty debate on benefits, Labour often forgets that it could be reframing the narrative as ‘social security’. Sometimes disabled citizens appear to be airbrushed from the discussion altogether, with Labour seeming to escape the national average of physically disabled citizens. What a refreshing change it might make if Labour were to stand up for offering guidance for every disabled citizen about how to negotiate the disability benefits system for example. About five years ago, I found myself in an underground room in the old building of the Fabian Society in Westminster, London. The speaker, whose identity I think I can remember, said to our small group: “And it was if, in government, they were thinking whose turn is it for us to alienate now?” This current government, whatever Ed Miliband MP and Rachel Reeves MP say on benefits, has alienated resoundingly citizens with disability.
Debates about the National Health Service always seem to be approached from the perspective of the hospital manager, health policy wonk, or doctor; and not an embattled nurse fed up with savage staffing cuts to his or her word. The platitude which Jeremy Hunt was able to recite at the NHS Confederation this year, that there is nothing more valuable than the people of the National Health Service, clearly pales into insignificance if staff do not receive a payrise. And are staff able to speak out safely against the management and leadership of toxic cultures where they exist in the NHS? One of the NHS’ strategic goals this year – 2014/5 – is a ‘productive’ workforce, and yet an ill workforce is an unproductive workforce. It’s even been cited in previous reports that a sick Doctor is as unproductive as a Doctor completely out of the system. Whilst the Conservative Party have clearly been milking problems in the Welsh NHS, hardly any mention is given of the Scottish NHS which has rid itself of inefficient competitive markets. Why has Ed Miliband been strikingly quiet on the devolved nature of the NHS under his construct of “One Nation”?
Clearly Jon Cruddas needs to get his bum off his seat and deliver whatever policy conclusions he has taken years in formulating. People are simply unable to campaign on the doorstep without a clear idea about a Labour government will deliver. There are piecemeal scraps, such as action on ‘zero hour contracts’, the national living wage, better regulation of the energy markets, and yet showpiece items such as ‘whole person care’ remain parked in the garage. Social care is currently on its knees, so if Labour intend to plan a big reform of the social care system, it would be useful if voters knew about it sooner rather than later. For all the talk of the Conservatives having produced a ‘top down reorganisation’ of the National Health Service, it is still rather clear how Andy Burnham will break down silos between the NHS and social care, and produce the infrastructure for coordinated care, without spending more money or a cultural upheaval? Clearly Burnham himself has been concerned about this, which is why he has signposted ‘whole person care’ wherever possible, such as at the NHS Confederation recently.
And the present Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition have done a pretty standard demolition job on sectors of society, in behaviour usually reserved for the NHS whistleblower. First of all, they are discredited; secondly, they are outright attacked; thirdly, they are ostracised; finally, they are completely ignored. And a usual pattern emerges of the way that this Government, like previous Conservative administrations, handles people in the name of a ‘clear vision’ and ‘there is no alternative’. The teachers have experienced it from Michael Gove, and the police have got it from Theresa May. The probation service and criminal barristers have been treated with contempt by Chris Grayling. And GPs have been attacked by Jeremy Hunt for failing to diagnose two of the most important long term conditions, dementia and cancer. Of course Hunt does not want to mention the mental health services which are know on its knees due to chronic underfunding. And it’s a government which doesn’t care about lying – whether it’s its performance on universal credit, or arguing incessantly over the proven point that NHS funding has gone down not gone up. Of course, this should be rich pickings for Ed Miliband, and the criticism for lack of policies from Labour still remains alarming. There’s an argument that Labour doesn’t want to reveal its hand too soon, but people are still uncertain about Labour’s precise legislative steps on safe staffing, or its precise policy decision about the PFI financing of NHS hospitals. But it does come from an inherently advantageous position in trying to offer something constructive to those groups of society which have been alienated. There is less than one year to go, but the basic issue is that the current Government is running out of groups to alienate. You know when a Conservative led Government is coming to an end, when they run out of things to privatise.
The unlikeliest of advocates from Primrose Hill, Alan Bennett, comments beautifully as follows in an article called “Fair play, fair play: a sermon before the University, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, 1 June.”
“Unlike today’s ideologues, whom I would call single-minded if mind came into it at all, I have no fear of the state. I was educated at the expense of the state both at school and university. My father’s life was saved by the state as on one occasion was my own. This would be the nanny state, a sneering appellation that gets short shrift with me. Without the state I would not be standing here today. I have no time for the ideology masquerading as pragmatism that would strip the state of its benevolent functions and make them occasions for profit. And why roll back the state only to be rolled over by the corporate entities that have been allowed, nay encouraged, to take its place? I am uneasy when prisons are run for profit or health services either. The rewards of probation and the alleviation of suffering are human profits and nothing to do with balance sheets. And these days no institution is immune. In my last play the Church of England is planning to sell off Winchester Cathedral. ‘Why not?’ says a character. ‘The school is private, why shouldn’t the cathedral be also?’ And it’s a joke but it’s no longer far-fetched.”
Maybe that’s their game. They are in fact alienating everyone apart from the multinational corporates: maybe ultimately that was their Big Society?