Tag Archives: cuts

Labour isn’t working (hard enough)

Whittington hospital cuts rallyRising youth unemployment, impending triple-dip recession, falling standards of living, the severely disabled stripped of dignity by disproportionate cuts to their allowances.  I could go on, for the list of this Tory-led government’s crimes is long.

Meanwhile, Labour is doing its very best to make sure I don’t vote for them.

Take our local council by-election, an excellent example of how not to campaign. Starting with the Labour candidate coming round to deliver, in person, campaign literature addressed to my husband.

Having made clear that I too would be voting and was interested in local issues, I thought she might at least have taken a note of my name.

She didn’t, and a week later another knock on the door heralded another Labour canvasser – with campaign literature addressed to my husband.

The canvasser looked wounded when I questioned Labour’s obsessive interest in communicating only with the man of the house. Off he scuttled without explanation – or a shred of interest in my vote.  I’ve heard nothing since.

Okay, my husband might (depending his mood) have expressed sympathy for Labour when canvassed in the past.  But the local Labour machine is ignoring something the most junior intern on an Obama campaign could tell you: turning out the base is important, but it’s attracting independent or floating voters that wins elections.

In other words, why wasn’t I wooed?

Next problem:  the message. The main one, front and centre in the first of those Labour letters to my husband, was disingenuous – at best.

The big issue locally is proposed cuts to beds and services at the nearby Whittington Hospital.Whittington Hospital Campaign

Or, as Labour puts it, the “Tory-led government’s threat to our hospital.”

It’s a charge they repeat in all their literature and interviews, never missing an opportunity to link “Tory-led” with what’s happening at the hospital.  A leading Labour councilor has even asked the health secretary to come to the borough to explain “how these cuts can be justified.”

But they’re not his cuts to explain.

The plans, which include selling off buildings, closing wards, cutting jobs and capping the number of births at the hospital, were made by the Whittington Hospital’s own, independent board. It needs to save £17 million in order to qualify for Foundation Trust status in a year’s time.

It’s true, the Tories are forcing all hospitals to become Foundations – which have greater autonomy than ordinary hospitals – by April 2014.  But who invented the Foundation concept in the first place?  Labour under Tony Blair.

One can argue about whether Foundation Trusts are a good or bad thing – and the Labour Party did, bitterly, when they introduced them in 2002.  But there is no arguing about the appallingly cack-handed way the Whittington Hospital devised and announced the cuts.

They made no effort to explain changes in health care delivery they believe will see far more people treated outside hospitals.  They didn’t discuss the benefits of getting rid of dilapidated old buildings, some of which haven’t been used for years.  Nobody in the community was consulted about any of it.

No wonder there’s been uproar and near universal condemnation.  And the local Labour party has jumped on the uproar bandwagon.

But a bandwagon is not a vision, especially when it’s not accompanied by any obvious alternative plan.  It’s a cheap gimmick that allows the party to side-step more complex problems.

This is mirrored nationally where Labour is having a “policy review.”  There’s nothing wrong with a bit of a think.  But the next election is only two years away. Surely by now the opposition party’s review should have moved beyond what the man leading the review calls “the first phase”?  The details of what Labour would do in government aren’t expected until late 2014.

They need to get a move on.

Labour was never expected to win the Eastleigh by-election last month (they came fourth). But given the unpopularity of the government, surely Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition should have picked up a bit of the protest vote?  But no, Labour’s share of the vote increased by a paltry 0.2 percent over 2010.

As Dan Hodges wrote about Eastleigh, Labour leader Ed Miliband has been concentrating on “earning the support and trust of his party.” Sure, its important for the party to feel better about itself.  But Hodges is right when he says the new-found spring in the steps of the faithful “isn’t translating into enthusiasm amongst the voters.”

And it won’t until Labour’s leadership gives its troops the ammunition with which to engage.  The Tories, with Lib Dems in tow, are wreaking havoc.  Labour must come out and fight.

That includes on my doorstep.

No more phony wars against easy targets like local hospital cuts – probably the only reduction in services around here for which the Conservatives alone can’t be blamed.

I asked the Labour Council candidate why there was no mention of the bedroom tax and other welfare cuts that’ll certainly affect residents of this borough, in her campaign.

“Ah,” she said, “watch this space.”

Two weeks later, I’m still watching.

 

But what about the kids?

England’s teachers are unhappy? Miss, Sir, join the crowd.

From the young unemployed, half of whom say they regularly feel depressed, to nurses suffering low morale in the NHS upheaval, not to mention the growing numbers of working families struggling to make ends meet, these are not happy times.

At least the teachers questioned in a National Union of Teachers survey of the profession have jobs – better than minimum wage ones at that.  So why should we care if,  like millions of others in these economically gloomy times, they’re finding their working lives tough?

Well, quite simply, because of the kids. They’ve barely had a mention in the press coverage – for which the NUT shares the blame. The word “children” appears only once in the first three and a half pages of their report. The message is mostly about that plunging morale, down by more than two thirds since this government came to power. (And there are the predictable complaints about pay and conditions).

But read on and you’ll see that teachers are not as selfish a bunch as the government and media sometimes make out.  Acutely aware of the link between income and attainment, they are desperately worried about the impact of public sector cuts on the families they have contact with every day. More than three quarters said austerity measures were having a negative impact on some or most of the children they teach.

Then there is the question of the great “freedom” the Government says it has given teachers, heads in particular, by cutting them loose from local government red tape.

It’s one of the main justifications for the rapid expansion of the Academy programme and for the introduction of Free Schools. Both were trumpeted again today in response to the NUT’s survey. The BBC quoted a Department for Education spokesman saying the government’s policies would raise standards by giving more power to head teachers.

“Our academy and free schools programme gives schools greater freedom so that more schools are run by great heads and teachers,” he said.

Teachers don’t agree. When asked if they thought the government was taking education in the right direction, 75% of those who work in Academies said no. And only a measly nine per cent of them thought they had more autonomy than before.

That’s not surprising really when one tries to work out who actually runs the multiplying Academies. It’s a complex business whose details are probably best saved for a separate post.

But here’s one explanation for why the professionals are unhappy. Most Academies have sponsors – individuals and companies, that in exchange for a bit of cash up front, get to run a school. The company, or its board or most powerful individual, calls the shots.

Take the American business Mosaica, now running primary schools in East Sussex. It says “each Academy will be distinctive in its own right”. But at the same time, all will use the company’s trade-marked humanities and social studies curriculum. It doesn’t look as if the head teacher, freed from local government control by Education Secretary Michael Gove, will have any power over that.

Then there’s the Academies Enterprise Trust which has also trade-marked its “Improve Framework.” It’s designed by the AET “to prepare all young people to become successful and world class learners.” Laudable aims indeed but where is the head teacher’s freedom in that?

I could go on. Every Academy sponsor has a “vision” even if they haven’t yet invented an educational “programme” and registered it as their own.  No wonder the teachers are a lot more suspicious about the freedom and independence they’ve allegedly been granted than the gung-ho Mr Gove.

 

 

The Playing Fields Myth

Find me the 2012 Olympic medallist who owes their sporting success to wet afternoons on an English school playing field and I’ll get worked up about selling off school playing fields.

The fact is, like so many stories from inside the Westminster village, the row over school sports fields is a red herring; great for political point scoring,  nothing to do with kids and sport. 

And even less to do with future Olympic triumph. 

Most of our Olympians came up through local clubs not schools. In track-side interviews, still breathless from their efforts, almost all pointed to the National Lottery and other public funds as key to their success.  Even hurdler Lawrence Clarke, heir to a baronetcy no less, only got serious about sport at university. School (Eton) he said, was of little help. The public money directed towards individuals like him, was.   

Double gold winning distance runner Mo Farah may have been spotted and encouraged by a school PE teacher but he ran on a public track. It is now apparently derelict.

And that is what we should be discussing: the need for investment in community sports facilities.

School fields are often many miles and long bus journeys away from the institutions they serve.  Much better to have a good gym and a hall that can be used whatever the weather.

The vast majority of school fields are closed outside school hours. Public facilities available to communities year round are of more use. The coaches and specialist staff that many of them host are more valuable than any PE teacher, however committed and skilled.

But even before the coalition took office in 2010 and began its massive spending cuts, the Daily Telegraph had started a campaign to halt the decline in community sports facilities. Since the budget-slashing spending review that followed the election, leisure centres – along with libraries and other “recreational” services – have felt the squeeze.  

Sport England, the body responsible for community sport saw its government grant slashed by 33% and its capital budget reduced by 40%.  All over the country, sports-related charities funded by local government have been axed.

Meanwhile the Prime Minister and the Education Secretary talk of wanting to change the culture in schools. There must be more competition they say, and an end to the leftie notion that everyone must have prizes.  That’ll make Olympians of us all.

It’s another red herring. Nobody in government has ever offered a shred of evidence to back their claims about prolific loser egalitarianism. A quick look at some of my local school websites confirms that competitive sports days with cups and trophies are very much in vogue, even in staunchly Labour Islington.  

The battle of Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton. The battle for healthy, active children won’t be won on the soggy, expensive-to-maintain fields of our cash-strapped schools. Yes, they should have sports facilities. Yes, teachers must encourage sporting activity and identify those who excel.  But let’s fund grassroots community facilities and clubs with first-class trainers and talent spotters of the sort that led Mo and Jessica and all the others to Olympic gold.    

 

Goodbye Bush House

Photo:Bogdan Frymorgen

 Long before globalisation, there was Bush House.

Home to the BBC World Service – grand in parts, beautiful in its own labyrinthine way, Bush House nurtured multiple languages and cultures for more than seventy years.

That is now over.

On Friday the last of the language services left for the purpose-built news centre in new Broadcasting House. Overnight, English current affairs programmes completed their move. When the final radio news bulletin goes out to the world on July the 12th, that’ll be it. The end of a broadcasting era – and possibly of much more too.

Of course, the BBC World Service goes on.  Animated Russians spill out of studios a few kilometres across town.  Indonesians smoke pungent clove cigarettes in Portland Place instead of the Strand.  They’re working out of a first class, brand new broadcasting centre so let’s put sentimentality about an old building aside.

photo:Bogdan Frymorgen

But Bush House was always much more than its marble-clad staircases, cluttered offices and art deco halls.  Even within the sometimes haughty circles of the far bigger domestic BBC (and certainly amongst its competitors) “Bush” was respected as an ethos as much as a place: the embodiment of thoughtful, outward looking journalism and a hub of international expertise.

Will that survive as the World Service moves in to new Broadcasting House with the rest of the London-based BBC?  If this were just a physical move, I’d give it more than a fighting chance.  But the emptying of Bush House coincides with the slashing of World Service budgets – and more. The Foreign Office, once its funder and protector, is casting the corporation’s international arm adrift, leaving it to sink or swim inside an embattled BBC that’s in no position to be generous.  

The changes were announced in late 2010 when the World Service was adapting to ever smaller budgets. Suddenly the new Conservative government demanded further savings – of 16%.  Five language services closed almost immediately. Radio broadcasts in seven others (including Russian and Chinese) stopped (they’re mostly online services now, there’s also Russian TV). Shortwave signals in six more were switched off.  The BBC’s only daily English language programme dedicated to European news disappeared.

Those were the headlines – and they were met with an outcry from Members of Parliament of various shades – but there were many other casualties: an editor here, a producer there. A researcher seat suddenly empty, fewer slots for original documentaries, more repeats. And, perhaps most ominous, the letting go of the experts. Off went the China, Russia and Central Asia specialists. The brilliant Arab analyst Magdi Abdelhadi left – right in the middle of the Arab Spring.  These were people you could call on at a minute’s notice to deliver live analysis on air. As a former presenter, I can’t count the number of times I leant on their insight and expertise. Their jobs no longer exist.

photo:Bogdan Frymorgen

There are of course still many people within the World Service with extraordinary knowledge and a real interest in the forgotten as well as the more commonly reported parts of the world. They are amongst the BBC’s greatest assets, the staff who lend authority and credibility to BBC news and current affairs. But for how much longer?

In that same spending review, the Foreign Office announced that from 2014 it would no longer fund the World Service through a grant-in-aid. It’ll be paid for through the television licence fee, just like any other part of the BBC.

Except of course it’s not like any other part of the BBC.  While up to two million people a week do listen to World Service English radio programmes in the UK, that’s not who the broadcasts are meant for. Everything World Service radio does is directed at its 180 million strong audiences abroad. When it comes to deciding whose needs and wants come first there’s no way the BBC bosses, answerable to the licence fee payer at home, can put the foreigners anywhere near the top of the list.

Promises have been made about budgets being protected. Affectionate lip service has been paid to the importance of the World Service. Even the Foreign Secretary William Hague, who was responsible for the savage cuts (far bigger than in any other part of the foreign office budget) and the sudden funding change, thinks the World Service “should remain an articulate and powerful voice for Britain in the world, and a trusted provider of impartial and independent news.”

That’s good of him. I’m not sure how it’ll happen without real commitment from government, and from the top of the BBC. There must be a recognition that the Bush House ethos, even without Bush House, must be kept alive.  They could start by explaining to the British public why the World Service is worth paying for.  It is, after all Britian’s most successful export, one of the few institutions bar the Monarchy that provokes both affection and respect for this country overseas.

The World Service has lost resources and its much loved home; by 2014 it will have lost a quarter of its staff and its traditional source of funding.  Yes there will be benefits from working more closely with colleagues from other departments day to day. But there are also threats. You can’t blame the incredibly dedicated World Service staff for worrying that they are about to be swallowed up by the domestic-facing BBC.

“Nation shall speak peace unto nation” is the BBC’s motto. And so it shall.  But the respected voice of this nation is already getting fainter. With the closing of Bush House,  it’s going to need all the help it can get to be heard. 

 (You can see more of Bogdan’s pictures of Bush House on facebook or at www.frymorgen.com)