Wednesday, 30 March 2011

"We should all be clear what is happening here"

The Guardian today published a statement from Tom Morris, Artistic Director at Bristol Old Vic, which was released in response to the Arts Council's announcement of funding for cultural venues and projects across the country. Despite the Bristol Old Vic getting a better deal than some, he expressed eloquently what many in the arts community feel about the Government's 'deficit reduction' programme. In unusually strong words compared to many of his colleagues, he also expressed concerns about the wider impact of spending reductions:

"We should all be clear what is happening here.

Arts Council England has been asked to make big cuts and to be progressive too. There is no way to make this scale of cut without making horrible and unpopular decisions.

Bristol Old Vic is lucky enough to be in receipt of a standstill grant; this is good news for us and good news for Bristol. In addition, we're excited about a new conversation with Arts Council England about how they can support us in developing touring work. However, many organisations and cities have not been so fortunate. It would be easy to blame Arts Council England, but this is not their fault. They have been set a riddle to which there is no fair solution.

 The arguments about the fantastically efficient economic and human impact of arts investment have been brilliantly rehearsed over recent weeks, but this is not the main issue today.

 People across the public sectors should take note of today's news, not because the arts should be favoured at the expense of health or education or benefits, but because similar cuts will soon be made across the board in all sectors. We can see the detail of our sector early, because Arts Council England has decided to give us as much time as possible to plan.

Surprisingly, this is not a party political issue. There are many people who support and belong to all three major parties who agree that the scale of cuts across the public sectors is too high. In the face of today's news, we should stand beside doctors, teachers, policemen, lawyers, local politicians and the many, many voters across the country to argue for a more enlightened approach to deficit reduction."

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Half a million protest in London - and the media ignores them

For those that were there, the protest yesterday was stunning in its size, vibrancy and diversity. From firefighters, to off-duty soldiers, teachers, civil servants, stay-at-home parents, representatives from disabled groups, actors, social care workers, private sector unions, Gurkhas, doctors and health care professionals.

In otherwise fairly appalling coverage, the live blog of the Telegraph reported from a south London feeder march: "The bewildering variety of groups taking part include the Lewisham Pensioners' Forum and the Latin American Women's Rights Service".

It was, without a doubt, the largest protest since the anti-war march of 2003. And that should have been a story in itself. Much of the media, however, took a different view.

Would you brand all football fans hooligans for the inevitable actions of a few idiots that occur at the end of just about every major Premiership game? No.

But that's exactly - and predictably - what most of the press (and, depressingly, TV rolling news) did by focusing the vast bulk of their coverage of a few kids causing vandalism away from a huge and peaceful march.

So, instead of filming pictures of swathes of people marching up to Hyde Park, there was a determination to get shots of kids kicking windows, resulting in faintly ridiculous shots of kids doing just that, but surrounded by large numbers of cameramen and journalists, such as this one.


There were some notable exceptions to relentlessly negative coverage of the day by most of the media. the Guardian, to its credit, has produced this video report of the day that gives some sense of the scale of the march, which was so large that crowds were queing from Aldwych to get to the start of the march at Blackfriars while demonstrators at the front had arrived at Hyde Park.

Paul Mason, from BBC's Newsnight, was also even-handed in his coverage. He was also equally impressed - and surprised - by the turnout:

"I got a sense that the labour and trade union movement slightly stunned itself with its ability mobilise so many people on the streets... The big takeaway from today is that the trade union movement... is certainly a force to be reckoned with...
...Another note: we tend to think of the public sector unions as white collar or from the service industries but this was not true of today: there were many tens of thousands of manual workers in their bibs, hi-vis uniforms etc. I met binmen from Southhampton furious that they pay is being cut; and of course the Firefighters, designated "stewards" in order to deter the anarchists from coming anywhere near the demo".

He then had this warning for the government:

"This passive but fairly angry mass are the people that pose the biggest political problem both for the government and the opposition; because when you can mobilise more or less your entire workplace - be it a special school, a speech therapy centre, a refuse depot, an engineering shop or a fire station - to go on a march, then "something is up".

On a lighter note, there were an amusing a diverse range of banners and placards at the march, including these:
"My banner's crap, but so are the Tories"
"David, all artists hate you. Except Tracey Emin and you're welcome to her"
and, this:

With millions priced out of the house market, Osborne hands a windfall to buy-to-let landlords

The latest Budget has, it turns out, been great news for those looking to buy portfolios of property. Incidentally, the Treasury has seen fit to throw twice as much money at this group of hard-pressed millionaires (£560M) as they have at first-time buyers (£250M).

Nice to know where Osbornes priorities are.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Here's (yet another) report that Cameron won't mention

We already know that this current government has an ideological interest in talking down the NHS and has consequently ignored various pieces of research that show improving patient satisfaction and rising quality of care in the service.

The British Medical Journal is this week reporting that satisfaction with the NHS is at a record high, and that even Tory-leaning voters are happier. It also concludes that rising satisfaction is "probably not unadjacent to the large rise in funding since 2000".

Will this make Lansley think otherwise about his plans? Of course not.

Thousands prepare to join March for the Alternative

In a few days time, over 100,000 marchers are expected to decend on the banks of the Thames as part of March for the Alternative, a coalition of groups (and individuals) opposed to the ideological programme of cuts that is being forced upon the British people by a Tory Party without a majority of its own, which failed to warn the public of their plans prior to the election and which consistently ignores the evidence that drastic spending cuts are causing rising unemployment and falling rates of growth.

The march web site and False Economy's transport map are currently drumming up support. And pretty impressive they are too.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Cameron turned a crisis of free-market capitalism into a crisis for public services

Back in 2006, when Leader of the Opposition David Cameron was (supposedly) flirting with some of the ideas of centre-left commentators, many people wouldn't have expected what sort of government Prime Minister Cameron would eventually lead. That he would, in league with the (supposed) centre-left Liberal Democrats, lead a government that is seeking to dismantle almost every aspect of state-delivered public services, would be pretty unthinkable.

But then, in 2008, when the government stepped in to save capitalism from itself, not many would have expected that it would be teachers, police officers, civil servants, librarians, firefighters and social care workers that would take the pain - and, crucially, the blame - for the crisis.

But that is where we are at. A government that failed to win  an election outright is embarking on a programme of ideological intensity that some members of the Thatcher government would have balked at. And the justifications for all of its reforms lie in one simple premise:

It was public spending that caused the deficit and any actions the government are taking are to pay off this debt. These cuts are not ideological, but are in the national interest. Furthermore, public spending didn't work, so delivering them through the private or voluntary sectors is the only option.

It doesn't matter that the first part of the premise isn't true, in that it almost wholly ignores the single greatest cause of the deficit - the cost of the bailout of the financial system, associated government interventions and the recession that the crisis created - and also fails to point out that debt levels prior to the financial crisis were relatively modest, both in historical terms and compared to many of our neighbours.

Nor does it matter that the second part of the premise - that public spending over the last decade and a half didn't work - is contrary to much evidence. This includes academic studies, international comparisons, huge physical improvements (from new libraries, to new hospitals, to refurbished schools, to parks and recreational facilities), and is backed up by studies of public opinion.

What matters is whether people believe it or not. It is the acceptance by the British public of this premise that will be the key to whether this government succeeds or not. So, Cameron, Clegg, Osborne, Danny Alexander and other right-wing politicians* will repeat the same mantra: the government spent too much money and spending that money didn't work anyway. It's up to all those that believe in a society built on values beyond those provided by the free-marketeers to argue otherwise.

* It's getting tiresome going to the trouble of differentiating the Lib Dems and Tories when writing posts like this, particularly when the Lib Dem leadership have little or no interest in doing so themselves.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Here's (another) report that Cameron won't mention

An earlier post drew attention to a report that received little or no press attention and, naturally for a government determined to persuade everyone of the evils of publicly-delivered services, no mention from the government either.

Well, it looks like another positive piece of news regarding NHS performance - this time a survey of patient satisfaction - has been buried by the government.

It's clear from numerous pieces of research that patient - and indeed staff satisfaction - has risen significantly over recent years. That the government will fail to trumpet these successes shouldn't come as a surprise.

To all those minded to support the government's privatisation reform plans for the NHS, these successes should be considered.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Tory MP steps up attack on government's health reforms

Sarah Wollaston, Conservative MP for Totnes, who has been an outspoken critic of Andrew Lansley's NHS reforms in recent months, has written to the Telegraph outlining her criticism in perhaps their strongest terms yet. She is particularly scathing about the Prime Minister's claim to be 'abolishing bureaucracy':

"It is one thing to rapidly dismantle the entire middle layer of NHS management but it is completely unrealistic to assume that this vast organisation can be managed by a commissioning board in London with nothing in between it and several hundred inexperienced commissioning consortia
...In reality the reforms manage to be both 'top-down' and 'bottom up' but we could end up with the worst of both worlds... without some experienced guidance and continuity, the consortia are doomed to fail and will have to hand over their commissioning to the private sector".

Her full letter is here

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

YouGov: Labour establish lead over both coalition partners

 As Anthony Wells over at UK Polling Report never tires of saying, one poll in isolation (subject as it is to margins of error) doesn't demonstrate a trend.

However, YouGov have now had a string of polls putting Labour at or ahead of the combined vote shares of both of the coalition partners.

In the last four daily polls that the firm has undertaken, Labour have been the preferred party for 44-45% of those likely to vote, around 10 percentage points clear of the Tories. The Liberal Democrats seem to have settled at around 9%.
The latest unemployment figures - showing unemployment at its highest for almost two decades and youth unemployment at a record high are unlikely to help the government reverse the trend.

BMA demands withdrawal of Health and Social Care Bill

As widely predicted, the BMA at its emergency meeting yesterday voted to call for the government's Health and Social Care Bill to be withdrawn, amid widespread fees that the reforms will fragment the service. At the same meeting, doctors also voted against price competition in the NHS and the introduction of an 'any willing provider' policy - which is generally seen as likely to lead to swathes of the service being privatised.  

Meanwhile, concerns about accountability, potential for profiteering and damage to the patient-doctor relationship are alll growing. Fears that US corporates will take over many more commissioning services are also rising.

It looks like the government is reluctant to give ground on this, but with the Liberal Democrat party (if not its MPs) equally opposed, it's going to be very tough for Cameron to push this one through.

Monday, 14 March 2011

The government's health care reforms will 'prepare the NHS for privatisation'

On the eve of a special meeting of the British Medical Association that will debate how to respond to the government's NHS reform plans, Dr Kailash Chand GP, Chairman of Tameside and Glossop NHS, has written this press column asking that the BMA rejects the reforms in their entirety:

"The commercialisation of the health service will lead to a situation where clinical decision-making is increasingly influenced by financial considerations leading to the erosion of the social contract between doctors and patients. This is an affront to the public service ethos that glues the NHS together. The traditional role of doctors as the true advocates of patients will soon become history, just as it has in the US.

...the BMA must grasp the nettle and unmask Lansley's reform agenda for what it is – the final step in the privatisation of the service. No amendments are going to turn this sow's ear into a silk purse".

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Is Clegg playing the 'it's because you don't understand' card again?

After the comprehensive rejection of Lansley's NHS reform(/demolition) bill at the Liberal Democrat conference, Nick Clegg's next move is potentially crucial for his own position, for his party and - most importantly by far - for the NHS.

His latest comments don't bode well, looking worryingly close to the regular argument trotted out by numerous leading figures in this government. In most cases, this argument has two components - that anyone that opposes a given policy is either a) not understanding it properly or b) standing in the way of a (highly subjective) march towards modernity.

Apparently, in Clegg-world, "almost all" of the amended motion (which criticised the 'damaging and unjustified market-based approach that is proposed') "went with the grain of government policy" and the various safeguards that the LibDem conference wanted to see included into the reforms are "precisely what is happening".

So, either the huge numbers of critics - including vast numbers of seasoned health professionals - worried about the reforms have all completely failed to spot the numerous protections against the marketisation of health care that Lansely has thoughtfully already built in... or, Clegg is trying to be evasive.

One things for sure though - he'll have a job on his hands if he tries to force this one through.


It looks like Cameron is going to play a similar game. This is shaping up to be a decisive moment for the Lib Dems.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Lib Dems and the NHS: now its members have said their piece, it's time for Clegg to listen

The Liberal Democrat conference has just voted - overwhelmingly - to put a brake on what many see as the beginning of the end of nationalised, publicly-delivered health care in the UK.

Andrew Lansley's Health and Social Care Bill, delivered under the guise of 'necessity' and supported by (endlessly repeated) dodgy statistics, is almost universally hated.  Doctors groups, nurses, GPs and other health groups have queued up to express dismay at a policy that was in neither party manifesto, nor in the coalition agreement. Private companies, meanwhile, are open about the scale of opportunities for profiting from the reforms - with one welcoming the 'denationalisation' of the health system.

Most depressing has been the silence of the Liberal Democrat leadership on the issue. Whilst it is unsurprising that many in the Tory Party would jump at the chance to privatise the NHS, the Lib Dems were considered defenders of the organisation.

A rising number of backbench MPs and party members have not been so quiet. Evan Harris, the former MP who proposed the motion and Andrew George MP have written columns in the national press this weekend in defence of a publicly run National Health Service in England, in the Guardian and Independent respectively.

The motion passed at today's conference has now forced Clegg and his colleagues to set out their stall on this issue. We'll see what this means in practice...

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

LGC produces interactive map of council job losses

The Local Government Chronicle has produced an interactive map of local government job losses. It makes for sobering reading, particularly in light of recent reports into the lack of growth in the private sector and grim news for the economy as a whole.

Some of the data is startling, even with data for many authorities incomplete:
  • The metropolitan district of Bradford is forecast to shed more than 31% of its staff in 2011/12
  • Northampton county council is planning to lose 900 posts, or 16.4% of total posts, in the same financial year
  • Both Liverpool city council and Somerset county council will lose around 1,500 posts each within the next two years
For more, the link is here.

Monday, 7 March 2011

More Tory councils to privatise everything

So, the cat is out of the bag. Whether it is the Republicans in America, or the Tory Party in the UK, both parties are increasingly acknowledging, in a manner that Naomi Klein would recognise, that the crisis brought about by a failure of unregulated capitalism gives the perfect opportunity to undertake an ideological experiment that would be unthinkable in normal times.

"If you look back to Margaret Thatcher, it was always envisaged that councils would become enablers."

These are the words of  Bob Bibby, Conservative leader of Bury Council, which has recently proposed that every single service it provides - up to and including social care - will be jettisoned or privatised. They will divest themselves of providing anything. Its public services, in the truest sense of the word, will cease to exist.

Selby district council is proposing a similar model, following in the footsteps of Suffolk.

These plans, coupled with the far-reaching changes the government has launched in other areas - from the NHS and Social Care Bill to the equally dramatic privatisation plans for central government functions - begs a question: at what point does a government, which chose not to mention any of this pre-election (let alone one that failed to win a majority) lose its democratic legitimacy? At what point do the British people deserve the right to recall their a government acting far beyond the mandate it was given?

To plead that this period of time is a 'special case' and therefore makes reforms like these a necessity, rather than av political choice, is both disingenuous and undemocratic. If this government wishes to undertake to do away with state-delivered public services, then it should put it to the vote.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Lansley U-turns on price competition... but NHS reforms roll on

As the gloomy prospect of the privatisation of the NHS nears, Andrew Lansley has made a concession and will reverse a change that would have allowed the multitude of providers in the brave new world to compete on price rather than quality. 

Unfortunately, it doesn't mean the end for the Health and Social Care Bill. The reforms, that the BMA has recently referred to as potentially "appallingly unethical", are marching on.

Meanwhile, its worth having a look at this little video, that provides a summary of just how far the Bill could end public ownership of the system. For, as this blog has argued before, 'social enterprises', 'mutuals' and such friendlier-sounding outcomes mask the far more likely dominance of large, multinational health care corporations in the new environment. So much for democratic control.

Lib Dems take a beating in Barnsley

The Liberal Democrats' sixth place result in Barnsley is pretty dire. Even on a low turnout, it is a performance that has to worry Nick Clegg.

What is notable about the current Lib Dem party is that it can be split into two distinct factions. The first is an 'Orange Book', right-wing faction, who occupy most of the leadership positions in the parliamentary party and encompass Clegg, Vince Cable (to a certain extent), Douglas Alexander and the likes of David Laws. This faction has been notable for its eagerness to adopt neo-liberal economic policies previously (until Cameron dropped the pretence of being vaguely moderate) the preserve of the right of the Tory Party. So, from university funding, through to NHS privatisation and local government finance, this wing is a leading part of the neo-liberal assault on the public realm.

The second faction as what can best be described as the ostrich faction. This wing includes those previously seen as soft-left, such as the likes of Simon Hughes and Chris Huhne. This group are both notable either for inexplicably trying to defend positions they obviously don't agree with or for diving for cover whenever a contentious issue arises.

In response, since the election the broader Liberal Democrat Party has split into four sections: the two above, a third faction desperately trying to turn the party left and a much larger forth section... those that have walked away. The Barnsely Central result demonstrates just how much larger the latter is.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Lansley's reforms will privatise the NHS

Reports today that private healthcare firm IHP is in talks with a number of GP consortia to take over their NHS commissioning budgets, and to potentially drive savings in the costs of delivering services to generate profits, are not surprising.

For months, senior figures in the NHS and beyond (including a Tory MP) have been warning that Andrew Lansley's reforms will open the door to the privatisation of almost every aspect of the NHS. Lansely and Cameron, meanwhile, said nothing of this publicly pre-election... although the signs were there.

The BMA will, on 14 March, vote on whether to overturn its leadership's policy of critical engagement with the government. Meanwhile, almost every part of the medical and healthcare establishment is in opposition to the reforms - including very many GPs themselves. And, as it has become clearer that this is a policy of privatisation, opinion against the reforms has hardened.

For what does privatisation bring? Not equity of patient care. Not even efficiency, as the Commonwealth Fund has demonstrated. And not necessarily better care either.

In the example of the IHP deal there is the huge danger that - as is commonplace in the US system - proft-making firms will actively seek to avoid where possible supporting patients deemed too expensive: those with long-term medical conditions or with terminal illness, for example.

Most duplicitous of all is Cameron's attempt to turn what is a demographic problem - an ageing population and consequent rises in health care costs - into a problem specific to state-delivered health care (in a similar manner that he has portrayed a crisis caused by then banks into one driven by excess public spending).

In fact, as he know doubt well-knows, rising costs are a huge issue for privatised systems too - something this blog will focus on in the next post.

The terms of this debate have been used in language so nuanced that much of the public isn't seeing these reforms for what they are. Those on both sides of the argument over Lansley's reforms should be clear: this is about the dismantling and privatisation of the NHS, pure and simple.