Sunday, 30 November 2014

Black Friday exposes the ills of our society and what we might do about them.

Last Friday was Black Friday, the day when retailers unveil massive price cuts and consumers are, seemingly driven mad by the desire to bag a bargain.

The police were called to shops across the country as bargain hunters turned nasty and in some cases violent. In Greater Manchester the police were called to seven Tesco stores following incidents of disorder; in Middleton two hundred shoppers refused to leave a store despite its stock having all been sold and in Stretford a man was arrested for threatening to ‘smash in’ the face of a female shop assistant.

Locally the police were called to the Tesco Extra in Hanley after a man reportedly punched a female member of staff in the face following a row over a PS4; there were also reports from Hattersley of customers literally fighting over bargains.

Merry Christmas and a happy Black Friday to one and all; welcome to the new dystopia.

A little over three years ago when disaffected mostly young people took to the streets and started grabbing white goods they called it a rioting. Erudite chins were stroked over the malaise afflicting our society whilst at the lower end of the intellectual food chain rent a quote MPs, egged on by the tabloid press, gave an exhibition of knee jerking of the sort you might expect from a robot chorus line trying to do the can-can.

When the acquisitive middle classes behave in more or less the same way, armed admittedly with credit cards rather than half bricks, there are a few murmurs about such behaviour being a bit beyond the pale. At no stage though were there demands for the birch and national service to be brought back. Instead the retailers promised bigger discounts and no doubt bigger riots for next year.

Actually there isn’t that much difference between the rioters of the summer of 2011 and the frenzied shoppers of winter 2014. Both were reacting against a system from which they feel completely disengaged by desecrating one of its iconic symbols. In another time or place that might have meant storming the Winter Palace or pulling the statue of a hated dictator from its plinth; in ours that means scuffling over flat screen TVs.

Black Friday and the scenes of greed fuelled disorder it prompted is an end stage symptom of the malaise that afflicts our society. For nearly forty years we have been living in the petri dish of a vast experiment in neo-liberal economics, the three dead brands that used to be the pillars of British politics have let the mad scientists have their way in return for providing cash to pay for the modern equivalent of bread and circuses, bribing a restive electorate into silence with cheap credit.

The experiment has failed massively, the lines outside the food banks are almost as long as those to get into the sales and they’re there all year round. In fact more than a few of those people out shopping until they drop are only a couple of pay cheques from joining the line themselves.

That’s why more and more people are turning to alternative ways of organising their economic and political lives. Faith groups have found a new voice and sense of purpose through confronting austerity, the Greens have emerged as the only political party able to talk about social justice with the quiet patience necessary when dealing with a dumbed down media, all we need now is for the trades unions to have an awakening similar to that experienced by the churches.

The talk of the forthcoming election might well be how well Ukip do and the unlikely postures the three stooges strike as they pretend the result doesn’t matter, but promise to do something pretty dramatic about it all the same. Behind it though will be another and more important story.

It will be one about communities forced by austerity to find ways of running their economy that are about solidarity rather than individual consumption; about those same communities finding a political voice that belongs authentically to the grassroots and by-passes the tired mainstream parties.

It may not happen overnight, but with courage and good will the world will change eventually.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Saving the NHS shouldn’t mean giving tacit approval to privatisation.

Last Monday I had to take my elderly father to A&E at the Royal Stoke University Hospital, the name may have changed the long wait remains the same.

It took five hours, most of which were spent waiting in the corridor outside the triage centre, before he was seen by a doctor and it was nearly midnight before they found him a bed. Throughout what was a hugely trying experience the staff were exemplars of professionalism and the other would be patients in the queue lived up to their name by being; patient.

What the experience impressed upon me was the need for the NHS, which was created in 1948 and now has to deal with problems and expectations its founder could never have imagined, is desperately in need of reform. The thing that scares me is the form it has been decided that reform should take and how little resistance to it there has been from our political representatives.

Take the case of Stoke Central MP Tristram Hunt and his strangely sanguine attitude towards the outsourcing, privatisation by any another name, of cancer services in the region. A contract worth £1.2 billion to provide cancer services is up for grabs and a number of private companies including Virgin Healthcare are circling like hungry sharks.

In a recent article for the Sentinel he lambasts the government’s ‘disastrous top down reorganisation’ of the NHS, going on to say that it was ‘rammed through’ despite pre-election promises there would be no more such exercises.

He then asserts that preserving the free at the point of use status of the NHS will ‘require tough decisions on both investment and reform,’ this, he pledges, will be paid for under a future Labour government through ‘a clampdown on tax avoidance as well as new taxes on cigarette companies and homes worth over £2 million.’

Cue massed cheering from the cheap seats, well maybe not, because his honeyed words are the prelude to something much less pleasant.

In relation to the outsourcing of cancer services he counsels his readers against passing ‘knee jerk judgements upon new ideas which aim for better outcomes and efficiency.’ This is a long way away from what many of the people who elected him would like to hear him say; which is that he opposes the creeping privatisation of the NHS.

The support for outsourcing is tacit and he leaves himself plenty of wriggle room, but it’s still there all the same. Could this have something to do with the fact that Mr Hunt has been given a research assistant worth £74,000 for seven months funded by accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), the National Union of Teachers and satirical magazine Private Eye think so, they might just have a point.

Although there is no suggestion that either Mr Hunt or PWC have done anything wrong it seems unlikely that such generosity comes without strings attached, and that is the point at which we encounter the yawning gulf between following the rules and doing the right thing.

PWC, as Private Eye notes, has some ‘fixed ideas about rethinking government’, meaning selling off as much of it as possible to the likes of Capita, Serco and all the other usual suspects. The article goes on to suggest that Mr Hunt already limits his comments as shadow education secretary to attacking the ‘wilder shores’ of government policy, free schools and the like, whilst keeping mum about plans to introduce commercial providers into schools.

Is he going to take the same approach to the creeping privatisation of healthcare? If so that is a shocking betrayal of the people who elected him.

Tristram Hunt is a man with powerful connections and serious ambitions; he is sometimes talked about as a potential future party leader, maybe even prime minister. He has a high media profile and is orbited by a solar system of lesser MPs all of whom would like to be scattered with the fairy dust of success if his time comes. If he endorses privatisation, even tacitly, they will do the same.

This matters for two important reasons. First of all outsourcing and privatisation don’t work apart from as a means of handing huge wads of public money over to private companies, the promised efficiencies and improvements to service quality never arrive.

More importantly the NHS isn’t just another piece of the public service infrastructure to be sold off at a knock down price. It is symbolic of a powerful idea we ignore at our peril, that working people should be free of the fear that falling ill means risking destitution for themselves and their families.

Once upon a time Labour understood that idea, that’s why it founded the NHS along with the rest of the welfare state, then along came Blair and with him the delusion that only by proving itself to be more in love with the free market than the Tories could the party become electable again.

Now we see the outcome of such thinking, crumbling public services, rising inequality and a Labour Party so hopelessly compromised it is fast losing all legitimacy. At the same time the people it should be fighting for are having their lives made nasty and more brutish thanks to austerity and the dismantling of employment rights. If good healthcare becomes once again something only the rich can afford those live may end up being unnecessarily short too.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Giving it back to the community is the only right thing to do with Fenton Town Hall.

Direct action has come to Stoke in the shape of campaigners occupying the former Fenton Magistrates court citing article 61 of Magna Carta, the ancient guarantee of English liberty in support of their actions.

The group moved in on Sunday and have pledged to stay until Justice Minister Chris Grayling agrees to meet with them to discuss the fate of the building. They have received strong support from the local community with people stopping by to drop off food parcels and books.

Speaking to the Sentinel Cheryl Gerrard, co-owner of the town’s Artbay gallery said ‘we will occupy the building for as long as it takes until the Ministry of Justice listen.

That could be a long time, in a response, also reported in the Sentinel; a spokesperson for the HM Courts and Tribunals Service said they were ‘currently considering a number of options for the future of the building.’

This is a reaction so chilly and dismissive it could have been sneered by wicked King John himself. The subtext reads, ‘go away you ghastly peasants and don’t presume to ask awkward questions of your betters;’ and tells you everything you need to know about the attitude of Whitehall mandarins to the great unwashed.

No wonder the campaigners led by Alan and Cheryl Gerrard have been driven to direct action, it was about the only course open to them when faced with an officialdom that doesn’t want to listen and thinks ordinary people shouldn’t have a voice anyway.

Giving Fenton Town Hall back to the community is the only right thing to do with an iconic building that might otherwise suffer the fate of so many others by being torn down and replaced with something uglier and less useful. It is certainly a better option than that put forward by vote chasing Stoke South MP Rob Flello, who suggested it be handed over to the council that would just mean swapping a set of out of touch bureaucrats with cut glass accents for the same sort of people with local ones.

It looks like what used to be spoken of as the ‘forgotten town’ of the Potteries is now showing the rest of the city the way when it comes to clawing back power for local people.

Former deputy leader of the council Paul Shotton, who was forced to resign in June when it was revealed that he had been sending texts in which he defended the council’s policies under several false names, the scam was exposed when someone noticed they all came from the same phone number, has been welcomed back into the Labour group.

Last month an internal committee ruled that he had should be censured for bringing the party into disrepute, it also recommended that he be given extra ‘training’ and be barred from holding a cabinet position until after the election.

Speaking to the Sentinel Mr Shotton said he had ‘made a mistake which I apologised for at the time and still regret.’ His actions, he said, were an attempt to counter the ‘incessant negativity’ towards the council expressed in the local media.

As political scandals go it was more like something out of a Brian Rix farce than Watergate, we shouldn’t though let the tears of laughter blind us to what was really going on.

Mr Shotton seems to have operated on the principal that if you can’t persuade the people you’re right using reasoned arguments, then you might as well try and dupe them instead. That isn’t comical it is deeply cynical.

No doubt he regrets what he did, most people doing wrong do when they get caught out. What he needs to understand is that their nature means he shouldn’t be given a ticket back to the top table of local politics any time soon.

Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Ellis has described the 2010 move of Staffordshire Police headquarters from Blaswich to its current location of Weston Road as ‘a monumental misspend of money.’

The move cost £16million and recouping this outlay has been given urgency by the announcement last week that the force will face a £22.9 million drop in its funding over the next five years.

To his credit, and I’m not his biggest fan, Mr Ellis does not seem to be intent on rushing into a deal to redevelop the Baswich site, preferring to hold out for the right combination of a fair price and a project that will be ‘something positive’ for Stafford.

Speaking at a meeting of the police and crime commission reported by the Sentinel this week he said he had ‘not a clue’ why the police had gone through all the cost and complication involved in moving their headquarters.

Am I the only person who sees in this situation a certain similarity to the one we are in regarding the council’s decision to move the Civic Centre from Stoke to Hanley? Where it differs, of course is that Matthew Ellis is willing to admit, perhaps because the decision was taken before he came into office, that the move might have been a costly mistake.

What chance is there of Mr Pervez making a similar admission at some stage? Not much would be my guess; none at all in fact.

Monday, 10 November 2014

However they feel about their leader Labour will have to play the ball as it lies.

The leaves have turned; the nights are drawing in, just the time to settle down with a good thriller. Thanks to the machinations within the Labour Party over the weekend we’ve been handed one with a political flavour, although it owes more to Secret Squirrel than Ian Fleming.

On Saturday Ed Milliband wrote an article on Facebook saying that rumours of a challenge to his leadership voiced at a fractious meeting of Labour MPs earlier in the week were ‘nonsense’ and that he and his team would fight the next election ‘street by street, house by house.’ Calm down dears; it’s not Stalingrad.

He added that Labour is in ‘the fight for the future of our country’ and would show at the election they are ‘equal to the challenges of the time in which we live.’ When a politician starts using prose that purple you know he’s got something to be worried about.

Several key party figures were quick to rally to the defence of their beleaguered leader, shadow chancellor Ed Balls said claims that a number of back bench MPs had called for Mr Milliband to resign had been ‘got up’ by malcontents. Election coordinator Andy Burnham, fingered by the rumour mongers as a leader of the plot against Red Ed said that such claims were ‘pure fiction.’

Asked by the BBC whether he thought Ed Milliband could turn things round before the election back bench MP John Mann said that he could, but that he needed to develop a ‘cutting edge’ and to ‘get out and about on the doorstep, listening to people and reflecting on what they say.’

If, as Napoleon put it, a leader is a dealer in hope then Ed Milliband has spent the past four years showing everyone why he’s no Napoleon. Labour should be racing ahead, the economic recovery has yet to be felt by anyone other than Citizen Dave’s hedge fund mates and the Tories are embroiled in another row about Europe and yet they’re on the verge of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The received wisdom is that Milliband, a classical Hampstead liberal has failed to establish a ‘narrative’ that resonates with either Labour’s core vote or the electorate in general. As is the way with such things there is more than a grain of truth in this, Ed will always be more at home in a book lined study than on the mean streets of a council estate.

Origins needn’t be a handicap for a leader, so long as he or she possesses another very important attribute; courage. Unfortunately for Ed Milliband and the Labour Party this is something he lacks in entirely.

To lead effectively means sooner or later having to adopt positions that may make you an object of ridicule and maybe even hatred and then standing by them come what may because you believe them to be right. Instead Ed Milliband has tried to be everything to everyone, a grinning Blair 2.0 working a tame crowd, the prophet of obscure concepts such as ‘predistribution’ and gurned his way through endless photo-ops involving bacon sarnies and the like designed to make him look more human.

It has all been to no avail; been one big displacement activity that has failed to hide the courage shaped hole at the heart of his leadership. Only on those rare occasions such as when he took on the Daily Mail over the defamation of his late father or pledged to freeze fuel costs did he make anything like a meaningful connection, but he couldn’t maintain the required momentum.

Like many before him who showed themselves to be decent people but poor leaders he made the mistake of thinking that courage is the product of a single event played out in the spotlight. It is nothing of the sort; it is the cumulative result of countless small actions and decisions.

As the old saying goes if you were trying to get a Labour government elected you wouldn’t start from here. The truth is Ed Milliband should never have been elected party leader, a safe pair of hands like Alan Johnson would have been a better choice, if only because the best leaders often tend not to aspire to be leaders at all.

In politics, like golf, you have to play the ball where it lies, and where it lies for Labour is on the wrong side of what should be favourable circumstances with a leader in whom they don’t have confidence. That means they will, in all probability, lose the next election; the best they can do is turn the process of doing so into a learning experience.

As John Mann advises they should spend the time between then and now out on the doorstep listening to their frustrated core voters, particularly when they don’t like what they’ve got to say. What they shouldn’t do is see this as the moment to launch a divisive and pointless leadership contest. That would only further convince working people that the party founded to further their interests has lost touch not just with its core vote; but with reality too.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Busses, parking and the problems of a stressed out society

How do you stun a public meeting into awkward silence? It takes a conjuring trick no more complicated than mentioning the topic of mental health and the way society deals with the people it drives to distress.

The other evening I saw this happen for myself at a PACT meeting held at the Medical Institute in Hartshill, the speaker on the night was Julie Elden a nurse manager with the North Staffordshire Combined Healthcare NHS Trust. She had come to speak about the community triage system operated by NHS mental health services and the police.

It is part of a national agenda aimed at reducing the amount of time the police spend dealing with people with mental health problems who are not suspected of committing an offence and was initially funded by police and crime commissioner Matthew Ellis.

The team consists of three community psychiatric nurses and a support worker and take referrals from the police to deal with people in mental distress across North Staffordshire, the service operates between three pm and three am, the hours during which most call-outs are received and members are accompanied by a police officer.

Where the triage system differs from what was in place previously is in its focus on signposting people in distress to relevant support services and the willingness of members to attend service users in their own homes as well as in public places. They also assist the police with their responsibilities under section 136 of the Mental Health Act to take a person in distress to a place of safety, using an approach focussed on the needs of the distressed person as well as public safety to defuse potentially difficult situations.

Since being set up in November of last year the triage system has dealt with eight hundred incidents in locations ranging from private homes to a bridge over the M6 and offered one hundred and twelve people support over the phone, members have also helped the police hit their target regarding section 136 incidents.

Local officer PC Terry Dunn said he ‘enjoyed’ working with the triage team because it gave him and his fellow officers a wider range of options for dealing with people in mental distress and that he relished the opportunity to learn from members of the team.

Normally PACT meetings are marked by the lively questioning to which members subject sometimes unsuspecting speakers, when the floor was opened this time there was a deathly hush. This is not unusual, media misreporting and an enduring stigma makes mental illness one of the few subjects that still has the power to kill a conversation stone dead with embarrassment; even though one in four people will experience it in some form during their lifetime.

That is what makes initiatives like the triage system so valuable, a different approach from the police means fewer people in mental distress being arrested because there is no other way of getting them to a place of safety and so fewer scare stories for the tabloid press to misreport.

Ambitious plans are in place to expand the team to include paramedics; however this is dependent of the award of funding which must be bid for again with no guarantee as public purse strings are pulled ever tighter.

The next speaker, Nigel Eggleton, Managing Director of First Midlands Bus Company, got a far more typical, meaning robust, reception. He had some to receive feedback on the new and controversial bus timetable implemented in the summer. He made a few bland remarks about how well, from a business point of view the new timetable was working then opened the floor to questions.

Cue a barrage of angry questions and comments from the floor, many focussing on the flagship 3 service which runs through the hospital, much to the displeasure of local residents for whom it has caused traffic problems. He was also questioned about the age of the vehicles in the First fleet and the difficulty finding a service that connects with trains coming in to Stoke station.

Written down this sounds like tepid stuff, but the antagonism in the air was palpable, few things stir up passions like a change to the local bus service. Not without good reason too, having an old and rattling bus pass their house dozens of times every day can have a negative impact on an individual’s quality of life and being stuck in traffic hardly improves the already dull routine of the school run.

Mr Eggleton, who I’d guess has had media training of some sort, handled some tough questioning with an affably avuncular charm that is learnt rather than natural. Playing a straight bat Boycott style to drive off criticism whilst giving away as little as possible, the whole thing was rather like watching a junior minister handling the press, giving out the bare minimum of information without offending anyone; effective no doubt from a corporate point of view but frustrating to watch.

Local residents dealing with Mr Eggleton over their not unreasonable concerns may have to be prepared for a war of attrition rather than a single battle.

Last to speak was Mike Brown, Facilities Manager at the newly renamed Royal University Hospital of North Staffordshire. The name may be new but the problem here is singular and as old as the hills; parking.

By Mr Brown’s admission parking in and around the hospital is a ‘nightmare’ and unlikely to improve any time soon due to the on-going construction work. To his credit he didn’t try to slither past tough questions and the frustration of his audience.

The biggest problem seems to be the attitude of hospital staff to parking with many preferring to park in the surrounding streets rather than use the spaces provided by their employer even though the cost is minimal in comparison to other sites. They seem to see doing so as an inalienable right leading to inevitable and entirely understandable confrontations with local residents who hold the opposing view.

In the short term the only solution seems to be the sort of glum putting up with an awkward situation at which we Brits are so practiced, in the longer term. The longer term solution is the construction or multi-storey parking on the hospital site, the problem then of course is where to build it; that may be the opening shot in a whole new battle.

What draws these two seemingly more minor problems together with the work of the triage team? Both seem to by symptomatic to some extent of the stresses inherent to living on a crowded island where society seems to get more selfish, more determined about protecting individual rights at all costs with each passing year. It is impossible to say when and for whom those will boil over into distress; you just have to hope for good fortune and failing that for someone to be there to pick up the pieces.