The results are in: What do they mean?

As the results come in across the UK there are a number of headlines from the collapse of the Liberal Democrats to the rise of the SNP to the growth in votes for UKIP but with little electoral success.

As with every election night the stories and speculation focuses on the individuals. So there is lots to fill the airwaves of the futures of a number of high profile candidates from Nick Clegg to Ed Miliband.

But it’s important to remember that this is the first stage in the election story. Now there will be the results from the local elections where councillors in city halls across England were being elected. This second part if the story is really important.

If Act One is the election of a national government – that looks like (at 5.10am) to be dominated by the Tories then Act Two is who will be responsible for implementing the decisions of the central government across the cuts in public spending. It is this which is as significant I think as the results in Scotland. I say this because the vote in Scotland does not change the balance of power in Westminster it actually strengthens (in the short term) the power base of the Conservative economic policy.

It means that the austerity measures as outlined (and as implied) are likely to be implemented. And the pace and scale of the cuts will be similar to the last five years.

Why does this matter ? I think it’s important because at the local level (where the bulk of the cuts are directed ) the gap between city hall and Westminster will accentuate. And the gaps between the political classes (including the media) and communities and families and individuals dependent on the welfare state will widen.

It is these widening gaps which reflect growing inequality too which is the longer term story of the night. And they are ones we will return to.

The formal campaign is nearly over but what happens next matters more

As the General Election comes to a close, the speculation on what happens next is starting to seem much more important than what has been going on for the last six weeks.

We have seen, as I have been arguing through these election blogs, at least three different campaign.

From the media’s point of view the most significant has been the one on TV and the radio. In this campaign the language is carefully monitored and bears very little resemblance to how we speak in everyday life, and much more significantly perhaps this campaign is regarded as legitimate. Despite the fact that much of this public campaign has little direct contact with real voters and neither does it invite public dialogue and conversation, it has been a campaign which has been based on a shared consensus.

The second campaign has been local and in some cases very real. There have been public meetings and this general election campaign has, at times, bumped into the other campaigns going on at the moment: local elections to local councils where the results on Thursday do affect what happens in local communities and especially with respect to social care , housing and economic development.

These two campaigns (local elections and local constituencies) in most cases exist in parallel. They rarely touch. And indeed what has seemed the most striking story of the 2015 Campaign is the one that current First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon thinks has little to do with policy and much more about how the post Thursday events are framed.

What we could have gained from the Nicola Sturgeon discussion is how we make sense of coalition politics rather than single party government.

Thinking of these developments, the rise of smaller parties, the cumulative impact of devolution and the consequences of devolved assemblies and parliaments, might set up more fruitful discussions.

The final election conversation is the one not covered in the campaign, but touches the size and reach of the voluntary sector and the development of services and infrastructure to support those of out of work or living on benefits .

These include the rise in food banks, the cuts to welfare, the rise in the peripheral labour force (zero hours contracts or part-time and fixed-term contracts) and the prospect of five more years of austerity. These conversations are taking place within neighbourhood groups, voluntary sector organisations and networks.

It is here, I think, that we will see new sets of activity and interest coalesce around the concerns which the first campaign has ignored. I will explore some of these developments after the election.

Under the radar conversations

I have been struck by the growing gap between the election campaign as it appears in the media and the conversations and discussions I am having through my work with community based organisations and residents.

Over the past two weeks I have sat and listened to people talk about their voluntary work in a community enterprise which is working with vulnerable adults and young people, or the community activists who are advocates and supporters of local residents as they navigate their way through the complexities of the welfare state.

Or there’s the Health Watch lead who is seeking to ensure that their role as advocates on behalf not just of patients is heard and respected. The media, however, seem pre-occupied not just with the usual photo opportunities that are part of any campaign but the stage managed ‘events’ which appear to rule out ‘ordinary’ people and have them replaced by party workers.

So ‘under the radar’ is a large network of connected (and sometimes unconnected) projects and organisations from food banks to community re-cycling schemes. Often these networks are embedded in their localities drawing in some diverse sets of interests and partners, from faith groups to schools to local professionals to single issue campaigners.

But in these networks and partnerships you are likely to hear quite different conversations from the ones offered by the media. These meetings and encounters in communities over quite specific issues are usually person driven ,from the Living Wage Campaign, to improving adult literacy and everything in between, and they offer a very different idea of politics and how we construct political conversations.

Why does this matter? For two reasons, I think. Firstly, they suggest that there is a much bigger desire to talk about what is really going on than might be assumed from reading the newspaper, and secondly they tend to be quite results focussed. They are practical discussions. And whilst they might become pragmatic at the expense of other things, fairness, equality and social justice, they do open up the space for these broader and deeper conversations.

There is a risk that as May 7th gets closer the national conversation will have closed down opportunities for this more philosophical and open dialogue.

It is happening. I have sat and listened to the conversations and listened too as individuals recount their stories and weave together an alternative narrative on ideas of ‘community’ and ‘solidarity’ and ‘change’.

 

As the TV Election dominates, what are the local issues?

The TV election debate is , as to be expected, shaped and defined by the personalities and the ‘incidents’ as interpreted by the media commentators.

And, of course, the political leaders (to a greater or lesser extent) play up to this.

But at a local level there is another election campaign taking place. It seems to me that whilst the national media tries to filter those campaigns through their lens of the actions and comments (and latest gossip) of the national leaders, they rarely stop to listen to the stories in local communities.

One of the recurring themes, if you spend time and listen to local residents or local leaders, is the growing impact of the cuts.

So at the local or city level of Manchester (where I live) you can observe at least two different sets of experiences co-existing.

One set of experiences is that which I heard about foyer weeks ago when I sat and listened to parents talk about the invaluable support they were receiving from a national charity that works with families and children. Parents described how supported they felt and how much more confident they, and their children, were as a result.

Why is this important in what is being described by the Government as part of the Northern Powerhouse?

It’s important because many of the public services the families might have relied on are being cut.

The often invisible infrastructure of support for local communities is being cut and replaced by a parallel set of services and agencies. This parallel set of agencies are made up of faith groups, voluntary organisations and charities.

From food banks to working with children and families, we can observe a retreat from the network of services that represented an investment in the needs of children at an early stage in their lives. The Sure Start programme is disappearing and the centres closed, or handed over to the voluntary sector. The investment in schools, with a different set of professionals working alongside teachers is being cut back. Over the next five years the scale and pace of these reductions will increase.

It is this different and parallel set of stories which the TV dominated coverage misses.

It also represents lots of different political choices at the local or city hall level across the country. And it’s a set of choices that is not being discussed in detail. To be sure, we are now starting to hear a different conversation – austerity or not.

But how quickly did that get drowned out by who said what and when to the French ambassador, and who leaked what? How soon did the coverage move from the big question to the trivial pursuit questions?

What about the issues that don’t figure in the election campaign, but matter ?

The ways in which the formal election campaign and its associated conversations miss out the issues that touch most people, are ones I will come back to over the coming weeks.

It’s important to start though by recognising that the shared conversations between the politicians and the media rule out a whole series of voices and experiences.

The impact of welfare reform, which will be a centre piece of the next five years if the present Tory-led Government retain power, is ruled out of discussion by ministers.

And yet whilst the media may press them on the issue, the headlines focus not on an absence of an answer, but on the skill of avoidance.

All three of the major UK based parties are in favour of education and all three have a shared commitment to maintaining the new status quo on the roles of academies and trusts rather than local schools.

Indeed all three are also in favour of the status quo on how the NHS is organised.

However, they do differ on some things. But it is the shared consensus which is rarely up for discussion. Why? And why aren’t the voices of  those that rely on the services (not those who work in them) heard?

On May 7th local elections will take place too. Here, the absence of a rich and diverse debate is very evident. But does this matter? I think it does. Whoever wins nationally on May 7th will be putting in place spending plans which directly impact on local communities.

It will be City Hall making many of the cuts and therefore we do need to try and make the connections between the local and the national. Accountability only works if those that make decisions are open to challenge and are willing to engage with that challenge.

 

Why we need a different ‘conversation’ before May 7

As the General Election campaign shifts into a different gear – the wall to wall coverage, the on / off TV debates , the post debate analysis and the stage managed events in local high streets for the cameras  – the gap between the politicians and their reference group and the rest of the country will get wider.

The big questions:

  • what was / are the causes of the austerity measures?
  • what has been the immediate impact of the cuts?
  • what is the likely impact over time?

are all ignored and re-framed to meet the particular needs of the mainstream parties.

There are two aspects of this silence or consensus between the parties which should be of concern to all of us.

Firstly, the discussion is almost entirely based on the idea that there is or was no alternative to the austerity measures. The circumstances leading up to the banking crisis of 2007/2008 have been rewritten or reordered. Both mainstream parties shared a view that there should be minimal regulation of the banks. It was a view that was common across the international networks of politicians and financial interests. The Clinton Administration in the US was an enthusiastic supporter of deregulation, as were New Labour and the Conservatives. So there is an important point here: The crisis was not solely New Labour’s nor was it caused by excessive public spending. And as the events of 2007 ( Northern Rock) or 2008 ( Leaman Brothers) slip into the past we are likely to miss-remember what happened and why. 

Secondly , the popular discussion is almost entirely devoid of international comparisons or examples. So that the new Greek Government are presented as unreasonable for wanting to change the deal with the EU, or the demonstrations in Spain are seen as peculiar to  the country rather than illustrative of a different response or a different way of seeing the austerity crisis.

It is this lack of a different conversation which is is of concern. On May 7 in many places there will be local elections too. This is a chance to link the two events. And yet that discussion is not happening. But for a brief moment in the polling station the two will be handed to us to act on. Symbolically we will hold separate ballot papers: one for local councillors and one for the MP. And yet we don’t bring these two together and within a few seconds they are separate again.

How we might link them and what that might mean in framing a different political conversation will be an idea I will return to next week.

Why we are missing out on a genuine political conversation?

Over the past two weeks I have had the opportunity to sit and listen to ‘real’ people talk about their hopes and aspirations as well as their anxieties and fears.

Their voices, as opposed to those which we hear on the news or indeed those that we engage in at conferences or workshops, provide a very different frame of reference from that which has shaped the political and national conversation over the last five years.

In this conversation people talk about what happens when their benefits are stopped or they describe the experiences of managing on very low wages ( sometimes barely meeting the minimum wage) and how they support their extended families in very emotionally fraught circumstances.

Or the conversation has been about how to raise the question of domestic violence and gain support from local community organisations, when to raise the issue runs the risk of even further marginalisation or exclusion. What about how one individual now feels able to talk to their child’s teacher whereas before they felt vulnerable and lacked the confidence to do so. Or where an individual describes the support they have had to start a training course which they didn’t think they would be able to do?

All of these conversations (some in the different parts of the North West, others in London) are examples of how the televised general election presents a very partial and different discussion.

The alternative conversation is one in which the support to vulnerable individuals and communities is itself vulnerable. The ways on which talented and committed individuals, some paid professionals, but many not giving of their time voluntarily, support others, campaign for change or indeed just offer very ordinary but humane support is huge and amazing.

It’s a different world from one which is trivialised on the news over how many kitchens a politician has. In this conversation we see the infrastructure of the social and welfare state creaking and bending.

The risk is, apart from what happens to individuals, that the gaps between these two worlds accentuates and on so doing it becomes much harder to have the political conversation and so individuals become even more disconnected from political discussions.

This is a theme to which I will return.

Why changing how public services are run and financed is off the agenda

How public services are funded and how they are run have been two central questions to dominate news and political conversations.

The scale of problems associated with the NHS, from the crisis in A&E to the scandals revealed in the Francis Report in Staffordshire, have all been about money and staffing.

And yet, as the General Election gets closer these two questions are moving into the background. It seems to me that whilst the headlines are all about poor funding and inadequate staffing levels, both of the major parties are not quite sure what the answers are. They would rather the discussion was focussed on the personalities and the gaffes (as much as they say they would rather concentrate on the issues).

We saw last week with the news that the new Greater Manchester body is to be given responsibility (or share it with existing NHS organisations) for all health spending that the major parties were not sure how to react. In a sense it was a counter intuitive response : the Conservatives who are supposed to be sceptical about the way Labour Councils are run, is in fact, transferring millions of pounds and responsibility for a range of services to an overwhelmingly Labour dominated new authority. And Labour, who are supposed to favour greater devolution, found themselves with their national spokesperson on Health being critical of the proposal. And (predictably) the news followed these two apparent contradictions.

I want to suggest that what they tell us is that neither party is clear (or confident) about what to do next.

The funding crises in the public sector is built in for the next five years. Austerity is not over we are about to move into the next phase – Austerity 2.0. The real discussion needs to be about what we are prepared to fund (both the level and the scale of service) and that avoiding either of those two questions does not help the public conversation.

Why policy matters and why we need to talk about it more

The General Election campaign, not formally announced but underway,is being dominated by the personalities (or lack of).

So it matters that the Green Leader had a difficult interview or that senior MPs can offer to trade their services for £5,000 a day but that other (potentially more significant things) issues can be ignored or missed altogether.

An important announcement by the Government some time ago (and backed by the other major parties) was the decentralisation of decision making and budgets to something called the City Region of Greater Manchester.

The language is not as important as the act and the decision that have been made.

All the decisions on policing, fire and rescue, transport, planning and infrastructure will be made by the leaders of the 10 authorities in Greater Manchester. Alongside some decisions on education and training (probably related to skills and apprenticeships).

At some point, possibly 2017 or 2018, an elected mayor will be responsible – a kind of Boris Johnson mark two. And now the Government are saying that all health spending will be devolved too. So goodbye Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs). And what about the NHS restructure introduced in 2010? The new addition has major implications for the kind of health service we have, we might want and we might hope for. But that wont be part of the General Election campaign.

The decision to decentralise is a really important and significant one. There is a whole set of arguments which support it and , indeed, it can be seen that it brings decisions closer to where we live.

But not to include it as part of the May 2015 conversation is a big error and misses the trick of connecting policy decisions to the wishes of local communities and thus brings the national (or in this case a kind of regional) to the local.

Its part of the accountability and transparency that makes civic society healthy (or healthier than it is) and we should be asking questions about what this new announcement means. It could be a way of reviving our public and policy conversations.

 

Why the public realm still matters

 The idea of the ‘public realm’ is one which is unlikely to grab everyone’s attention. But it captures an important set of ideas and they are ones we tend to take for granted.

At its heart is the simple proposition that the health of a good society can be seen through its commitment to shared and collective provision of services from public health to education to welfare and social services.

In the late 19th century the urban centres of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow were places where this set of ideas had their expression through the provision of range of services including gas and electricity as well as libraries and parks. This age of city hall being the centre of a newly emerging public realm is an important historical moment. It sets up the expansion of the public realm  following the end of World War 2 with the NHS as well as key changes too in public education.

Why does this matter? And why now? It matters, I think, because we are at risk of forgetting the long history of state funded or locally funded investment in services which were about improving the quality of life as well as improving the health and education of society more broadly. Would we fund libraries now? Or would we assume that those who wanted access to books could go and buy them for themselves ? Would we fund art galleries from scratch – without the economic case or the business case which we make now?

The recent open letter (Who Is My Neighbour : A letter from the House of Bishops to the People and Parishes of the Church of England for the General Election 2015) reminded me of this past history. It makes the case – not just for public engagement with the debate and voting too  but also for a debate on what kind of society we are. It is a letter which sets out a particular case (based on the values and theology of the Church of England) and, at the same time too, makes the case for the ‘public realm’.

It argues for an healthy civil society which is itself a necessary pre-condition for a healthy democratic society too. Whilst, I think there are absences too in their analysis it is a good starting point for comparing the idea of a ‘public realm’ in which there is a sense of the shared and collective arrangements of services to the market in which provision of services is determined by price and demand not by values and an ethical framework. I will come back to this tension in the next series of postings.