Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: February, 2015

Pity I cant vote for Nicola Sturgeon

I am always delighted to  find someone who has read this column and so am overjoyed   that all the bishops in the Church of England must have done so. A fortnight ago, I lamented the lack of any vison, idealism or passion from the major political parties in the run up to the election. This is exactly what the bishops say in their pastoral letter issued last week.

Remembering how a bishop from an earlier generation, David Jenkins, commented that “generally speaking, bishops are generally speaking” I approached the report with some trepidation. It is high level stuff with references to particular policies carefully worded and tucked away – whatever the politicians may tell you.  On nuclear weapons, for example, the bishops only ask for an honest and public debate on their relevance today.

But I thought the generalities were rather good. The central section argues for  more inclusive, self supporting communities rather than “ a society of strangers”.  Both William Beveridge and Margaret Thatcher, on opposite sides of the political divide, they explain, ”understood that their approaches to the well being of the nation could not succeed unless social relationships were marked by neighbourliness, strong voluntary commitment and personal responsibility.”

Naturally, the bishops see a  role for churches to  nurture social  engagement . I spent an evening last week thoroughly enjoying  the annual pantomime at Crawcrook Centenary Church, and couldn’t agree more. Churches provide long term social support to their members and spread out into the community in all sorts of ways – as sponsors, for example, of West End Refugee Service.

They are one of the pillars of civil society that  include housing associations, credit unions, citizens advice, active age and so on. The intriguing question is how such voluntary and community organisations are supported by government is a way that neither smothers  them with regulation or strangles them for lack of funds.

In April, victim support groups  will come under the control of the Police and Crime Commissioner. The existing victim support charities will lose their funding and many of the staff  fear for their jobs. Whether it is more effective or efficient for victims of crime to be helped by a new team in the Commissioner’s office, is difficult to say. But it is indicative of the way that the state chops and changes the way it supports voluntary activity.

The Conservative party’s great initiative to build civil society was The Big Society. Remember David Cameron telling us shortly after the last election that “we all belong to the same society and we all have a stake in making it better…we are all in this together and we will mend our broken society together.”

It has not worked out too well. The flagship body, Social Network Foundation has been wound up after claims of mismanagement  and the term ‘big society’ was  last heard in the Prime Minister’s  2013 Christmas message.

In a critical final audit of the scheme, The Civil Exchange think tank finds that Big Society initiatives have not brought people closer together or closed  the major gaps in income, wealth and power.

The deficit is worse in lower socio economic groups, among  the disabled  and ethnic minority groups and in the north.  But, the bishops rightly argue, the ideas should not be consigned to the political dustbin.

Iain Duncan Smith was swift to hit back at the bishops.  If he also reads this column, let me add that the Big Society drew on the ideas of Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’  and that both parties have been rightly concerned to rebuild social capital that has been on the wane over the past generation.

Both parties have wanted to privatise public services in the social care field. HMP Northumberland and the greater part of the former Northumbria Probation Service are now run by a French catering firm called Sodexo. Whatever the intention, only national conglomerates have been able to successfully bid for these contracts as opposed to charities with more of a feel for the local community.

Sunderland was designated a ‘social enterprise place’ last December thanks to the success of Home Care Associates and other groups but, despite loan funding, social enterprises generally have been slow to get going.  Greater powers for community groups to take over assets  like Jesmond Swimming Pool  and the Rose and Crown pub at Slaley have been provided but  the potential for such novel ideas has yet to be fulfilled especially in more run down areas.

There is still a strange reluctance in government to devolve power or to work with intermediary organisations to find pragmatic solutions. When a new initiative like foodbanks springs up to meet a need, which is  where voluntary organisations are at their best, it is cold shouldered by government because it is not part of a national plan.

Instead, the government has chosen to set up new organisations, like the National Citizens Service, which aims to have 120,000 young people volunteering this summer, rather than work with the existing groups on the ground.

In one year alone under the coalition government, the voluntary sector  lost  £1.3bn in grants to support its activities. A VONNE survey found that 44% of  charities in the North East expected to close a service in the year ahead. With further cuts in local authority spending expected, the prospect of greater support to the voluntary sector is wishful thinking.

Of all the party leaders, only Nicola Sturgeon has made me sit up and take note  over the past two weeks. Sadly I cannot vote for her.  The Scottish National Party would ease up on austerity and buy a way out of recession. This could provide the badly needed cash to build civil society  but the problems are deeper rooted  and badly need the fresh moral vision that the church is calling for. The challenge is still to find ways of translating good ideas like the Big Society into practice around the country.

They knew what they were voting for in 1945. Do we know now?

I can remember exactly what I was doing on the morning of Winston Churchill’s funeral. The fiftieth  anniversary was celebrated a fortnight ago. Shops were closed  and union jacks were hung in respect for a man then regaled as a national hero.

If the questionable practice of marking these anniversaries continues to gather  pace, the great Labour party victory  in the 1945 general election, which I was not around to remember, will be recalled in July.  Here is a quick reminder to get you primed for the occasion. It ought to be required reading for anyone planning a general election strategy.

With the end of the second world war in sight, the partners in the coalition could not wait to go their own ways. The election was held two months after V E Day. Because of the war, it was the first general election in ten years. The result was delayed in order for votes from troops still abroad to be counted and also, curiously, for the mill workers to return after wakes week.

The Labour Party won an unexpected landslide victory and formed a majority government for the first time in its history.  Only the Liberal victory in 1906 and the Labour victory in 1997 compare.

The result was a great shock to Winston Churchill. The historian A J P Taylor explains that the people cheered Churchill, the great war leader, but voted for Clement Attlee, a seemingly lacklustre character with an uncanny resemblance to Captain Mainwaring.

The electorate was won over by the  commitment to “winning the peace” and remembered the Conservatives failure to tackle unemployment or solve the housing crisis before the war. Although both parties signed up to the recommendations of the Beveridge report to introduce social security, only Labour did so wholeheartedly.

The views of John Boot, third generation head of the family business based in Nottingham, are not known. The Boots were major benefactors to the local community. But the business leaders of the day would have feared  ‘catastrophe’ if Labour won the election and  went on to nationalise “the commanding heights of the economy”.

In fact, the mine owners were generously compensated and Aneurin Bevan, Minister for Health, went to great lengths to persuade the medical profession to join the national  health service in 1948.  Some said he conceded too much.

So what lessons can we learn from history?  The personality of the party leader did not seem to matter in those far off days – though there is a view that Churchill’s cigar smoking pomposity was not that popular with the troops.

Attlee became a great prime minister because of his skill  in holding his team together. He was  voted the most successful prime minister of the century by historians on 2004.  The post war government  achieved a political consensus based on Keynesian economics that was the order of the day until Mrs Thatcher came along.

It may seem unconceivable nowadays, but in 1945 policies won elections not  people. The manifesto stated clearly that Labour was proud to be socialist. It heralded  a programme of economic and social reform that left the Labour leaders  worn out and exhausted five years later.

Seventy years on, what would be the equivalent planks in the manifesto?  A brave  left wing party would introduce the  living wage and  reform the banking system. It would stand up for welfare and give power back to local authorities. It might scrap trident too.

In those days the manifesto mattered. It was clear what you were voting for. Nowadays, political parties sit on the fence and try to please everyone. Voters are left to second guess what their favoured party might actually do in power.

Any left wing party worth its salt will be opposed by the press and by business. It was the same in 1945.  The Daily Mirror published a cartoon on election day in 1945 of a weary soldier urging the public not to lose the peace but elsewhere the Beaverbrook press was in Churchill’s pocket.

A party that is being shouted down may just be getting it right. Beware the kind of platitudes that we have heard  from Lord Digby Jones who said this week that   ‘wealth creation’ is a universal good that will save the NHS.

Wealth has replaced profit in the lexicon. The real question is how wealth is used, taxed  and distributed. Remember that greater equality leads to economic growth, as Obama has now realised, and that  the average company chief executive earns in three days what the average worker earns in a year.

Are we to live forever in a kind of purgatory of coalition government, in which no one will have the courage to stand and say what they would really do for fear of alienating the middle ground of the electorate?

In 1945, there was an overwhelming cry for change that is hard to find with less than one hundred days to go to polling day. I await the party manifestos with baited breath in the hope that one of them will inspire me.

Making the world a safer place

The world has seemed a more dangerous place this week with blood curling calls to avenge the ghastly execution of the Jordanian pilot. Doesn’t the world realise that  jihadist atrocities are designed to provoke just such retaliation and unleash an unending war that only one side is fanatical enough to win.

The United Sates talks of  sending ‘defensive’ arms to the Ukraine  and a NATO  rapid reaction force deploys on the  border. Pardon me, but did I miss the parliamentary debate on a potential use of our forces in the Ukraine?

Full marks then Angela Merkel and François Holland in their attempts to negotiate a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine.  It remains to be seen if they will be successful but  diplomacy must be better than war mongering.  We should not expect too much from the Prince of Wales as he tours the middle east this week. Much better to dispatch Merkel and Holland without more ado.