Saturday, 31 October 2015

Unsafe hospitals and low pay in the NHS

A couple of weeks ago, I heard on the radio that a report by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) has been published which described three quarters of NHS hospitals as unsafe. I work for an NHS Community Trust which was inspected recently by the CQC - we got good marks on everything except patient safety in our bed-based units (community hospitals) for which it was found that improvements were necessary. The reason we fell short on patient safety was the fact that we did not have sufficient numbers of nurses on all shifts. The Trust respnded to this verdict with an intensive recruitment drive, even sending representatives abroad to look for new nursing staff (including, incidentally, to Romania where, some would have us believe, the entire population is desperate to come to the UK) but even after this it was unable to recruit enough qualified staff to maintain the required levels for patient safety. Consequently, the decision was made to close one of the community hospitals, with existing staff having to be relocated to different sites (some simply resigned, exacerbating the problem of low staffing levels) and patients also had to be moved further away from their home area, making family visits more difficult. As a result of the closure of this community hospital there are now less community beds available than previously in the county in which I live and work.
The government claims to hav 'ring-fenced' NHS spending, but by freezing pay for NHS staff year on year* during a time of rising costs of living, a situation has been created in which there are now serious difficulties in the recruitment and retention of staff.
From my own experience working in the NHS I know that another consequence of the difficulty in maintaining staffing levels is that clinical staff often end up having to cancel previously scheduled training in order to stay and help out on wards, particularly when one or more colleagues may be off sick (and of course, sickness levels inevitably increase when staff are under additional stress due to having to work in an inadequately staffed environment); and staff being behind on training is another factor which contributed to hospitals being considered unsafe in the recent CQC report.
Those 'conspiracy theorists' who see a pattern developing in which the government appears to be deliberately making life difficult for the health service, and allowing its reputation with the public to be damaged, in order to make the process of privatisation (which is already underway in one sense**) easier, would certainly not be dissuaded of their view by this situation of wards and hospitals having to close as a result of Trusts' inability to recruit and retain staff, nor by the recent press coverage regarding the high proportion of 'unsafe' hospitals.

*The only reason that nurses and other NHS staff managed to get a 1% pay rise last year was by resorting to strike action - something that is very unlikely to be possible in the future if the government brings in their proposed new anti-trade union legislation.

**40% of new NHS contracts currently go to private healthcare companies.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Why progressive taxation is better than 'People's Quantitative Easing'

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell and their economic guru Richard Murphy have spoken frequently of their plan to use quantitative easing (increasing the supply of money in the economy) to help fund projects such as housing construction, green energy production, digital infrastructure etc, as a way of creating jobs, getting the economy moving and solving some of the social and environmental problems that we currently face.
While I agree that these are laudible aims, I am not sure that quantitative easing (QE) is the best way for a future Labour government to go about raising revenue.  My reason for this is as follows:
Any increase in the supply of money inevitably decreases the value of money that people already hold, and this affects everyone in equal proportion, eg. a 2% increase in the supply of money means that, all things being equal, the value of all previously existing money decreases by exactly 2%.  In other words, QE operates as if it were a flat tax on everyone, including the low paid and those on benefits.  And since those with low incomes spend a higher proportion of their earnings on essential goods, they are more detrimentally affected by a decrease in the value of their money than those who have more of the stuff. QE, therefore, like VAT, is effectively a form of regressive taxation.
There is an argument, which may well be correct, that as long as there is excess capacity in the economy then increasing the money supply to fund investment should not cause inflation - the increase in available goods and services should counteract it (because the more products that are vying to be bought by those that have money, the greater the demand for money, thus increasing the value of money relative to those products).  However, even if this is the case, it means that, to the extent that the increase in goods and services were to be funded by some other method  - one which did not impact on the low paid - those at the lower end of the economic scale would benefit from an increase in purchasing power, which QE denies them.
For these reasons, I think that a better way to fund necessary and beneficial infrastructure projects would be to use some form of progressive taxation - rather than QE which, as explained above, is effectively a flat tax - so that the real cost of investment is distributed in a way that does not impact disproportionately on the low paid.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

The Fiscal Charter: Damned if you support, damned if you oppose

I think John McDonnell and the Labour leadership were right to oppose George Osborne's Fiscal Charter yesterday. It is not the job of the current government to try to impose it's will on future governments. It is for future electorates to decide what kind of government they wish to install in 2020 and beyond, and to decide what type of economic policies to oppose or support.
The Fiscal Charter is clearly nothing more than a publicity stunt designed to either undermine Labour's credibility as an anti-austerity party (had they supported it) or to make them appear economically irresponsible in the eyes of the general public in the event that - as was the case - they opposed it.
Perhaps the best approach would have been a mass abstention on the part of the parliamentary Labour party. This would have avoided disunity in the party ranks while treating the Fiscal Charter with the contempt it deserves.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Why Jeremy Corbyn is so popular with the 'grass roots'

In my opinion, the current popularity of Jeremy Corbyn is not, on the whole, to do with any real increase in the level of support for left wing or traditional socialist ideology. In some ways, the old distinction between left and right wing politics is becoming outdated (or, perhaps, transcended), at least among large sections of the public. For many people, the more relevant distinction today is that between the ‘elite’ (both in political and economic terms) and the ‘masses’ of ‘ordinary’ people (the so-called 99% of the Occupy movement rhetoric). This explains why some people who voted UKIP at the general election now warm to Jeremy Corbyn (I know this because I have heard a number of them discussing their newfound interest in Labour on radio phone-in shows. They are not ‘saboteurs’ trying to wreck the Labour Party but people who are cynical about slickly professional mainstream politicians and drawn towards anyone who comes across as someone they might bump into in the local pub).
This phenomenon (the viewing of politics specifically in terms of the ‘little guy’ versus the elite) is, of course, partly a response to the growing momentum behind globalisation, with the increase in influence of the European Union and the growth of multinational corporations. But in some ways it is also a very old movement. The allies in World War 2 overthrew fascism and the ‘West’ then resisted communism because support for liberal democracy with its championing of the rights of the individual is embedded deeply in our collective psyche and, I would argue, this helps to make our culture predisposed to favour the dispersal (as opposed to the concentration) of power.
The distinction is deeply rooted in many aspects of our culture. From Tolkien to Harry Potter, the underlying theme is that of the small, the weak, the ordinary and the everyday (and therefore the good) versus the big, powerful enemy with its huge plans and ambitions for global domination.
Put simply, Corbyn is doing so well because his obvious sincerity and commitment to represent those who vote for him mean that he is trusted, to defend their corner, by those who feel alienated and powerless in this increasingly elite-controlled and globalised world.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Labour Leadership Limerick

When a Labour MP named Corbyn
Whose views were a trifle left wing
Joined the leadership race, many laughed in his face
Now it seems he may actually win!

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Labour should have the confidence to be itself!

Yesterday, at the behest of their acting leader, Harriet Harman, the majority of Labour MPs chose not to oppose the government's Welfare Reform Bill aimed at reducing welfare spending through such measures as lowering the cap on Housing Benefit and completely doing away with Child Tax Credits for any but the first two children of a household. Harman's objective in not opposing this bill was to reassure the public that Labour is the party of the workers and not the party of welfare claimants.
In my opinion, the Labour Party is so busy trying to please all those people who didn't vote for it in the general election that it is forgetting it's real job - that of Her Majesty's loyal opposition.
Swing voters are, by definition, capable of having their minds changed by the policies, arguments and record of the parties between whom they have been asked to choose. In my view, rather than trying to belatedly conform to the wishes expressed by such voters at the last election, Labour needs to come up with positions and policies that reflect its traditional values of egalitarianism and social solidarity and offer a clear and credible alternative to the anti-public sector/benefit claimant/immigrant stance of the current government and then set about the business of persuading the potential swing-voters of 2020 that such policies are worth endorsing at the ballot box.
As for the committed Labour voters, such an approach would surely be welcomed by many of them, too - especially considering the amount of grass roots support their seems to be for the most left wing of the current leadership candidates.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Spitfire over Hertfordshire!

This morning I was in my garden when i saw a Spitfire circle overhead then roar off into the distance, dipping its wings in a Battle of Britain style salute! I thought I must be imagining things but a quick internet search revealed that there was indeed a Spitfire flypast today as part of the (somewhat belated) V.E. Day anniversary celebrations of nearby RAF Halton.
Click here to see my extremely clumsy attempt to film this unexpected visitation from the majestic and legendary defender of the skies!

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Why Labour lost

The accepted narrative about why Labour did so badly in the General Election seems to be that they failed to appeal to the aspirations of the 'squeezed middle' or to inspire confidence in their ability to manage the economy. I am not convinced by this. I have no solid evidence so my own 'analysis' is purely anecdotal and based largely on conversations (both participated in and overheard) with friends and work colleagues.
I believe that in the last week or so before the vote, scare tactics employed by the Conservative Party and the media around the possibility of a coalition between Labour and the SNP began to have the effect of convincing 'undecideds' that a vote for Labour would be a bad idea (I certainly heard people express the view that the SNP 'only care about Scotland' and that they would somehow use any power they might have in government to benefit Scotland at the expense of the rest of the UK) and, realising that it was working, the purveyors of this narrative concentrated very hard on getting their message out as powerfully as possible, particularly via the tabloid press.
I believe Ed Miliband's response to this development was mistaken and actually exacerbated the effect of the scare. What he did was to make increasingly shrill declarations of his determination never to do any deals with the SNP, which I believe had three (inter-related) negative effects. Firstly it confirmed in people's minds that the SNP were to be feared, secondly it was very difficult to believe since the prevailing view was that Labour would not win enough seats to be in a position to govern alone and thirdly, if he was telling the truth then what was the point in voting for a Labour party that wasn't prepared to do what was apparently going to be necessary in order to form a viable government and keep the Tories out of power?
In my opinion, Miliband should have embraced the idea of an anti-Tory coalition involving Labour as the dominant partner with support from the SNP and others and made the case for the SNP as having a valuable contribution to make to the politics of the UK as a whole. This could have taken the sting out of the Tory and right-wing media scare tactics.
When asked by Jeremy Paxman, earlier in the campaign, whether he was tough enough to stand up to the likes of Vladimir Putin, Ed Miliband's response was a strident "Hell, yes!" Surely, then, he should have been able to convince middle England's swing voters that he was strong enough to be in coalition without being dominated or manipulated by Nicola Sturgeon or any other potential coalition partner.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Devol u-turn? (Part 2)

In part 1 of this post I outlined some of the questions and doubts I’ve had lately about regional devolution. Below are the conclusions I have come to after giving these issues some more consideration
It’s true that if regional authorities are given tax raising powers similar to those that have been promised to the Scottish parliament then there is a risk of a fiscal and economic 'race to the bottom' – but in this globalised economy, competition to attract business and investment is inevitable anyway. With devolution, however, there could be a complementary 'race to the top' as, with the increase in local accountability and scrutiny that should accompany its implementation, regional politicians compete to be the best at using revenue as efficiently, and as beneficially to their electorate, as possible. And they would be aided in this by the possibility of emulating examples of best practice that would accrue from the diversity of approaches to governance that would proliferate under a system of regional devolution.
As for the matter of Conservative domination of the East of England region, hopefully any devolved regional assembly would be elected using a proportional system, as in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This would go some way to reducing the extent of the Tories’ dominance. Also, the very fact of devolution itself would hopefully spark a greater level of local involvement in politics, both in terms of activism and of voting, which could have an unpredictable effect on the current political status quo in the region. Nevertheless it is still highly unlikely that any regional government for the East of England would be anything other than a Conservative government.
One possible counterbalance to this Conservative domination of the region could be the retention of an important role for central government in a devolved UK, in terms of guaranteeing a certain level of protection for vulnerable groups within society. The best solution, in my opinion, would be for central government to have the role of establishing overall policy in regard to such areas as the NHS, public investment, benefit levels etc, while the regional assemblies take responsibility for local implementation of those policies on the ground. This could be quite an effective system, helping to counter the effects of over-centralisation that have often been a problem in the past. In fact, many of the regions have deeply ingrained traditions of support for one or other of the main political parties although the UK electorate as a whole has, over the last 100 years or so, regularly replaced central government of one political stripe with that of another. It is, therefore, in the interests of democracy that central government retain its role as the main tier responsible for major areas of policy – the alternative would be the potential disenfranchisement of all those who, like myself, would find themselves stranded in political ‘enemy territory’.
After much consideration, then, I still believe that there are huge benefits that could be derived from the introduction of regional devolution in terms of enhancing democracy and bringing power closer to the people and that the potential disadvantages could be offset by putting in place the proper checks and balances – and in particular by the establishment of a system of proportional representation in the election of regional governments – to prevent the existing political demographics of England from holding back that potential increase in popular involvement and democratic empowerment.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Devol u-turn? (Part 1)

I have long been a supporter of regional devolution, but recently, particularly in light of the problems resulting from the government's austerity policies, I have been tempted to wonder whether regional devolution might perhaps turn out to be not such a great thing for the low paid, for vulnerable members of society or for public services. The reason for my concerns is related to the new powers that the government has offered to grant to the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament is to be given new tax raising powers, including the power to set income tax levels. If regional devolution in England is to be fair, and particularly if it is to address the real or perceived problems resulting from the 'West Lothian question', then similar powers would eventually need to be granted to the English regional authorities. But one possible concern is that this could result in a 'race to the bottom', as competition developed between regions to attract businesses and high wage earners. Businesses would be able to use the threat of relocation to force regional authorities to cut taxes to below optimum levels - and reduced taxes could mean that help for the low paid and funding for public services would suffer.
In short, I have been wondering if devolution isn't merely a case of offering people a bigger slice of a potentially much smaller pie. Wouldn't it be better to aim for unity and solidarity, rather than fragmentation, among those bodies that are charged with raising taxes and funding public goods?
Another concern is that, while I fully understand why the people of Scotland and Wales chose a greater level of self government rather than rule from London, as a council tenant in a low paid, public sector job, I'm not sure that I really want to find myself living in a self-governing, self-funding East of England region (I am assuming that the nine existing administrative regions of England would almost certainly be the structural basis for any level of regional devolution which takes place). Politically, this region is totally dominated by the Conservative Party, who currently hold 52 of the 59 seats represented in the Westminster parliament. As someone with centre-leftish political views, I can’t help the words ‘turkey’ and ‘Christmas’ popping into my head when I think about what regional devolution, which I support in principle, could mean for the region in which I live. My fear is that, under a Conservative dominated regional authority with powers similar to those of the Scottish government, policies such as increased private sector involvement in the NHS and the slashing of public sector budgets would proliferate and those who oppose them would have very little recourse at all. While I fully support the idea of regional devolution in principle it would seem that, for pragmatic reasons, regional devolution in my neck of the woods is not something I should be hoping for any time soon – any more than a Conservative supporter living in Scotland, whatever her views on Scotland’s relationship to the rest of the UK, would have been likely to welcome the prospect of an independent, SNP dominated Scotland.
These are some of the questions and doubts I've had lately about regional devolution. In part 2 of this post I will outline my conclusions about the issues I’ve raised.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Terrorism and cars

On Saturday morning I was listening to Ken Livingstone and David Mellor on LBC radio discussing the recent shootings, apparently by Muslim extremists, at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. They were discussing the question of whether or not the security services should be given more powers and resources to counter the perceived threat of similar attacks taking place on UK soil.
One of the themes that emerged during the phone in was the idea that while there might (according to some callers) be a case for strengthening the powers of those involved in countering the threat of terrorism, another possible response to the perceived dangers would be for the police to spend less time concerning themselves with traffic related issues and more time on trying to track down would be jihadists and militant extremists. Even Ken Livingstone concurred with this view.
I beg to differ and here is why:
In the last fifteen years, 53 people have died as a result of terrorist attacks on the British mainland. They were the 52 victims of 7/7, plus Fusilier Lee Rigby (figures from Wikipedia). These were of course horrific and senseless murders and I do not wish to in any way diminish the abhorrent nature of what took place in these attacks.
According to the Department of Transport's own figures, in 2013 (the lastest year for which figures are available) 1,713 people were killed in reported road traffic accidents in Great Britain (this is actually the lowest number of fatalities since national records began in 1926!)
Over 32 times as many people died on the roads in 2013 than died in terrorist attacks in Britain in the last 15 years. In light of this fact, surely it makes very good sense for the authorities to spend far more money and other resources on monitoring drivers and road traffic generally, than they do on defense against terrorism.