Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Posts Tagged ‘public sector’

ON THE DAY FARES GO UP: Getting our Railways back on track!

In A.Graham on January 3, 2017 at 5:17 pm

Question: why have rail workers, though their union the RMT, been in dispute with the company that owns and runs Southern Rail?

And what are the implications for passengers?  In the short term many commuters may complain of the inconvenience. Indeed, many no doubt have. But looking at the industrial action and its causes, RMT members are campaigning for all passengers on our trains. The issue is over the need for guards on our trains.

Southern Rail is one of a number of companies that wants to get rid of guards on their trains. Which means that there will just be a driver to deal with any problems that may occur en route, check tickets and ensure that journeys go smoothly. How passengers get their tickets at any unmanned stations (like Lydney) isn’t explained.

POOR PERFORMANCE:

Maybe it’s because the poor performance of Southern Rail (part of the Southern/Govia-Thameslink Group) that it’s found itself in the front line. But there are other rail companies that aspire to getting rid of their guards on their trains as well. Scot Rail, Richard Branson’s Virgin East Coast trains, and even Eurostar would like to go down that track,

But it’s not the only point of complaint that travellers may have with the current rail system. Indeed, it’s more a case of “how long have you got?” But the dispute over the employment of guards on trains is a glaring example of what’s wrong with our privatised system.

When the rail network was de-nationalised in 1996 (by John Major), it turned out to be a botched job.  All British Rail’s assets were taken over, and the network of tracks on which the trains ran were placed in the hands of a new company called Railtrack. In order to give as many aspiring rail companies as possible a bite of the cherry, routes were parcelled out and awarded as franchises to different bidders, all eager to milk the opportunity to make loads of money for their shareholders.

PATCHY:

The results were, to say the least, patchy. A few companies soon lost their franchises through sheer incompetence.  Others were taken over. There was little co-ordination, and the whole system became fragmented. And fares continue to rise across the whole network.

And it continues to fray around the edges. Meanwhile the major companies continue to make nice profits. – All helped by generous subsidies.

In 2014-15, for example, rail subsidies came to £4.8 billion. In the same period, Network Rail (the successor to Railtrack)  managed accumulated losses of £40 billion.  We could also add to the taxpayers’ bills the overall cot of such vanity projects as  HS2 (the high speed rail link to the north). Meanwhile, Southern Rail has been given a nice  fat handout  to help them over their “troubles”.

Incidentally, many of the companies running our train services are now foreign-owned.  The two companies who cater for passengers through Lydney , for example, are both owned by Deutsche Bahn (the German State Railways. Both Arriva and Crosscountry are part of the German company’s portfolio.

All this surely increases the case for taking the railways back into public ownership.  And to reinforce the point, in successive polls, public opinion has been firmly in favour of returning the railways to public hands.

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Education Matters: TROUBLE AT DEAN ACADEMY

In R.Richardson on March 9, 2016 at 1:28 pm

It was back in March that we reported on the troubles facing the Dean Academy in Lydney. Originally it had been Whitecross School, and its transfer to academy status in 2012 had been marked by controversy. It seemed that few parents wanted the change (either of name or status).

Back then the sponsor of the new academy was a group called the Prospects Academy Trust. But then Prospects was required to shed six schools from its “portfolio”, because of the inadequate provision of services.

CHANGE AT THE TOP:

The Dean Academy was one of those that were offloaded. It lost its sponsorship in July 2014, and consequently was left without a sponsor for ten months. But earlier this year, the school acquired its new sponsor, the Athelstan Trust – and its Head, David Gaston, was able to put a very positive spin on future prospects for staff and pupils alike.

SPECIAL MEASURES?

However, following a recent Ofsted inspection, it now seems that the school is likely to go into “special measures” – an Ofsted term which basically means there is cause for grave concern. This will be the second time in four years that the Dean Academy has been placed in special measures. The head, David Gaston, who sounded so upbeat only a few months ago, has now left and there is an acting head.

Councillors have called for a definitive statement from the school, but at this stage nothing has been forthcoming. The school’s website is bland and says all the right things, but there is no way to access the results of any Ofsted inspections. We hope to be able to report more at a future date.

Meanwhile, a recent report in the Forester struck a more positive note. A new “Learning Resources and Literacy Centre” was opened by Mark Harper MP in November. It is, in fact, the re-modelled library and it cost £195,000. It’s true that no additional books appear to have been purchased, but never mind, there are extra laptops, rolling news on screens and under floor heating. Wow! Surely that will boost performance?

PRIVATISATION ACROSS THE WORLD:

An interesting article in the Morning Star caught my eye recently. It concerned the creeping global privatisation of education.

There has always been a small elite who send their children to private schools and pay high fees. But now private schools that target the middle class are emerging in countries like India, South Africa and Brazil.

Pearson, the world’s largest education company, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in establishing chains of schools in these countries. Such schools attract children already in government schools whose parents can afford modest fees.

UNDERMINING OPPORTUNITY

But they do nothing to extend access to education for the 58 million children who are out of school worldwide.

Moreover, they undermine government schools, as funding is often based on the number of pupils. One commercial education chain is Bridge International, expanding in Africa at the rate of one new school every three days. It’s funded by hedge fund speculators.

Three recent reports indicate that the Department for International Development is increasingly channeling its public funding towards supporting the privatisation of education around the world.

RUTH RICHARDSON

A NEW VOICE FOR MONMOUTH: An Interview with Labour Candidate Catherine Fookes

In T. Chinnick on February 12, 2016 at 1:56 pm

Catherine-Fookes-head-and-shoulders

Labour AM Candidate for the Monmouth Constituency Catherine Fookes.

In September of last year Monmouth Constituency Labour Party selected Catherine Fookes to fight the seat in the Welsh Assembly elections next year.

Born in Dorset in a small village near Blandford, Catherine grew up on a farm before moving to London and then Bristol. But it was only after marrying her Catalan husband 15 years ago that they decided to move to the countryside and raise a family. “We craved space and a great environment for our kids to grow up in.” She says and so they decided on Monmouthshire.

She currently works as a freelance food campaigner for the Organic Trade Board and ‘Sustain’, promoting organic food. She previously worked for the Soil Association campaigning against GM and with the Pesticides Action Network to raise awareness about the hazards of pesticide residues on food. Her work in this area has lead to changes in Government policy.

I spoke to Catherine about her life, politics and issues of concern to Clarion readers.

When and why did you join the Labour party?

“I joined two years ago as until that point I was pretty disillusioned with politics in general. I also used to sit on a Government Committee and political party membership at that time was not permitted.

I felt following the recession that instead of those who caused the crisis – the bankers and financial institutions – being punished those on low incomes were being punished instead. It made me incredibly angry and once I realised that debating on twitter, writing letters to the papers and shouting at the TV wasn’t making a difference I felt it was time to get active in my local Labour party.”

What had been your political engagement prior to that?

“Part of my work in the 90’s was lobbying parliament on environmental and food issues including getting better support for organic producers. I also went on the Stop the War demonstrations. That’s another reason I didn’t join the Labour party earlier. I have also been a school Governor and active in the community – for example setting up a food co-op. I view those things as political with a small “p.” I’ve always been active – when I see a problem I try to solve it.”

It’s fair to say that Catherine didn’t expect to win. Standing against Monmouth’s three time former MP Huw Edwards her success can largely be attributed to the energy and determination with which she campaigned

“I worked very hard to win and I called up every single Labour Party member who had a telephone number and wrote to those that didn’t. However I knew I was up against a person who has a lot more experience than me and has a proven political track record, so I have to say I was surprised I won. I think what people like is I have new ideas, new energy and I’m not steeped in politics so I can relate to ordinary people.”

This energy and dedication is in sharp contrast to her Conservative opponent Nick Ramsay who, amongst other things has fallen asleep in public meetings and claimed for a flat in Cardiff despite only living 40 minutes away. Monmouth is blighted by being represented by two Conservatives: Ramsay in Cardiff Bay and David Davies in Westminster. (Not to mention a Conservative County Council). But whereas Davies is never shy about his views, some of which are very extreme, what exactly does Ramsay stand for?

“I am not sure what Nick Ramsay stands for as we don’t hear about his political beliefs in the way we do with Davies. With David Davies we know he’s anti–EU, anti-immigration and you could say anti-environment with his views on climate change, but Nick Ramsay keeps his views close to his chest which is strange for an Assembly Member.”

But not being as outspoken as Davies doesn’t mean he isn’t a conscientious AM – what’s he done for the Monmouth Constituency?

“Apart from writing letters to Ministers I am not entirely sure what he’s done for the constituency – I’ve asked many local groups and charities and have not heard of a single campaign he’s championed. I believe he’s become complacent and he does nothing of any consequence for the constituency. We deserve better.”

But for all her evident qualities Catherine faces an uphill struggle to get elected. Monmouth Labour has never won an Assembly election before, in a Conservative leaning constituency and with an incumbent Welsh Labour Government what chance is there that they will this time around?

“I think people are fed up with the Conservatives locally so we have a great chance. The Tory led council has resulted in our education system in Monmouthshire being in Special Measures*; our Tory AM is invisible and our Tory MP really shocked people this summer with his nasty comments on refugees. So I think we have a great chance.”

You mention the fact that Monmouthshire is in special measures, how will you make sure it improves?*

“As I’m a school governor** and also a Mum I can see at first hand the effects of our Tory Led councils cuts on education. Head Teachers and staff are facing real challenges keeping their schools going. I want to work with them to ensure they have the resources they need.

None of our secondary schools are designated ‘green’ by Ofsted and given the prosperity of the region they really should be. Local schools were also found to be failing children on free school meals. There is a huge gap between them and other children. The County Council (MCC) have been complacent and haven’t really pushed schools enough. I would put pressure on the MCC to get the standards up.”

Jeremy Corbyn (JC) has talked about wanting to narrow the “red water” between Westminster and Cardiff Bay. What could he and English Labour learn from the Government in Wales?

“We’re not just slashing and burning like the Tories, we’re targeting investment. What JC and English Labour could learn from us is how to target effectively like in Jobs Growth Wales which has created 15,000 jobs – so while we’ve got less money we’re still investing in our economy.

Our school system is better because it’s non-selective and we’re not creating academies, which is creating a two-tier system in England.

We’ve also reduced tuition fees for Welsh students regardless of where they’re studying, introduced the Domestic Violence Act, not to mention introducing free school breakfasts, prescriptions and bus passes. So we have achieved so much but we need to get the message across.”

Nick Ramsay, David Davies, Mark Harper and the Prime Minister have all attacked the Welsh NHS. Ambulance response times, cancer care and waiting times in A&E are all worse than in England – are Tory criticisms justified or is it just cynical fear-mongering?

“Comparing England and Wales directly is an over-simplification. Our population is far more dispersed and we’re a poorer country. Part of it is scare-mongering – some of our waiting times are too long, doctors and the health board are desperately trying to get them down but using the NHS as a political football isn’t helpful. But we’ve protected the NHS by having fewer PFI contracts and increased funding – we spend £120 more per head on health and social care than in England.

One of the things that my meeting with local health experts made clear to me is that we have a fixation on targets – but we can’t allow targets to become an end in themselves. We have an 8 minute response time target for ambulances. If someone breaks their leg it’s not important that an ambulance arrives in under 8 minutes but if someone suffers a heart attack then we need the ambulance to be there as soon as possible. It’s about prioritising.

We have a GP and nurse shortage in the Monmouth constituency – we’re recruiting nurses from overseas which is a real shame when we have unemployment in our area. We need to make sure careers advice includes what public service jobs are out there, especially in the Aneurin Bevan Health Board because there are probably brilliant school leavers who could fulfill some of these roles but they need to know the jobs are there.

Co-operation between public services and local schools is a very simple idea but it doesn’t seem to be happening at the moment.”

Do you oppose fracking in the Forest of Dean?

“I do. It’s just another sticking plaster, another investment in fossil fuels when we need to be moving toward renewables. And it’s another example of where the WLG has lead the way.” (The Welsh Government has introduced a moratorium on Fracking).

What can Forest Of Dean residents do to help your campaign?

“Write letters of support to the press, talk about why they support Labour to their friends. But most of all we need people to come and campaign with us!”

If you want to help get Catherine elected please contact Su McConnel on 07817076232 or at sumcchey@gmail.com

catherinefookes.com

monmouthlabour.org

*MCC has been taken out of special measures since this interview was conducted.
** The Governing Body of Cross Ash School of which Catherine is a member has recently won ‘the Quality Mark Bronze Award’.

REVIEW: A MASTER CLASS IN ALTERNATIVE ECONOMICS

In John Wilmot, Reviews on December 22, 2015 at 4:30 pm

The Global Minotaur, by Yanis Varoufakis – with a foreword by Paul Mason. Published by Zed Books.

This is an updated edition (brought out, I suspect with the Greek financial crisis in mind) of a book first published in 2011. The author is an economist of world repute. He has taught in numerous universities in the UK and became an MP for the Syriza party in Greece. On its rise to power he was appointed Minister of Finance.
When the crisis occurred, and the Government finally bowed to pressure from the IMF, Varoufakis parted company with his party – and the deal that was imposed over his head.
Now, any book on economics poses difficulties for the lay reader – and I’m no exception. There’s the terminology used by economists for a start. And this volume, by necessity, is quite dense.
But Yanis Varoufakis writes well, and has a lively turn of phrase which helps the reader over the difficult bits. He has been described as an “opponent of austerity”, which is true – but he’s more than this. He can also be described as a critic of capitalism, noting its lurches from boom to slump – a pattern that can be traced back to its birth when it replaced the old feudal order.
Some slumps, he suggests, are major, like those of 1929 and more recently that of 2008 – capable of turning the established order on its head. But he mentions other lesser slumps – such as that of 1847 in Britain. It ended the railway boom abruptly with  stocks and shares going into a nosedive, and a consequential collapse in a number of banks.
In 1873 there was a similar crisis in the USA, again caused by a stock market collapse in railway shares. This led to a six year depression.
THE WALL STREET CRASH:
Fast forward to the roaring ‘twenties and we see the great crash of 1929. By the end of the year, 40 billion dollars had been wiped out on Wall Street, and banks went to the wall. In America 2,293 of them closed permanently. The crisis went global, reaching Europe like a financial plague, affecting heavy industry and the financial markets alike. The “Gold Standard”, which was meant to regulate commerce and the relationship between currencies, collapsed. Despite the good intentions of the “New Deal” in the USA, it took the Second World War to lift the economy out of slump.
At the end of  the war came the Bretton Woods talks, with the USA now the dominant economic power. With the Gold Standard now dead in the water, American economists brought in a new plan to replace it with the US dollar. The “yankee dollar” was to become the currency on which the capitalist world relied. And so it was to remain until the economic collapse of 1971.
2008:
We remember the crash of 2008, of course. Much of the population of Europe and the USA are still feeling the effects. This was another collapse caused by bankers’ greed and lack of foresight. According to Varoufakis, it saw the banking industry go into damage control mode, “desperately trying to stem the popular demand for stringent regulation of their institutions.”
Their argument was that too much regulation would “stifle financial innovation”. As if this “innovation” hadn’t already caused enough damage!  Of course we’re all aware of who’s been responsible for the crash seven years ago. In popular parlance it was the “greedy bankers”, paying themselves massive bonuses regardless of whether the economy or their own part in it warranted these pay-outs.
In Britain of course the “damage control” (sic) worked. Banks continued to operate without the regulation needed to keep them in line, and the champagne continued to flow. A few heads rolled and then it was back to business as usual. Big bonuses are still paid out regardless. And the rest of us still have to put up with conditions of austerity introduced in order (ostensibly) to deal with a crash that we were in no way responsible for.
In his final chapter (“A world without the Minotaur”), the author decides to re-evaluate his position in order to put it to the test. This chapter is an addition to the first edition of the book, published a few years earlier. And here his analysis becomes complicated!
But just to summarise a few points:  the slump of 2008 resulted in a break in America’s pattern of trade deficits, which had relied on the USA absorbing the surplus production and capital from Europe and elsewhere. To put it simply, after 2008 this inflow of capital and goods slumped. Without this global flow of capital etc., profits could no longer be maintained. Once again it was the banks and financial institutions that went down like ninepins.
As for solutions to the problem, Varoufakis comes up with no simple formula. But he does suggest that neither of the responses put into place in Europe and the USA would work.  European countries opted for austerity – or in some cases had it forced upon them. America tried “quantitative easing”, which he says failed to have any positive effect (though, as I see it,  it had less damaging impact on people’s lives than “austerity”).
LACK OF SELF RESTRAINT:
In conclusion, he suggests that both governments and private capital had been guilty of a lack of self restraint in their dealings in the decade leading up to 2008.
Governments had failed to regulate financial institutions, whilst the banking and financial world had thrown caution (and sanity?) to the winds in its greed to make bigger and bigger profits.
But, as I see it, that is what it will always do unless it’s held in check. Meanwhile this book by Yanis Varoufakis is an interesting guide to both the development of a volatile capitalist system and the roots of its crises in the last century.
JOHN WILMOT

CLARION COMMENT: That referendum – how it could affect us

In Editorial on November 11, 2014 at 11:55 am

The Scottish referendum debate dominated the news coverage over the first few weeks in September. Arguments, analysis and the ubiquitous opinion polls swayed back backwards and forwards right up until polling day on Thursday, 18th September.

It may possibly be that there are some folk in the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley who weren’t much interested. Or perhaps wondered whether it was any concern to those of us living in our neck of the woods. After all, Scotland’s a long way away – so what’s it got to do with us? Now, if it had been Wales seeking independence, that would have been a different matter. Whichever side of the border we lived, we’d have been caught in the thick of it. But that’s not on the cards, is it?

But the Scottish referendum, and its results did, at least implicitly, affect us here.  It’s not just the state of the union and its possible impact  – though this might well have been of concern to some (particularly if your name was David Cameron). But it’s the kind of way that we, in the remoter regions of England, are governed.  Who pulls the strings? What kind of control (if any) do we who live between the Severn and the Wye have over our lives?  What kind of political decisions can we make?

Less and less, it would seem. Power, both political and financial, is being increasingly centralised, with decisions made in London dominating, possibly even suffocating, all of us.

Local government is increasingly emasculated as its powers to act meaningfully are stripped away – or privatised. It was of course a process that began during the reign of Margaret Thatcher, but it has accelerated under the present Lib Dem government. So in these circumstances, is there a case for establishing a structure of regional (even provincial?) government to reassert a level of more localised participation and, more importantly, control?

Stimulated particularly by the debate in Scotland, such a possibility is already being discussed in many parts of England.  In Yorkshire, for example, there have been meetings to discuss the feasibility of regional government in the north east of England. One spokesman declared that there was a “need to say it loud and clear – devolution to the north must be on (the) same basis as Wales and Scotland (and the Greater London Assembly) – not unaccountable combined authorities run by the same old faces. Regional assemblies elected by PR working with strong, community-focused local government” (Paul Salveson, from Huddersfield).

Some (though by no means all) of the arguments used during the Scottish referendum debate have a resonance here. Particularly those concerned with the ability to control, or at least influence, social and economic decisions at a more local level, or to fit the needs of the regions concerned.  And the campaign overall generated a sense of involvement and enthusiasm that hasn’t been seen on the political scene for nearly seventy years.

As for regionalism as a concept, it might be that it’s an issue that divides opinion. But it’s interesting that even those on the right (ie, amongst the Tories) are now talking about it. And the Lib Dems have suddenly claimed that it’s a concept that they’ve always believed in.  But we suspect that in practice it might be somewhat different from the ideas put forward by those on the left.

SCOTLAND’S REFERENDUM:

In Scotland, the referendum campaign is now over – and the call for full independence has been rejected by a fairly narrow margin (some 46 per cent of the electorate voted Yes, against over 50 per cent who plumped for a No vote).

But what was significant was the size of the vote. It averaged out at over 80 per cent of those on the electoral register, rising to over 90 per cent in some districts.  These were percentages that many politicians this side of the border could only dream of!

The second point is that it was a campaign that engaged so many of the electorate, with a passion that’s usually lacking in elections. The “No” campaign, after a lacklustre start characterised by negative campaigning and doom-laden threats, finally managed to galvanise itself  – thanks interestingly to the intervention of a re-vitalised Gordon Brown.

It’s perhaps only natural that defending the status quo would be difficult (particularly the unedifying sight of Labour leaders on the campaign trail shoulder to shoulder with Tory counterparts like Cameron) .

But the campaign certainly galvanised the Scots. There may well be a sense of temporary demoralisation amongst “Yes” campaigners, but in the longer term it’s an issue that won’t go away. And if the extra powers belatedly promised to the Scottish Parliament are actually delivered, then a victory of sorts will still have been achieved.

Which brings us back to the notion of devolution for us in England. Worth campaigning for, or not?

BRING THE RAILWAYS BACK UNDER PUBLIC CONTROL!

In a powerfully presented article in a recent issue of The Observer Will Hutton argues that the present system of privatisation on the railways, with a short-term franchise system at its heart, offers passengers and the public the worst possible deal.

Fare levels are now the highest in Europe, as rail companies fleece passengers in order to maintain profit levels. Fares have risen by almost a quarter since 2010 – and are likely to rise by another 24 per cent over the next four years. This is “a poll tax on wheels”, declares Will Hutton. Even buying the right ticket is a minefield (as some Clarion readers will testify!).

He also makes the point that dividing up the network into a multitude of franchises was absurd. It was from the first, “a conceptual disaster”.

First, the railways are a natural monopoly. And second, the system of franchises encourages short-term thinking – making as much profit as possible whilst the franchise lasts, at minimal cost and investment.

Lastly, it was “crazy” to believe that running a public service, as the railways in effect are, could be achieved without any public subsidy.

EAST COAST MAINLINE:

Will Hutton cites East Coast Mainline as a success story, since it was brought back under public control. “Five years of public ownership and it is now the best run and most efficient operator, making a net surplus of £16 million for the taxpayer.”

And it’s reward? It’s to be sold off to a private company early next year.  So where do their profits go? Into overseas tax havens, suggests Will Hutton.

For example, “the ultimate owner of Virgin trains are Branson’s family trusts in the Virgin Islands. Operating in a tax haven allows him to move from business to business without massive tax liabilities.”

Hutton concludes that public services such as the railways are natural monopolies… and other countries respect that truth. Britain’s attempts to escape such a truth have been a costly debacle.

Incidentally, it’s ironic that one franchised company that operates locally, Arriva Trains, is actually owned by Deutsche Bahn – Germany’s state-owned railway system. Who says the Germans don’t have a sense of humour?

CLARION COMMENT: Parties set out their wares for the coming General Election

In Editorial on September 3, 2014 at 8:48 pm

The lifetime of the present Government is slowly grinding to a halt. And already the two main parties are preparing  for next year’s election battle.

As we go to press, the Tories are yet to hold their annual conference, and any comment will have to wait until our next issue. But we can see at least a whiff of the hustings in Cameron’s Cabinet re-shuffle that took place in July. This clearing of the decks was clearly focused on the General Election. 

Many members of his Cabinet just had to go. They had become just too unpopular. Michael Gove, of course, is a case in point. So, too, was Owen Patterson, the former Environment Secretary. Here was a man who’d never had time for Green issues and policies, and he succeeded in botching up the Government’s response to the floods that ravaged much of the West earlier this year.  He had to go (as did his predecessor, Caroline Spellman, when she botched the Tories’ attempt to sell off the forests in 2011). Others in and around the Cabinet went before they were pushed.

But there were some surprising omissions. Osborne, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, may be untouchable at present, but what about Ian Duncan Smith?  Here’s a hatchet man who’s become deeply unpopular in certain circles through his sustained attacks on the poor and underprivileged in our society. Surely he should have faced the axe? 

Or maybe not.  After all, attacking the poor is part and parcel of Tory policy. It’s dirty work, but someone’s got to do it. It may be unpopular with those who have a social conscience or are part of the anti-poverty lobby but they’re not likely to vote Tory, anyway. And it all goes down very well amongst readers of the Murdoch press, the Daily Mail or the Express. In other words, those who believe in the myth of those “skivers” who just want to “live off the Welfare State” (or what’s left of it). 

Of course we’re likely to get more details the Tories’ actual election policy later this year – and as the campaign mounts as we go into 2015. We don’t see much change in its general thrust, but there maybe some re-phrasing or a few tweaks here and there.

LABOUR IN CONFERENCE: 

But what of Labour?  What kind of counter-attack to the repugnant face of latter day Toryism are we likely to see from the Labour leadership?  

If the headlines from the party’s policy deliberations are anything to go by, the answer’s not a lot. “Austerity” (as defined by the ConDem Government) is likely to continue. Ed Miliband made that clear with his declaration that “we can’t spend our way out of recession”.  It’s a statement that needs questioning – or, at least, clarifying.

We could spend our way out of recession if we were prepared to apply some re-focused Keynesian policies.  Or, as the Labour Government did between 1945 and 1950, concentrate on the priorities needed to re-build a broken Britain. 

Britain remains a wealthy nation – yet that wealth is hardly evenly distributed.  And, in too many ways, the present Government has created a broken Britain that badly needs fixing. And it should be emphasised that austerity was applied during those post-war years.  It was a case of spending what money was available on the needs of the people.

In the last issue of the Clarion, we suggested in our Comment column that there was a division within the Parliamentary Labour Party between those who favour a “cautious” electoral strategy “(in other words, one that doesn’t promise too much) and those who advocate one based on radical change”. 

We suggested that a radical change IS badly needed. If not, what is the Party offering the electorate that’s different? What many of the voters want is a sense of hope – hope for a better future, and a better society. But if Labour’s recent meeting of its national policy forum is anything to go by, it seems that the advocates of caution have won out. 

OFF THE RAILS: 

Even promised action on our railways sounded like a botched compromise. It seemed that rather than taking back our railways, to be run in the interests of those who use them, a Labour government would merely tender for franchises when they arose. 

This badly needs clarification, but on the face of it, it sounds as though the result could at best be a patchwork of lines under different forms of ownership.  There seemed to be no pledge to end the franchising system completely, as and when each particular franchise ran out – despite the fact that in successive opinion polls, an overwhelming majority want a return to British Rail. 

Which is a shame – as “Labour sources” emphasised that its policy would not include a “return to British Rail”. Why not?  It’s true that following the Beeching cuts (and particularly after Thatcher came to power) British Rail was under-capitalised, but it still managed to run services cohesively and reasonably efficiently without the massive subsidies that the private rail companies receive today.

It all seems symptomatic of a fear of public ownership and control by the current Labour leadership.  Maybe it goes further than that. Maybe there’s a fear of offering the electorate hope in the face of a hostile media and a society that seems to be losing trust in the political process altogether.

Labour needs to grasp the nettle, and at the very least offer voters something different.  

But maybe we’re just being too pessimistic. After all, when it comes to deciding who’s going to form the Government next year, there are really only two options. Either we endure another five years of Tory rule (This time without the Lib Dems) or we’ll have a Labour Government – warts and all. 

THE CURATE’S EGG:

The experience may well be rather like the curate’s egg – good and bad in parts. Miliband and his party have promised to repeal the appalling legislation that is undermining the NHS. He’s also pledged to do away with the iniquitous “bedroom tax” – probably one of the nastiest measures introduced by any government in recent times. And the promise to introduce a living wage for all should make a dent in our scandalous low wage economy. 

Hopefully, Labour would apply its social welfare policies without the vindictive zeal of current Tory politicians, and provide some level of relief for the poorer  families in our society. 

Periods of Tory government – such as those of Thatcher and now Cameron – quite often force those who believe in a far better, more egalitarian, society to lower our sights.  We may still aspire to our Socialist principles, but the situation we live with today forces us to face up to a new, and nasty reality.

Labour may well not Socialism today – or even tomorrow.  But hopefully it’s a player that has a greater grasp of social realities than those who make up the present Government – and a degree of sympathy towards those who suffer the most. And however we look at it, our people and our society just can’t afford another five years of Tory rule.

EDUCATION: OUR CHILDREN’S FUTURE

In S. Richardson on September 3, 2014 at 8:21 pm

Why teachers and their unions are so angry.

By SARAH RICHARDSON

There have been many changes in Education in recent months and teachers are angry!
 
The NUT has compiled a growing list of changes on which there’s been no consultation. These include:
 
  • Changed to teachers’ pensions
  • Unqualified teachers in charge of classes
  • Introduction of performance related pay
  • End of pay portability
  • Councils unable to build further schools
  • Introduction of Free Schools
  • Expansion of the academy programme
  • Excessive workload for teachers (60 hours a week for primary teachers).

NO NEGOTIATION:

The Government has refused to negotiate with teaching unions on the policies behind these changes and has only consulted with them (briefly) on how the changes are implemented.
 
The speed and long term impact of the changes is breath-taking. Agreements, some of which have been in place since my grandmother was a teacher in the 1920s, are being torn up.  This means that  teachers will not be on a national pay scale and individual schools  will set their own pay scales. Also, if pay is linked to performance, the altruistic reasons for teaching are eroded and “payment by results” replaces it.

MINIMUM TRAINING:

 
Many universities are closing down their graduate and post-graduate teacher training programmes as more young teachers are trained at the chalkface, in charge of a class with minimum training. Learning, supposedly, happens as they teach with days out of class on programmes such as “SchoolsDirect”. Local councils are no longer allowed by law to build or open new schools in areas of need. The only schools building programme at present is the Free School’s programme. These schools have taken a huge amount from the Education budget, and are able to open wherever they want to.

PROTEST:

 
To protest against these changes, teachers have been involved in different ways.  On 4th June, teachers lobbied 156 Members of Parliament at the House of Commons. Parents have got involved in petitioning and running street stalls with teachers. On 21st June, 50,000 people marched through central London, led by the NUT, on a “No to Austerity” demonstration led by the People’s Assembly. The closing rally was addressed by, amongst others, Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT. I also heard the comedian, Russell Brand, speak movingly  about boyhood memories of his father being made redundant and how common this is again. He received a big cheer for putting on a Firefighters’ T-shirt!
 

STRIKE ACTION:

On 10th July, one million people in the public sector held a one-day strike. This was made up of members from the NUT, UNISON, Unite, GMB and the FBU. Members of all these unions have been offered a one per cent pay increase at a time when Members of Parliament have an 11 per cent pay increase and inflation is still high.

On 15th July I was delighted (as was every other teacher I came across!) When the Education Secretary Michael Gove lost his job in a Cabinet re-shuffle.  Although it is wrong to personalise these savage changes, Gove has been particularly disliked and distrusted as Education Secretary. It would be good if Labour came out with some strong messages on Education. So far, the Labour front bench has been very quiet about reversing the changes.

 
If you’re interested in keeping up to date with campaigning against the cuts in public services I would encourage you to look at the People’s Assembly website on www.thepeoplesassembly.org.uk and join in!

GOODBYE, MR. GOVE!

In R.Richardson on September 3, 2014 at 8:07 pm

The big news on the education front as this issue of the Clarion goes to press is, of course, the departure of Michael Gove as Education Secretary.  He has held the post for four years, and in that time has introduced many measures unpopular with teachers and others in the world of education.  An article in Tribune earlier this year by Graham Lane (former chair of the LGA’s education committee) declared that Michael Gove  was a disaster, particularly with regard to his promotion of academies and free schools with their lack of accountability. Gove is one of the least popular politicians in Britain today. And this, of course is why he had to go, especially with next year’s election looming.

SORRY FOR GOVE??

If Gove wasn’t so obnoxious in every way,  one might almost feel sorry for him. After all, he has promoted good, if questionable, Tory values with zeal, presumably with Cameron’s approval, and has taken the flak for it. Downing Street initially tried to portray his new job as Chief Whip as a sideways move. But his salary will be considerably lower, and he can attend Cabinet meetings only as an observer.

And in case one were in any doubt about this being a definite demotion, Gove’s wife, Sarah, apparently tweeted that the decision was “a shabby day’s work which Cameron will live to regret”.  Sarah Vine (to give her professional name) is a columnist in the Mail and hitherto a close friend of Samantha, Cameron’s wife.  A friendship that, perhaps, will not endure?

HELLO, Ms MORGAN!

The new Education Secretary is Nicky Morgan, pictured in the papers striding out with four other newly appointed women. It’s thought that Ms. Morgan will pursue the same policies as Michael Gove, but perhaps not with the same ideological zeal.

She was elected MP for Loughborough only four years ago, so has climbed the career ladder quite raspidly. She attended a private school in Surrey, studied Law at Oxford and became a corporate lawyer before standing as an MP. Just the right background for an Education Minister?  A committed Christian she opposed same-sex marriage and supported a Bill to stop abortion-providers giving counselling to women.

TASKS AHEAD:

The tasks that Nicky Morgan will have to undertake in the next few months include a response to the dispute with the NUT over pay, pensions and workloads. Further industrial action is threatened in the Autumn.

Another task is to oversee the launch of  the teaching of the revised GCSEs and A levels, as well as the new national curriculum, championed by Michael Gove. An increasing problem is the growing number of primary school pupils who will put pressure on budgets within the Education Department.

We must wait and see how MS. Morgan copes with these and other challenges in the months leading up to the election. In a statement following her appointment she said:  “I look forward immensely to working alongside parents, teachers and schools to ensure we have world class schools and the skills that will get our young people great jobs.”

by RUTH RICHARDSON.

 

 

ACADEMIES: TWO FAILURES IN THE FOREST ARE TWO TOO MANY

In R.Richardson on July 7, 2014 at 9:09 pm

by Ruth Richardson

In our last issue we reported that the Forest Academy in Cinderford would be seeking a new sponsor, as the chain which ran it (E-Act) had been required to shed about a third of its schools following poor Ofsted reports.

Now, two months later, comes the news that Lydney’s Dean Academy’s sponsor is to be replaced. Incidentally, when academy status at Whitecross School (as it was then called) was first proposed in 2012  many parents were against it, claiming that consultation had been inadequate.

The sponsor,  Prospects Academic Trust, is to shed six schools in all. In spite of reassurances from the school head that “this change will not impact (sic) on the quality of education that we are providing”, parents are gravely concerned.  One parent commented, “the whole thing seems to have been a colossal waste of energy, money and resources – and all the school has to show for it are some expensive new railings.”

Other parents are worried that the timing of the announcement will adversely affect  children who are about to take all- important exams.

GOVE’S QUALIFICATIONS?

A letter from John Belcher in The Forester points out that the failure of two academy chain providers in a short space of time sets a worrying precedent for other local schools. He also points out that Michael Gove’s qualifications for being Education Minister are that he went to school, attended university and is a right-wing politician. He has no teaching qualification.

NO THANKS, WE’RE BRITISH:

Michael Gove, of course, has a penchant for new directives that cause controversy. One of the latest is that exam boards should no longer include American classics such as To Kill a Mocking Bird  in the syllabus.  Instead, pupils need to study British writer such as Dickens or Austen – and of course Shakespeare. A spokesman for the National Association for the Teaching of English said that “Many teenagers will think that being made to read Dickens at 16 is just tedious.”

KEEPING AN EYE ON FREE SCHOOLS:

Another innovation from Gove was the promotion of “free schools”. These could be set up by any group who could provide a viable education plan; and such a group would be eligible for state funding.

Now apparently, a confidential document has been prepared which proposes that such free schools should be monitored. Those that are struggling will be given “special fast-track attention” ahead of damaging Ofsted reports.

The document warns that “the political ramifications of any more free schools being judged inadequate are very high and speedy intervention is essential.” Already, out of 38 free schools Ofsted rated that almost a third required improvement or were judged inadequate.

MASSAGING THE FIGURES:

Over recent years there have been a number of depressing reports on how badly our teenagers perform compared with those from other countries. But an article in The Observer was quite enlightening.

The test that is frequently used is the “Programme for International Student Assessment” (PISA) in reading, maths and science. The figures for Shanghai students topped the tables, whilst the UK ranked 26th.

However, Shanghai is the most affluent part of China with a per capita GDP more than double the national average. Moreover, nearly half of Shanghai’s children belong to migrant families and were barred from taking the test.

Although students from 12 provinces took the test, the Government chose only to share Shanghai’s scores. Many Chinese educationalists feel that teaching in the country is far from ideal. There is “a heavy emphasis on rote memorisation… great for test-taking but not for problem-solving and leadership skills.”

So perhaps our teenagers aren’t doing so badly after all.

LEARNING “ON THE JOB”:

A change in the route to becoming a qualified teacher has crept up on most of us unawares.  PGCE courses and B.Ed degrees are fast disappearing.  Instead teachers are increasingly trained “on the job”.

Schemes such as “School Direct” and “Teach First” place graduates in schools and provide support and some out-of-classroom learning for them. There are financial benefits for participating schools and for the students themselves. But are parents not entitled to believe that their child’s education is in the hands of a fully qualified teacher?

RUTH RICHARDSON

PUBLIC OWNERSHIP? It’s just common sense!

In A.Graham on March 31, 2014 at 12:37 pm

by Alistair Graham

Our railways – a case study

If we take the railways as a kind of case study, then public ownership provides the most efficient means of running the system. Labour inherited a fragmented (and run down) network, battered by war and starved of investment. It transformed it into a nationally co-ordinated system capable of getting the goods needed by industry to their destination and passengers to where they wanted to go. And whilst British Railways remained in profit, its revenue stayed in public hands.

In 1945, Labour was returned to power – and by 1950 it had successfully changed the face of Britain. Amongst the achievements of the Attlee Government was the mass nationalisation of the “public utilities” and the mining industry, the public ownership and control of the run-down railway system, the introduction of secondary education for all – and last but by no means least, the National Health Service.

Of course all this was attacked by choleric retired colonels in their clubs, papers like the Mail and Express and by such right-wing bodies as “Aims of Industry”. But within a few years, the drive towards public ownership had been largely accepted, even by many in business and industry. After all, the publicly owned services provided them with cheap and reliable resources on which they could depend. Like power and transport. The concept of a “mixed economy” suited them very well.

THE RAILWAYS:

If we take the railways as a kind of case study, then public ownership provides the most efficient means of running the system. Labour inherited a fragmented (and run down) network, battered by war and starved of investment. It transformed it into a nationally co-ordinated system capable of getting the goods needed by industry to their destination and passengers to where they wanted to go. And whilst British Railways remained in profit, its revenue stayed in public hands.

GOING OFF THE RAILS:

True, the system began to unravel in the early 1960s. The Tories were now in power – and Ernest Marples was Minister for Transport. He had major interests in the construction firm Marples Ridgeway, which had been contracted to build the first motorways – and he appointed Dr Beeching to head an enquiry to cut the railways down to size. We were now in the age of the motor car. And thousands of miles of track were shaved off the railway network as a result.

PRIVATISATION:

But the system remained in public ownership until the 1990s, when John Major was Prime Minister. Thatcher never travelled by train herself, and selling them off was beneath her dignity. But under new legislation the network was to be carved up, and bits and pieces were franchised out to private companies.

And, of course, we all paid for it. In a special feature in February 1998, the Clarion revealed that under privatisation the railways were receiving “some £2 billion in public subsidy – almost twice as much as British Rail when it was publicly-owned.” Today, of course, this sum is even higher.

True, during the Thatcher years, the railways had been starved of capital, as the road lobby was given its head. Privatisation was effectively the final blow.

FRAGMENTATION:

There are some two dozen franchises in the hands of private companies operating up and down the country. Many of the companies that run our railways are in foreign hands. For example, Arriva is owned by the German Deutsche Bahn.

The First Group, which currently operates the First Great Western franchise, is largely American owned. And so it goes on. Only the East Coast mainline is, by an accident of fate, in public hands – and its profits go into the public purse rather than to shareholders. This, of course, doesn’t stop the Government from expressing its intention to dispose of it at the earliest opportunity! Indeed. a French company, Keolis/Eurostar is one of three short-listed bidders for the franchise.

IN EUROPE:

In mainland Europe, things are different. The majority of railway systems on the continent are publicly-owned. They are run efficiently, with modern rolling stock and with lower fares than in the UK. Indeed, here in Britain we endure higher fares than anywhere else in Europe.

The argument for a return to public ownership rests its case with a simple question. Is it better to have a co-ordinated, publicly-owned railway network or a fragmented system run in the interests of its shareholders?

The answer should surely be clear cut. And it could be achieved by a simple non-renewal of franchises as they came to an end. Thus the rail network would revert to public ownership, and we could return to an integrated transport policy.

ALISTAIR GRAHAM