News last week, including that a senior Tory, Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross, said Boris Johnson should resign if he breached the ministerial code, has been temporarily obscured from view by the striking results of local elections and the Hartlepool by-election. The ‘catastrophic’ losses suffered by Labour including losing control of 21 councils have already prompted recriminations that these were due to weak leadership by Keir Starmer, fielding a Remainer in a Leave constituency, socialists having been expelled from the Party, a deep identity crisis and insufficiently clear policies but it’s also due to their seeming inability to cut through Conservative cronyism and false promises. Whether we like it or not, the lack of political awareness and education in this country have prevented many from seeing the true nature of the tousle-haired bluster merchant they consider their chum.
Boris Johnson has managed to convince many that, as he repeatedly said last week, his government is focusing on ‘getting things done’, whereas the Labour Party wants to ‘play political games’ (aka subjecting the government to legitimate scrutiny). The fact that Hartlepool was Labour for 57 years before this indeed suggests that voters there don’t care about Tory corruption and the number of Covid deaths on its watch, though it has to be said that the right wing press and some broadcast media have done them a disservice by trivialising issues like the Downing Street flat refurb as ‘cash for cushions’. Johnson has maintained his gung-ho rhetoric, claiming his government is ‘continuing to deliver’, when it’s done anything but in many areas of activity.
His government has wrongly taken credit for the vaccine rollout, has only partially ‘got Brexit done’ (as we see from continuing problems in Northern Ireland and this week’s showdown with French fishermen in Jersey) and the main thing which desperately needs addressing, social care, looks like being kicked down the road again. Despite saying he was ready to ‘bring forward’ social care proposals when first elected, nothing further of substance has been heard and the pandemic can’t be used as an excuse. In a car crash interview during Wednesday’s Today programme, Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment (to use the full title) Nadhim Zahawi tried to fob off the presenter with talk about ‘cross party working’, ‘scaling up’ initiatives in some cities, but apparently social care won’t feature in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech. How much more could have been invested in the NHS and social care had not the government handed out so many billions in contracts to companies linked to the Conservatives? It’s also interesting that, having steadfastly refused cross-party consultation and working during the pandemic, the government tries to implicate other parties on social care and its failures, pretty obviously to share blame which belongs to them alone.
Our PM might enjoy glad-handing locals in Red Wall constituencies but, unlike other political leaders, he carefully avoids being interviewed on programmes like Today. John McDonnell tweeted this week: ‘Johnson’s refused to go on BBC’s Today programme. Same tactics as in general election to avoid detailed questioning. He’s playing the BBC again & getting away with it. The BBC should refuse to accept a substitute, blank Johnson’s stunts and offer their slots to the other parties’.
For all the criticism of Labour, though, we have to remember how the other parties have also struggled over the years to find a suitable leader, someone with the key qualities of charisma, effectiveness and integrity. It’s clear we are producing fewer of them these days, one possible reason being the increasing tendency of ambitious politicians to take the narrow route of public school, PPE at Oxford, then becoming a PPS to an MP before being given the opportunity to stand for their own seat, meaning they’ve never had what some refer to as ‘a proper job’. This surely means they will struggle to understand the challenges of ordinary people outside the Westminster bubble. This point has been made in several quarters, eg Birmingham MP Khalid Mahmood, who recently resigned as a Shadow Defence Minister, citing his belief that Labour had left its traditional voters behind in favour of ‘a London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors’.
On Saturday it emerged that Labour campaign manager and party chair Angela Rayner had been sacked, a rather kneejerk bit of scapegoating many Labour supporters are up in arms about. All of these events could increase further public anxiety, partly because it feels as if we have no credible Opposition and we are gradually becoming a one party state to the detriment of democracy. The Guardian analyses Rayner’s performance, citing some errors but many more positive points, making her sacking look a bit like an own goal, maybe one with a sting in its tail. ‘The fact Rayner remains deputy leader is also significant. It is an elected position, which gives her an independent mandate from party members. As Corbyn found out when he repeatedly came into conflict with his deputy Tom Watson, it can be a highly important role from which she can build her own power base’.
Regarding leadership, just think about the records of William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith and Theresa May for the Tories and Tim Farron and Jo Swinson for the Lib Dems, not to mention Nick Clegg, who was thought to have brought his party into disrepute by colluding with the Tories and voting for tuition fees. But it counts for something that Mark Drayford has done well for Labour in Wales, his record leading to 30 seats, with only one more needed for a majority. In contrast to England, Labour held onto all but one of its seats targeted by the Conservatives. Another point in Labour’s favour is doing so well in the mayoral elections, including London, Salford, Tyneside, Liverpool and Manchester, with Andy Burnham now seen as a future Labour hopeful.
Mention of David Miliband’s name reminded me that a few years ago, I wrote a spoof piece for a counselling journal about how a certain mental health service initiative would be viewed in 2025. It quoted ‘Prime Minister David Miliband’ and at least one commentator during the last few days has suggested that Labour won’t be rescued until he takes over.
Only when Boris Johnson saw how well the SNP was likely to perform in Scotland did he decide to wheel out a Team UK initiative, allegedly to help the country recover after the pandemic but clearly an attempt to tame and quell the pesky rebels north of the border. ‘Johnson told Sturgeon in his letter: “I believe passionately that the interests of people across the UK and in particular the people of Scotland are best served when we work together. We have shown that through the vaccine roll-out.”
The vaccine procurement programme was “Team UK in action, and I recommit the UK government to working with the Scottish government in this cooperative spirit,” the prime minister added. The Scottish and Welsh governments are likely to see this as nakedly cynical.’ Not half, when previous overtures for collaborative working made to Westminster by the Scots and Welsh governments have gone unheeded.
Amid all the febrile speculation and debate of the elections’ fallout, the Twitter account of Larry the Number 10 cat adds a slice of perspective: beneath a photo of a serene Larry basking in the sunshine, the text reads ‘Politicians come and go; I’m here to stay’.
Meanwhile, accusations of sleaze continue: it emerged that Boris Johnson’s brother, Jo Johnson, was made director of Dyson on 18th February 2020, after Covid reached the UK in January and before James Dyson was awarded a ventilator contract on 16th March, which had led to tax regulations being changed in his favour. In an article entitled Britain’s overgrown Eton schoolboys have turned the country into their playground, commentator John Harris traces the trajectory of the UK’s political elite, ‘a story about privilege, and the shamelessness and insensitivities that come with it. More specifically, it centres on the renaissance of an archetype that has been nothing but trouble: the ambitious, dizzyingly confident public schoolboy, convinced of his destiny but devoid of any coherent purpose – and, once gifted with power, always on the brink of letting loose chaos and mishap’. It’s truly alarming how nonchalance and shamelessness have been allowed to gain such traction, based on the Eton ethos of ‘effortless superiority’.
He points how these qualities and behaviours then lead to rules, conventions and consistency being pushed aside. ‘Part of the English disease is our readiness to ascribe our national disasters to questions of personal character. But the vanities of posh men and their habit of dragging us into catastrophe have much deeper roots. They centre on an ancient system that trains a narrow caste of people to run our affairs, but also ensures they have almost none of the attributes actually required. If this country is to belatedly move into the 21st century, this is what we will finally have to confront: a great tower of failings that, to use a very topical word, are truly institutional’.
Some of us have been campaigning for some time against the privatisation of the NHS by stealth, which has gone under the radar during the pandemic. The government’s former Chief Scientific Officer, Sir David King, pointed out that isn’t an upfront transfer as was the case with British Gas or Royal Mail, ‘but rather a gradual hollowing out, a process that has been further accelerated by the pandemic and will continue under the Johnson government. In 2010, for example, the NHS spent £4.1bn on private sector contracts; by 2019, this had more than doubled to £9.2bn’. The government has actively prevented or hindered information about these dealings coming to light, eg blocking FOI requests, thereby limiting legitimate scrutiny. It’s also thought that creating new organisations can be a way of avoiding accountability, for example abolishing Public Health England and replacing it with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), headed by Dr Jenny Harries (yes, the woman who, as Deputy Chief Medical Officer took part in many Downing Street briefings, very much abiding by the government narrative).
But campaigning organisations We Own It and Keep our NHS Public have been equally concerned about the selling off of GP practices to the subsidiary (Operose) of American insurance giant Centene. This highly likely to lead to cutting corners in order to meet the objective of generating profits for shareholders – not what was ever intended for the NHS. All this is without any scrutiny or patient and public consultation and many patients will unaware that this is even happening. Meanwhile, recent research suggests that the NHS and social care need an extra £102bn to allow services to be rebuilt post-pandemic – fat chance of them getting that.
This week marked a significant change for care home residents, too late for some but reportedly wonderful for others after 14 months of confinement. Residents can now make accompanied visits outdoors without having to quarantine for 14 days. One resident’s son said: ‘You can have as many phone calls and window visits as you like, but it’s incredibly tough to have been separated in this way’, and we know from many accounts the extent of stress caused to residents and their families by the conditions imposed. These would not have been necessary had the government indemnified care homes against potential insurance claims. Needless to say, Care minister Helen Whately tried to abdicate government responsibility by attributing it to individual care homes: ‘We recognise that every care home has a unique layout, physical environment and facilities, and residents have their own individual health and wellbeing needs, which is why care homes themselves are best placed to decide how to enable visiting safely’ Again, needless to say, the Department of Health and Social Care demonstrated its occupation of a parallel universe, saying it is ‘working across government, with care providers and the insurance industry, to understand the breadth and severity of insurance problems and whether there is any action the government should take’.
Many have commented on the media’s apparent obsession with summer holidays, speculating that travel to European countries will be possible at some point, but we can predict that flight prices will be sky high by the time it’s known to be safe to book. Meanwhile, most of the countries on the government’s much-trumpeted green list aren’t necessarily the places people want to go. Falkland Islands, anyone? But some good news comes in the form of the UK’s largest travel operator Tui developing PCR tests costing around £20, far less than they have been hitherto. Good news for tourists but not for the profiteering companies already purveying them.
Again on ‘re-entry anxiety’, a good article by bereavement expert Julia Samuel effectively talks about the mindfulness approach to difficult feelings many will experience on trying to enter post-pandemic life, not aiming to avoid them but tolerating and moving through them. ‘Pain is the agent of change, so allow yourself to feel the sadness, feel the confusion, feel the fear, and then over time your system will adapt to this new reality…then you can take meaning from it and that gives the opportunity for growth… People have been living with structural uncertainty for a year. That anxiety, the not knowing and the invisible health threat doesn’t just disappear because we are told we can do what we want… Some people will be optimistic and longing to see friends, but there will be others who have real anxiety, questioning if they have lost their social identity and way of connecting. The important thing is to be self-compassionate’. It’s great to see such articles, in my view, because although it is increasingly being talked about, there’s still insufficient recognition of this particular kind of anxiety, which we haven’t had to experience en masse before.
The issue of working from home (WFH) has been hotly debated recently, for obvious reasons, as it’s now possible to contemplate a return to the office. For some WFH has been welcome, cutting out commuting time, perhaps re-engaging with the local area and reducing interactions with difficult colleagues, but for others it’s been lonely and/or stressful, many juggling work commitments with home schooling children and needing to find space and sufficient broadband to work with. It seems that while many organisations are downsizing their office space, there’s a tendency to favour a hybrid model of some days at home and other days in the office. There probably is no substitute for the kind of productive interactions ‘at the water cooler’ which could lead to inspiration or at least esprit de corps. Nevertheless, as one commentator in the Times pointed out, WFH has represented a significant transfer of cost from the employer to employee in terms of higher utility bills and extra hours worked. Another commentator, writing in the Daily Telegraph, opined that WFH eventually became ‘a sterile experience’, maybe suitable for creatives but not ‘commercially minded executives’. Goldman Sachs boss David Solomon went a step further, describing WFH as ‘an aberration’. It will be interesting to see how the situation develops over the next few months.
Finally, for those who’ve wanted to get away from the ‘rat race’ altogether, a recent call for applicants to take up residence and help repopulate one of Italy’s deserted villages might have proved tempting. The Sunday Times tells us that ‘Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a walled medieval hamlet perched in the hills of Abruzzo’s Gran Sasso national park, was emptied out by postwar emigration, leaving dozens of empty stone cottages along its winding alleys’. Officials were stunned to receive over 27,000 applications from people fed up with big city life during the pandemic, but many more might have found themselves ineligible. Applicants had to be under 40 and prepared to open a business in the village. Although in return they were promised a fair rent on a house and an annual living subsidy of E8,000, such a venture could still be challenging. For example, it could prove lonely, a long way to travel to necessary facilities and a small village could limit the growth opportunities of the business. But as this is only one of the deserted villages destined for repopulation, it will be very interesting to see how the project goes.