The library I work in is gradually opening up. There is a cap on numbers admitted and jargon such as ‘grab and go’ ‘ready reads’ and ‘sanitiser points’ reflect a decidedly new normal, but at least things are heading in the right direction.
Not everyone is convinced. A recent tweet spoke of public libraries seemingly doing all they could to keep people out, in contrast to the attitude of most shops who are busy doing whatever it takes to welcome us back.
In the comments that followed it was suggested this was a public sector problem, that libraries had no profit or usage incentive, and that this excessively cautious approach was somewhat ironic given how often we are urged to join campaigns to keep them open.
The SDP is pro-public services, but not in the uncritical ways of Labour and increasingly the Tories. Too often sclerotic, bureaucratic and, when overseen by local authorities, burdened with cack-handed political leadership, these services are too important to be given a free pass.
To be fair, the last decade has been difficult for local authorities. Cuts in funding from central government have coincided with increased demand for local services. Arguably, most of the low hanging fruits of greater efficiency have been picked, so someone better qualified than I will have to explain how, in their day-to-day operations, these services can be improved. But here’s where we could start.
In England and Wales, political and electoral reform is needed to revitalise local democracy. Local government is too fragmented, leaving many people confused as to who does what in their locality. Weak electoral accountability leads to a lack of critical oversight on public procurement. Unitary authorities across the board would at least bring democratic clarity. City and regional mayors may, to some, already be a good solution to these problems. Personally, I am sceptical.
Of the need for electoral reform in favour of a fairer electoral system, I am more certain. The first past the post system leaves many councils in England and Wales with a single party holding in excess of 75% of the seats, way out of proportion to their actual vote.
In the recent local elections, many voters in Redditch, Gateshead, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and Dudley will have been left feeling cheated. In London, three boroughs, Lewisham, Newham and Barking and Dagenham all have 100% Labour councillors with no opposition whatsoever, even though substantial numbers voted for other parties.
These councils spend much of their time, and our money, propagating identity politics and all things woke. Aside from being insufferably sanctimonious, this ideology dominates these councils’ corporate culture and often bears little relation to the concerns of their communities at large. Seeking the quiet life, even the Conservative-led councils among them acquiesce in much of this. But explaining that would require another article.
Unfortunately, skewed priorities have consequences. A focus on identity politics relegates other concerns to the margins. Preferential treatment for some means disadvantage for others, and with it the neglect of ‘unfashionable’ services. Witness the plight of the elderly and disabled recipients of residential and home care services during the pandemic. Or the vulnerable young girls of Rotherham and other provincial towns and cities, denied protection from grooming gangs.
The SDP’s New Declaration spoke of the need for a values and virtues-led cultural renewal. When strengthening the common bonds which unite us, and re-enforcing communitarian impulses in public life, the public sector should be an exemplar. Not a place where being highly competent is less important than holding the ‘right’ views. Where poor performance is overlooked, or worse, institutionalised.
Our libraries are open, and soon we should be able to forgo the face masks and ‘triage’ patrols by the front door. A diverse workforce in every sense, the best of us take pride in serving the community and strive to do better. Some of our most able staff – those embodying the values and virtues needed – were not brought up here. It’s almost as if they had somehow dodged a deep-seated malaise affecting the rest of us. It’s funny that.