Thursday, 25 September 2008

A journey through education 5

The city of Derry in 1978 was still at war. It was here that the Institute of Continuing Education was based at Magee University College, the oldest part of the University of Ulster. Whilst waiting for the time for my job interview, I took a walk around. A bomb exploded as I walked past a shop. Fortunately it was only an incendiary device, of the kind with which I had become familiar in London during WW2. Many shops were boarded up and this beautiful city looked sad and forlorn. I spoke to some of the British soldiers, I had once been one of them myself, in another foreign place. They asked me questions about what I was doing there and I deduced that this was a part of a low-level intelligence gathering procedure. I visited the Free Derry wall in the Bogside. Later I was to go there many times, to watch the Saturday afternoon riots.

Of course, being English in Derry was a strange experience at that time, but, like others, I quickly became defined by my politics. This was a university setting and I was not constrained in the way I had been in the very different environment of Peterborough. The students were all mature and I had a great deal in common with them, whatever their politics.I made many friends. I could walk into the centre of the city, after a few years and would have to stop several times to chat to people I knew. I would go into a bar on my own and would shortly have friends coming over bearing drinks. I miss that.

On my interview day I asked a police person where the cathedral was. The Catholic or Protestant cathedral, he asked ? A divided city, but not divided equally. The nationalist community was, and is, in the large majority. Despite this the unionists ran the city for many years, because of gerrymandered ward boundaries. The old Church of Ireland cathedral was fascinating and full of history, but cold and unwelcoming somehow. The catholic cathedral was more modern, but glowing with warmth and candle light. Strange that I should feel more at home there, than in the cathedral which belonged to the communion into which I had been baptised. Not that I was tempted to convert. I had long since been an atheist. Now I think of myself more as an agnostic, whatever the disapproval of Dawkins may be. I feel that his stern rationalism leaves scant space for human emotionality.

Teaching in Derry was full of emotion and the political temperature was high. I had to decide at the beginning how to deal with my own political commitment. I adopted the simple expedient of explaining what my views were and telling students that they should make their own judgements. I would do my best to draw their attention to all the contending views in a debate. I was keen on heuristic learning and went in for some role playing. People were likely to find themselves in the situation of having to persuade their fellows of the validity of a political position opposed to their own. What fun.

I lived in residence for a while, before my family joined me. One day a detonator went off on campus, but the bomb itself failed to explode. Apparently there was a 'secret' RUC meeting taking place. The bomb disposal squad was called for, from my old corps, and we had to wait in the common room while the bomb was dismantled. The housekeeper, a stern Protestant woman whose cousin was a very senior RAF officer, played the piano and led us in a chorus of old wartime songs. Surreal or what ? Some years later when I was crossing the border at Strabane a bomb exploded in a shop, showering my car with glass. My young daughter was sitting in the back. Perhaps it was time to start thinking of returning home.

A registration system for carers ?

I believe that it is the informality of the family carer system which allows carers to be taken advantage of. If you are just looking after a close family member, no matter how much work is involved, then you are at best a deserving charity case, worthy of a small allowance, but still available for 'real' work. Hence the move to put carers on Job Seekers' Allowance.

Carers need to press for the establishment of a National Government Carers' Register. In the meantime, we should establish our own carers' register. Carers should be encouraged to submit an invoice to the government for the work they have done at the end of each month, deducting the allowances they have already received.

This would draw attention to the reality of carers' lives.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Carers deserve to be punished !

Some say good old Gordon................ At the Labour Party Conference this afternoon, New Labour Prime Gordon Brown paid a glowing tribute to carers. They do 'amazing work' he told the assembled delegates.

So why, if they are do such a good job, does Gordon propose to punish them? The government proposal, in their Green Paper, is to put carers onto Job Seekers Allowance. Doesn't doing 'amazing work' imply that full-time carers already have a job ? I mean, I don't want to jump to conclusions, but isn't caring very demanding, exhausting WORK ? I have to admit that I only have empirical evidence for this, discussing the experience of other carers with them, and being one myself. Don't carers save the exchequer large sums of money by doing this work ?

If you say, very publicly, that carers are doing 'amazing work' and then you deprive them of a decent living wage, what does that make you ? Just asking.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Carer assessments

All carers are entitled to an assessment of their needs, allegedly. Questions to carers about how satisfactory these assessments, carried out by social workers, are in establishing and meeting their needs, vary. This is not surprising. Circumstances and attitudes inevitably vary a great deal.

My reading of the situation is that they tend to be unsatisfactory, for most people. I decided not to have one, because I have no confidence in the system. I think, for example, that there should be a simultaneous assessment of the needs of both carers and their carees. This ought to include a medical assessment of the fitness of the carer to meet the demands of the caring situation and to provide care of a sufficient quality to meet the needs of their caree.

I am aware that some carers are so devoted that they want to care, regardless of their own health. Admirable, but not necessarily wise. Of course, it is all too easy to point to the reality of the alternative to family care at home. The privatisation and lack of adequate regulation of nursing homes is a national disgrace. I would rather go directly to the graveyard myself.

The key question is, where are the resources for good quality caring ? There is a limited to the size of the public purse you know. How often have you heard that ? It was always hypocrisy and now it is manifestly so. A country which can afford vast sums of public money to bail out greedy irresponsible banks and speculating city spivs can surely afford to care for its most vulnerable citizens. Look at the national budget, if there still is such a thing. Look at where the money goes, on immoral wars, Trident and aircraft carriers. Where are our priorities, both here and throughout the world ? Surely another, better, world is possible.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Old, sick, carers

Caring for the old, caring for the sick and disabled, these are relatively common situations. However, some attitudes need challenging. What about a situation in which the carers themselves are sick and elderly ?

If a couple have been together for some considerable time, then it is not unlikely that, as they grow older, first one and and then the other will develop the ailments of old age. If one is substantially worse than the other, then what could seem more natural than that their partner becomes their carer ? It may appear to be natural, but is it really reasonable ? If someone is elderly and unwell, how are they supposed to care effectively for another person, whose needs may be very complex and demanding ? Apart from any lack of skills and aptitudes, they are already deemed to be beyond the age when they are fit to undertake full-time work. That is why they are retired. Caring for an old sick partner may take much longer than a 35 hour week and be much more demanding and stressful.

As our population ages, this is becoming an increasing problem. It needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Is caring for the frail and unwell elderly a social responsibility, or a responsibility for the extended family ? Extended families are less likely now to live in the vicinity of their family elders than ever before and this trend is likely to continue. Moreover, they may be unable or unwilling to provide this care. In some cases they may even be looking for support themselves from their family elders !

This care must surely be seen as essentially a social responsibility. At the moment this responsibility is, largely, not being discharged. There are, of course, more general issues of managing an ageing society to confront. As an elder myself, for example, I do not hesitate to ask if keeping people alive beyond the time when their quality of life makes it worthwhile continuing to live, is a good thing to do ? A civilised society ought to accept the responsibility of caring for all those who need it. To the extent that it doesn't, our society cannot be deemed to be civilised.

Towards Carers' Power

When the first article relating to carers appeared on Compass I was amazed at the response from carers. Compass had never seen anything like this invasion. Although a member of Compass myself, as well as the LRC, I have to say that their politics is well intentioned, at best. They had never seen anything like this group of angry carers before. I was impressed and the carers set a new record with the number of their postings. Of course, this was largely the activist core of the carers' movement.

I had already been an a 24/7 carer myself for some considerable time, when the carers' invasion took place. I had even joined a couple of carers' groups myself, in a desultory kind of way, but it was as a participating member of Compass that I received the marauding carers. You could say that this was their finest hour.

More generally, I have been less impressed by carers. The activist core is magnificent, with the odd exception. There are those who completely lack political nous, but most battle on selflessly and they have my complete respect and admiration. However, beyond the activists there is a a large group who are largely passive and do little to help themselves or their fellows.

Of course, this needs to be put into context. Carers and caring situations vary considerably and this has implications for the struggle for carers' rights. However, many carers are more concerned to make the powers that be feel sorry for them, than to assert themselves. It is true that we all want to be understood and loved. Me particularly. We all need also to understand that carers do a hard, often unrelenting, job of work which goes mainly unrecognised. Somebody has to pay for this work and at the moment it is carers themselves. Their dedication is rewarded, all too often, by poverty, exhaustion and their own ill health. Family carers are unwaged care workers in need of a trade union to represent them and negotiate for a living wage on their behalf.

I was not the only carer already posting on Compass when the invasion took place. We joined forces with the invaders and out of that alliance came Carer Watch.

Stand up, stand up, stand up for your rights.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Democratic centralism or socialist democracy.

With the Labour Party in serious trouble, there is increasing consideration being given to an alternative for the Left. Perhaps it is a choice of being marginalised within the Labour Party, or being marginalised outside! I had thought that the Green Party may have something to offer, particularly the Green Left, but they seem unable to relate to working class politics, as we saw in the Glasgow East by-election. Clearly, there is no easy way forward. The ideological domination of capital is such that many people just don't see a viable alternative. The leap of the imagination necessary to visualise a different kind of society, one based on production for use rather than profit, on co-operation rather than exploitation, is just too far in present circumstances. We need to concentrate on the achievement of an authentic social democracy for the immediate future.

This will be difficult enough to even begin to move towards, but any kind of Left alliance based on democratic centralist organisations is surely doomed to failure. We have to convince by the quality of our ideas and the relevance of them to the everyday lives of the common people. If you have what is intended to be a broad popular democratic alliance, it will not survive the sectarian feuding implicit in having democratic centralist organisations within its ranks. The idea may have some relevance for revolutionary organisations, in potentially revolutionary situations. If you have a so-called vanguard party which needs to maintain discipline, then deciding policy on a democratic basis and then maintaining this as the line for all members, might work if it does not degenerate into bureaucracy. However, revolutions are problematical. They are better comprehended in retrospect than in prospect. They cannot be accurately predicted, either in terms of their advent or their nature. Nor can their eventual political control. Socialists are as likely to end up opposing the regimes they produce, as supporting them. Certainly, feuding Trotskyist sects should in no way be part of our prospectus.

Rather, inside or outside the Labour Party, we should seek to eschew sectarianism and work toward a broadly-based alliance of the anti-capitalist forces in society, building alliances with all those in struggle for progressive causes along the way.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

A democracy movement for carers ?

Carers are in particularly stressful situations. It is not surprising that the various charity forums and independent carer-led groups in which they participate are sometimes disputatious, full of anxiety and anger. And yet we do have things to talk about together.

I would like to suggest that carers would benefit from learning the discipline of democracy. A carers movement, free and independent, in which, following widespread discussion, there was a procedure for taking democratic decisions to formulate policy, would be a big advance.

I am arguing for a charter of carers' rights, a campaign for a carers' trade union and a recognition of carers as unwaged care workers, deserving a living wage.