I watched the leadership debate last night and regardless of which candidate or party you support, and it’s unlikely the debate would have done anything to alter your view, the fact is mainstream politics in the UK is changing rapidly. The traditional, monolithic stranglehold of the two big parties is being slowly pried apart and most commentators agree that multi-party politics in Britain is here to stay.
Personally, I thought it was the three women in the debate, Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Natalie Bennett (Green Party), and Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) that came out of it the best and all challenged the prevailing austerity myth of the Westminster parties. Well done to Natalie Bennett for mentioning libraries as being one of the public services being irrevocably damaged by the Coalition’s slavish commitment to austerity.
However, it’s surprising how many within the library world are put off as soon as the ‘P’ word is mentioned; and by that I mean politics. Any attempt to equate the fight for public libraries with the wider political situation is met with uncomfortable shuffling and muttering. Quickly followed by an attempt to turn the conversation back to ‘real’ library issues such as copyright, LMS suppliers, the theme for this year’s SRC, or the ongoing gripe about the cost of Cilip subs.
It’s as if, for some, libraries should be insulated and set apart from the grubby reality of every day politics and the sad truth is, as a profession, librarians are shockingly disengaged in the fight to protect services, relying instead on the public to fight our battles for us.
To me this is an extremely naive and myopic view. From local campaigns, legal challenges, judicial reviews, bitter infighting amongst councillors, the changing terminology of cuts, and even the composition of the Leadership for Libraries Task Force, politics imbues and influences everything libraries do. Libraries are a public service and as any politician or councillor will tell you, public services are political at both local and national level.
However, it would be wrong to say that no fightback has taken place during the past five years and advocacy work has been carried out by many dedicated individuals both within and outside the profession.
One of the biggest criticisms about library advocacy so far is that even quite compelling evidence about the value of libraries has had little effect. The usual response is to blame the library sector for not advocating strongly enough but the real issue is that the arguments have been ignored because they run contrary to government policy and ideology (for an excellent blog on this see Libraries, Advocacy and Austerity).
The only sop to libraries from the Government has been the setting-up of the libraries task force.
Whether the task force will be a genuine agent of change or merely a cover for the continued enforcement of government policy remains to be seen. Certainly the rather narrow emphasis on digital services or commitment to supporting and extending volunteer run libraries does little to solve the deep rooted problems facing the sector.
It’s also hard not to be cynical over the recent £7.4 million budget announcement for wifi in libraries when set against the very real 30%-40% reduction in library budgets over the course of this parliament. Less cuts would have resulted in wifi already being available rather than having to be grateful for this rather paltry and obvious pre-election bribe.
What is clear is none of this will change under the mainstream parties.
So let me argue why the new multi-party politics is a good thing for libraries. It’s good because the smaller parties give library supporters and campaigners more chance to influence policy. Regardless of the rhetoric of Labour and the Conservatives a vote for the SNP, Plaid Cymru, or the Greens is not a wasted vote. Maybe this election, or maybe the next, but certainly at some point, one or more of these parties will be a power broker and a party that has a positive view of and genuine commitment to libraries will bring this influence to bear, hopefully pushing back some of the the damage that has already been done.
Thousands of library staff, campaigners and library supporters, as well as millions of everyday library users will be going to the polls on 7th May and while libraries might not be the deciding factor in who they vote for it might just well be ‘a’ factor in their decision.
The big parties offer no positive alternative for libraries but the small parties might. So in order to make a long-term difference to the future of public libraries now is the time to think, act and vote small.