I had an interesting, if rather short, exchange recently on Twitter with Chris Bryant, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Culture. He was criticising Lincolnshire Council over their plans to force local communities to operate libraries. I asked how these plans differed to Sheffield’s and why attack one but not the other. To the more cynical amongst us the obvious answer being one is a Conservative council and the other Labour controlled.
I share his criticism of Lincolnshire but the real issue is that library closures and cuts traverse the political divide and are to be found in Labour as well as Tory authorities. Therefore, only attacking his opponent’s plans appears more petty political point scoring rather than a genuine concern about public libraries.
Mr Bryant did affirm that public libraries need leadership. If elected Mr Bryant will be in a position to provide such leadership – and let’s hope it’s better than the misapplied ‘distributed leadership’ the Arts Council offers – however, we have been here before when Ed Vaizey was in opposition. Support for public libraries is an admirable thing but not if Mr Bryant is unable to articulate how he will differ from the current incumbent whose non-interventionist approach and slavish commitment to localism has been so disastrous for libraries.
In a story in the Independent Mr Bryant accused the Government of “utterly failing” library users and said library closures had “accelerated rapidly” since the election.”
He then went on to say that “Labour would provide “genuine national leadership” in reversing the decline in library use, encourage greater cooperation between England’s 151 library authorities and give councils longer-term funding settlements so they can plan ahead better.
So far, so good. He also stated that “Libraries are a vital part of the social and cultural life of this country. They extend opportunities for people, whatever their background, to read, learn and explore and they help to bridge the widening inequality gap in the country.”
All highly commendable but also, unfortunately, short on detail, big on ‘soundbite’. It is one thing to say you support libraries but quite another to state how you would support them. The devil, as always, is in the detail and Chris Bryant is not providing any.
Now Labour should be in a very strong position to have an informed view on libraries. Helen Goodman, Mr Bryant’s predecessor, began her own review of libraries last year and equally the review by William Sieghart is available to refer to. So there’s plenty of information and research for Mr Bryant to draw upon. Also, as a Welsh MP, he can look to the Expert Review of Public Libraries in Wales for inspiration.
Perhaps he could make a commitment to introducing national standards for England, or creating a genuine oversight body, or merging library authorities (not just ‘encourage greater cooperation’ which quite frankly the current Government has tried to little effect). Perhaps he could indicate a desire to revisit the 1964 act and define clearly what a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service should actually be. Equally, Labour has pledged to boost Sure Start centres and re-expand the scheme should they be elected so perhaps Mr Bryant could make a similar commitment to public libraries. And then there’s the thorny issue of consistent and adequate funding.
Returning to the Twitter exchange, one point that emerged was Mr Bryant supports volunteer run libraries in ‘some circumstances’. What those circumstances are he failed to elaborate on. Unfortunately, sharing the same belief as his opponent, that volunteer libraries are part of the solution, will hardly inspire library staff and campaigners to view Labour as offering anything substantially different to the current government.
Before the conversation on Twitter I had already emailed Mr Bryant (twice) inviting him to share his views, just as Helen Goodman had done, about public libraries. I reiterated the invitation as part of the Twitter exchange. Whether or not he accepts remains to be seen but if he does let us hope for something more substantial than he’s offered so far.
Addendum (09/02/2015): Chris Bryant has called the handover to volunteers in Lincolnshire ‘exceptional‘. I keep coming across slightly different figures but it appears that Lincs has handed or will hand over 68% of libraries to volunteers. Lincolnshire is a Conservative controlled council. Sheffield, which is Labour controlled, has given over 46% of its libraries to volunteers. Coventry, also Labour run, is suggesting reducing its libraries from 17 to 5, a decrease of 70%.
So it seems ‘exceptional’ is fast becoming the norm…for both parties!
(Happy to be corrected on the above figures)