If the coalition is committed to families, why are maternity services being cut?

The strain of austerity is beginning to show on maternal care provision.

Recent news that the health of pregnant women and new mothers is being negatively impacted as a result of the coalition’s budget cuts strikes an odd note:  like them or loathe them, if there’s one thing you can rely on Conservatives for, it’s proclaiming their allegiance to the family. When the brutality of the cuts began to show in areas like refugee services or young people from non-privileged backgrounds no longer applying to university, there was at least the grim ring of consistency – have the Tories ever credibly claimed to care about such constituencies? Similarly, when feminist groups like the Fawcett Society demonstrated that women were facing a double-burden of the recession and government cuts in the workplace, one didn’t need to stretch one’s imagination too far to place this in the broader picture of a Conservative Party who seems to prefer women both at home and "in their place". “Families” though, were safe in the arms of the Conservatives’ paternal concern. Never mind that the whole gamut of austerity measures, from the game-changing overhaul of higher education to the cutting up of the NHS, daily and tangibly corrode the wellbeing and future prospects of parents, children, communities – families, in short, of one kind or another.  Still the amorphous ideal of the "traditional" family unit was one the governing party claims to hold close to its heart.

It’s striking, then, that the latest area in which the government’s cuts are being felt is in maternal care. Framing its concern largely in terms of children, the Daily Mail (that other "family" cheerleader) recently reported that breastfeeding rates have been directly hit by the cuts to healthcare services, citing research by health data analysts SSentif that post-natal women living in areas where cuts to maternity services have come into effect are more likely to stop breastfeeding in the first eight weeks, due to lack of available support from midwives and healthcare visitors. Given the wealth of scientific evidence on the life-long benefits, for children, of being breastfed, the logic follows that there may likely be a long-term negative impact on a future generation’s health.

The blog FalseEconomy has detailed further reasons for, and consequences of, the increased strain on maternal care provision, including demographic shifts towards later pregnancies as a reason for an increase in "complex pregnancies" taking more time for midwives, and the "knock on" effect of cuts in other areas such as violence against women provisions and services to the homeless. It cites the Royal College of Midwives’ State of Maternity Services report to lend credence to the claim that the government cuts have combined with demographic changes to stretch maternity services beyond their capacity. The Valuing Maternity campaign by Maternity Action is calling for greater commitment from the government to ensure this vital aspect of public health is addressed.

Aside from the inherent concern of the reduction in maternal care, and the worrying evidence suggesting its impact on a decline in breastfeeding, the example of the over-stretching of reduced maternal services is also a chilling reminder that no reduction of a public service happens in a vacuum. Women’s experiences of the recession are a prime example of the knock-on effect of one area of government policy to another, and how the recession and the cuts introduced under the guise of "austerity" have combined to corner women into a position of less work, less pay, fewer benefits and fewer rights. (Meanwhile urgent calls to address issues such as gender-inequities in public life and pre-recession concerns about the continuing pay gap are dismissed as a luxury "in these difficult times". As Susan Faludi outlined so eloquently in The Terror Dream’s analysis of the Bush-Blair years, that women’s concerns were dismissed along the lines of “not now dear, there’s a war on”, in the post-financial crisis era this is modified: not "now dear, it’s the austerity – but we’re all in this together"). 

Not only was this the first feminised recession in terms of the sectors hit hardest by job losses, but measures introduced under the guise of "austerity" doubly-targeted women, as women were both a larger proportion of public sector workers with jobs on the line, and some of the main users of state-provided services. (To add a further grim footnote: just as women needed financial independence the most, research from IPPR suggests that banks, too, turned on women, arbitrarily denying mortgages and other loans to female customers, using the new excuse of "new stricter regulations").

Eventually, as the new evidence on maternal health provision in the UK indicates, the knock-on effect manifests even in an area the Conservatives claim as their own: protecting the "family" and women as child-bearers. The painful cycle being played out in dominoes as one service after another is gutted by the cuts reveals the inherent flaw even in ideologically-driven cuts – while wealth may not trickle-down, corrosion of communities and services does trickle up, and into areas the Tories claim are their priority.

It also reveals what a sham it is to say you care about "families" when your policies show little if any concern for women.

Follow Heather McRobie on Twitter as @heathermcrobie.

 

A young boy is weighed after being born in an NHS maternity unit in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images
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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition