Labour leadership: what role will the SpAds play?

Special advisers should be part of the bridge between frontbenchers and the party membership.

The Labour leadership debates rumble on and now look likely to generate more light than heat. Despite the acres of coverage, one shadowy and influential group's views remain untested: the special advisers (SpAds), who tirelessly work to ensure their master's voice makes the 8.10 slot on the Today programme, among other things.

Caffeine-, alcohol- and nicotine-fuelled, sleep-deprived and harassed, they played a key part in New Labour's rise and fall. They live in the 24-hour news cycle, feeding off opinion polls and policy papers.

Some are working unpaid while they wait to find post-election jobs. The SpAds with funding are jockeying for position in the leadership race. Who wins has a personal financial imperative.

But few have paused for deep reflection on why the party lost, or what is the big idea that will bring voters back to the fold. This is critical, because they should be part of the bridge between frontbenchers and the party membership, rather than the gap.

There is a danger the party will end up with business as usual -- scoring points when it should place itself above and beyond the competition.

A group of former ministerial advisers pledged at a recent gathering that they would "hold the line" while the leadership campaign ran through and once the new leader was in place in the autumn they would, in the words of one aide, "recalibrate".

The dangerous strategy is: "Get new face in place and get the Tories out within 18 months."

Yet this acts as a potential straitjacket, restricting any move towards meaningful debate and change. Holding the line means that the key people involved in formulating and then "selling" the party's future are engaged in a junior-common-room debate.

Moving on

New Labour lost because it is out of touch with the day-to-day needs of Joe Public, despite its commitment to "continuous modernisation". People are fearful for their own, and their children's, future. They're time-poor and cash-poor. They certainly don't have the time, never mind the inclination, to read the policy documents SpAds obsess about.

Business as usual means a missed chance to really develop ideas like sustainability, which even business is now grasping.

And the still-palpable anger among party members over the Iraq war has yet to register. As one SpAd revealed: "We've moved on, the usual suspects haven't. Trying to give the cabinet a kicking over a closed issue is pointless."

What little is emerging as new policy also comes in for a drubbing from the insiders. David Miliband's call for greater inclusion of party members in policy decision-making through forums was treated with distain.

"Anyone suggesting that has never tried organising one," was one exasperated response. "You give the solution and track the reaction on the basis that you haven't got all day to hear about how you haven't asked the right question and haven't included all the interest groups."

So, what's missing? In short, the vision thing -- but one that everyday people can relate to -- that differentiates the party very clearly from the Conservatives.

But it has to be something that doesn't sound like tax and spend: zero-sum games to show who can tackle the deficit will not inspire. Since when did we all become accountants?

Two of the telling moments in the general election campaign were Gordon Brown's surprise to learn that the cleaners at HM Treasury earned less than a living wage and the party's condemnation of BA cabin crew for striking.

A new social contract

There has to be a better way to make people's lives more bearable. What is the contract a Labour government would offer the people it serves?

Modern public services are about things such as enabling older people to live in their homes for longer, or filling in benefits online rather than completing the same form ten times. It's not small government, but the small tedious stuff that government needs to do better. To escape the big versus small argument, tell us what good government looks like.

The workplace is still ruled by a Victorian factory day that starts at 9 and might end at 5.30 if you're lucky enough to be one of the few who don't have the longest working hours in Europe.

What is an affordable home, and how much would it cost? And how can you support a 25-year mortgage in a job market that is a free-for-all with zero security?

How do you create meaningful jobs? What will they be and where will they be?

How do you help those people who are struggling with crippling mortgages, university debt or chronically low wages save for a retirement with employers exiting pensions of any worth?

Whatever happened to family-friendly? The education system got money for schools and teachers' wages, but did testing really improve outcomes? After 14 years of government, where you are born -- and to whom -- still decides your future. How is that right?

Another special adviser advised me to ignore the debates and look at the Kremlinology.

"Diane Abbott's the pantomime dame and Andy Burnham keeps the social worker wing happy. It's about Balls versus Miliband," they said.

It misses the point. New Labour was about distancing itself from the days of Brezhnev. But distance is what the SpAds and other party thinkers need right now, along with a holiday.

Chris Smith is news editor for the MJ and a former lobby correspondent.

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As children face a mental health crisis, should schools take the lead in fighting it?

There is a crisis affecting the mental health of England's young people. As Children’s Mental Health Week gets underway, the government must put schools at the heart of mental health services.

Three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health condition. Half of these are conduct (behavioural) disorders, while one third are emotional disorders such as stress, anxiety and depression, which often becomes outwardly apparent through self-harm. There was a staggering 52 per cent jump in hospital admissions for children and young people who had self-harmed between 2009 and 2015.

Schools and teachers have consistently reported the scale of the problem since 2009. Last year, over half of teachers reported that more of their pupils experience mental health problems than in the past. But teachers also consistently report how ill-equipped they feel to meet pupils’ mental health needs, and often cite a lack of training, expertise and support from NHS services.

Part of the reason for the increased pressure on schools is that there are now fewer ‘early intervention’ and low-level mental health services based in the community. Cuts to local authority budgets since 2010 have resulted in significant erosion of these services, despite strong evidence of their effectiveness in reducing escalation and crises further down the line. According to the parliamentary Health Select Committee, this has led specialist child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) to become inundated with more severe and complex cases that have been allowed to escalate through a lack of early treatment.

This matters.  Allowing the mental health of children and young people to deteriorate to this extent will prevent us from creating a healthy, happy, economically productive society.

So what part should schools play in government’s response?

During the last parliament, the government played down the role of schools in meeting pupils’ mental health and wider emotional needs. Michael Gove, during his tenure as education secretary, made a conscious decision to move away from the Every Child Matters framework, which obliged local authorities to work with schools and health services to improve the ‘physical and mental wellbeing’ of all children in their local area. He argued that schools policy needed to focus more heavily on academic outcomes and educational rigour, and references to children’s wellbeing were removed from the Ofsted framework. This created a false dichotomy between academic standards and pupils’ mental health - why can’t a school promote both?

But since Gove was replaced by Nicky Morgan, a new window of opportunity for meaningful reform has opened. Following her appointment in 2014, Morgan has called on schools to promote resilience and protect pupil’s mental health when problems first arise. The Department for Education has made tentative steps in this direction, publishing advice on counselling in schools and announcing a new pilot scheme to link schools with NHS services.

However, much more needs to be done.

The only way to break the pressures on both mental health services and schools is to reinvest in early intervention services of the kind that local authorities and the NHS have been forced to cut over the last few years. But this time around there should be one major difference – there is a compelling case that services should be based largely inside schools.

There are strong arguments for why schools are best placed to provide mental health services. Schools see young people more than any other service, giving them a unique ability to get to hard-to-reach children and young people and build meaningful relationships with them over time. Studies have shown that children and young people largely prefer to see a counsellor in school rather than in an outside environment, and attendance rates for school-based services such as those provided by the charity Place2Be are often better than those for CAMHS. Young people have reported that for low-level conditions such as stress and anxiety, a clinical NHS setting can sometimes be daunting and off-putting.

There are already examples of innovative schools which combine mental health and wellbeing provision with a strong academic curriculum. For example, School 21 in East London dedicates 2.5 hours per week to wellbeing, creating opportunities for pastoral staff to identify problems as early as possible.

There is a huge opportunity for Nicky Morgan – as well as Labour’s shadow mental health minister Luciana Berger – to call for schools to be placed at the heart of a reconstructed early intervention infrastructure.

This will, though, require a huge cultural shift. Politicians, policymakers, commissioners and school leaders must be brave enough to make the leap in to reimagining schools as providers of health as well as education services.

Craig Thorley is a research fellow at IPPR, where he leads work on mental health. Follow him @craigjthorley