Library campaigners have said the next libraries minister should go further to hold local authorities to account following the departure of Rob Wilson, who lost his seat in Thursday’s General Election (8th June).
Wilson, who took over the libraries brief from Ed Vaizey when Theresa May first became prime minister after last June after the Brexit result, lost his Reading East constituency to Labour's Matt Rodda. Rodda won by increasing the party’s majority by 16%, while Wilson’s share of the votes dropped by -3.7%. The district was one of 14 the Tories lost, and one of the 30 Labour gained.
It has not yet been announced who will be taking over the libraries brief following Wilson's departure.
During his time as libraries minister, the Department of Culture made two interventions into libraries closures in Lancashire and Swindon, which were welcomed by library campaigners. He also delivered the Libraries Ambition report, which offered a £4m dedicated fund to help boost the sector, but was accused by campaigners as “ignoring the real issues” of library closures across England.
Ian Anstice, librarian and editor at Public Library News, said of Wilson's departure: “Rob did not really have long enough in the job for it to be clear what sort of libraries minister he would have been. He seemed more hands on, and more prone to action than his predecessor but being that was the famously inactive and non-interventionist Ed Vaizey, this not saying much."
Anstice added: “His ‘minded to intervene’ letter in Lancashire suggested teeth but, as the council then promptly switched to Conservative control which emphasised the need to reopen libraries, it would have been doubtful he would have gone through with the threat. And that's a shame, because until the 1964 Act is treated seriously by a government, and a council is held to account then libraries remain effectively at the mercy at whichever local politician with a budget to cut fancies having a go at them."
Nick Poole, chief executive of CILIP, the library and information association, praised Wilson for showing "greater willingness to use statutory powers to hold local authorties to account" than previous ministers. He added that he would like the next minister to "continue this approach".
Poole said: “We look forward to working with the next libraries minister to continue this approach and supporting their understanding of the library sector so that in partnership we develop long-term programmes to improve and modernise the library offer across England. The libraries minister is an important champion of libraries as unique public services that change lives and improve communities every day. We are willing to play our part to work with the Minister to broker new relationships and improve the profile and understanding of the importance of the sector across local and national government.”
Conversely, children’s author and library campaigner Alan Gibbons said that Wilson had been a "virtually invisible minister" and that he looks forward to a change in government. "The Tories have presided over an appalling period for the libraries sector, seeing hundreds of libraries close, book stocks slashed, a quarter of librarians dismissed and opening hours reduced dramatically", Gibbons said. "Under Vaizey and Wilson, there has been a complete failure of strategic vision and a scandalous lack of financial support."
He added: “I believe that we have had enough experience to know that the Conservatives will give us only permanent and irreversible decline. We need a change of government and, I suspect, we will have that in the near future.”
Tim Coates, former Waterstones m.d. and library campaigner, said the departure of Wilson will offer a "fresh start" for the DCMS to revitalise the library sector.
Coates said: “Without being disrespectful to Mr Wilson - this is good news because there will be a new minister responsible and that always gives the opportunity for the DCMS to have a fresh start. The main hope has to be that this time the new minister will not accept any advice which tells her (or him) that 'all is well with the public library service' as we have seen officials say so many times in the past. We need to acknowledge that there are serious problems with our public libraries. Only then can there be an intelligent analysis of what is wrong and identification of what should be done to improve the library service and a concerted effort to increase use of it."
Speaking to The Guardian about the reasons for losing his seat, Wilson said: “Firstly the manifesto was perceived by the public as awful. The social care policy cut through within 24 hours and was received very badly.
“Secondly it allowed Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to get legs and gave them real momentum. It really galvanised their support particularly among young people. In my constituency there were massive numbers of university students. The third thing was we put an exocet straight through the heart of our main supporters, older people.
“The party cannot have a situation whereby things are done within such a small group of people because there were too many huge mistakes - the manifesto was a huge mistake in the way it was presented. There always needs to be proper testing of ideas before they are launched.”
The General Election returned a hung parliament after May failed to achieve a majority government. The book trade, 61% of whom said they intended to vote for Jeremy's Corbyn's party before the polls opened, have spoken of their "suprise" and "excitement" at the result, but also of their concern over more economic uncertainty.