Labour greed, priests and school meals

Tony Benn used to tell us that politics should be about "ishoos, not pershonalities". Now that party differences on issues have become inscrutable, personality is the best way of judging whether someone is worthy of support. And frankly, I never liked the look of Stephen Byers (too ambitious), Geoff Hoon (too complacent) and Patricia Hewitt (too hectoring). Now, we learn, they are willing to turn knowledge and contacts gained during what is supposed to be public service into, in Hoon's words, "something that frankly makes money".

Hoon, sounding somewhat less laid back than he did when talking about dead children during the Iraq war, assured Channel 4's Dispatches programme that it was a challenge “I'm really looking forward to". From April, when parliament is dissolved, "I'm yours", he told Anderson-Perry and Associates, a fictitious lobbying firm that he and the other Blairites were too stupid or ignorant to spot as a witty inversion of the name of a leading left intellectual. Those of us who suspected from the start that New Labour lacked a moral compass have been proved wholly right.

I hesitate to call them greedy, grasping bastards, but it is now hard to think of any Blairite - from the fallen leader downwards - who hasn't turned out to be a little too fond of corporate gold, which strikes me as more plentiful and tangible than the Moscow gold that various
old lefties, including the late Michael Foot, were once accused of taking. Even before the latest revelations, Hewitt and Byers were nicely set up with companies such as BT and Rio Tinto, respectively. The former health minister Alan Milburn rakes in £90,000 from advising Lloyds Pharmacy, Bridgepoint Capital and PepsiCo UK, presumably while preserving the work-life balance that, he told us, he left ministerial office to achieve.

John Reid, a former home secretary, has a nice little earner as a consultant to the security company G4S. Sally Morgan, a Blair aide (who also featured on Dispatches), became a director of Southern Cross Healthcare, the UK's largest care-home provider. Anji Hunter, another aide, moved to BP as communications director.

None has done anything wrong. In government, I am sure they always acted in what they perceived as the public interest. But does anyone really believe that, as they formed policies and took decisions (particularly on privatising public services), some little voice in their heads wouldn't have been nagging away about their future employment prospects?

Gordon's frown
At least we shall not have to vote for these people in order to get Labour returned to power. Instead, we shall be invited to support a granite-faced, killjoy Prime Minister. "When I was business secretary," confided Hewitt to Dispatches, "I would cheerfully accept hospitality invitations." But, she added grimly, "Gordon was rather against all that." Spoilsport.

Canon fodder
The idea that Muslim sharia law should be allowed to operate independently of civil law is often denounced by politicians and media commentators. We hear less about canon law, the Christian equivalent. It doesn't, I grant you, include anything about stoning people to death or cutting their hands off (as it happens, sharia law, as applied almost everywhere, doesn't either) but, as Ireland's history shows, it can be oppressive all the same. Irish priests got away with child abuse because the Catholic Church was sufficiently powerful to apply canon law without involving the civil authorities. The victims and their families were intimidated into silence. Judging by their comments, some senior Catholics still believe canon law should take precedence and priestly misdemeanours are no business of the police. No, I wouldn't want to live under an Islamic theocracy (and
I'd prefer to keep sharia out of this country), but nor would I care for a Christian theocracy run by Pope Benedict and his pals.

Trouble with free
In an interview with the Guardian, the sainted Ed Miliband suggests that the introduction of free school dinners for all will be in Labour's election manifesto. (Strictly speaking, it's a re­introduction - free meals existed briefly after the Second World War before the Attlee government brought in a charge in 1949.) I can see the benefits: healthier, less obese children (who might learn better with good food inside them), fewer youths hanging around chip shops, more cohesive school communities.

But I have doubts. First, given that poor children already get free dinners, the beneficiaries will be the better-off parents. Second, eligibility for free meals is used, throughout the education system, as a proxy for disadvantage. It is admittedly an imperfect one, but it allows governments to make some judgements about, for example, whether schools favour more affluent parents in admissions or do well in getting children from poor homes through exams. If meals were free for all, nobody, I assume, would collect information about parental means. This would be very convenient for those who wish to cover up the effects of the economic inequality about which Labour has done so pitifully little - and the Tories would do even less.

Charlie's an angel
I have written before about the fun of playing the "say what you like about -- but . . ." game, whereby you think of a universally loathed figure and try to list good points about him/her. So: say what you like about Charlie Whelan, but (1) he wears a flat cap very nicely, (2) he went to a secondary modern, (3) he has neither taken corporate gold nor written his memoirs, (4) he'll buy you a drink after he's screamed abuse, and (5) he never asked for a pay rise for his (modestly paid) New Statesman column.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!