Jeremy Hunt has no evidence for his abortion stance

Health Secretary says 24-week limit should be halved to 12 weeks. But where's his evidence?

Jeremy Hunt appears intent on proving as controversial in his new job as he did in his old one. In his first newspaper interview since becoming Health Secretary, Hunt declares his support for halving the legal time limit for women to have abortions, from 24 weeks to 12. He tells the Times (£):

I'm not someone who thinks that abortion should be made illegal. Everyone looks at the evidence and comes to a view about when that moment is and my own view is that 12 weeks is the right point for it.

It’s just my view about that incredibly difficult question about the moment that we should deem life to start. I don’t think the reason I have that view is for religious reasons.

Hunt voted in favour of a 12-week limit in 2008, so this isn't the first time he's expressed his views on the subject, but his promotion to Health Secretary means they have taken on a new significance. Downing Street has emphasised that Hunt was expressing a personal view and that it has no plans to change the current law, something that would require a free vote by MPs. But at the very least, Hunt's status as Health Secretary affords him a powerful platform to argue for a lower limit and, upsetting the Tories' pre-conference preparations, he has chosen to do so.

In response, health professionals have warned that a 12-week limit would effectively end testing for conditions such as Down’s syndrome and force women into having terminations before they are ready. Just eight per cent of abortions currently take place after 12 weeks.  Kate Guthrie, spokeswoman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, told the Times:

If everybody had to have abortions by 12 weeks, my worry would be that women would be rushed into making decisions: ‘I have to have an abortion now or I can’t have one.’ That’s an absolute shocker. You will absolutely create mental health problems if you start dragooning women into making decisions before they have to.

The paper's columnist Alice Thomson points out (£):

The vast majority of those whose abortions take place after 12 weeks have a good reason for the delay and are the most complicated cases. It’s the women who have abortions before 12 weeks who tend to be more likely to be using abortion as a lazy contraception. The cases after 12 weeks tend to be young girls who didn’t realise they were pregnant or suspected that they were but were too afraid to discuss it, or women in their late 40s who believed they were menopausal and are worried about the risks of late motherhood.

One searches in vain for any consideration of these points by Hunt or any "evidence" in favour of a 12-week limit. The Health Secretary is entitled to his views - would we rather he concealed them? - but he will be judged accordingly.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said "my own view is that 12 weeks is the right point for it". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change