We lost. But the fight continues

Labour cannot let the coalition ruin the NHS.

It was a tense two days: attention was focused, argument was heeded. Heads nodded in agreement. There was no barracking. We're a polite lot in the Lords. The second reading of the Health and Social Care Bill was introduced by the Health Minister the Earl Howe. He was universally praised for the thoughtful and exact way he introduced this legislation. Willowy of stature with a slick of grey hair his quiet voice commanded the Chamber. He could, as Labour Baroness Donaghy remarked have "made this Titanic of a Bill sound like one of Abromovitch's yachts". We're a polite lot in the Lords but we make our differences clear.

There were 100 speakers over a day and a half, with 41 of them women, and up to six bishops sitting together, their white sleeves billowing like foam on the bishops' benches. The Archbishop of York made a powerful speech in favour of Lord Owen's amendment that proposed the setting up of a new Select Committee to scrutinise contentious issues around the duties of the legal accountability of the Secretary of State, such a Committee to run in parellel as the House of Lords itself debated remaining clauses. But first there was Labour Peer Lord Rea's amendment that "this House declines to give the bill a second reading...." Labour peers voted for both and both amendments would be lost, by 134 and 68 respectively.

Many cited their personal background: Baroness Kennedy spoke of her surgeon husband's family, a dynasty of doctors who wanted no part of anything other than a publicly funded and provided National Health Service: Lord Alderdice spoke of his extensive medical family too: sadly they were on different sides. Everyone spoke of being inundated with letters, emails and briefings. Passions ran high: some of us feared the NHS was being handed over to privatisation. Baroness Murphy called this "twaddle". Baroness Bottomley called it "romantic poppycock" and gave a warm welcome to the bill. She also managed to praise the merits of Tesco, a connection that didn't seem appropriate. Lord Mawhinny condemned what he believed was an unprecedented.level of scaremongering. Those of us who are genuinely scared spoke of the risk of the free market, of going the way of America which spends 2.4 times more on health per person than Britain and yet has life expectancy levels lower than here.

By the end of day one the numbers in the Chamber had thinned. Former trade unionist Bill Morris's turn to speak came at around midnight. But next morning the Chamber steadily filled up. The ailing Philip Gould turned up to support Labour; the recently widowed Lord Saatchi arrived to support the coalition. Some wondered whether Mrs Thatcher might come among us.

At the last minute there was a sudden flurry of discussion about whether Lord Owen's proposals could be brought in by a certain date. Last minute expectations and fears coalesced around this minor spat. And then it was time to line up in the lobbies.

And so we lost. Being fewer in number, Labour could only have carried the day if enough Cross benchers and Lib Dems came across and voted with us. And not enough did. So the Bill now goes to its committee stage, a time when a cascade of amendments will be tabled, each one argued to death and perhaps significant changes brought to this unwieldy and unwelcome bill. We face hard days ahead, but every inch gained will be worth it. We all know that the British public want the NHS to survive as they know it, only better. Labour were on the way to doing that. We can't let the coalition ruin it.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit