Lansley, Blair and the normalisation myth

Will the health reforms play out as the ex-PM describes? Unlikely.

Well known students of the Tony Blair playbook, David Cameron and his inner circle doubtless have committed the following passages to memory. Taken from the former prime minister's autobiography, A Journey, it recalls an earlier battle with domestic legislation, this time the introduction of university top-up fees in 2003-04.

Blair wrote of those difficulties:

It is an object lesson in the progress of reform; the change is proposed; it is denounced as a disaster; it proceeds with vast chipping away and opposition; it is unpopular; it comes about; within a short space of time, it is as if it had always been so.

He went on:

Rereading the daily news about the changes, I am struck by how fevered each story was at the time, and how forgotten each story is today.

Blair's take is this: a. change can be unpopular but, hey, that's leadership; b. the media obsesses about the minutiae of a revolt but, in time, can barely remember what all the fuss was about; and c. reform, once brought about, becomes the new status quo, the new normality.

All of which should provide some comfort to the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley and his boss. After all, the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill appears -- so far at least -- to have followed the script.

Almost daily, it has been the subject of bad headlines. Take the last week: the uninvited Downing Street guests; the Lansley ambush by a protestor; the inevitable intervention from Tim Farron; and, today, a letter in the Sunday Telegraph that's at once both fawning and a deliberate snub to the Health Secretary.

The bill has led to unpopularity. Having worked hard to repair the Conservatives reputation on health prior to the election, Cameron now finds his party trailing Labour by 15 points as the one that has the "the best approach to the NHS". Moreover, just 20 per cent of voters believe that the health service is "safe in David Cameron's hands". (It is now difficult to believe that in late April 2010, on the eve of the General Election, the Tories led on the management of the NHS).

But if we stick with the Blair diagnosis, Cameron and Lansley need only plough on and the bill will become an act; and life will move on.

This presupposes, however, that the narrative reflects reality.

For every example that seems to bear it out -- such as Margaret Thatcher's council house sell off, hugely contentious at the time but part of the political consensus by the beginning of the 1990s -- there are others that do not, such as the disastrous introduction of the poll tax by the same prime minister.

Or how about the subject Blair writes about, university funding?

Blair's own troubles with tuition fees were not just about hostility towards the policy, they stemmed from an apparent abandonment of a manifesto pledge to do nothing of the kind. There are echoes here of Nick Clegg's own tuition fees U-turn but, more pertinently, of Cameron's promise of "no more top down reorganisations" of the NHS.

Blair's bill passed, thanks to the largesse of his plotting chancellor, and he went on to win a third election in 2005. Yet, nobody can seriously suggest that university funding stopped being a politically contentious issue in 2004.

Meanwhile, Cameron always knew Lansley's bill would be problematic -- declaring "we're fucked" on being briefed on it in May 2010. He'll hope that Blair's narrative plays out and that changes to the NHS will seem as if they had "always been so".

Just don't bet on it.

 

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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