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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.