Victory for a Blair worshipper

Observations on Labour candidate selection

At the door of the Beormund Hall, a party activist checks that I have signed a declaration not to allow the gender of the candidate "or any consideration that might favour one gender over another" to affect my judgement. Then the chairman, if I may use such a controversial expression, rules out any questions about financial means of support, religion, race, sex, homophobia, marital status, domestic status, party appointments or support from affiliated organisations. Welcome to the politically correct selection conference to choose Labour's parliamentary candidate for North Southwark and Bermondsey. This is a classic Labour inner-city constituency, except that it has been a safe Lib Dem seat, held by Simon Hughes since Peter Tatchell stood in 1983.

Two white women, one black man and one white man are the candidates. About 70 of roughly 350 local members have turned up. Before the war (world, not Iraq), the party boasted more than 3,000 members. Southwark-Bermondsey was a Labour heartland. But in 2001, Hughes polled almost twice as many votes as Kingsley Abrams, the first black Labour candidate in this racially mixed area.

Cathy Parry, a 40-year-old union membership officer, nominated by the TGWU and Amicus, the engineering union, is first off the block. Despite being against the invasion of Baghdad and party conference "chicanery" and being unapologetically for "traditionalism", she is backed by the arch-Blairite MP Sion Simon.

Martin Lindsay, the black contender, has the backing of the local party executive. A prospective candidate for the London Assembly, he makes an impressive speech, stressing his niceness, and clearly captivates the audience. Next is Kirsty McNeill, a Scot living locally and former president of the Oxford Union who is now a campaign manager in international development. In her manifesto, she boasts of being "central" to the "culture shift" that has turned the constituency party into a "dynamic and united machine". Hands held prayerfully during a rapid-fire speech, she is the very model of new Labour, gushing praise for Tony Blair as "a vote-winner who has headed the best government that this country has ever had".

I observe to my neighbour that she is the winner, and he nods agreement as the final contender, Pete Bowyer, a local councillor and PR agency director, confesses to being former spin-doctor to the sports "minister" Tom Pendry. Pendry was a shadow sports spokesman, actually, but the punters are in any case not in a mood for another Mandy.

The chairman announces that Ms "I live my Labour values day by day" McNeill is the candidate, but refuses to declare the votes. In the pub afterwards, I hear that Parry, for whom I voted, got nine and the men about the same apiece. Fifty, including some postal votes, went to Westminster-thirsty Kirsty. If she beats Hughes, I will eat the Treaty of Maastricht.

This article first appeared in the 26 April 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Appeasement: Should we strike a deal?

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.