Health Committee Chair and Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston.
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Sarah Wollaston: “People are very abusive to MPs… undermining, throwing insults at you”

The newly elected chair of the Health Committee and Conservative MP for Totnes talks to the New Statesman.

Sarah Wollaston is “delighted” at having attained the health committee chairmanship: “It’s the job in politics I always wanted”.

Although the Tory whips tried to install Conservative MP Dr Philip Lee, the Labour vote swept Wollaston, a former GP herself, into the top job. The opposition was impressed, no doubt, by her independent mindedness and healthcare expertise, but likely by her ability to rile her party too.

Elected as MP for Totnes in 2010, her bluntness has raised eyebrows in the party. She has criticised the government for failing to address pressing health issues, such as the miminum pricing of alcohol, and last year piqued the Prime Minister by describing his inner circle as "too white, male, and privileged".

She also became mired in controversy over her involvement in the rape prosecution brought against fellow Tory MP Nigel Evans. She was heavily vilified in Westminster for helping two young parliamentary staffers bring sexual assault and rape complaints last year against Evans, who was acquitted after a protracted legal case. Her new role looks set to draw a line under that difficult period.

She admits that being a politician in the public eye takes its toll on her, however. "People are very abusive to MPs, and I know it's not just women MPs, but you do take a lot of personal flak."

She elaborates: "You get individuals who will target you, frankly very unpleasant correspondence, so you need to have very thick skin."

What sort of thing do people write, or, more often, email? She hesitates. Wollaston naturally speaks softly, but becomes almost inaudible: "I would say people write to you where it's patronising, where it's directly offensive about you, that's aiming to undermine you. It's difficult sometimes to put into words".

She pauses. The toxic combination is being "deeply sarcastic, undermining, [and] throwing insults at you."

"Obviously you expect people to write and criticise policies, take issue with what you say." But the often sexist abuse she receives clearly wrong-foots her.

Wistfully, she says: "When you're a doctor, everyone's inclined to like you until proven otherwise. But when you come into politics, you realise that there is a great deal of hostility to politicians; that's quite challenging."


Now Wollaston's attention is focused on the parliamentary Health Committee and she is determined for its recommendations to be taken seriously and implemented properly. Greater emphasis on the follow up to investigations is needed, she says. "We put so much money into producing reports - if you look at the cost of the Shipman inquiry - and yet sometimes we see those recommendations fall by the wayside."

Talking in her Westminster office - the tidiest and most orderly of any MP's I have seen - she also expresses her consternation at Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's plan to “red flag” (literally put a red flag on the website by the name of) GPs who are missing too many cancer cases.

While she concedes that he is "absolutely right to focus on GPs' pick-up rates for cancer", she vehemently opposes the idea of publishing GPs' names openly "on a website in a sort of 'name and shame' format".

There would, she says ominously, be "unintended consequences". Waiting times would rocket if every doctor felt compelled to offer their patients every going medical test, she points out, adding that x-rays and other invasive investigations of the body carry a risk for patients. "You can be a bad doctor because you over refer as much as you can be a bad doctor if you under refer." The government should "intervene with those doctors directly and clearly" instead of shaming them publicly.

Wollaston is also critical of the government's handling of "", a new initiative to link all NHS data about all patients together into one online database, for research use by public and private enterprises.

In particular, she finds it "extraordinary" that data was being sold to insurance companies in a way that turns out to have been within the law: "It strikes me as pretty obvious that that was not what was intended."

Although she is supportive of the concept - "Tying in primary care records with secondary care records - the value of that to research can't be underestimated" - she is unsettled about the risks to patient confidentiality.

She says: "I am very concerned that in the first outing of this - there seemed to be an attitude that it'd been an exercise in bad PR rather than addressing the fact that there were real issues of concern here for patients."


The funding issues facing the NHS provoke characteristically strong opinions in Wollaston. "The point about the NHS, the thing that people really value, is that principle of being free at the point of need, based on that need and not the ability to pay," she says.

"That to me is the core of the NHS, that it's a collective insurance model. We pool the risk."

This autumn, when her committee embarks on its annual expenditure inquiry of the NHS, she hopes to broaden the scope of the report to include exploration of different funding models to balance the books of the health service. According to a recent warning by health chiefs, it is facing a £2bn funding gap for the next financial year.

We need "an honest debate with the public", Wollaston concedes, and explains her plan for the committee to investigate in detail all the funding options, which political parties could then choose between in their manifestos.

While she asserts that she will not "prejudge" which model would be best, she is wary of the government extending the "top up" model used, for example, in British dentistry, whereby patients pay extra for certain services.

"To roll that out more widely into the health service I think would be a very major shift away from the fundamental principle. So I think we tread there with caution."

She is also outspoken in her demands for reform in Parliament. While there are "some careers that are very well represented in Parliament, such as law", more MPs from a science background are needed, she believes.

She is passionate about attracting more women into Westminster too. Job sharing is "a way we could attract more women", she believes, particularly those in their thirties or with young children. "At the moment most women like me come in in their forties. I came in at 48 - quite late to be starting", she points out.

Speaking before this week’s reshuffle, the subject turns to ministerial positions, which Wollaston thinks MPs should be able to apply for. After all, "you don't know if someone's the best person for the job if you haven't invited applications."

"Of course it's for the PM to pick his ministerial team, but it interests me that people can't apply for the job." Laughing, she adds: "That might seem an outrageous proposal from someone within politics, but actually, why not?"

Shaking her head, she adds: "It's just a mindset we have in politics that the right way to do things is to tap people on the shoulder."

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.


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In defence of the metropolitan elite

Railing against low-paid academics will not solve Britain's inequality problem. 

It’s a measure of how topsy-turvy our political culture has become that Theresa May, a Conservative, Oxford-educated prime minister, can claim to be on the side of "ordinary working-class people" against a sneering "elite". But while Brexit has made this division central to our political culture, we’ve been heading in this direction for a while. 

Earlier this year, I was watching a heated exchange between centrist Labour MP Alan Johnson and Left Unity’s Simon Hardy on the Daily Politics show. At one point, Johnson bellowed across the table: "You’re a middle-class intellectual!" So this is now a stand-alone insult, I thought to myself, and took to Twitter to share my indignation. A friend immediately replied: "He means you." And she’s right. I am indeed a middle-class intellectual, a member of the metropolitan elite. Given the prevalence of post-Brexit elite-bashing, I’m loath to stick my head above the parapet. But as my liberal intellectual English lecturers used to say, these terms need unpacking. 

The right-wing anti-elitism that we are seeing all around us co-opts the left’s opposition to financial and corporate dominance and converts it into opposition to those who are educated. To listen to Tory speeches now it’s as if the top 1 per cent didn’t own half the world’s wealth, as if the sales of individual global corporations hadn’t overtaken many national economies, as if CEOs didn’t earn 300 times the salary of the average worker. No, it’s the liberal, metropolitan elite that’s the real menace – those mighty "experts" and "commentators". As Michael Gove, another Oxford-educated Tory, declared during the EU referendum: "People in this country have had enough of experts." 
Anti-elitism conflates political office and cultural and educational distinction on the one hand, with social privilege on the other. But there’s no intrinsic reason why there should be a homogenous "political class", or that those with expertise or artistic judgement should necessarily be rich. In 1979, 16 per cent of MPs had a background in manual work; in 2010 the proportion had dropped to 4 per cent. The history of the Worker’s Educational Association and the Open University reveals a lively tradition of working-class intellectualism. It’s true that, right now, political and cultural capital are appallingly centralised, and there is a revolving door between ministerial office and business. The range of people entering the arts and higher education has been narrowed by the removal of social security and block grants.

Today's anti-elitism, far from empowering the disenfranchised, covertly promotes neoliberal economics. High standards are equated with having the upper hand. Attacks on "cosmopolitan elites" - i.e. those who benefited from affordable education - entrench inequality, put the left on the back foot and protect the real elites – all this while producing a culture that’s bland, dumbed-down and apologetic.
This manoeuvre is everywhere. Brexit is a surreal pageant of inverted protest - May’s use of the royal prerogative supposedly represents the will of the people. The beneficiaries of the PM's grammar school "revolution", she claims, will be "the hidden disadvantaged children". Those who question the evidence base for this are simply metropolitan snobs. ‘This is post-referendum politics’, the BBC’s education editor reminded us tellingly on Today, ‘where the symbolic status of grammar schools as a chance to better yourself has trumped the expert consensus’.
The higher education bill currently going through Parliament brandishes the downtrodden student consumer as a stick with which to beat academics. According to the business-friendly University Alliance, academia’s reluctance to emphasise "employability" carries "more than a whiff of snobbery". Top-down curation is out; impact, feedback and engagement the new mantra. With their worth constantly weighed against the most pressing social priorities, cultural organisations no longer seem convinced by their own right to exist.
The "democratisation" of education, media and culture must be recognised for what it is -  a proxy for real democracy and any attempt to tackle social and economic inequality. Just as the redistributive work of politics is shunted onto embattled and underfunded sectors, the same anti-elitist pressure weakens politics itself. Democracy is thoroughly distorted by economic forces. But the solution is not, as right-wing populists do, to attack the system itself - it’s the only means we have of creating a fairer world. 
This anti-political sentiment is aimed disproportionately at the left, at do-gooding idealists and defenders of the "patronising" welfare state. Stricken with anxiety about being out of touch with its former heartlands, Labour is unable to strategise, put up a credible leader, or confidently articulate its principles. Unless it can tell a positive story about informed debate, political institutions and – yes – political authority, the left will remain vulnerable to whatever Ukip contorts into next.

It’s time to stand up proudly for good elitism – for professional judgement, cultural excellence and enlightenment values. Once, conservatives championed political authority and high art. But now that they’ve become scorched-earth modernisers, it’s time for progressives to carry the torch. Otherwise, disparities of wealth will become ever sharper, while the things that give our lives meaning dissolve into mediocrity.



Eliane Glaser is a senior lecturer at Bath Spa University and author of Get Real: How to See Through the Hype, Spin and Lies of Modern Life.