Food banks, working in an education warzone and the most annoying man I ever met

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

How Labour should respond to the government’s programme of benefit cuts will be Ed Miliband’s most important decision in this parliament. In past recessions, public sympathy for the unemployed and support for paying higher benefits tended to grow. Not this time. As the latest British Social Attitudes survey observes, opinion is “moving in line with the current direction of government policy”. Over half the population – against 38 per cent at the beginning of the century and barely 25 per cent during the early 1990s recession – agree that, if benefits were lower, people would stand on their own two feet.

What accounts for this shift? The most obvious difference is that, in the early 1990s, we had just one political party that articulated harsh views of the unemployed and disabled. Now we have three, with all politicians insisting that their sole concern is to help “strivers” and “hard-working families”. The sharpest upward tick in negative attitudes to benefits occurred in 1995, just after Tony Blair’s accession to the Labour leadership.

If Miliband breaks with New Labour on this issue, his spin doctors will need to work overtime. When your living standards fall, neighbours or cousins who are even worse off than you provide the only comfort. As the sociologist Gary Runciman observed more than 40 years ago in Relative Deprivation and Social Justice, most people’s lives are governed “by the resentment of narrow inequalities, the cultivation of modest ambitions and the preservation of small differentials”. Labour has to convince large num - bers of voters that, one day, they too may need welfare. Would a picture of a food bank queue, overlaid with the words, “This could happen to you and your children”, do the trick?

Teachers are targets

Teachers have emerged as another government target. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, proposes to scrap their national pay scales, which deliver more or less automatic annual increments, and allow heads to reward teachers according to “performance”. This will be vigorously opposed by teachers, including many heads, who point out that successful schools depend on team spirit or, to put it more crudely, that they work in a warzone where adults must present a united front. But Gove’s proposal shows the Thatcherite spirit is alive and well among the Tories. They believe any traces of “collectivism” – or “collegiality”, as teachers call it – must be destroyed, and competitive individualism introduced across the public sector. This will weaken the unions and make public services more fit for private takeover. New Labour, with a majority of 179, spent its first term in office hardly daring to do anything that might be thought socialist. The Conservatives, with a minority of 36, have no such inhibitions.

Unsympathetic attitudes

Why, one is bound to ask, did London’s King Edward VII (private) Hospital, with patients from around the world – about whom there are presumably inquiries at all hours – not have a trained receptionist on duty when the Australian DJs rang impersonating the Queen? Did the hospital, which says it didn’t discipline Jacintha Saldanha, who put through the call to a nurse on the Duchess of Cambridge’s ward and was found dead on 7 December, offer the poor woman any sympathy and explain that negligent management was to blame? And did any member of the royal family, knowing what a furore the episode caused, think of calling on her to assure her she shouldn’t worry about it?

Know left from right

Lord (Dennis) Stevenson, the former chairman of HBOS, managed to infuriate both Nigel Lawson, a former chancellor, and Justin Welby, the next Archbishop of Canterbury, while giving evidence to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. I am not surprised. In my only encounter with him, Stevenson got up my nose more than anybody I dealt with in seven years as NS editor. He was a member of a singularly upmarket focus group appointed by our then owner, Geoffrey Robinson, to read the magazine and give their verdict on it. At the debriefing session, Stevenson asked who were the NS readers. I muttered something to the effect that they were highly educated, politically aware people inclined to the left. Stevenson airily explained that left and right didn’t exist any more; they were obsolete categories. He then said we needed better stories, criticised a headline (rightly), told me to get better subeditors (wrongly; I’d written the headline myself), looked at his watch, said he was busy and swept out. No doubt he gave similarly broadbrush advice to HBOS shortly before the bank all but collapsed under the weight of bad debt.

Two days of Christmas

November is scarcely over these days before the nation’s homes are decorated with trees and emblazoned with lights. Inevitably, trees shed their needles and lights get broken, so many will be taken down just after Boxing Day rather than on Twelfth Night, as tradition demands. I suppose it is another example of a society that recognises no value in deferred gratification. But somebody should explain that our midwinter festival originated in a celebration of lengthening days and that “the 12 days of Christmas” begin, not end, on 25 December.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?