Thinker's Corner

Seven Theorems in Search of the European Parliament (Federal Trust, available from Kogan Page, 120 Pentonville Road, London N1 9JN, £9.99), by David Coombes, makes a comprehensive assessment of the democratic standing of the European Parliament. Coombes elaborates on the problems posed by the unique nature of a transnational democratic institution, attempting to understand why the parliament has failed to inspire social and political loyalties among its electorate, why indirect representative mechanisms such as the European Council have come to the fore, and what might be done to make good the democratic deficit. The paper suggests that an effective European demos may only be mobilised by channelling further public powers through the parliament. MEPs should make a priority of defending and extending the role of directly elected representatives, against national executives which too readily use Europe as a whipping-boy.

Wanted - A New Consumer Affairs Strategy (Social Market Foundation, 11 Tufton Street, London SW1P 3QB, 0171-222 7060, £10), by Mark Boleat, examines the gulf between the free-market prescription of caveat emptor and the pragmatics of a sophisticated commodity society, detailing the haphazard set of institutions that has grown up to protect the consumer. Boleat, with special knowledge of the financial services market, finds a compelling case for centralising consumer protection under one overseer, suggesting the DTI as the natural candidate. Such a move would enable gaps in the coverage of the marketplace to be filled, prevent wasteful overlaps between regulatory bodies, bring consistency to the policing of different sectors and standardise the interface for the consumer. The paper considers the practicalities of such a move in some depth, making several concrete recommendations. Boleat's experience as director general of a trade association adds pith to the argument.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think

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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.