A count in South Shields. Photo: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
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What the next government needs is moral authority – which comes from democratic legitimacy

The governing class has a habit of making up the constitution. It's time they showed a commitment to it.

By last weekend, morale, if not expectations, had perked up among Tories. Word from the marginals was that their vote was “hardening”. This was partly because of a return, it seemed, of former Ukip apostates focusing on their moment in the polling booth, and partly because of what candidates found was a growing scepticism among uncommitted voters about Ed Miliband. The Russell Brand stunt resonated with many on a scale from ill-advised to contemptible. Those who watched the Labour leader’s performance on Question Time, where he was (to use a Kinnockism of old) kebabbed by a voter over his grasp of what might constitute overspending, felt the episode gouged an old and unpleasant wound. And the unveiling on 3 May of an eight-foot limestone monolith with Labour’s alarmingly vacuous “vows” engraved on it had Tories chuckling over the hubris and preposterousness of the event.

But why has it been such a struggle for the Tories to prevail when they should easily have made a case for having exercised relatively responsible stewardship of Britain since 2010? The absence of catastrophe should have made it simple to hold seats they won then. They were already heavily represented in the more prosperous parts of England and Wales, and it is there, especially, that life has improved for voters. The economy is steady, and it was only the threat late this past week of a Miliband minority administration, helped, from time to time, by the Scottish National Party, that sent the currency south and rattled the stock market. Yet the Tories have laboured to try to persuade even former core voters that if they want consolidation rather than risk, they should vote Conservative.

Whatever the outcome, there are lessons the Tories must learn from their lacklustre campaign, assuming they can override their chronic arrogance. Perhaps the foremost is that if the conduct of the battle is mainly to be vested in a leadership without convictions – or that has to be told by hired public relations help what convictions it should profess – then it is very hard to excite the electorate. Ideology is a dirty word in the party today but a system of beliefs that informs leadership must be preferable to the jerk of the knee and the instinct to bolt. ­Tories groaned at David Cameron’s pitiful proposal to pass a law to ban higher taxes. It was not just the idiocy of a government legally preventing itself from increasing supply in, for example, a time of national emergency; it was as if Cameron was saying to voters that, because of his and his colleagues’ incipient dishonesty and untrustworthiness, he would pass a law against his party’s own moral degeneracy. It smelled not just of short-termism, but of panic, and hardly suggested a party with the level-headedness required to govern.

The party has felt the want of a decent voluntary organisation. Its grandees boast that it alone has the money to fight a second election, which makes it all the more unfortunate that, as things stand, its Fixed-Term Parliaments Act makes it unlikely that there will be one. But it relies on social media, the internet and television – even the printed press is now regarded as old hat – rather than on an army of activists.

In terms of public engagement, this is a disaster: it is just as well, perhaps, that there hasn’t been much of a message to transmit. The general perception of the Tory campaign, in so far as it has been perceived at all by a public that is largely uninterested, is that it is remote and consists of overprivileged people telling “ordinary people” what is good for them. This effect has been countered by some excellent local campaigns, but the national impression has been one of detachment, or that those who wish to be asked to govern again live in a parallel universe.

But, for all that, the party went into the last days of the campaign with its head up. The belief has spread that the Tories will find it easier to form some sort of government than Labour will. This was fed by Nick Clegg’s assertion that he would not be happy to coalesce with the second-largest party; and by Miliband’s apparent undertaking not to do a deal with the SNP. In truth, no one knows what will happen, because it is nearly a century since the two leading parties had such a low share of the vote between them as is likely this week. Also, the British governing class – politicians and civil servants – has acquired the habit of making up the constitution as it goes along: which is why we have the fixed-terms act, and why, as a consequence, we may be on the verge of the greatest constitutional crisis since 1911.

What the next government needs is moral authority – something that Labour figures have recognised in their own qualms about whether Miliband, if Labour comes a clear second, can govern legitimately. Moral authority would stem from democratic authority. Tories especially wonder whether, if their party puts up a Queen’s Speech, Labour would be wise to combine with the SNP to defeat it, and then rely on the SNP in votes of confidence and to pass a budget.

Where, they ask, would be the moral authority in that, given the SNP’s determination to end the Union represented in parliament? Well, it is exactly what the Irish party did for the Asquith government after 1910, if a precedent be sought.

But in 1910 the Irish were leaving the ­Union because of a government-backed home rule bill. Miliband is, by contrast, strongly for it. So perhaps he would best secure moral authority either by agreeing to a constitutional convention of the sort I suggested last week, or by threatening to abstain on a Tory Queen’s Speech unless it included a bill to repeal the fixed-terms act – which would enable a second election early on in which the governing class could, at least, demonstrate its commitment to ­secure democratic legitimacy. 


Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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The overlooked aspect of patient care: why NHS catering needs a revolution

The NHS performs so many miracles every day – in comparison, feeding the sick should be a doddle. 

A friend recently sent me a photo from her hospital bed – not of her newborn baby, sadly, but her dinner. “Pls come and revolutionise the NHS” the accompanying text read, along with a plaintive image of some praying hands. A second arrived the next morning: “Breakfast: cereal, toast or porridge. I asked for porridge. She said porridge would be ‘later’. Never arrived. (sad face).”

Contrast this with the glee with which another friend showed me his menu at a Marie Curie hospice a few weeks later. He seemed to have ticked every box on it, and had written underneath his order for syrup sponge and custard: “extra custard please”. It wasn’t fancy, but freshly cooked, comforting food that residents looked forward to – “like school dinners”, he sighed, “but nice”.

To be fair, though budgets vary significantly between hospital trusts, a reliable estimate suggests £3.45 per patient per day as an average – only slightly more than in Her Majesty’s prisons, though unlike in prisons or schools, there is no legally enforceable set of minimum standards for hospital catering. As Prue Leith writes in the foreword to a 2017 report by the Campaign for Better Hospital Food, “this means hospital food is uniquely vulnerable to a race to the bottom in terms of food quality, and patient care”.

Plate after plate of disappointment is not only demoralising for people who may already be at a low ebb, but overlooks the part food has to play in the recovery process. Balanced, appetising meals are vital to help weaker patients build up strength during their stay, especially as figures released in February suggest the number of hospital deaths from malnutrition is on the rise. According to Department of Health findings last year, 48 per cent of English hospitals failed to comply with food standards intended to be legally binding, with only half screening every admission for malnutrition.

The Campaign for Better Hospital Food’s report, meanwhile, revealed that only 42 per cent of the London hospitals that responded to its survey cooked fresh food for children – even though the largest single cause of admissions in five-to-nine-year-olds is tooth extraction. Less than a third of respondents cooked fresh food for adults.

Once the means to produce fresh meals are in place, they can save trusts money by allowing kitchens to buy ingredients seasonally, when they are cheaper. Michelin-starred chef Phil Howard, recently tasked by the Love British Food organisation to cook their annual lunch on an NHS budget, explained that this, along with using cheaper cuts and pushing vegetables centre stage, allowed him to produce three courses rather than the two he’d been asked for. Delicious they were, too.

Andy Jones, a chef and former chair of the Hospital Caterers Association, who was there championing British food in the NHS, told me the same principles applied in real healthcare environments: Nottingham City Hospital, which prepares meals from scratch, saves £6m annually by buying fresh local ingredients – “I know with more doing, and voices like my small one shouting out, we will see real sea change.”

Unusually, it’s less a question of money than approach. Serving great hospital food takes a kitchen, skilled cooks and quality ingredients. But getting every hospital to this point requires universal legal quality standards, like those already in place in schools, that are independently monitored.

Nutrition should be taken as seriously as any other aspect of care. The NHS performs so many miracles every day – in comparison, feeding the sick should be a doddle. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge