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21 August 2016

Tom Watson should be less fussy about Trots

Reflections on a week in media, from NHS plots to why I am an Olympics humbug.

By Peter Wilby

In these days of post-truth politics, it hardly matters whether Owen Smith’s claim that the Tories have a secret plan to privatise the NHS is true or not. But a plan to privatise the health service was indeed drawn up as long ago as 1988 and published, without anybody taking much notice, by the Centre for Policy Studies, a Thatcherite think tank. The authors were Oliver Letwin and John Redwood, both still Tory MPs, though neither is now a minister. They proposed that every adult should “contribute a fixed insurance premium each year to a national health insurance fund”, with “rights to carry some or all of the insurance cover to the private sector”. The divisions between public and private sectors “would fade”.

Letwin and Redwood set out a step-by-step guide to how their goal could be achieved. It included “increased joint ventures between the NHS and the private sector”. As Smith points out, NHS spending on the private sector has doubled to £8.7bn – 8 per cent of the total budget – since 2010. As the reporter said in David Cronenberg’s film The Fly, be afraid, be very afraid.


Free entry

I have some experience of the “entryists” now troubling Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson. When I was a Sussex University student in the 1960s, a group described as “Trots” (though not by itself) was prominent in the university socialist society and the Brighton Labour Party. Most of its members later joined the Militant Tendency.

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Their leader, Alan Woods, was an awesomely bright young man – he got a first-class degree in Russian and allegedly spoke at least six languages – from a working-class family in Swansea. His fiery Welsh eloquence roused the student union to challenge and overturn the university’s policy of allowing Brighton landladies to opt out of taking black students as lodgers (autres temps, autres moeurs). He went on to study at Moscow State University and to write numerous esoteric books about revolutionary politics, one of which was praised on Venezuelan TV by the late Hugo Chávez. Woods and his mates would sit huddled in a corner of the university refectory, earnestly debating socialist theory. Being deficient in my reading of Marxist-Leninist texts and easily bored, I generally avoided them.

But I did not regard their Labour membership as illegitimate. They were simply, in my view, wrong on most things. They were right, however, in wanting Labour governments and worked hard to get them elected in 1964 and 1966. Brighton Kemptown returned Sussex’s first Labour MP in 1964 with a majority of seven votes. Since Labour got a Commons majority of four seats, it is only just an exaggeration to claim that, without the Trots’ campaigning, it wouldn’t have formed a government.

Perhaps Watson shouldn’t be so fussy about where Labour’s support comes from.


Call of duty

In last week’s NS Diary, the Labour MP Jess Phillips wrote about how she enjoys being in her constituency office, where she “can do some proper work”. Nearly all MPs now speak and write in similar terms, accepting the popular opinion that Westminster is just games-playing and chatter.

I wonder what the “Red Clydesider” James Maxton would have made of that. Seeing Jennie Lee (later married to Aneurin Bevan) lugging constituency paperwork around soon after her election in 1929, he advised her to decide whether she wished to be a socialist MP or “another bloody welfare worker”. He wasn’t alone in such views. When George Darling contested Sheffield Hillsborough for Labour in 1950, he promised quarterly visits, an improvement on his predecessor’s annual visits. Duly elected, he was later absolved from this burden by his local party “in the light of his heavy duties” as a parliamentary private secretary. More recently, Roy Jenkins visited his constituency once a month.

I agree with Maxton. MPs should acquaint themselves broadly with constituents’ interests and sentiments, but others should deal with their personal problems. An MP’s main job is to scrutinise the government’s actions and hold it to account. The growth of sloppily drafted and misconceived legislation shows how that role is being neglected.


The fit and the fat

As I write, Great Britain is second in the Olympics medals table, behind only the US and just ahead of China. But I cannot stir myself to cheer. Olympic sports are boring. We all know that because they are still on the BBC. If they delivered mass audiences with any consistency, you can be certain that Rupert Murdoch would have got his mitts on them long ago.

More importantly, each medal in Rio has cost us an average of £5.5m of public money. This money is used to provide the best possible training environment for an elite of super-athletes, many of whom, particularly in rowing and sailing, are drawn from the social elites. Meanwhile, as a result of squeezed council budgets, hundreds of parks, playing fields, swimming pools and leisure centres have been closed or cut back in what they can offer. Sport and leisure budgets, it is calculated, are down by at least 25 per cent since 2009-10.

As the supremely fit Olympic athletes harvest their medals, the rest of the population grows visibly less fit and obese. Why should I raise even half a cheer for that?


Shore thing

Most of my childhood holidays were spent on the Norfolk coast. Since I was taken to caravan parks and holiday camps and rarely allowed out of them – except to see a “show” in Great Yarmouth – I have lived most of my life unaware of its delights. Now, after a few recent days there, I have at last discovered its vast, empty beaches of soft sand, its delightful towns, its enormous skies and its excellent crab sandwiches. We stayed in Burnham Market, which is somewhat overrun by posh metropolitans. Yet the rest of the county’s gorgeous north coast doesn’t even have that drawback.

This article appears in the 17 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge