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Roger Warren Evans
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item001610 October 2002
Which Blair?Tony Blair has great abilities. He has real political courage, which is rare. He has a real sense of political adventure, which is a precious asset. His powers of persuasion are formidable. As a personality, he thrives on the pressures of leadership, deriving stimulation from the ebb-and-flow of great events, enjoying the limelight. And given this confidence, his seemingly Messianic belief in his own truth, his powers of public speech are stunning. He is a world-class leader. And his command of both the Labour Party and the electorate guarantee him the Party leadership until after the next General Election.
The problem, for me, is that he is often wrong, his judgment often flawed.
I could prepare an equally long list where I think his judgments are right - espousing flexible labour markets, recognising the key shift to individualism in the perception of political issues (away from collectivism), using PFI methods, Northern Ireland strategy, Palestine, Third-World debt, re-structuring the NHS, regional devolution, Europe and the EU, international affairs (except for Iraq), strengthening workers' rights (rather than union rights).
Blair and I have many, many points of agreement, and on balance I will continue to fight the battles of the Labour Party, from within, under his leadership. But I do consider his judgment to be poor, and frequently in need of correction and support.Back to Home Page
10 October 2002
New perceptions are rare, in the re-cycled pap of political commentary. But Will Hutton was at his most original this week, spotting a "major issue" underlying the Blackpool spat between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair of the financing of the big NHS hospitals (to be designated foundation hospitals, for no apparent good reason...). He sees emerging a major issue of principle, as great as that which parted Margaret Thatcher and her Chancellors War looms between Blair and Brown.
Gordon Brown is an intellectual, that is to say he believes in the power of coherent policies and theories to influence the condition of humankind. In that sense, I am definitely an intellectual too. And Gordon Brown believes that an essential prerequisite of successful economic management is the tight control of Government borrowing - in that sense, he is a monetarist, believing that if "Governments" borrow too much they store up problems for themselves and for successor generations. They preempt savings, driving up the cost of money to others, triggering inflation. "Prudence" means not borrowing, as a Government, "beyond your means". He is therefore opposed to allowing the major UK hospitals (who are potentially big spenders) to take their own borrowing decisions. They should not be allowed to borrow off balance-sheet, as Alan Milburn and Tony Blair want to permit them to do. Brown says they must observe his instructions, and remain within the governmental borrowing guidelines. And I suspect that Brown regards this as a test of the whole principle of Prudence: if the foundation hospitals escape, there will be a domino effect, and others will be permitted to follow.
Tony Blair is not an intellectual. He has no real grasp of intellectual coherence and is content to be a pragmatist - in both respects, he resembles Margaret Thatcher. And as a matter of practical politics, for the purpose of ensuring a 2005 Election win, he wants to "set the people free", and give the major hospitals their freedom to develop their own view of the NHS service. He wants to let a thousand NHS flowers bloom, and take the risks of "excess borrowing". After all, it would make great copy for the 2005 Election Manifesto, and no chickens would come home to roost until much later, when he would be history.
With one important proviso, I am with Blair. It is right that we should "think outside the box", and allow far great experimentation within the NHS, far greater innovative diversity. Blair is right to try and break up the NHS monolith. Brown is wrong to allow the tentacles of fiscal conservatism to tie down his political imagination.
But Blair is not going about it in the right, democratic way - that's the problem. Blair is not a natural democrat, and needs to be taught the ways of democracy.
I would favour NHS Devolution if all the major regional health boards were elected by their own regional electorate, and if they were given the right to levy taxes for the development of services within their own region. Even without structural constitutional reform, I would give health authorities the right to levy rates, through the LA system: that is precisely what Port Health Authorities were entitled to do, for seaports, and the principle is sould. Supplementary NHS taxes would thus be hypothecated, but only for the region in which they were raised. I would allow Gordon Brown to retain control of borrowing (excess Government borrowing is indeed disruptive and inflationary), but I would allow regional boards to supplement their NHS grant moneys by levying additional regional taxes through the Council Tax. There is nothing inflationary about taxation.
During the political Conference season, it is fashionable to bemoan the decline of political conferences - last week, you may remember, I did the same myself. But the real issue is not about "annual conferences" - it is the very future of political parties themselves.
Steve Bell, commenting last week inThe Guardian, had Charles Clarke pronouncing last rites over the moribund Party Conference. That was amusing, and true. But rest assured: these annual get-togethers will live on as Conventions, or jamborees, or whatever, for they do perform positive political functions, even if not the functions originally conceived.
The real question is, “Given the character of our contemporary political life, what is the function of Party and Party Membership?”
None of the traditional reasons for Party Membership now holds good. When Labour’s network of Constituency Labour Parties was first created, in February 1918 at Nottingham, the Party had never held power, indeed its band of MPs had declined since its high point (56) in 1906. The Trade Unions still dominated the Party, keen to secure their own organisational ends through the ballot-box. And it must have been very hard even to to imagine a Labour Government.
Constituency Parties were made the primary units of membership, approving membership applications and collecting Party dues – that system remained in force until the 1980s. CLPs were the primary election-fighting machines, at a time when there were no free postal distributions, no Party-political broadcasts (no radio or television, indeed), and the whole of political life was intensely local, municipal, communal. All the Party activists planned to meet at a great federal Annual Conference and determine policy for the movement, against that distant time when power might be gained.
All this has been overtaken by events. The Party now processes membership applications centrally, and collects subscriptions wherever possible by Direct Debit. General Elections are fought in the national media, and with allegiances and voting intentions largely agglomerated by Party, not by locality or candidate. With increased public funding for political parties, telephone canvassing and polling, local CLP membership will simply wither away. There will simply be no need of feet to tramp the streets, tongues to lick envelopes, fingers to stuff letterboxes. CLP claims to be able to determine the policy of the Party while in Government have never been accepted the leadership, and attempts to influence Government policy through the Party are invariably still-born. The whole Policy Forum process has proved a cynical device visited upon the mass membership of the Party by its salaried hierarchy. We all know that, when in Government, policy must be formulated almost by-the-month, not mulled-over for a couple of years. Many New Labour policies are unequivocally rejected by an overwhelming membership majority, yet that makes not one ha’porth of different to the leadership – the abandonment of comprehensive education, the expansion of the quango state, the emasculation of local government, the indiscriminate expansion of PFI are but a few examples. Party members, in going along with the deceitful Policy Forum process, have allowed themselves to be duped by their own leadership.
If all this is true, is there anything left for a political party to do?
Well – YES there is, actually. There are new things to be done, in new ways.
This would offer a bright future for the Labour Party, and for the other Parties, who face similar problems of declining participation. And I suspect that "the constituency" would retain its primacy as the preferred basic unit of organisation.
The Love, the Dan Dan and the Peanut
The Japanese economy is in dire straits. Things have got much worse since I last raised the subject with you last March. The problem is that the Japanese leaders are not grasping the cause of reform – because they are themselves the problem.
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