Category Archives: Politics

Ideology, the NHS and the Big Society

Check out the lead batch of letters on the government’s plans for the NHS in the Guardian letters page today. Published in the wake of Polly Toynbee’s excellent piece yesterday, Charles Sharp’s in particular is very apposite.

Are we moving more and more to a pay-as-you-go health care system?

Taken alongside the ConDem coalition’s approach to public sector pensions and their accelerated cuts programme, it strengthens my belief that the government is looking more and more to individuals to ‘sort themselves out’ and will rely less and less on the state. It’s an ideologically driven agenda of which, frankly, the heirs of Margaret Thatcher would be justifiably proud.

I can’t see how actions like those above will stimulate the private sector economy – unless we are about to see a mushrooming of health service management consultancy provision to run the new NHS and a massive increase in private insurance firms to enable people to buy their way to the top of waiting lists and to sell pensions to public sector workers who no longer have them?

Is this the Big Society approach that we’ve heard so much about? Discuss.


Received opinion, ‘facts’ and the public sector

This morning, the media is falling over itself to present the Institute of Fiscal Studies’ (IFS) latest pronouncements on the economy as received fact. The three main parties are not being straight with us, according to the IFS. The key issue of the general election will be the economy and how the country weathers recessionary pressures, claims the think tank. So far, so blindingly obvious.

What’s less obvious though, is what the solution to our current economic woes are. “Cut, cut and then cut again” says the IFS. Meaning cut, cut the public sector. The sooner and the harder the better. This mantra of chopping public services is repeated over and over by the media as if such an approach is the only way out of the current economic malaise. It has become the received wisdom. The ‘established’ fact.

Slashing the public sector will affect real people, real jobs and the services we all depend on.

But just hang on a minute here. It wasn’t too long ago that the established wisdom was that the last thing you needed to do was saddle the banking system with more regulation. Banks are complicated institutions. Politicians shouldn’t be intervening and tying up these wealth creators with red tape. Left to regulate themselves, all will turn out for the best, we were told by the ‘experts’, who included many of the IFS’s friends. And look where that got us.

I’m no economist or wannabe think tank self-publicist, but what I am is terrified by all this talk of slashing the public sector in a country that still depends on it to a very large extent in many areas as a significant driver of the economy. In the North West, where I live and work, as a result of the new fiscal constraints in which local government is working, it’s estimated that employment won’t get back to 2008 levels until 2018. Further massive public sector cuts now would take a still fragile recovery and throttle it. People would lose their jobs, more businesses will fail, life enhancing initiatives will be shelved, families could be turfed out of homes they can no longer afford, futures will be ruined.

These are facts, not opinion. I should know. I’ve seen the effects of ideologically driven cuts before. At 46, I’m old enough to remember the 80s and 90s where cuts in the public sector had a knock-on effect on the entire economy, including in the private sector. Some communities in the UK are still suffering from the legacy of that era. Do we really want to go through all that again?

Remember that when it’s just you, a piece of paper and a pencil on 6 May.

We need more ordinary people in Parliament and less career politicians

I’ve just read today’s Guardian editorial “Byers for sale” taking former cabinet minister Stephen Byers to task for allegedly offering, on camera, to use his access and influence to lobby for private clients for up to £5,000 a day.

While condemning Byers for his greed and stupidity, interestingly, the Guardian also feels let down by the sight of a leading “centrist” being so eager to enrich himself. The paper also sees a potential conspiracy in Byers being exposed by The Sunday Times and Channel Four’s Dispatches, all the more so given that other MPs similarly identified as ready to make a fast buck included Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon, ‘architects’ of the botched coup to remove Gordon Brown earlier this year.

The Guardian suggests that the last thing one should expect from “progressive centrists” is a willingness to dip their noses in the parliamentary trough like all the rest. Byers’s actions, the paper says, are a setback for progressive politics and he, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon should know better. But, should we really be surprised when MPs of whatever political colour continue to feather their own nest?

A Parliament more representative of the general population is an essential step in addressing sleaze.

The problem as I see it is an old one. We have MPs who are far removed from the lifestyles of the people they represent and who are so out of touch with the daily grind faced by their constituents that they act as if it’s almost ‘normal’ to look to enrich themselves at every opportunity. Until we have elected representatives who are more in tune with the lives, hopes and aspirations of their electorates then we will continue to see MPs mired in a tide of scandal and sleaze.

To those who say that we need to pay MPs more in order to get the right calibre of individual into Parliament and to prevent them taking well paid jobs elsewhere, I say that these ‘career politicians’ are precisely the sort of people who we do not want taking decisions on our behalf.

Personally, I’d rather see a few more health workers, community campaigners, teachers, construction workers, administrative assistants, engineers and bus drivers in Westminster. Perhaps then we’d get a better politics, with decisions more in tune with the lives lived by the majority of the population and not the privileged few.

Ashok Kumar MP (1956-2010)

I was very sad to hear of the death of Dr Ashok Kumar MP today at the tragically young age of just 53.

I remember Ashok when he was a local councillor when I lived in Middlesbrough in the late 1980s. He was a passionate campaigner and a genuine, gentle man, who always had time for people and was willing to discuss political ideas. I recall him being particularly keen to encourage young people and I’m sure that he influenced many on Teesside to get involved with politics and to campaign to change things for the better.

Ashok Kumar, pictured with Redcar steelworks in the background.

He was one of the few engineers in Parliament and I also remember him attending various industry-related functions in the House when I worked in the construction industry as communications director with the Association for Consultancy and Engineering. Ashok helped the association make contacts with supportive MPs and was always willing to fight the corner of engineering in the Commons.

I also think that Ashok may have been one of the first Indian men ever to win a by-election in the UK when he won the Langbaurgh seat in 1991. Although he lost the seat to the Conservative candidate in the 1992 election, he returned to Parliament when he won Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland at the 1997 election and held it until his untimely death today.

Ashok was also a great supporter of the British Humanist Association, an active member of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group and a self-described life-long “liberal humanist”. He campaigned prominently in Parliament for a national holiday on the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, to honour one of the fathers of modern science. As a chemical engineer, science was one of Ashok’s great passions and he took every opportunity to promote it during his time in the House.

When I knew him, he always had time to talk to people and even when he did not agree with you he was still willing to debate and argue in a friendly and fraternal manner. His death at such a young age is truly a tragedy, for his family and for all who knew him.