Monthly Archives: September 2010

Ed Miliband and the Battle for the Centre Ground

British Politics is a curious thing.  Elections are won in the UK by convincing people who describe themselves as ‘of-the-centre’ to vote for you.  You don’t get committed right or left wingers as swing-voters.   The hardcore left will vote Labour.  The committed right will vote Tory.  At the extreme end of either party you may get some lefties who lose faith and run off to nutty Marxist outfits or righties sulking off to UKIP but the numbers lost at these fringes are nothing compared to the numbers to be won in the middle.

The problem both parties face is that their grassroot activists, by definition and nature, do not generally tend to sit in the centre.   They naturally wish to drag their party toward the relevant pole.  The challenge for an aspiring leader of either of the main British Parties (yup, I only count the two) is to –

  • a) Convince your party that you have the left/right credentials to protect and maintain the party’s core political compass
  • b) Convince the public that they needn’t fear the ‘common wisdom’ version of the downsides of a lurch to the left or right, i.e. fear crippling ‘Tax and Spend’ misery associated with a big left swing, or fear the brutality of an un-regulated free market leading to orphans-cleaning-chimneys-for-tuppence with an unchecked lurch to the right.

Blair was the master of this and that is why he won three elections despite Iraq.  Cameron got it.  Brown didn’t.  And that’s why we now have a blue PM. It’s a heck of a juggling act.  As I say in my philosophy page – although the battle for the centre ground usually gets characterised as one of competence over political difference there is real substance between how centre-right and a centre-left perspectives manifest themselves in actual policies.  Our Current coalition is proving that a Centre-Right government can still be very radical in approach – thank goodness they just about won over the centre this time around.

Back to Ed Miliband.  He’s won the Labour leadership.  Congratulations.  He’s cracked part (a) of the equation and convinced the party (I’ll put aside for now the dodgy way they do leadership elections).  The challenge for him now is cracking part (b) and carrying the public.

My guarded instinct at the moment is that he will not be able to.  As an active Conservative obviously I find that a good thing.  I watched his speech on the news last night and nothing about his body-language and delivery gave me any sense that he has the gravitas or charisma to project himself as a credible leader to those swing-voters.  He looked like a rabbit in headlights.  His awkward gawky/geeky style screams policy wonk rather than leader.

That said, the reason I’m guarded is that if Labour are patient then there is plenty of time for him to grow into the role.   Cameron definitely enjoyed the extra few years to shift the lightweight tag after Brown bottled it in 2008.  Ed M. has similar time.  He also has the big benefit of being in opposition during a very rough economic period.  One thing he has over his brother is that he is not personally as tainted with the causes of these tough times – nobody in the public will have clocked him personally as a Labour ‘Top-Tabler’ during the last Government – and perception is more important than reality.  He can and will feign distance and a ‘new start’.

It will be an interesting few months as he tries to define himself to the electorate.  This is all about part B) in the equation.   For all the reasons above I suspect the Ed Miliband that emerges in this phase will be very different to the one that has just defined himself to the party.  He’s started with his interview in the Sunday Telegraph this morning.  Will the Union backers who gifted him the leadership allow him to play this game?  I doubt it.  But that’s the juggling act he now has to try and master- pander to the party and risk loosing the public, or pander to the public and risk loosing the party.  Who’d be a leader!

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Did you hear the one about the Pope?

It’s now been a couple of weeks since the Pope’s visit to the UK, so I feel safe to stick my head above the parapet now passions have cooled. Let’s start with a disclaimer, I am not religious. If asked I say I am agnostic. I can see the attraction of having faith and sometimes wish that I had – yet following what little I know of science and my rational train of thought always leads me to conclude there is probably no God. I never try and ram this personal view down people’s throats. I am confident I am right but I’m not arrogant enough to be certain. Hence ‘agnostic’ rather than ‘atheist’.

Anyway, I followed the Pope’s visit, particularly the firestorm of protest with interest. As the week passed I got more and more annoyed with people’s double standards. If you are under forty and IT literate enough to have found this blog then the chances are you will be on Facebook and possibly Twitter. If you have an average size circle of acquaintances from different areas of your life then no doubt they will have a wide range of political/religious views. I venture that those of a left of centre bent are less apologetic about sharing their views and more likely to use their ‘status updates’ to pontificate (whey-hey a pun) on issues of the day. If so, then like me you will probably have been struck by the absolute bile it seemed commonly acceptable to spout about the Pope and Catholicism via either medium from the start to end of the visit. It was open season. It went beyond the bounds of humour and satire. Anything went.

Now, one thing I don’t want to be accused of is being an apologist for the issues behind the bile. The Catholic Church’s response to widespread institutional child abuse has been a disgrace. It is also reasonable to suggest that their stance on contraception has compounded the misery caused by HIV/AIDS in the world. However, I couldn’t help but notice that the same people who were quite happy posting gratuitous, nasty stuff about the Pope seemed, in the main, to be exactly the same people who get in an a rabid froth and post their outrage every time a Richard Littlejohn or Melanie Philips type has one of their trademark rants at, for instance, Islam. If someone fills their backpack full of explosives and walks onto a train in the pretence that it is in the name of Islam then you can be sure Littlejohn will pull no punches. The same Pope-bashers will then share links to his articles with self-righteous put downs about his bigotry and racism. Whilst I am usually in full agreement with them on the Littlejohn abuse, am I really the only person who can see the double standard?

Perhaps I am an over-sensitive flower? Am I getting pompous in my old age? Possibly. Possibly not. I just feel that whilst there is a valid debate to be had about the impact of all sorts of religious baggage on our society – the terms in which we must have that debate need to be respectful and tolerant. That respect and courtesy needs to be equally applied to all religions. I’m not sure that it currently is. The Christians seem to be required to turn their cheeks rather more than anyone else. Religious freedom is one of the things that makes our country great. I love that I am allowed to be unashamed and unapologetic about being agnostic. People should be allowed to be unashamed and unapologetic that they have faith. The only thing that should not be tolerated is intolerance through zealotry. Sadly, it seems nowadays there is an increasing amount of zealotry out there amongst atheists.

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Conservative Party Chairmen’s Briefing to West Midlands Associations

About 70 Conservative party members – mainly of a mixture of Association execs, PPCs and the like – yesterday attended the West Midlands ‘Meet the Chairmen Briefing’  with Baroness Warsi and Andrew Feldmen at the Richo Arena in Coventry.   I wouldn’t wish to betray any confidences (if there were any) so will just summarise the key points that landed with me for those who may have been unable to attend.

It was a relaxed ‘cosy sofa’ arrangement and started with them each doing a ten minute turn explaining their division of labour and current priorities.  Warsi made the point that her luxury over other Cabinet members is that everyone else is slightly constrained by the nature of Coalition but in her role at least she can be fully ‘blue’ in everything she does.  Her part of the job is the ‘political side’.  Feldman started by acknowledging he was still newish to the Party; “I was mates with Dave at Uni, he asked me to help out with fundraising during his leadership campaign, and it has just sort of grown from there”.  His role is “the back office stuff of the professional party”.  He gave a confident and refreshingly frank account of the drivers for the recent reshuffle of CCHQ and reassurance that party finances are sound.

The meat of the event was the Q&A session:

  • There was a question to the likelihood of the Coalition going the distance – there was some nervousness in the room about Lib Dem stability and Party readiness if things go wrong.  Warsi was robust that we’ve signed up for five years and we’re going to do five years.  Things can and do change in Politics but there is every expectation that we will go the distance.  Party plans, whilst still flexible to sudden change, assume we will.  There are a stream of near term milestones ahead of the next General Election (local elections, referendum etc.) and, to paraphrase slightly, locally we shouldn’t let hypothetical events distract our focus from the visible and certain horizon.
  • There was a discussion about Membership.  For this newish member it was refreshing to hear the Chairmen both acknowledge that joining the Conservatives can be a variable experience depending on local Association.  I have described my feeling of trying to get involved as less like pushing on an open door, more having to shoulder-barge it.  Yet when I changed associations I could hardly have been made more welcome.  They understand this variance is a real problem and are looking at it.  Overall membership numbers remains OK but the average age of members is higher than we would like which is something else they wish to address.  Warsi was clearly frustrated at reports that a small number of local associations were still showing quite an exclusive mindset – she summed this up:  “The Conservative Party is a political party.  It is not a dining club.”  The subtext to the answer was that the Parliamentary Party and the Professional Party have made huge strides in looking and feeling like modern Britain in their make-up without any compromise to core values but some local associations within the voluntary party have not kept up.   This got Warsi onto the topic of diversity and after stating her long-standing rejection of quotas or gender/ethnic shortlists she launched into a familiar but always enjoyable rant about taking no hypocritical lessons from Labour about party diversity when at a time their leadership contest is realistically a battle between white Oxford grads she as a Muslim woman from a city and this ‘Jewish business chap’ sit together at the top table of our Party on their merits.
  • There is a full review of the way candidates are appointed underway.  The A-List has gone.  Open primaries, whilst attractive, are prohibitively expensive and a device best reserved for very specific circumstances. Whilst it is clear there is advantage in getting candidates in early, we have time to get the new process right as there is no point in beginning selections until the boundary changes have been announced in two years time.  It is likely that the candidates list (which will also be reviewed) will be re-opened ahead of those next selections.  The principal of local associations picking their candidates is one Warsi supports, and Feldman sees as a real hook for getting new people to join the party.
  • We can and will get more from our investment in the Merlin system at the next election.

The event hit the right note.  It felt like genuine two-way engagement with the grass-roots.  They will have walked away having heard some genuine frustrations about candidate selections whilst the Associations will have walked away with some real food for thought about how to make new members welcome and get them involved.  I was encouraged by everything I heard.  I take heart they remain committed to continue making the Conservative Party more attractive to that large part of a generation who grew up believing it was anything but.  This absolutely can be achieved without any sacrifice to core principals.  Only if we continue to crack that one we will have a chance to push-on for a full majority in 2015.

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NHS Direct: A Public Service Cut or Public Service Improvement?

It was with a little sadness that I noted the announcement of the closure of NHS Direct.  It was a service I used myself twice. Once they saved me a trip to the doctor and left me reassured. Once they advised that I see a doctor, at least leaving me guilt-free when I then booked an appointment that I would not be wasting the doctor’s finite time (a guilt that would never enter the heads of the huge swathe of our population who book appointments every time they have the smallest sniffle).  There was some genuinely innovative use of technology in both call-centres and the use of the internet by NHS Direct at the time it was launched and it was something we could be very proud of in the UK.  Sadly, over its lifespan the organisation didn’t quite keep up with the pace of technological development although its budget certainly kept up Government largesse.  Nevertheless, the concept was something I would remain keen to advance and champion.  A couple of months ago I was even, very briefly, in the running to be a Non-Exec Director of the organisation. It was a service I would wish well and a service I genuinely regretted first hearing was going.

Predictably (and as we shall see hypocritically) Labour have gone into full mock-rage at this cut.  The principal cheer-leaders are Two-Jags who has started a petition to ‘Save NHS Direct’ and leadership pretender Andy Burnham who claims it proof absolute that the Coalition (he really means the Tories) are hell-bent on dismantling the entire NHS.  Out there (here?) in the Blogosphere the parroting of this outrage by the red faithful fills many identikit rants.  For a flavour of the hyperbole in them take a look at this typical example from ‘Jay’s Political Blog’.  The common objections in all the Labour attacks boil down to two substantive accusations:

  • A)      The ‘111’ service that will replace NHS Direct will not be manned by medical professionals.  This will ‘inevitably’ lead to a poorer service.  The sound-bite attack is “Would you wish to be diagnosed by someone with no medical training?”.
  • B)      The Tories said ‘NHS Funding was ring-fenced’, this is a cut to the NHS, thus the Tories are evil liars.

Both charges need unpicking.  The attack by Labour on the 111 Service, particularly by Burnham, is so bizarre as to be perverse.  The 111 service was a project that was originally initiated by Burnham himself when he was Health Secretary. Labour, whilst in Government, were rightly troubled by the cost of NHS Direct.  In fact – they’d been caught a bit on the fly – in September 2008 they thought the average cost per call was £15.35 (source: Hansard).  The Lib Dems smelt characteristic dodgy Labour accounting and demanded more detail and asked the question again. A month later an embarrassed Labour Government revised its figures and accepted that it was actually costing the taxpayer £25.53 per call (Source: Hansard).  The troubling thing here is that at this point a call to NHS direct was actually costing more than seeing a GP.

Trying to figure out scope for lowering this cost you see that in order to minimise risk of mis-diagnosis calls were handled with a protocol-led workflow.  The nurse you were connected to at the call centre had a narrow script on a computer screen in front of them – he or she clicked options depending on your answers and this delivered the next part of the script.  This would culminate in a recommendation e.g. forget about it, or take a few aspirin and see your GP if it isn’t better in 48 hours, or make an appointment with your GP now, or go to A&E immediately or whatever.  They had only a little leeway to deviate from the script and make use of their professional knowledge.

One of the genuine achievements of Labour’s time in power was that Nurses now receive something comparable to a professional wage.  It doesn’t take the sharpest commercial mind to spot that if you are doing a role controlled by computer script and that in practice this role requires the same skill to deliver that it would to sell insurance or deliver any other call center script, then it does seem rather an extravagance to have professional equivalent people’s talent wasted performing the role – particularly if they may be better deployed on front-line wards.

Labour realised this and set up a trial for the 111 scheme.   The pilot has been a success.  It was in Labour’s manifesto (page 35) that they themselves would go with 111 if elected.  The Coalition are doing the right thing in picking up and running with it.  Rather than celebrating their success Labour are now disowning their own brain-child.  That, I guess, is everything that is wrong with politics.

The vision of NHS Direct was that via the telephone or internet you could have access to a 24 hour service that would triage your condition and stop you from making a needless doctors visit if unnecessary but quickly get you to the right medical help if necessary.

The 111 service does exactly that and more:  it also allows you to  book your appointment on the same call rather than having to make a separate call to your local practice afterwards (and then consume the time of another medical receptionist in addition to your own). It is also free (NHS Direct was charged as a national rate call). In short it does more for less.  In these tough times that is something to applaud.

I suppose the Government has invited these attacks by using the language of ‘cuts’ in the way it has positioned these changes.  Cuts to me (as the end user) suggests a service will no longer be available.  Having investigated what it means it seems the service I expected from NHS Direct will still be available and better – it will just be delivered by different people, under a new badge, at less cost to the tax payer.  I concede that it is genuinely a ‘cut’ from the perspective of current NHS Direct employees and I do wish them well.  But for the end-user?  At worst it’s no different, at best an improvement.

As to the charge that the Tories are therefore evil liars: the promise was that the NHS Budget was ring-fenced and will actually increase year on year through the life of the Parliament.  So far the Government  is on track to deliver that.  And if it can supplement this by doing ‘more for less’ in other areas of NHS delivery then again – it should be applauded.

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