McTernan on politics

At last, the parliamentary recess has arrived and as backbenchers
head for the beach the government turns its mind to using the
summer to regroup. The final weeks of the parliamentary session
were incredibly scratchy, with resistance to government proposals
in the Commons and the Lords. Tony Blair must have thought often of
Jim Callaghan’s plea, “Cancel July”, and shared his predecessor’s
view that muggy, summer heat brings out the worst in Westminster.

Undoubtedly, this contributed to the willingness of Labour MPs to
oppose their government’s flagship policies. But there is something
more going on here. For one thing, commentators are correct to
observe that rebellion is a habit that is hard to give up – those
who oppose their own government on any issue are likely to do so
again. Indeed, half way through this parliamentary term there have
been as many revolts as in Labour’s first term. For another, some
of the most telling opposition is the most forensic – objecting to
policies not because of the broad principles but because of the
practical details. Listen to David Hinchliffe, chairperson of the
heath select committee, on foundation hospitals and you hear an
experienced, pragmatic MP offering a critique based on his
expertise and understanding of the NHS.

Blair proclaimed in 1997 “what matters is what works”. That
commitment to evidence-based policy has led to initiatives such as
Sure Start, but it also signals that new policy has to pass a high
evidential test. As the fight over foundation hospitals has become
fiercer the government’s arguments in favour have changed. They
started by arguing that competition drives innovation. Now the
justification for reform is rooted in communitarianism – local
people will be put in charge of their hospitals.

The unanswered question is how new modes of governance will work.
Optimists argue that directly elected single purpose boards can
re-connect voters with public services. But talk to local authority
chief executives who have been fighting against falling turnouts in
council elections and they point to the difficulty in maintaining a
valid electoral register and the low turnouts for governing body
elections in schools.

The reality of direct elections may owe less to Athenian democracy
and more to Athens, Texas. In many US states school boards are
elected separately from local councils. Not only do they have low
turnouts but many have been taken over by fundamentalist Christian
groups. Couldn’t happen here? What about a foundation hospital in
Burnley with a majority of BNP supporters elected to the board on a
turnout of less than 10 per cent? The devil truly is in the detail.

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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