Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Lost Enquirer Column

Or should that be last Enquirer column? Anyway, here in full is the column that won't be appearing in tomorrow's North West Enquirer because sadly the paper has gone into receivership.


This weekend, amid huge fanfare as well as unprecedented security, the Labour Party Conference will open in Manchester, the first time the event has been held in a non-seaside venue for more than a generation.

With Tony Blair having already announced that the gathering will be his last as leader, it is likely to assume something of a valedictory air, with a certain amount of focus on his Government’s “achievements.”

And doubtless there are some. The minimum wage, devolution to Scotland and Wales, and the huge increases in overseas aid are all things you could not have imagined a Conservative government doing, for instance.

But a dozen or so miles away, the fate of a local hospital casualty department tells a different story about the history of New Labour, a story of bright hopes that have turned to disillusionment.

Last Saturday, NHS North-West decided to downgrade the Accident and Emergency Department in Rochdale, one of a score of proposed hospital closures and cutbacks across England as a whole.

According to various reports, NHS managers in Lancashire are also considering axeing acute facilities at the Westmorland General Hospital in Kendal, and maternity services at Fairfield Hospital in Bury.

The proposals are part of a nationwide “reconfiguration” of the NHS, closing some small centres and expanding accident and emergency facilities in “regional centres,” including Salford, Great Manchester.

There couldn’t possibly be a connection, of course….but it doesn’t necessarily help Labour’s case that Salford is held by the Labour Party Chairman, Hazel Blears, while Rochdale is now a Lib Dem seat.

Either way, the prospect of hospital closures in the tenth year of a Labour Government – as Neil Kinnock might have put it – offer a stark illustration of the gulf between the hype and the reality of Mr Blair’s administration.

Two days before the 1997 General Election, Labour produced a Party Political Broadcast under the theme of “24 hours to save the NHS.”

The general aim of this masterly yet wholly disingenuous piece of spin was to convince the public that if the Tories won again, the NHS would be privatized, ignoring the fact that even Mrs Thatcher had fought shy of such a course of action.

But no matter. For its first few years in power, Labour was as good as its word, pumping billions of new money into the service from 1999 onwards, once the initial decision to stick to Tory spending plans had been lifted.

The trend continued after the 2001 election. Mr Blair committed the Government to reaching the EU average of 8.7pc of national income spent on health, and national insurance went up 1p specifically to fund the rise.

It was to be allied to “reform” in the form of greater use of Private Finance Initiative schemes for hospital building, and the creation of “foundation hospitals” which were allowed to borrow on the open market.

This so-called “marketisation” of health care led to much soul-searching among Labour MPs and supporters, but that is not really the issue at stake in relation to the current closure plans.

The point is this. That if your local hospital is forced to close, all the sparkling new “regional” facilities in the world will not alter the impression that the Government has broken its promises when it comes to health.

And of course, it is not the only area where hope has turned to disillusionment. For some the advent of the Blair Government signalled a new, cleaner style of politics following the “sleaze” of the John Major years.

In another PR masterstroke, orchestrated by Alastair Campbell, Labour’s candidate stood aside in Tatton, allowing “white knight” Martin Bell to take on and beat that symbol of Tory decadence, Neil Hamilton.

But in truth, Hamilton was no more than a bit part player in the Major years, a maverick junior minister whose influence in the party counted for less than zero.

The sleaze that has since engulfed Labour, by contrast, has gone right to the top of the Government, with Downing Street itself now under police investigation for the sale of honours.

So is there anything Labour can do as it gathers for what seems certain to be a seminal conference? Can the party successfully renew itself in office – or has the New Labour brand been irretrievably sullied?

Well, it is clear that it is no longer just about having a new leader. There was once a time, when the main issue was very much trust in Mr Blair personally, when that might have done the trick, but not now.

Tory leader David Cameron’s positioning of his party in the political centre ground coupled with the evident drift of Labour’s third term has asked much more fundamental questions of the party.
There is now a growing realization, even among Gordon Brown’s supporters, that the debate about a new leader has to be accompanied by a debate about the direction of the party, post-Blair.

But this brings its own difficulties. For instance, former Health Secretary Alan Milburn made a speech last week which was bursting with ideas about how to devolve power to local communities, although this sits oddly with the policy of closing local hospitals.

Mr Brown could probably use a few of those ideas, but because Mr Milburn is identified with the uber-Blairite, anyone-but-Gordon wing of the party, the speech was inevitably seen as divisive.

Similarly, Mr Blair’s desire to hold the debate now, and settle some of the “big questions” ahead of his departure from office, is seen as an attempt to tie the hands of his successor.

There is no easy way in which Labour can resolve these tensions without tearing itself apart - and as they know only too well, divided parties lose elections.

And in the electoral context, there is a further lesson for the party, one that is specifically related to the hospital closures issue.

Back in 2001, the sitting Labour MP in the West Midlands constituency of Wyre Forest was ousted by an independent candidate campaigning on the single issue of saving his local hospital from the axe.

Set against Labour’s huge victory that year, Dr Richard Taylor’s triumph was no more than a little local difficulty, but in a tight contest overall - and everyone expects the next election to be tight – a few Wyre Forests could make all the difference.

There are few more emotive issues to a local community than the future of their local hospital. The Government would be well advised to tread carefully.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Blog on hold

I created this blog earlier this year as a means of linking out from my main blog to some of my newspaper columns that did not have a web presence at the time. This issue has now been resolved so this blog is on hold for the time being. I am thinking about possible new uses for it, and any suggestions are of course welcome.

Main bloggage as ever will continue to be at my main blog, Paul Linford.
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