Crisis, what crisis?

4 Apr 08
MELISSA BENN | The past week has been dominated by the C-words: Carla, of course — all demure, gazelle-eyed feminine silence. The credit crunch, and associated financial insecurity, continues. Public cynicism appears ever more deeply entrenched.

The past week has been dominated by the C-words: Carla, of course — all demure, gazelle-eyed feminine silence. The credit crunch, and associated financial insecurity, continues. Public cynicism appears ever more deeply entrenched.

Meanwhile, choice continues to be the most favoured term of the governing classes, with yet another initiative announced this week to widen the options of patients within an apparently fragile health service.

Yet how much are these individual factors, the distraction of Carla aside, combining to create the big C — crisis — for Gordon Brown’s government? Even the prime minister’s officials are briefing the press that they expect to lose up to 200 seats in May’s local elections.

The idea that Boris Johnson might be mayor of London no longer looks quite the ridiculous fantasy it did last autumn. Clearly, there’s deep disappointment and fatigue among voters and not just about Iraq, which has so dominated the national psyche over the past five years.

There’s a new restiveness about core domestic issues despite — or just possibly because of — a constant stream of rhetoric from Brown and his ministers about investment and improvement, sound management and modernisation.

Almost every day there seems to be a newly sober, deeply serious speech about the task ahead. It doesn’t matter whether the prime minister uses notes or not, or has charisma. People are impatient of the gap between new promises and sober realities: the gulf between rich and poor continues to widen and the quality of our children’s lives remains poor by any European standards. Recent polls show deep insecurity and anxiety within both the manual working class and the middle class.

It’s a complex picture, however. In many ways, education and health are in a lot better shape than the largely privately educated media elite want us to realise. GPs are much better paid; there are far more health services available; schools are far better equipped and run.

But how much of that is down to the exercise of choice rather than good old-fashioned government spending and the setting of clear public service priorities?

In education, creeping marketisation has fractured a generation of parents and children, particularly in the big cities, where choice is supposedly most active and yet levels of parental dissatisfaction are sky-high. We now have a two, if not three, tier system within state education, in which the cash-poor middle class is often provided with the means to lift it out of so-called ‘bog standard’ local facilities.

The NHS presents similar paradoxes. Innovative reform, yes, but there are still hospitals that can be publicly labelled a ‘disgrace’ by a leading health executive, Bob Ricketts. Ricketts is heading a brand new programme, NHS Choice. Patients will now be encouraged to choose where to have treatment from up to 500 units across the country, including 160 privately run centres.

But given the sheer amount of information required to judge a treatment centre accurately, from individual surgeons’ success rates to current levels of MRSA, who but the most active and knowledgeable will access the mass of relevant figures?

Public housing, for so long the elephant in the New Labour room, is another political problem area. The new squeeze on credit has only brought home a long-standing reality: most private housing is far beyond the reach of those on ordinary incomes and there is a scandalous shortage of social housing.

When Brown took over last summer it looked as if he might take Labour in a different direction: less emphasis on markets, more on fairness, reducing inequality and universal good provision, the north European social democratic model. There was widespread approval of Brown’s announcement that 3 million new homes would be built by 2020.

But, after last autumn’s crisis of confidence, Brown has taken up the Blairite agenda with a vengeance. There are now widespread doubts among Labour MPs about the social housing plans, which led early last week to one of the biggest backbench rebellions since the prime minister took office.

The new tough stance on public sector pay, while Northern Rock’s former chief executive, Adam Applegarth, gets a massive £760,000 payoff for his failure, is another blow to Labour’s core voters.

But if the widespread demoralisation is understandable, cynicism is not the answer, particularly as an often unchecked and powerful press feeds deliberate distrust in the democratic process. They would rather we drooled over Carla than ask serious questions of our leaders on the true consequences of privatisation and the alternative possibilities for sound, fair management of the welfare state.

Deep down, many of the so-called disillusioned know that good, strong societies need proper building blocks: security for all, not vaporous promises and gross privileges for a few.

Did you enjoy this article?