By Sam Tomlin
I was struck this week reading Tim Montgomerie’s article in Conservative Home, in which he advocates the killing (or at least emasculating) of the unpopular NHS Bill. His concern was that neither the public nor the Whitehall machine were prepared for the message or to be co-operative in its implementation.
In addition to this, however, Mr Montgomerie suggests that, ‘It’s the path [pressing on with the reforms] that Mr Miliband prays the coalition will tread.’ For me this was telling for two main reasons which roll into one. Firstly, the probable accuracy of his statement: this was backed up by a subsequent tweet from a Labour friend of his which read: ‘Shush, shush, please just shush. Cameron passes the health bill and we will tell voters in every marginal seat that every extra week they wait for an op, every beds crisis, every rise in infection had been caused by the expensive Tory reorganization.’ The second is the reality that most Tories actually probably back the bill in their hearts, as shown by Baroness Warsi’s response to Mr Montgomerie’s article in which she argues the bill supports decentralisation, which all Conservatives should be behind.
What I think this suggests is a divergent and sour element of what is broadly a good (the ‘least bad’?) democratic system. Party politics is probably the best way to ‘do’ democracy as it means that, in theory, everyone gets a voice. Also, anyone can set up a party. There are of course, different wings within one party, radical and moderate, so everyone can find a place. However, the reality, as shown above, often means that the real issues of whether something is good for our nation are put aside and what becomes most important is the success of the party.
In essence, what Mr Montgomerie is suggesting is that regardless of the ‘rightness’ of the bill, it will kill our party for the next election. What the Labour friend (and Mr Miliband?) is insinuating is: the pain people will suffer through the longer waiting lists etc, doesn’t matter as much as Labour getting in next time. I’m aware this may be a crude generalisation; it is vital for Parties to want to be in power, because of course they believe what they will do and their ideologies will be in the best interests of the nation. It is also not to downplay the reality that change comes slowly, through winning debates and convincing people of the merits of your argument, and these is no bad things.
But the line is very thin between wanting power to do things right, and wanting power so that ‘the other people don’t have it’, and it is essential in a democracy like ours to pinch ourselves, every now and again to make sure we have not crossed it. As a Labour supporter, I would prefer the Coalition to drop the bill because I believe it will be damaging. Indeed, I would prefer the Conservatives to be in government for the next 20 years if it truly meant it would be the best thing for this country, especially the poorest and most marginalized people. I do not believe it will be, however, so I choose to support Labour (while naturally acknowledging their errors and challenging when I believe they need challenging).
A good illustration of this is in the first series of the West Wing when Pres Bartlet is frustrated at the lack of pace and authenticity of the reforms his government is achieving. He thinks it is because his staff is holding him back, but he eventually realises the reality is that he was more concerned about re-election. The strategy to combat this is pure and simple: ‘Let Bartlet be Bartlet.’ Perhaps the reality is that such a story-line can only exist in a fictional drama, but if it is, it is to be lamented. Personally, I don’t believe it is and I think now may be one of those times to pinch ourselves and remind each other what the real purpose of politics truly is.
As a final point, I suspect this [re-evaluating the ‘success of the party or else’ agenda] may help a disenfranchised and sceptical electorate trust our politicians again, and even if this were the only reason for doing it, it would surely be worth fighting for.