Some seemingly good news came out this week for Ed Miliband, who, no matter what he does, will always be described by the press as ‘beleaguered’, or synonyms thereof. This seems to be the case with most new Leaders of the Opposition, at the beginning of the party’s time in opposition. Still, even if he is admirably unfazed by it all, the latest polling will be pleasing. Labour is deemed to be back where it was at the end of 2011: that is, in front. The Guardian/ICM poll of 20th February suggests Labour has regained its lead with 37%, while the Conservatives have dipped four points to 36% and the Liberal Democrats have descended by two, to 14%.
Speculation abounds that the reason for this is the government’s reinvigorated push to pass its controversial health reforms. David Cameron called a summit of different groups to discuss the reforms, in an attempt to shore up the plan’s popularity amongst interest groups; but he was widely criticised for apparently only inviting those who already agreed with him. An act that was meant to have improved public opinion looked increasingly like a stitch-up.
Brainstorming is always a good idea, if this is what the meeting was for, but mainly if it is done with a diverse range of people and groups who can bring different perspectives to the table, in order to avoid the damaging phenomenon known as ‘groupthink’, where the effort to achieve harmonious decision-making leaves realistic alternatives unconsidered. But even if the people around the table are not as diverse as they ought to be, another necessity is that all the information available is laid out. This too, Mr Cameron did not do. On Wednesday, Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, won a Commons vote on a Labour motion calling for him to divulge the contents of a risk assessment of his NHS reform plans. The House agreed that he should not be required to, seemingly accepting the astonishing argument that only by knowing that the assessment would be kept under wraps, would the technocratic authors of the report be honest and direct in their findings and opinions. According to the esteemed Mr Lansley, a lack of transparency apparently breeds honesty. If anything, this embarrassing piece of reasoning should make us even more concerned about what blunt findings the risk assessment came up with.
In any case, these blunders aside, Mr Cameron and Mr Lansley’s efforts to sell the Health reforms have patently failed. It has been paused, watered-down, compromised over, and yet it remains unpopular. Whether one see the reforms as a socially just effort to limit costs and provide better services, or as a neo-liberal plot to privatise the NHS, it has not been sold well, and Mr Lansley’s efforts to be seen as a ‘transformative’ Secretary of State, as Michael Gove is doing in the Department of Education, are proving to be a liability for Mr Cameron. According to ICM polling 52% of respondents were against the reforms outright, as opposed to 33% who believed the reforms should be stuck to. Bringing the issue back to the limelight has probably played its part in the change in the parties’ popularity.
Who said Mr Miliband was beleaguered?