Friday, June 30, 2006

kicking labour when they're down

It's been a while since Dan has left a comment on my blog telling me off for using too much material cribbed shamelessly from The Guardian, so I thought I'd take advantage of some articles in the last couple of day's papers to string a few points of interest together. Firstly, it's not at all surprising to see a bunch of letters taking that idiot Blair to task for his utterly inane article the other day, something that braggard Neal Lawson has been doing via Compass (click here for Andrew's thoughts on that) doing so, incidentally, with none of Catherine Bennett's panache and style. In her column today she writes:

"It is the best of times, but is it also the worst of times?" Which hubristic Blair ghostwriter decided to paraphrase the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities for the benefit of Guardian readers this week? It seems hard to believe that it was the Blair ghostwriter who, concluded the same piece with the challenge: "If there's a better idea, let's hear it." Nor, for that matter, does it seem likely that the Dickens fan would have contributed felicities such as, "they didn't want less contestability", or "the creativity of the frontline".

Aside from its absolute determination not to discuss, mention, or even accept by implication the existence of war in Iraq, the most striking thing about Blair's article was surely its lurching unevenness of tone. One minute the prime minister was in brainy mode, aligning the achievements of his administration ("it is the best of times") with those of the American and French revolutions, and wearily regretting his critics' habit of "looking back in anger", the next he was reverting to vacuous, conference-speak ("Michelle, a mother of four from Oldham"), or switching to the dead language of Thinktankish ("truly enabling, not controlling"), or making his point in the livelier, chatshow demotic of "flunk" and "dump". Presumably, whichever committee was responsible - it would be too worrying to think that this display of mental confusion was Blair's own unaided work - could not decide whether it was best to appeal to Guardian-based critics in a familiar, one-bien-pensant-to-another sort of way, or to challenge these awkward customers, once and for all, to bring it on if they think they're hard enough.

But that still leaves us with the problem of "contestability". What can it be? Plainly it is a good thing because it is listed along with consumer choice and diversity of provision as something that - though deprecated by his critics - people Blair respects (the voluntary sector, the National Consumer Council) want more of. It is a word that appears to be borrowed from the inscrutable world of Gordon Brown, or insurance - where, I understand, it refers to the conditions under which the insurer may contest or void the life policy. It seems unlikely Blair was talking about that.

So we shall have to guess at his meaning in the context of an article about renewal. Could "contestability" translate as the potential for the provision of a public service - education, say, or healthcare - to be contested, in the sense of competed, or bid for, by rival providers? Which is to say, privatised? At any rate, if there is a better definition, let's hear it."

Maybe the interested reader should take a look at this, at this point. I think it might be contestability in action. Happily, plenty of people have seen it, which is why Patricia Hewitt has just issued a statement saying that the advertisement in question (the govt has been discovered placing an ad in an EU journal inviting companies to begin "a competitive dialogue" about how they could take over the purchasing of healthcare for millions of NHS patients) does "not accurately reflect government policy", and indeed, "contrary to reports in some newspapers, there is no question whatsoever of 'privatising' the NHS".

Right, we'll remember you said that, Ms. Hewitt.

Elsewhere, it's enormously satisfying to see Labour getting a right good kicking in Blaenau Gwent and being told, quite properly, that "You take people for granted at your peril". If you had told me in 1997 that one day the constituency of Nye Bevan and Michael Foot would vote out Labour I'd have called you a lunatic. If you'd have told me I'd be glad to see it happen I'd have said you were a total lunatic.

But I'm not - they got what they deserved.

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