The electoral tide is beginning to turn blue once again
TEN YEARS AGO, I sat in the Tea Room in the House of Commons discussing polls with a group of forlorn colleagues who could not believe that the Conservative Party was facing melt-down.
I had been elected to Parliament in 1992 and did not enjoy the next 5 years. Nor did I relish telling my friends that I thought Labour would win a landslide victory at the forthcoming election. The tide had turned. New Labour, had grudgingly accepted the lessons that Margaret Thatcher had taught the nation: that the world does not owe Britain a living, that nationalisation doesn?t work, unilateral disarmament is a dangerous folly, and that excess and undemocratic trade union power leads to economic instability. So with New Labour dressed in blue, the inevitable ? after 18 years ? happened. There was a wild swing: 11?% away from the Conservatives and 9% to Labour. It was as if a log jam in a river had burst.
And now the electoral tide is beginning to turn again. Why? Labour has rightly invested our tax money in our public services. But it is fast becoming apparent to all that with MRSA, gun crime, prisons packed full, and hospital waiting lists lengthening, much of our money has been squandered. The setting of the wrong national targets has skewed activity away from delivering the best services. In the early days, it produced hopeful headlines as waiting times for simple operations were reduced. But more complex procedures suffered as a consequence as did basic considerations such as the provision of spotless wards. In other areas too, such as in teaching and policing, our professionals have been bogged down in paperwork and forced to take on activities which do not best reflect the needs of local communities. And now the consequences of all this are apparent to all.
In Staffordshire, our newly appointed Chief Constable has taken a brave stand to reject national targets and set his own based on specific community needs ? even if this means that his service may be vilified if it falls against other forces on ranking of national targets set by Downing Street. Other organisations will find it more difficult to set targets locally as they will suffer financial penalties or even breaches of the law if they move from central direction.
I do not advocate the abolition of publicly set targets. In the past there have been bad schools, incompetent police forces, and badly run hospitals yet no one knew of them and there was no momentum to put them right. It is the corruption of targets set for short term political gain at the expense of true public service delivery that has been so abhorrent.
Targets need to be set on criteria that meet local needs and which, in turn, reflect local demographics. And it is local people ? elected and the professionals ? who best know what criteria need to be set. Government needs to have the courage to let go and only step in in extreme circumstances when public confidence has collapsed. Even then, Government must resist consequential national legislation. The iniquitous Clause 28 brought in by the Conservatives was a bad example of just that. The activities in Islington schools were not reflected nationally and the introduction of a change to the national law resulted in teachers not being able to address the needs of some of their vulnerable students causing, in at least once case, a suicide. The Conservatives in their commitment to localism have learned that lesson.
It could be 30 months before the next General Election. If Labour does not learn to release the reins of State and its slavery to ?spin?, an already restless electorate will be vengeful.