Friday, 29 December 2006

The fine Labour tradition of cynical populism

I cannot possibly match the pith of the eloquent Cicero, who wrote his own short word about Hazel Blears. But words must be written.

Hazel Blears, the Labour Party Chair, has attended a protest in Salford to object to Government policy that will close the maternity ward in her local area. Defending her actions, Ms. Blears said “As a constituency MP, I am representing the strong feelings of my constituents. The people of Salford and Eccles come first.”

Actually, they don’t. Ms. Blears has clearly forgotten (if she ever knew) Edmund Burkes famous dictum that constituents do not elect a Member for Bristol (or Salford) but a Member of Parliament. Though Ms. Blears represents her constituents at Westminster, her duty is to make decisions in the national interest based on their needs and beliefs, not to bring home barrel loads of pork.

Of course, were Ms. Blears a humble back bencher she could be forgiven for defending local interests against national policy. But she is not. Ms. Blears is a Cabinet Minister (without portfolio – that is to say a politically-appointed drain on the public fisc) and as such shares responsibility for the very policy to which she is now objecting. Perhaps she has also forgotten (if she ever knew) the concept of Cabinet Collective Responsibility. While she may argue her point vociferously in camera across the Cabinet table, in public she must either support the policy or resign.

Of course, the Labour Party – which has never had much respect for political conventions or the constitution of government – has been here before. In 1975, Harold Wilson suspended collective responsibility during the referendum on whether to remain within the Common Market.

More recently, in another example of cynical populism, Hilary Benn (whose redoubtable father had been one of the chief protagonists in the 1975 debate) joined the Make Poverty History and environmental campaigners that marched to Gleneagles. In fact, neither Mr. Benn nor his Cabinet colleagues had any intention of implementing the policies demanded by this (largely anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation) crowd. But in classic New Labour fashion, they wanted some of the celebrity and the veneer of rebellion that attached to this youthful and spontaneous movement, so they despatched one of their more youthful-looking and more spontaneous Ministers to rub shoulders with the moral glitterati.

This cynical populism is a disgrace. It insults both the intelligence of the voters and the passion of the protesters. More importantly, it undermines the much-needed and serious policy debate that is required. The National Health Service needs reform, and global poverty and environmental degradation need addressing. The solution to these challenges will be found in the complex and difficult world of politics, where tough choices must be made for long-term objectives. This requires Government to identify the best approach, to shape a policy and to implement it. As with all changes of policy, there will be some losers, but hopefully there will be more winners and overall we will live in a better place. If that is not the result of the policy, it should not be implemented; if it is, it should be pushed with enthusiasm by the whole of Government.

If Ms. Blears, Mr. Benn or any other member of the Government feels uncomfortable with its programme, they should resign from the Government. But few now have the honour or conviction of Geoffrey Howe or Robin Cook.

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