Bill's Archived Comments

for the week beginning: Monday, 22nd April 2002

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Contents of this page (scroll down the page to see the full text of the article which interests you)

- Scottish Tories choose between democracy and a curtailment of bigotry (24 April 2002)

- France lurches to the right in Presidential contest (22 April 2002)

- Taxation rises and the Government promises the NHS will improve (22 April 2002)

Scottish Tories choose between democracy and a curtailment of bigotry (24 April 2002)

.... and they can't have both.

It seems that the Candidates' Board has dawn up plans to change the way candidates for the upcoming (May 2003) elections for the Scottish Parliament  are chosen and ranked in order - the Board recommends that candidates are selected on the basis of their performance at hustings held in constituencies (from my recollection, this is similar to the way candidates for the last European Parliament elections were chosen and ranked). The issue is of importance, even more than might otherwise be supposed, because 18 of the 19 current Conservative members of the Scottish Parliament are 'list' MSPs, chosen on the basis of a form of proportional representation; the one MSP who sits as a constituency member (i.e. elected on the basis of 'first past the post') in the Scottish Parliament won his seat in a by-election. What this means is that if candidates are not either top, or perhaps second or third, in the regional lists, they stand no chance of a place when the list seats come to be divvied up.

For example, in the last elections for the Scottish Parliament, the top of the list in the region where I live, who was almost therefore guaranteed a seat, in fact gained only a little over 1,000 votes in the 'first past the post' constituency in which he stood, whereas the number two in the list received about 6,500 votes in her 'first past the post' constituency. The ranking for that election was done by Constituency Association Chairmen/women, rather than by the Party membership as a whole.

It seems the candidates do not want this change, because they fear that a few prominent MSPs will be able to travel around the country to 'manipulate the selection process'. And, in one sense, one can well understand their worry!

Why does all this matter? Well, to take the specific cases I refer to above, it is highly-doubtful if the person at the top of the list the last time around would achieve a similar position this time under a more 'democratic' selection process, because he happens to hold relatively liberal, for a Conservative, views on social matters apart from possessing technical skills and knowledge in a few crucial areas. The number two person happens to hold more 'traditional' views (or at least is aware that only the expression of such views is likely to ensure success amongst Party members locally, whatever her own real views may be).

Traditionally there has been great resistance in the Conservative Party to the centralisation of the selection of constituency candidates; the Candidates' Board would pre-approve potential candidates, to ensure that they met certain minimum criteria, and these approved potential candidates would apply to various constituency associations to be selected as their candidate. The local Party Association usually selected their candidate at a meeting of local members who would hear each potential candidate make his/her case. The flaw in this outwardly reasonably democratic system is that those who do the choosing are Party members, and the membership of the Conservative Party tends to be elderly and 'conservative' (with a small 'c') in their social attitudes.

The Leadership of the Party may possibly wish to move the Party onto slightly more centrist ground, in terms of policies, in a bid to appeal to a wider section of the population as a whole, but they must constantly take account of the lack of enthusiasm for this amongst the bulk of the Party membership. Any potential candidate who expresses views which are even mildly less 'traditional', or who does not conform to a fairly narrow range of social profiles, is unlikely to get very far in most constituencies. There are constant efforts to recruit new and younger members, if only to take on some of the work (leaflet distribution, canvassing, putting up posters, etc) that those who are now elderly can no longer really undertake very easily, but the policy changes necessary to attract more than a handful of such younger people tend to have the 'old dears' throwing up their hands in horror; those younger people who do come forward tend often to be the holders of extreme views on some matters (immigration or sexual orientation for example), so are not likely to be able to galvanise many people of their own generation to vote for the Party - even if their youth and energy is welcome when it comes to putting up posters, etc.

The Conservative Party, as I have mentioned before, faces harsh choices - too much internal democracy and they risk choosing candidates whom non-members are highly unlikely to vote for, too little and they risk alienating too many of their own members and activists, the people the Party relies upon to do the grunt-work.

France lurches to the right in Presidential contest (22 April 2002)

In the first round of voting yesterday in France's 7-yearly Presidential election contest, the National Front ('Front National') candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, received 17.02% of the vote and pushed the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, into third place with 16.07%. The existing centre-right (RPR) candidate, Jacques Chriac, came first with 19.67%. The final position may be modified slightly when the overseas votes are included, but this is highly unlikely to change the overall result significantly.

The result of this is that in the second round of voting in two weeks time the two remaining candidates, Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen, will battle it out. An immediate result of the first-round vote is that Lionel Jospin has announced he will withdraw from politics completely after the second round of voting. Many prominent Socialists have already indicated that they will now vote for Chirac, however unpalatable this would be under normal circumstances, in order to make absolutely certain that Le Pen does not win. One must hope that Chirac does win, and with a sufficiently large majority to give him a genuine mandate and to deprive Le Pen of any claim to a say in how French national politics are conducted in coming years. Chirac himself is not untainted, of course, with the allegations of sleaze surrounding him and which would have already laid him open to severe sanction in all likelihood, were he not the beneficiary of  Presidential immunity from prosecution.

Much has been made of the fact that Le Pen's success yesterday is a function of the low turnout in this Presidential contest, when compared with earlier elections, and whilst this is undoubtedly a factor it is also a fact that the turnout (at 72.6%) is still quite high in comparison with many other western countries in recent years, even if lower than in France itself in earlier years:

(Figures obtained from 'Le Monde' and 'Le Figaro' websites)
Presidential Election in Abstentions (%) Turnout (%)
2002 27.4 72.6
1995 21.6 78.4
1988 18.6 81.4
1981 18.9 81.1
1974 15.8 84.2
1969 22.4 77.6
1965 15.2 84.8

Assuming that M. Chirac does win, it seems to me that the French political system and that in a number of other European countries (Italy, Austria and Holland amongst others) is now on trial. It is suggested by some that the French experience is a result of disillusionment amongst ordinary French voters with the political elite who, because of the way they and the administrative elite are selected and educated, tend to be less responsive to the fears and aspirations of oridnary people than, for example, is generally believed to be the case in the UK or the US.

Whilst I am a fervent pro-European, it is true that most Britons probably are not quite so keen. It seems, perhaps, that the French are similarly not quite so keen on some aspects of EU integration (the 'Euro' for example) as is generally so glibly assumed. Of even more importance, possibly, is the level of unemployment in France and a number of other EU member nations (notably Germany) and the fear of excessive immigration, coupled with the much higher levels of overall taxation than in the UK.

Only if these factors are looked at coolly and objectively by the new French President (hopefully Chirac) and the National Assembly (present and future) will the extreme right and the extreme left of French politics be returned to their rightful places - the margins of French politics.

The next two week promise to be highly interesting!

Taxation rises and the Government promises the NHS will improve (22 April 2002)

Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown delivered his annual Budget to the House of Commons last Wednesday (17 April 2002); I have been pre-occupied with various other matters so have been unable to comment until now.

Mr Brown, as usual, delivered a Budget which seemed, on the face of it (and until the last 5 minutes of his hour-long speech), anodyne and low-key with very little to get excited about. It seemed to promise handouts of money to this group or that group - I began to ask myself how this was all going to be paid for.

In the closing minutes we discovered that the main source of new money was to be a 1% rise in National Insurance contributions by employers, employees and the self-employed respectively, with the bulk of the rest to come from freezes in various allowances - the net effect of all this financial sleight of hand is an increase of 3% in 'income tax equivalent', for of course despite its name 'National Insurance' is not in any way, shape or form equivalent to an insurance policy as Mr Brown claimed (aka 'lied') in his speech - in reality, National Insurance is a tax on employment, nothing more. The other part of his sleight of hand is the massive increase in tax credits, and the numbers of people who receive these largely means-tested benefits, and the way these are treated in the national accounting budget - as a reduction in tax rather than as an increase in social security payments, thus distorting the true level of the tax take in relation to GDP - so instead of having a figure of about 38%, the real figure is in fact just in excess of 40%.

The NHS is to receive the bulk of the extra spending made possible by this tax increase - spending will rise from £65.4 billion this year to £72.1 billion next year and continue rising to £105.6 billion by 2007-8.

Critics of simply pouring more money into the NHS without examining other methods of funding healthcare, and without undertaking a fundamental reform of the way the NHS operates (of whom I am definitely one), worry that the the additional funding will simply be used to pay for salary increases in medical personnel - and this worry seems to have been justified. No sooner had the spending increase been announced than the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, Dr Beverly Malone, called for a 'substantial' pay rise to bring nurses' salaries in line with teachers and the police.

In his Budget speech, however, Gordon Brown promised that there would be greater accountability by the NHS to us, the paying customers, in the form of independent audit, inspections and scrutiny of complants with an annual report to Parliament from the new independent auditor, the details to be announced by the Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, the next day. The degree of 'independence' of this audit seems to me to be crucial.

In launching a new document, 'Expanding the NHS Plan', Mr Milburn announced to the House of Commons that: "We now need to introduce stronger incentives to ensure that extra cash produces improved performance. Hospitals that can treat more patients will earn more money." New contracts for doctors and nurses and other staff will be designed to "reward those who do most for the NHS" and to improve productivity, he said.

The new NHS inspectorate, the Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection (CHAI) will be made "more independent" of government than the organisations it will take over, Mr Milburn said. It is not at all clear what 'more independent' will mean in reality - who, for example, will have the power to appoint and dismiss members of the Commission? Unless they are free of the threat of removal if they issue recommendations the government (or the unions) don't like, then the whole thing could easily be a sham.

Finally, one crucial element that seems to be missing from these fine sentiments is the counterpart to the 'rewards' mentioned for those parts of the NHS which do well - what about the 'sanctions' for those parts which don't perform as required? This always seems to be the one part of managing an enterprise that people imbued with a public sector ethos can never come to terms with. Few commercial organisations could survive for long without looking at this side of the equation, too.

For my part, I won't be cancelling my private health insurance just yet - I prefer be in a position where I can choose another supplier of services should the primary supplier prove inadequate. I am in the fortunate position of being able to pay for this, but of course most people must rely solely on the NHS and for them there is no choice. I very much fear that the recent changes will, at best, improve their situation only marginally if there is not a genuine change in the way our overall healthcare budget is funded and managed.

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Copyright © 2002 William Cameron