The Tories appear to have the centre ground. Labour need to take it back—by coming out in favour of free schools and GP commissioningby James Purnell / February 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
I did a strange thing the other day. I read Hansard, the parliamentary record. I’m not an MP any more, but I’m still a policy wonk. And it’s hard to find out about policy from the newspapers. Not because they don’t cover policy, but because it’s almost always editorialised—seen only through its political implications or the prism of a columnist.
To get to the raw material of policy, the best place to go is parliament. Weird, I know. When I first worked for Tony Blair as a researcher in the early 1990s, he used to read Hansard the whole time. Honestly. In the mornings, he’d come in to the office, kick back and open the Official Record. He was a keen writer of congratulatory notes, an additional epistolary explanation for why he was the parliamentary Labour party’s favourite in 1994.
He would say that if you couldn’t command the House, you’d never make it. That’s partly about technique, but mostly about argument. Anyone can come up with a soundbite, and a good one can cover up quite a lot. But if your policy is weak, your argument will be too. And that will be cruelly exposed in the Commons.
Anyway, back to my reading: I wanted to catch up on where the parties had got to on health and education. In each case there was a far more subtle debate than I’d got from the airwaves. Take this: “The debate at the heart of this bill is not about whether competition, choice or the private sector has a part to play in the NHS—they have and they do.” Who was speaking? A Tory backbencher hoping to impress? No, John Healey, shadow health minister.
Over in education, Andy Burnham had an equally unexpected argument: that Michael Gove, far from devolving power, was centralising it into his hands.
Voters haven’t heard these arguments. That’s because the Tories have succeeded in defining their reforms as being about something else: free schools and GP commissioning. And they’ve turned that into a test for their opposition: if Labour doesn’t support such structural reform, it will show that they are not prepared to reform, and are no longer progressive.
This has a history. After his election as party leader, David Cameron and his advisers set about detaching Tony Blair from Labour (helped by the fact that many Labour MPs were already heartily on the job). They…