Mark Wright talks to a South Asian resident of Portsmouth, “Charu Whitlam” – he requested S&C not to use his real name – about the privatisation of the NHS, the ‘fearful’ attitude of many Britons to migrants and the lack of ‘other’ perspectives on the root causes of terrorism.
Mark Wright: With the General Election coming up, what do you think are the important issues at both local and national level, and who do you feel is best placed to tackle them?
Charu Whitlam: Before I answer, I should declare that I think that taxes from the people should not end up in the profit margins of private sector organisations. The Conservatives – and many on the right of the Labour party – at best have more faith in the benevolence of the private sector and the market, and at worst, actively despise and obstruct changes to the status quo which might redistribute even a fraction of (their?) wealth among the many, not the few.
Let me focus mainly on one important issue. I think the NHS is on its knees. Doctors are leaving. Nurses are leaving, or choosing other less stressful jobs for similar salaries. They are being told by management across the country to continue to provide services, but to do so with less money. I do not believe, despite layers of management, that the NHS is bad value for money (certainly when compared to, for example, the Ministry of Defence spending) and so I disagree that further savings must be found. It is a question of priorities. Whilst finding ways not to waste money is always important, the resources given to the NHS are inadequate already and declining.
It is not a conspiracy theory to suggest that the current Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and his predecessor believe that private provision should take over more and more of the NHS. They say they support the NHS, but they are actually breaking it up. What this means in practice, by definition and if you accept my guiding principle, is that private sector firms will bid for the lucrative aspects of the work of the NHS, leaving the difficult, expensive, high-risk activities, such as accident and emergency and neonatal care, entirely at public expense. And that is not fair nor efficient. The money which will end up in the pockets of, for example, Virgin Care (Dr Branson anyone?), should stay within the tax pool and distributed across all services.
If that sounds familiar, it is because it is just one example where the entry of private sector providers, who ultimately must generate ever increasing profit, will charge – at every opportunity – whatever the market will tolerate. This, to me, is not a controversial proposition. A private company exists to generate wealth for its management and shareholders. True competition exists only where there is an even playing field, and that is simply not the case when one looks at what is happening in the carving up of NHS services.
If you open a restaurant, you are free to charge whatever you wish. If you run a private gym with fluffy towels, then please, by all means, wait to see who will pay to walk through your doors. But auctioning off community medical services to Virgin Care who, at every stage, promise to “pleasantly surprise” everyone by being just like the NHS, should alarm everyone. It is the NHS that should be the NHS. Because a hospital is not a restaurant or a gym with fluffy towels.
Jeremy Corbyn was one of the few MPs to oppose Private Finance Initiative contracts when they were first introduced. These resulted in long-term contracts which continue to cripple NHS trusts. Whilst I see that the promise to wind back PFI no longer specifically appears in the Labour manifesto, sadly, I don’t think that a Corbyn government Health Secretary would follow the Conservative path to ever increasing privatisation.
In terms of who is best placed to tackle the current problems that the NHS faces, I have low expectations of the small rump of the Labour-party-of-the-willing. But I forgive most of them in advance. I applaud some of them for simply for being there at all. I wish that other talented and experienced Labour MPs (who are clearly credible enough to their own constituents), even those who voted no confidence in Corbyn, did not fall silent and hide behind likes of Liz Kendall and Owen Smith. I think when someone you truly cannot support in any circumstances becomes the leader, twice, you should either leave, or HELP, and support whatever aspects of the manifesto you can sign up to. The no-confidencers had plenty of time to organise themselves and mount a better coup with a better leader option against the wishes of the actual party members, the £3-come-latelys or not, but they didn’t manage it.
Just imagine if more of those talented no-confidencer MPs accepted the Labour party membership’s will and simply served on the front bench, using their talents, and accepting their differences. But no, they are cowering in the corner waiting for the end, keeping their powder dry, and hoping to position themselves for a day in a Jeremy-free future. They fell as mute as the Queen when it mattered most.
MW: Do you think the current electoral system is fit for purpose? Do you think it represents the will of the people?
CW: No. But, as a non-white migrant and a minority, I am a little fearful of the will of the people. The people buy and love the Sun and Daily Mail more than any other newspapers. Too many of the people dislike foreigners and are willing to blame them rather than find common cause with them. Too many of the people go on their first impressions of someone, without waiting to hear what they have to say – without thinking.
These people often seem incapable of imagining me as truly one amongst their number. They will make me a cup of tea and even nod and smile, and then vote for the Tories who instinctively know what they want to hear, election after election: the ambition to cut migration numbers. It feels like the past. They make this promise to because it appeals to those taught to blame migrants: those same migrants cleaning their hospital loos and wiping their parents’ bottoms. It is for this that Lynton Crosby was knighted.
A first past the post system necessitates tactical voting. It forces you to guess whether a Lib Dem really has a better chance of beating a Tory. And it punishes you for following your heart. A preference system where votes are redistributed down a preference order in a series of run-offs is much better, because, for example, you can vote Green without helping a Tory.
A proportional representation system where you count up the number of votes UKIP actually receive and reflect that as a proportion of your legislative body is a nightmare. Recall what I just said about the people. Some would argue that it forces coalitions and fosters consensus as disparate parties come to an arrangement whether they like it or not. I argue that it is a recipe for stagnation and an emboldening of the extremes.
I would prefer an Australian-style preference system where you can rank parties in the order in which you prefer them. But unlike Australia and America, I do think five-year terms as a general rule are about right.
MW: The Greens and the Lib Dems have a policy proposing a second referendum on Brexit, with the possibility that Britain could remain a member of the EU. What are your views on the prospect of a second referendum?
CW: I would like a referendum after a deal takes shape but is not yet signed, but I don’t think there will be one. I am also wary that the telling details, much like the detail that the Trident missile that was tested went the wrong way, will be kept a secret before any vote on the matter.
Given the polarising atmosphere of the last referendum, I think that the anger will be notched up even higher a second time around.
Despite the above, I would be willing to risk that and the spike in attacks on foreigners if the true consequences of Brexit are somehow made clearer, and there is an opportunity for Leave voters to reconsider their earlier decision. Perhaps a crucial 3-5% of them will have come to resent the lies on the Boris buses, and that could make all the difference.
But I fear the deep core of the vote against was to do with the failure of too many of the Great British public to accept those unlike themselves into their midst. Integration is a two way street. And that core is strong, and resistant to factual pleas.
I do understand the characterisation of the EU as a bureaucratic administration enslaved by unimaginative neoliberal conventions: an institution that can do nothing other than reissue a loan to German banks in the name of Greece so that the charade of servicing the loans could continue.
But there is another side to the EU. There is a side which struggles to set and maintain a floor on workers’ rights. There is a side which sets environmental standards and occasionally dares to enforce them. In this sense, the EU standards protect people within states from the worst excesses of state actions against their interests. Before you scoff or choke on your cornflakes, my question to you is, would you not rather that there be some sort of attempt to move beyond the nation state? Not a bottle-throwing anarchist movement, but one with a possibility of growing? A flawed one, but one which actually exists?
There are legal arguments about workers’ rights and discrimination cases and environmental breaches where the UK and France and Turkey are in the dock, and I actually think that is how it should be. I know I am in a small minority that is attracted to the possibility of – literally – appealing beyond state borders, but the idea that is even meaningfully possible is remarkable. It feels like the beginning of the future to me. It may well have evolved by stealth, and it may not work well, but to those of us from outside the EU who have watched the courts of European institutions up close, in Strasbourg and Luxembourg, and know the key role that Britain plays within those institutions, I feel a certain sadness on behalf of the British. If only the people knew, they might be proud.
MW: Was Jeremy Corbyn fair in asking questions of UK foreign policy in regards to the recent terror attacks?
CW: Yes. It is telling that that is even a question. The question assumes that asking questions of foreign policy might not be fair. And by definition it must be. I suspect the question is referring mainly to the timing of saying anything at all about it, a reference to a sort of sensitivity moratorium. But in the end, I think that it is important to question those who are so keen to completely absolve British foreign policy whilst they are doing it.
Much like I think it obvious that private sector companies are looking to make money and will prioritise that beyond all else, I think the continuing support of bombing campaigns and foreign policies which leave vacuums where even-more-extremists thrive, is harming the national interest. The longest running, sore-festering resentment is the treatment of the Palestinian people. This, long before ISIS or even the Taliban, was also an indicator that a brown life is not considered equal to a white life by so many people in this country and around the Western world. I cannot make up my mind how wilful or natural that is, but the indifference to the plight of people in far away places with far away names has always concerned me. Perhaps I would say that, wouldn’t I…
How refreshing it is to have, even for a brief moment on the highest national stage, a leader willing to make that connection between the overseas bombing campaigns, or the selling of arms, or the special sycophantic silence on the Saudis, and the scourge of Islamic terrorism both at home and abroad.
I know that more thoughtful actions of Western powers overseas is not the complete solution, but it will lessen the ammunition used by warped ideologies to justify and radicalise.
MW: The Conservatives have lost ground in their poll lead in recent weeks. Why do you think this might be?
CW: The PM has been shown to be more weak and fearful than even I expected. I have never respected her judgement since she told the story about the cat and the Human Rights Act at the Tory conference. Remember that? It seemed to me not only to lack common sense and judgment, but also reveal the worst kind of cynical opportunism. So the only thing I have never doubted was her raw ambition to be PM. She would seemingly say and believe anything to get there, and now she has. Any intelligent reader of a draft of that cat speech might pause to reflect on the truth of that story. Even the Tory conference, if you listened closely, wasn’t sure whether to applaud that line, as much as most of them hated all things that smelled a bit human-rightsy at the time.
It is a sad day when Ken Clarke, the Thatcherite, Enoch Powell-admiring old man of the Conservatives seemed to be the only one left to indicate that it was nonsense. He was pushed aside after that, along with Dominic Grieve, and other principled Tories.
The Australian dog-whistle expert and nasty political strategist Sir Lynton Crosby, clearly has said, just keep your head down Terry and focus on Corbyn. But a fraction of the Great British public might think that not even showing up to even a single political debate was lily-livered. Some of them might also remember the number of times she said that she would not call an election and called an election. Sir Lynton also masterminded the Michael Howard ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ billboards in 2005. I think those billboards were a sort of giant wink and a nod to the racist and xenophobic.
If you think I am too critical of the Great British public, then it is only because I also know some other people, fewer people, who feel deep in their hearts that blaming migrants does not ease their feeling of being left behind.
I am not an optimist. I think that it makes for more interesting news if polls are suggesting a narrowing of the lead. I do think, at this late stage, that Thursday may not herald the complete destruction of the Labour Party in Parliamentary seat number terms. But the Labour Party is doomed either way as an opposition or government unless those no-confidencers (the majority of Labour MPs) get out or get on board. If they leave or are voted out, I hope they all line up for Strictly Come Dancing, where economists can transform back again into human beings, and they can dream, for a moment, of a come-back, if not in this lifetime, then the next.
MW: What do you think of the way that print media currently reports on politics?
CW: I think it does the bidding of its masters. When it counts, as a general rule, the Times op eds support Murdoch wars because it is good for business. The Telegraph is a polite expensive tabloid, with more than a hint of nostalgia for empire 1.0. Most tabloids put fresh young tits and arse next to stories about Muslim paedo rings, generally ignoring the white ones. They put things in bold, and write in short sentences, in case the message becomes too complicated. And the people – see above – love it, apparently. Many people, when asked directly by me, aka the liberal elite, know enough to say, shyly, that they buy it for the sports section. But I don’t fully believe them. I look at what they do in the privacy of the polling booths.
I am a reader and a member and general lover of the Guardian. I am not so radical and disillusioned as to not confess that much. It contains a diversity of views from the centre right to the left, broadly speaking. It even used to publish Seumas Milne. But there are strands within it which occasionally reflect the worst conventionalism of the no-confidencers. In recent days, it has published the worst kind of cheerleading for the latest ‘enough is enough’ line on terrorism. At its worst, it joins in the promotion of the general idea that charm trumps substance.
When I feel like some “alternative” news, I switch to Red Pepper or Democracy Now in America to remind myself that there are other people in the media.
MW: Theresa May has said that the Tories are unsure about the amount that older people will have to pay for care, and will not reveal a social care cap before the general election. What message do you think this sends to voters?
CW: On the fact of the actual cap, I think it is good when any politician sees into the future a little and winds back from something which will be quoted against her time and again. So she decided to reverse her position. But otherwise, see my answer on the weak and fearful PM above.
Unlike treatment in a hospital, for example, on this issue, I do think that there must be a balance between the state and the individual and perhaps insurance in bearing the costs. Not for all individuals, but a meaningful means-tested way of gaining a contribution from a generation who have, through no effort on their part, found themselves unjustly enriched beyond all proportion, by simply occupying a property. In those circumstances, I do not see why the general public pool of taxes should bear the full cost of care. The key to care in the current system is to properly regulate both the quality and the charges by private sector providers. I think that it is a very difficult policy area which goes to the heart of who should pay for what and I am not sure of the solutions.
Whilst I would cut down on nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers, I appreciate that in the meantime we still need to be realistic about funding.
MW: Are there any contemporary politicians or political thinkers that you admire?
CW: I admired the Prime Ministership of Paul Keating in Australia on certain cultural issues in particular. His party passed legislation, against the will of the opposition and the majority of Australians, giving Aboriginal people basic land rights in Australia. He acknowledged them as the original owners of the land. He actually argued on talk radio with people calling up saying that they were worried about the Aboriginals invading their back gardens and Native Title claims. In other words, he fought back and tried to lead and shape opinion, without using opinion polls to quote people back to themselves in an unproductive loop. On many occasions, he actually took on the UKIPs and BNPs of his world, rather than try to move to the right to capture their vote. He gave off a sense that there was little time and big important things to be done, and he tried to do them. And people hated him for it. And people loved him for it.
MW: The Green Party have presented a policy to decriminalise the purchase and the sale of sex; the Lib Dems are talking about raising £1bn a year through legalising cannabis. Do you feel either of these policies should be considered by the other parties?
CW: I don’t know enough about the particular benefits of both of those policies in the UK context, but I suspect decriminalisation of sex and drugs will allow for regulation. I do think Caroline Lucas in particular is a sensible leader and an almost pathological optimist. I have seen her up close a few times at events and I find it very difficult to disagree with much of what she says. I am less convinced by Tim Farron promising another referendum, and those who use that as a reason to vote Lib Dem. The reason to vote Lib Dem is to try for one less Conservative in Parliament, in seats where that is actually a possibility.
MW: Lastly, where do you see British politics going in the next five years if the opinion polls are correct and the Tories win?
CW: If JC loses, even if not by much, I see another round of coups by the economist Labour no-confidencers, whilst the Tories trod gaily over our most basic services. This could go on for a couple of years. It depends on how brave they are feeling. The party is hamstrung by its rules at the moment and there will come a breaking point where the disciples will confront the economic liberals and it won’t be pretty.
In some ways, the current PM is not an ideologue in the Thatcher mould. She is rather more vacant and so perhaps willing to be led by the people in the focus group, who might have something to say, for example, on the social care cap.
What is most troubling at the moment is her seeming inability to understand the policies herself and explain them in anything other than a three-word slogan that Sir Lynton Crosby has drafted. To be fair, both leaders are not exactly policy wonks at the moment, but with JC, you can probably guess what his line will be. With the PM, it seems to depend on the piece of paper in front of her and who has written it out for her.
I see years of rhetoric like ‘enough is enough’ on terrorism, whilst police resources are cut. I will hear Cressida Dick more and more on the radio in the mornings, now the Met Chief, talking about expertly trained police officers who can shoot terrorists in 8 minutes, but who is silent on the racist and cultural tone-deafness in evidence when she led the operation to shoot Jean Charles De Menezes. What is needed in the intelligence services is more intelligence. It is a tough job and they need to improve their ability to see the world from different perspectives in order to protect the public.
I think British politicians will become even more comfortable with saying one thing and doing another, and I hope that ever increasing numbers of people, people much younger than myself, will resist that.
If Jeremy Corbyn wins, by the way – not that you are asking, and manages to achieve a quarter of what he sets out, given the forces that will align against him, that will be quite some achievement.