Election Comment: Terry Murden

End of ideology. Politicians now prefer to buy votes

Cameron NHSAin’t it wonderful how politicians can suddenly find the money just when they need it most? No sooner had George Osborne finished telling us how the coalition is committed to keeping a tight rein on the public finances than he’s declaring in a newspaper column that the Conservative manifesto – expected this week – will commit the party to spending an extra £8 billion on the NHS in the next five years.

David Cameron, the Prime Minister is clearly delighted that a few weeks before the General Election his Chancellor has found just the right amount of cash stashed away under the government mattress to meet “in full” the amount of extra government spending on NHS England called for by the service’s chief executive last October.

But who are the Tories trying to fool? This is not good politics and might actually backfire spectacularly. The electorate find it hard enough to accept generous promises from politicians; they certainly do not believe they can deliver miracles.

Shadow Health Minister Liz Kendall described it as “fantasy funding” that is “not worth the paper it’s written on”, unlike Labour’s £2.5 billion of “properly costed” extra funding.

But she was also in the firing line. UKIP leader Nigel Farage likened promises of extra funding to a game of poker in which one player challenges his rival to go higher.

When Nigel Farage comes across as the voice of reason, we have to worry a little, but he does have a point. Politics is cheapened by silly point-scoring, and big politics more so. While fringe candidates are tolerated for their slightly bonkers views on the world, we do not expect our mainstream politicians to resort to fag packet calculations.

Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, insisted the sums made sense, given that the government had found an extra £7bn for the NHS during the years of restraint. There will be no problem, then, in ekeing out a little extra during what he expects to be years of plenty.

Mr Hunt, however, is leaving it a little late to convince voters that the Tories have been pouring added funds into the NHS. If they have, no one seems to have noticed, or given them the credit.

Of all political footballs in this campaign, none is greater than the NHS, much more so than the constitution, or even the economy. Sadly, none of the politicians talks about the sort of NHS they want to create; what are its limitations; and even whether letting the private sector soak up some functions might actually help make it better.

The public want vision and ideas of the sort that emerged from Bevan and Beveridge. They changed all our lives, and their legacy survives despite the efforts of lesser politicians to wreck what they set out to achieve: a better Britain.

Now we have an unseemly battle between public figures attempting to show they have similar qualities and ambitions, but in fact falling so short of substance they resort to buying votes.

None stops to think that the NHS might be improved, not by throwing money at it, but by scaling it down, making it fit for purpose and (say it quietly) running it on a smaller budget. It would be a brave politician who put forward such an argument, but one worth supporting.



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