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This is one reason why the Iraq war – officially finished 15 months ago – still dominates British politics and why Tony Blair’s repeated hopes of “moving on” and getting back to the “domestic agenda” are repeatedly disappointed. Plans for greater “choice in education and health are just the latest attempts to divert attention from the disgrace of Iraq. But, still, they do outline the planned future of our social services and must be taken seriously.
We are offered more choice. As Veronica Beechey writes (see “Spoiling for choice“), who could possibly be against that? Only bossy know-all authoritarians, surely? No wonder both Blair and Michael Howard are making choice their election slogan for the future of health and education. It sounds so good. Ironically, though, since they are both offering us the same thing, or variants of the same idea, they are not giving us much of a choice.
Many people, not only on the left, are suspicious of this glib, plausible rhetoric – and rightly so. It conceals some very damaging plans from both leaders for the public sector.
The talk about “choice” in health provision is largely a distraction. It is designed to conceal the fact that what is planned is even greater reliance on private health provision. The Tories are pretty open about this. Labour is, as usual, more evasive.
Nor is there any evidence that people are particularly concerned about choice in health provision. What most people want is very clear and simple. They want their local surgeries and hospitals to be good and efficient.
To be offered the option of admission to a good hospital 40 miles away because the one down the road is second-rate is not a real choice. It is a feeble attempt to compensate for the failure to achieve improvement across the whole public system.
When it comes to education, especially schools, the talk of choice is worse than a distraction. It is a fraud. We get to choose between a struggling secondary school and one with a high reputation, or even, in the Tory plans, a private fee-paying school. Of course, the better schools will not be able to take in all those who want to attend them. So, they will operate a system of selection. In effect, we will be back with the 11-plus. Comprehensive schools will cease to exist. The secondary modern will be re-born. That is what “choice” means for the secondary school system. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Of course, there does need to be choice within schools and colleges. As Beechey and Marian Barnes point out, much more could be done to involve both patients and health workers in improving public services. The health service, for example, could be more flexible and responsive to patient needs, wishes and anxieties than it often is.
Different educational paths should be open to children and students with different talents and aspirations. But the only paths this government has opened up are those that suit employers. They have pushed the national curriculum so hard that many options have either been marginalised or have disappeared altogether. Look at the decline of music in schools, despite its official place within the curriculum. This impoverishment of young people’s lives and horizons has become a national scandal.
Behind the smooth talk of choice, what is being proposed is more privatisation and more commercialisation. Notice that in Wales and Scotland Labour is not moving down this slippery slope. There, the policy is to improve and expand public and free provision, not to introduce more fees and charges. The radical challenge of Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Socialists pulls Labour back towards its old principles. It is the lack of such a magnetic force in England that gives Blair his chance to press ahead with the erosion of the welfare state.
But for many of us the Iraq war and the lies used to justify it will be the deciding factor at the forthcoming general election, and we will be supporting candidates that have honourable, anti-war records – whatever their party.
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The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
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A very social economist
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Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
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Beware the automated landlord
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Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
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Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
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Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
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Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun