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Editorial Labour must offer a real alternative to cut through on Tory sleaze

NO-ONE will be surprised that the government sees nothing wrong in Health Secretary Matt Hancock acquiring shares in a company that provides NHS services — whose director is his sister.

Unabashed ministers who state he acted “entirely properly” did not after all raise a fuss when Hancock’s neighbour and former pub landlord secured contracts worth £30 million to supply vials and test tubes to the NHS despite having no previous experience in medical supplies.

They weren’t fazed either when a High Court judge ruled Hancock had broken the law by failing to publish details of dozens of healthcare contracts awarded without competition.

No wonder, when Hancock’s behaviour is absolutely standard for this government.

Key appointments go to completely unqualified cronies with close ties to Tory grandees, most notoriously Dido Harding, the failed TalkTalk exec handed control of test and trace. 

The Tory craze for outsourcing extends beyond service delivery to the democratic system itself: last month it emerged the government was paying Deloitte to “draft and respond to parliamentary questions, freedom of information requests [and] media queries” relating to test and trace.

As the Good Law Project’s legal director Gemma Abbott noted, “We have a government so addicted to outsourcing that it has even outsourced being held to account.”

State corruption is nothing new. But now the brakes are off. Brazen sleaze suffuses the whole operation: one of the most revealing aspects of former PM David Cameron’s lobbying for finance firm Greensill is that the ministers he buttonholed saw his behaviour as completely normal.

This is a sign of a sick politics. Those who govern us cannot distinguish public service from personal enrichment.

Labour condemns this crooked behaviour. That hasn’t helped it, with the latest YouGov/Times poll showing the Conservatives a full 14 points ahead. 

The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee attributes this to the “seesaw” nature of politics: Labour are doing badly because the Tories are doing well, and the Tories are doing well because of the success of the vaccination programme. 

But the seesaw argument can cut both ways. In electoral terms, the Tories are doing well because the opposition is so poor. Indeed, while the main driver of the ongoing sleaze-fest is undoubtedly the huge sums of public money being made available because of the pandemic, the lack of an effective opposition contributes to ministers’ shamelessness.

Important polling by the CWU union in Hartlepool suggested that on many questions public opinion is well to the left of the offer of every major party: showing majority support for expanded public ownership, free broadband and significant pay rises for NHS workers. 

Labour’s attacks on the Tory 1 per cent insult might cut through if it supported nurses’ actual wage demands, but with it declining even to stand by its 2019 promise of a 5 per cent rise, the distinction is too slight to make the political weather.

A similar problem dogs its whole approach. Labour is not using the amazing success of the vaccine rollout to trumpet it for what it is: a triumph of publicly owned and delivered healthcare in stark contrast to the hugely costly and totally ineffective privatised test-and-trace fiasco. An argument for all health services to be taken back in house.

And it is not calling out corruption as the inevitable consequence of a longer-term shift from the state as service-deliverer to a mere commissioner of services provided by the private sector for profit. Its critique is limited to the symptoms, not the causes, of a degraded and mercenary political system.

Draining the swamp of British politics means blocking the revolving door between politics and business and establishing strict rules on public procurement and serious penalties for breaching them. But it also means cutting private profit out of public services. Doing so commands overwhelming public support — and might give Labour something relevant to say on the doorstep.

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