David Aaronovitch: So many Labour MPs - but so little for them to do

'Like male spiders, they're useless once the deed's done. But no one eats them to put them out of their misery'
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The Independent Online

What is your fantasy? When the bee stings do you invoke wealth, sex and a revolutionary new calorie-free form of profiterole? Then take pity on me, because at the moment and sad as I am, I long for just one thing: for John Edmonds, GMB union boss and power-broker, to be asked a question on TV or radio. In my reverie it goes like this: "Mr Edmonds, you say you are opposed to any form of additional private involvement in the National Health Service. So can you perhaps explain why French Socialists are happy for 25 per cent of French hospitals to be privately owned, or why Swedish Social Democrats are content to charge patients a fee for routine visits to the GP?"

Now, I don't want Mr Edmonds to be caught out. He may have a perfectly sound response. But I just want him to be asked. I just want it to be suggested that this private-public thing may not be the great theological divide that some are making it out to be. But Edmonds never gets asked this question, because no one really cares what his solutions for the NHS are. The fact is there's gonna be a row. Positions are being occupied, trenches dug, firing positions manned. If the war goes ahead, then the territory it's being fought over will soon be blasted and barren.

At Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, which I watched at home, it was clear that there was a large number of unhappy Labour MPs who – at last – were free to enjoy their own unhappiness. You could hear a new Ten Tests of True Socialism (the old ones, including unilateralism, were mostly disposed of by Neil Kinnock) being constructed in the questions that, one-by-one, they put to their uncomfortable leader. A True Socialist opposes Anti-Missile Defence, "creeping privatisation" (ie private involvement that isn't privatisation), is getting round to wanting income tax increases (but hasn't quite decided how much and levied on who), desires renationalisation of Railtrack, the sequestration of the assets of that pantomime villain Mr Gerald Corbett and, of course, is wholly opposed to mucking about with the benefits paid to the poor, the halt, the lame. The MPs had rediscovered a reason for living.

The disability benefit issue is a classic. The benefit is paid to 2.3 million people, something like one in 12 of the workforce. It has grown like Topsy in the past couple of decades and now costs £7bn a year. The Government believes that, with help, 70 per cent of those claiming the benefit could go back to work. It reckons that to do this the system needs to completely re-evaluate all but the most disabled claimants once every three years, with the objective of encouraging them into employment.

As a straightforward proposition, shorn of the necessary qualifications about exactly how the encouragement is to be given, it sounds pretty uncontroversial. Yet it had Dennis Skinner, whose relationship with Mr Blair has been surprisingly good, saying to Labour cheers, that his leader ought to "get stuck into the fat cats, and leave the sick and disabled alone". And Lord Ashley, a disability campaigner, told BBC News Online that the Government was "walking into a quagmire by reviving the 'scrounger disabled' slur".

I don't agree with him about the "slur". It seems crazy for us to collude in the enforced idleness and demoralisation of millions of people who could – with assistance – work for their livings. It is a waste of much-needed skills and an even greater waste of human potential. Yet we have all, for various reasons, found it more convenient to pay 'em the money and hope that they will go away or sort themselves out. There will be many readers who – if they're honest – know of someone on incapacity benefit who could be working if they were given the chance and the incentive. And sometimes that incentive consists of letting go.

I am not saying anything here, by the way, that isn't in the old Socialist creed. And yet, within hours of the Secretary of State, Alistair Darling, announcing the policy, it has already become one of the Great Causes of the Labour civil war to come. Why? Simply because (looking at this from the Blairite perspective) too many Labour MPs and trades unionists have still got one foot in the cave and long for the security of the fire and the pile of mammoth furs? No.

This week the new Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt, (the one who always sounds like Joyce Grenfell addressing a kindergarten) wrote some interesting things about the business of governing. It was a recognition of the case for devolution, involvement and autonomy, especially in the public services. It used the language of pluralism. Other people have valuable things to offer. Labour should, she said, "be prepared to engage in difficult debate, to admit mistakes, to learn from critics, but also to explain why some things cannot or should not be done".

Fine. Admirable. Two problems. First, it ain't exactly what Margaret Thatcher thought of as leadership: 11 years after her departure and she still hasn't admitted to a single foul-up. (Most people still believe in that model, and see leadership as a lone individual pointing into the gathering gloom, radiant with certainty.) And the second difficulty is that the democratic deficit at the heart of the project is greater the closer you get to Westminster.

It is a terrible thing to treat 300 party colleagues as though they had nothing whatsoever to offer the nation, save to sit and liquefy as a largely unused human pool, from which can be dredged the occasional parliamentary private secretary. What the hell are the Labour MPs for? It is on account of their sheer numbers that the leader goes to the palace, receives the seal and wields power. Yet they are like the male spider – useless once the deed is done. Except that no one eats them and puts them out of their misery. They get it in the neck over what the Government does, yet are impotent to affect what goes on. Responsibility without power: the prerogative of the eunuch over the centuries.

There are, of course, far too many of them. And Party Chairman Charles Clarke's first report back to the Prime Minister should include a recommendation that the size of the Commons be reduced. If he were being really imaginative he might recommend that every Labour backbencher be asked to serve on one of 20 or so party/government commissions looking into the renewal and the delivery of policy. Put Mr Edmonds in charge of one. The objection might well be made that these commissions could become embarrassingly independent, alternative sources of power. Well, that'd be good. If they can't do anything there's no point in them. Usually people respond well to being asked for their views.

Ideally (another, nobler fantasy) we would admit that what we really want is a fully presidential system, with a leader who can appoint her own ministers from wherever she wants, and who can put forward whatever policy she thinks is right. The corollary of that is a hugely powerful balancing chamber, which will often thwart the initiatives that the President takes. This week that's looking increasingly like government for grown-ups.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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