Friday, 14 August 2009

Daniel Hannan, the NHS and Twitter

Engels once remarked that parties more or less express the political interests of classes and class fractions. Similarly political science argues parties are aggregates of certain interests that simultaneously bridge the divide between the concerns of everyday folk and those who occupy the highest echelons of political office. This is known as the 'linkage' function.

In recent years there have been a number of arguments about the declining "quality" of democracy in this country. These have found voice in arguments over falling turn out at elections, the rise of the far right and the creeping authoritarianism of the state. Academics and activists alike point to the falling memberships of mainstream political parties as another symptom of a brewing crisis in liberal democracy, a crisis of legitimacy that recently found vocal mass expression in the outcry over MPs' expenses.

One of the stark features of this political landscape is the position in which the Labour party finds itself. Organised labour was sent into a tailspin by the onslaught unleashed upon it by the Tories in the 1980s. Compounded by election defeat after election defeat the (right-wing) Labour tops increasingly believed the only way to win was to shamelessly steal the Tories' clothes and dump anything that could remotely be linked to socialist politics. It is a strategy that appeared to work for three elections, but one that has exacted a terrible price. Membership has tumbled. Long-standing and experienced activists have torn up their party cards. The traditional base of the party feels betrayed and many have taken to abstentionism. And to aggravate matters, increased managerialism and centralisation has expunged Labour of any effective avenue whereby the leadership can be called to account by the members.

The hollowing out of the Labour party has resulted in a diminution of its linkage function. As the party has withered the leadership have turned to means other than the declining quality of information being transferred up the party from members for feedback on policy ideas and their impacts. Famously, policy under Blair was driven by focus groups. But even more so, the media - especially the Mail, Express and Sun were seen as the authentic mouthpieces of the constituencies New Labour needed to win over if it was going to carry on winning elections. Hence the obsession with spin and the very public courting of these titles by Blair and Brown alike. While it is true neither the Tories or Liberal Democrats party organisations have suffered to the same extent, they have adapted to the media environment New Labour helped create.

What has all this got to do with the Daniel Hannan/NHS/Twitter furore? Quite a lot.

Obama's moves to implement basic health care provision has brought out the ugliest the American hard right has to offer. Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Lyndon LaRouche are all united (with the power of the Murdoch media and insurance giants behind them) in defending the "choice" poor Americans have between paying for medical care, or choosing to suffer and/or die unnecessarily (see here). As has been widely reported, that swivel-eyed evangelist of Tory economic "libertarianism", Daniel Hannan MEP (pictured) has been spending his summer zipping around the States feeding Republican wingnuts a bellyful of lies and misinformation about the National Health Service. The willful ignorance married to Hannan's behaviour has enraged many on this side of the Atlantic, who have hit back with the #welovetheNHS hash tag on Twitter.

For readers not au fait with Twitter, hash tags are used to generate a trend, which gathers all subsequent tweets (i.e. updates) that carry that tag. According to this site over Wednesday and Thursday, some 20,000 tweets were sent with this hash tag. And when a certain volume of tweets with the hash tag are reached they appear in the top ten trending topics, viewable to an audience of hundreds of thousands at any one time.

Typically the #welovetheNHS tweets have mostly carried positive stories in defence of the NHS. A significant minority have used it to attack Hannan and his unsavoury American friends. But all of them have combined to embarrass David Cameron who has been at pains to stress how safe the NHS would be under the Tories, forcing him to now disown Hannan's comments.

This embarrassment for the Tories illustrates how Westminster is mainly anchored to the outside world through its relationship to the media. Even if we control for the effects of the silly season (where news media are desperate for stories in the absence of parliamentary reportage), if say a petition of over 20,000 names had been handed in to Downing Street over the government's determination to chop up and privatise Royal Mail, chances are there would be no movement whatsoever. Had 20,000 tweets been sent on the same issue, picked up on and amplified by the news media, the outcome would be quite different. Again, this is because for all the party leaders the media has a more immediate impact on their day to day activity than any grumbles ongoing in their party structures.

This is not to suggest we are a heartbeat away from Twitter-led governance. After all it costs Cameron very little to take Hannan aside and tell him to shut up. But it impacts on media management and strategy and might under some circumstances force governments and oppositions to rethink their positions. It is the potential Twitter has for forcing items onto the news agenda and the faith mainstream politicians have in it as some sort of people's voice that will see Twitter give them more headaches in the future, and it is a potential we on the left should seek to use.


Bearded Socialist said...

Really interesting to say that the media is how politicians hear about what matters to the public, perhaps all too true.

Arthur Bough said...

The problem is though that the way the debate and the media is structured is itself ideologically defining. The natural reaction here - particularly given the small number of words you can use on Twitter - is simply to be defensive about the NHS. The same would be true about soundbites in and on the mainstream media.

But, to be honest, as a Marxist, I see little reason to SIMPLY defend the NHS as a State Capitalist organisation, which DOES NOT provide a very good service for the working class, which is run by highly paid bureaucrats and consultants largely for the benefit of them, and the Capitalist firms that leach off the NHS.

It is not easy within the given structures to make that point of defending the NHS - and other nationalised enterprises against privatisation - whilst at the same time, arguing for a Workers alternative to the existing State Capitalist enterprises.

Dave Semple said...

@ Arthur Bough

Whether or not the NHS has problems - and it has many, as you rightly outline - the alternatives, which could potentially be given free reign should even a slight crack open up in the avalanche of defensive postures adopted by many over the NHS when right-wing Tories mention it, would be worse.

The NHS may not provide the service we want - but to say it does not provide a good service to the working class is ludicrous. Sure, there are very few NHS dentists, and an ever-increasing list of drugs the NHS can't afford, and the quality isn't as good as private healthcare. But it still keeps people alive.

What you'll notice about the defensive ramblings of people on Twitter, on blogs and elsewhere, is that it brings out the personal connections which people have to the NHS. You should conclude from this that defending the NHS is a perfectly valid way to build up class consciousness - and be under no illusion, Hannan's attack, even on a state-capitalist organisation, is the siren-call of the capitalist class for unrestricted markets.

Moving from defence to attack is not difficult either. Daniel Hannan has a very cushy healthcare plan, I'd be willing to bet, and yet he and his party are willing to sack health workers and reduce pensions and wages. A defence of the NHS is easily connected with these things - and if encouraging workers to be more proactive, and to seize organisational responsibility from the state bureaucracy is what you're after, then the first step is in building the confidence of workers in their own defence.

Bearded Socialist said...

Dave Semple
I'd throw in Julian Le Grand and New Labour on this, believe it or not.
Le Grand wrote about how the middle-classes benefitted significantly more from public services than the working class (can't remember how he defined them, sadly).
So the left has a point when criticising the NHS for working for the middle and upper classes more than the working class, but you're spot on when discussing the alternative being the free market.
I'm a huge fan of Bevan for realising that the NHS as he saw it was very much a compromise, based on the workers co-operatives he saw in Wales amoung the miners' unions.
I believe that the NHS serves it purpose well because it delivers health care based on need, not ability to pay

ModernityBlog said...

Dave Semples's spot on.

Also the arguments to use are 1) how 18 years of the Tories changed things 2) New Labour's desire to continue those free market changes in the NHS 3) a return to people's health as the NHS's prime objective, not phony free marketeering


Arthur Bough said...

Defending the NHS REQUIRES pointing out those deficiencies ou admit exist, and explaining why they exist precisely because it IS a State Capitalist enterprise, which was set up by the Capitalist State for the purpose of ensuring that their was an ample supply of reasonably healthy workers for British Capital to exploit for as many years as they could be kept alive given the increasing cost of educating and training those workers, and at the least cost to Capital of doing so.

There can be no RETURN to People's Health being the Prime objective for the NHS because that has in reality never been its prime concern.

Just because the Tories pointed to the very undemocratic practices that occurred in most Trade Unions as part of their attack on Trade Unions was no reason for Marxists to disown their own criticisms of those very same undemocratic practices that allowed union bureaucrats such as those of the EETPU to run roughshod over the members. On the contrary mounting a real defence of Trade UNions against the Tory attacks required that Marxists DID address those issues and give their own alternative solutions to them!

There are alternatives to the NHS that would offeer workers a better system of healthcare - even most of the European versions of socialised healthcare do that although they too are State Capitalist organisations too.

Defending the NHS does not stop us doing that in the context of demanding democratic control over its existing structures, though we should point out why the Capitalist State will never agree to such a reform on any meaningful basis. In the US sections of the left are already discussing the option of worker owned and controlled Co-op provision as an alternative to both private Capitalist and State Capitalist provision.

IN the 19th century workers in a far weaker economic position than is the working class today began to develop its own means of providing for its needs before the Capitalist State usurped that function recognising the threat it posed to Capital. Workers can revive that tradiotn today and begin to buod alternatives udner their control as I suggest in my blog US Healthcare, The NHS and the Left .