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Helen Lewis and Sweet Home Alabama

I’m not going to link to the article from New Statesman that Helen Lewis cited as one of her posts of the year.

It was the classic Lewis rant, a piece of shallow and vapid analysis that hectored the left for not recognizing that Labour cannot win without appealing to Tories.

It’s a false binary, of course, one that I think is exemplified by the reaction of some of my friends to Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd.The backstory of Sweet Home Alabama is well-known now; Neil Young wrote two songs about the south of the USA, both of them experienced by people in the south as suggesting they were all racist, and all complicit in injustice. To lots of my friends, growing up, Sweet Home was a redneck rebuttal of Neil Young; in fact it’s more complicated  than that. Life usually is. As the Skynyrd’s point out, the struggle against slavery also included southern men like John Brown. Neil Young has acknowledged now that he got it wrong; that he took a complex situation and boiled it down to a few simple slogans.

So it is with the Tory / Labour binary that Lewis uses, but in a more complicated way than Lewis might imagine. Labour doesn’t need Tory voters; it needs to ask itself why some voters are choosing Tory over Labour.

One of the weaknesses of the current Labour approach to the electorate is that it focusses on what people own, or do, not what they believe.The failure of Labour is not that it does not appeal enough to Mondeoman or Worcester Woman, but that its ideological similarities to the Conservatives have reduced every election to a beauty contest. No-one can tell us what might happen if Labour offers an alternative, because it hasn’t.

Labour had, at its peak, a collective approach to society’s challenges. By the early 80s, it had responded to the challenges of Thatcherism by ceding the ground to them entirely. When Thatcher said here was no such thing as society,Labour had no response.

Under Blair it abandoned the collective approach entirely,and sought to resolve every problem through a market prism defining each challenge as being about choices consumers make. The seven day NHS much beloved of David Cameron had is origins in various Blairite initiatives to make the NHS more responsive to a perceived consumer demand for the NHS to be available when it suited the consumer.

At its heart the NHS had three problems. The first was, simply, waiting lists. That was addressed by providing sufficient resources to deliver more treatment. The second was a lack of accountability for availability of treatments,which was addressed by the creation of NICE. The third problem was access to GPs for routine appointments.

At its root, the problem of access to GPs is that the current NHS model of provision is localized, at a time when people’s lives are not localized. If, on a weekday, you’re commuting 20miles one way,while your kids commute ten miles another way for school, having a good GPs practice in the village where you live, that only opens after you leave for work or school, is neither use nor  ornament.

There’s more than one solution of course. Making the doctors surgery open when I’m not at work is one solution, but it’s only a solution if I can get there,and we can sufficiently resource the surgery to cover the increased costs of longer opening hours.. There have been other solutions in the past,and attempted solutions via the Blair government such as the use of NHS Direct and walkin centres. The general appearance was of a patchwork quilt of provision with no central logic.

One novel solution would be paid time off from work for medical appointments, with paid traveltime. Not because I think it’s the perfect solution, but because there is the possibility that it might engage employers in addressing the problem of how they take responsibility for the health and wellbeing of their workforce.

In my childhood my dad  worked in a large factory. Workers there had not just the option of going to see their family doctor, but also the factory nurse,who ran a daily clinic,and the factory doctor, a GP who came in and ran surgeries to cover the factory’s occupational health needs. It was a collective solution that meant no-one from the factory needed to go to the doctor’s surgery unless they chose to. The company justified it by pointing to their lowlevels ofsickness absence and lowlevels of time lost.

It wasn’t just factories that provided healthcare solutions. The comprehensive school I attended had a school nurse, and a mobile dental surgery on site. It was a collective solution to the problem of how to provide effective NHS services.

If you require employers to provide paid timeoff for health appointments, you can guarantee employers will find alternative solutions. Factory nurses may be a thing of the past, driven out by the race to the bottom in a globalized economy, but employers faced with a legal requirement to allow time off for appointments will soon invest in telemedicine or other twenty first century solutions. Similarly, a collective approach to the problems of getting kids to doctors appointments must surely involve healthcare and telemedicine in schools.

The lack of a connected approach, a collective solution to society’s problems,was also exemplified by the way New Labour introduced a minimum wage. The minimum was set so low that it had no impact on the cost of in work benefits. The selling point of the minimumwage was not the collective benefit of the minimum wage, but the individual benefits in terms of self-worth. The lack of a collective approach to the problem of poverty wages and the requirement for disguised subsidies to employers left the field wide open for conservatives to argue that the fault lies in ourselves, not in the state, that we are underlings.

Where does all that connect back to Helen Lewis and Sweet Home Alabama?

In essence, Lewis’s constant references to people as Tories takes away their agency; it lables them on the basis of how they behave now (by voting Tory) not what they believe, or how they might behave in different circumstances. The idea that people vote for the Conservatives because they are Tories actually disempowers political parties and individuals; Labour will only recover if it puts, at its heart, a determination to listen to voters tales about what concerns them, and to develop collective solutions,tosay to voters not that they are votes to be bought, but that their concerns should be addressed, collectively, because that’s how a healthy society functions.



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This entry was posted on January 2, 2016 by in Uncategorized.

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