Monday 27 August 2018

The Extreme Centre

Solomon Hughes writes: 

The rolling campaign for a “new centre party” stands — and then falls — on the claim that the “middle,” where “sensible moderates” of both parties meet, is a good place.

But we’ve lived in that place for nearly two decades and it doesn’t look good at all. 

This is where the “sensible moderates” of both parties agreed the private finance initiative for hospitals and schools, contracting out for the NHS, Carillion to run public services, Atos to test the disabled, G4S to run private prisons or jails where we can “lock up asylum-seekers,” student loans, academy schools, deregulate the banks then fix the resulting banking crash by years of austerity, the Iraq war and Libyan bombing. 

The “cross-party consensus” is privatisation and war. It might be the “centre,” but it isn’t moderate. 

The latest expression of this “extreme centre” is the Tory Glastonbury being held in Cambridge on the September 8. 

Organised by Tory “moderate” MP George Freeman, this festival of debates in tents looks more like a kind of Tory bake-off or a posh wedding than Glastonbury.

Its proper name is the Big Tent Ideas Festival. Last year Bridges said the festival was trying to get “a cultural revival of grassroots Conservatism.” 

This year Freeman has changed it from what he called a “Conservative Ideas Festival” to a “cross-party festival,” claiming it will have “speakers from across the radical centre of British politics” to challenge the “rapidly polarising political climate.” 

It’s a softer version of the New Centrist Party claims. 

To make it cross-party, Freeman has recruited a co-chair, Labour Baroness Sally Morgan. In doing so he has shown how the centre is not “moderate” or “sensible.” 

The short version: former Tony Blair minister Sally Morgan was a Carillion director, sitting on the board while the firm collapsed in one of Britain’s worst corporate scandals. 

She was one of the leaders of a corporation that grabbed huge public-sector contracts thanks to New Labour and Tory privatisation, threw money at shareholders and directors, then disintegrated when dodgy accounting was exposed.

It is a perfect example of the politics of the centre. 

The longer version is even worse. Morgan was Blair’s political secretary in 1997. In 2001 Blair made her a baroness and a Cabinet Office minister and then his director of political and government relations — a post she held from 2001-5. 

Alastair Campbell told the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war that Morgan “was very, very important” in Labour’s Iraq war plans, especially by organising for Blair’s war in Parliament. 

Morgan was at many of the war planning meetings. One key document, the “Downing Street Memo,” records an “extremely sensitive” meeting of Blair’s officials in 2002. 

The memo includes the admission, not shared with the public, that the “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” and the WMD “case was thin.” 

The memo is addressed to 10 people, including the heads of the army, intelligence service, the defence and foreign secretaries — and Sally Morgan. 

Morgan was not only one of the Iraq war architects. She also helped get Labour’s NHS privatisation and PFI plans going. 

She left government in 2005 and started taking on corporate jobs, especially with firms looking for privatisation gains. 

Morgan was a director of private care home operator Southern Cross Healthcare from 2006-11.

Southern Cross squeezed loads of money out of publicly funded social care budgets, sometimes for homes with “zero-star” ratings from the regulator, indicating squalid conditions.

Like Carillion, Southern Cross collapsed in 2011. Critics said it tried to extract too much money by tricky accounting schemes. 

Morgan also had a job on the advisory board of Lloyds the chemists, just as they were trying to grab more NHS work. 

In 2010, Channel 4 Dispatches ran a “politicians for hire” sting. Its undercover reporter approached Lords and MPs and pretended to be lobbyists seeking to hire politicians to help their clients get business. 

Because of her corporate jobs, Dispatches approached Morgan. She told them that, because of her political contacts, she could help her corporate employers. 

She knew “which buttons to push” and could “push a direction of travel on policy” and that, when it came to health, she knew “who to scream at in the department.” 

Morgan explained she could advise how private firms could reach the government with “some fairly basic things like, probably, give advice on to what extent they should have presence at a party conference, to what extent should they be trying to seek, at what stage should they be trying to seek meetings with ministers, at what level of civil servants, should they sponsor a seminar on it.” 

The House of Lords privileges committee ruled that Morgan had done nothing wrong when offering advice to the undercover reporters, though to me it looks like a prime example of how corporations get access to politics. 

Morgan also said: “What you find is — and it’s quite funny, I mean, you know, you might be completely unaware of it — what’s bizarre is, almost regardless of who’s in power, an awful lot of the key players don’t change, which is odd.” 

The Carillion crash means Morgan is down to one corporate job. Since 2014 she has been a director of housebuilder Countryside Properties. 

Twenty-seven per cent of Countryside house sales rely on George Osborne’s “Help to Buy” subsidy, which has enriched housing firms but left house prices high. 

Freeman, her co-chair of the “Big Ideas” festival is a supposedly “moderate” Tory. He has been calling for a “cross-party” initiative to “end the idea that co-payments, top-ups, are somehow antithetical to an NHS.” 

When I saw him at the last Tory conference, he said the Conservative message to the young should be: “Guys, we need to be really honest with you. This is a bit of a mess. The structural deficit means we are simply not going to have the resources to give you what everyone post-war had. So what do you want to have?” 

So Freeman and Morgan running the Tory Glastonbury really is the “radical centre” — where the centre means the Iraq war, Carillion rip-offs, NHS privatisation and austerity.

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