Friday, June 08, 2007

Stop it Hertz.

Last night I watched a soft left intellectual travel round Premiership football training grounds asking wealthy young men to give up a days pay to help “the nurses who are having such a hard time”.

I should have been delighted, I suppose.

Instead my reaction was one of inchoate rage. I frothed. I fumed. I found myself in the sort of mood that leads retired colonels to write letters to the Daily Telegraph.

The set up of the programme was “the Nurses” were having a tough time, with low pay and not enough jobs, and needed more funding. The way to get this extra funding was for Dr Noreena Hertz to get the readies for the nurses from premiership footballers.

In the end, she got various clubs and players, attracted by the possibility of good publicity (and perhaps fearing bad) to donate £750,000 toward a hardship fund.

More importantly, she also got a primetime slot on channel 4, tens of guest appearances on other tv shows and lots of newspaper articles about the process.

Let’s pause for a moment and focus on the prime time TV programme. If Channel 4 had sold the hour of airtime taken up by Dr Hertz’s programme for advertising, she’d have made more money than she did from the footballers.

So let’s not pretend that the money was the point of the exercise.

The money was the hook to get the media coverage. To be fair to Dr Hertz, she seemed to understand that and not try to hide it, being happy to use the footballers as pawns in getting attention for her campaign.

My problem with the programme and with Dr Hertz was not the campaign, but the total refusal of the show to engage with the issues she was campaigning on.

The annual NHS budget in the UK over a hundred thousand million pounds (up over thirty thousand million pounds under Labour, but that’s a different story).

So the money Dr Hertz was trying to raise would be equivalent to one hundred thousandth or 0.00001% of the total yearly NHS budget.

Even the last Nurses pay deal, the one that was so paltry that nurses are threatening to strike over it, and which led Dr Hertz to launch her crusade, is costing the Government £750 million.

Let’s assume that at a minimum, Dr Hertz wants a 6% pay increase for Nurses this year.

That wouldn’t even come close to funding the pay gap closure she wants, but it’s a start. That would requite an additional investment of somewhere in the region of £1.5 billion.

On top of that, Dr Hertz wants to guarantee every Nurse who trains in the UK a job. OK. Let’s say there are 20,000 more nurses training each year than are offered jobs and the average cost of employing them is £25,000. That’s an extra £500 million a year.

Just to start getting close to progress two out Dr Hertz’s five demands would cost two thousand million a year.

So these are huge numbers and this is a big issue.

That’s fine.

It could be the right thing to do. Nurses are important.

The Government has increased investment in the NHS by thirty thousand million over the last ten years, and maybe it’s right that more of that – (say two thousand million?) should go direct to Nurses.

It’s certainly legitimate to use a stunt like raising a million pounds from footballers to highlight some of the big issues around healthcare funding. But they key word is highlight. There are real questions that need to be answered.

For example, given there are more nurses training than we can employ at the moment. Is increasing nurses pay a bigger priority than buying more MRI scanners, or funding local Accident or emergencies? Or should we do all three and increase taxes to pay for it? Or is the overall Tax burden too high?

But Dr Hertz didn’t do that last night.

Instead she allowed herself to be portrayed as an Angel’s angel, the saviour of nurses and gave the impression that the issue of underpaying nurses could be solved easily and without any real cost to anyone, other than footballers and later, “the government”.

That’s not just wrong, it’s delusional. It removes the possibility of intelligent debate because who can say “Stop raising money for the Nurses?”.

It replaces policy debate with crude emotional blackmail. It paints politicians who wrestle with these issues every day in a less positive light than a cartoon thug like Mohammed Al-fayed. (who will avoid all the tax he can, but can’t resist a photo opportunity).

Above all it leaves the boring task of actually persuading people into making a right choice on policy matters far behind, replacing it with the far more attractive prospect of solving problems by emoting on TV.

Is this idiocy new Labour’s fault? Alistair Campbell’s fatherly presence seemed to indicate so. He certainly knows how to get the attention of the media. Yet I can’t quite but feel that New Labour’s fabled mews management has merely been an attempt to catch up with this trend towards the facile and emotive.

Perhaps I’m wrong and it is all our fault, but I don’t think so. In any case I think it’s time politicians stood up to the culture of the easy answer. Al Gore wrote a book about the kind of shoddy political discourse exemplified by Dr Hertz’s programme.

It’s called the assault on reason.

I hope she reads it before launching her next campaign. After all, it just doesn’t do for an intellectual to play a major part in dumbing down political discourse.

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