Watch out for political populism in troubled times. Most of us have been indulging in banker-bashing, but such enjoyably bad habits can be contagious and beneficial chiefly to extremists on the prowl. I spotted two crowd-pleasers that affect HSJ readers only this weekend.
One was the sound of shadow chancellor George Osborne warning that, if elected next summer, he wants to have credible policies in place to pay down the huge debt Britain is incurring to rescue the economy.
“Pay cuts in 1931 prompted a naval mutiny”
Public sector pensions, public sector pay (quango chiefs who “earn more than the prime minister”), three year pay deals, Mr Osborne plans to cast a beady eye over all of them. The populist Taxpayers’ Alliance says 1,000 council officials earn £100,000 or more.
Well, there may be some scope for squeezing the three Ps - pay, pensions and perks - at the top of the public and quasi-public sectors, some of which occasionally strike as having a bankerish feel. And I don’t just mean more tawdry MPs’ expense claims, but them too.
But re-opening three year pay deals with a view to pay cuts for ordinary workers? That’s the mistake they made in the Great Depression in 1931, prompting the famous naval mutiny at Invergordon and adding to deflationary misery.
When inflation was rising a few months back, unions were tempted to use the existing pay review machinery (both sides submit evidence annually) to seek renegotiation. As official inflation statistics headed south (it doesn’t feel that way in the supermarket), the other side must have been tempted.
But the word from Alan Johnson’s camp is that, no, there will be no attempted clawback in the three year deal which runs to 2010-11.
I suspect Mr Osborne will be on better territory if he looks to cut pay bills via a natural wastage policy on recruitment.
Which leads to my second crowd-pleaser. Three weeks after the Mid Staffordshire foundation trust crisis broke, shadow health spokesman Andrew Lansley has decided to challenge Cynthia Bower’s appointment as chief executive of the new Care Quality Commission.
What’s happened is that Mr Lansley’s staff have worked through the minutes of NHS West Midlands when Ms Bower was in charge from 2006-08 - a period when, incidentally, her pay rose sharply to around £190,000, Mr Osborne may care to note.
Money and targets
The basic complaint is that the board seemed more concerned with financial and waiting list targets (and the New Year Honours) than with reports of high mortality rates at six regional hospitals. It challenged the Dr Foster findings in 2007, though it also commissioned what turned out to be a dud review from Birmingham university which blamed faulty data collection.
As a result more clinical coding staff were hired. “Not doctors. Not nurses. But clinical coding experts,” as Mr Lansley puts it. Renewing his call for an independent inquiry into the trust (not something he did on day one), the cautious Mr Lansley said in a statement that “confidence in Cynthia Bower’s ability to perform adequately” at the CQC depends on knowing what went wrong.
“We will not let this go,” he warns Mr Johnson, whom the Tories see as instructed by Number 10 to keep the NHS out of the headlines: plain and simple.
Mere populism? No, although Mr Lansley must know that Ms Bower’s appointment came from CQC chair Baroness Young, not Comrade Johnson, and that both will fight to keep her.
Me, I was impressed by the description of her in a Guardian interview last week, head in hands, talking through her fingers, as she explains in detail the disaster at Stafford. She obviously cares. A good start.