As I am leaving the supermarket, trying to control the shopping trolley, I am stopped by a young orange woman with glitter in her hair who says: ‘Hello, we are doing some market research – can I ask you a few questions?’
Now, to be honest, I usually say: ‘I’m sorry I don’t have time but have a nice day’, and move quickly on but the trolley is moving in a circle and has nearly surrounded me, so I stop and say: ‘Questions about what?’.
‘Yoghurt,’ she says. I look at my daughter who says: ‘Go on dad, I know a bit about yoghurt. I’ll help.’ ‘I don’t think it’s a quiz,’ I say, before asking: ‘Is it a quiz?’.
‘Oh no, we just want your opinion.’
‘We think it’s a good thing,’ I say. ‘Put us down as in favour.’ At which point my daughter says: ‘Dad, why has that lady got an orange face?’. Which pretty much brings the conversation to an end.
On the way home, my daughter, who has now agreed to save her questions in a small notebook, asks: ‘Why did she want to ask us about yoghurt?’ A fair question. I mean you either like yoghurt or you don’t. There is little to be gained by exploring the issue. But explore we do. Ours is the age of the opinion poll. In these evidence-driven times, if you haven’t done a survey, you haven’t got a leg to stand on.
Which is presumably why the Department of Health is spending £15m on a survey to find out what people in London think of the NHS. A survey to which, so far, 0.02% of Londoners have bothered to respond. This is part of the ‘NHS conversation’ – a flagship public consultation that Labour, in a desperate attempt to find the nation’s pulse, hoped would be rolled out nationally.
£15m would pay for another 1,000 nurses apparently – and if Londoners want more nurses, they can’t have them now – because we’ve spent the money on a stupid survey.
If there is a point to politicians, and it’s a big ‘if’, it is that they turn principles shared by a community into policies that progress that community in some way. In some rare cases, outstanding politicians might even have a vision that brings progress. Nye Bevin and the NHS, for example.
But in the modern world, nothing in terms of belief, principle or talent distinguishes politicians. They don’t have any ideas or driving purpose, they just want to be seen to be doing what the survey says. Which renders them pointless – mere administrators to public taste and wasters of public money. If they don’t have any ideas or beliefs, why did they stand for office?
The search for direction that haunts the health service is a wasteful and sad affair. The lack of any clarity of purpose, of any consistent sense of direction, reminds us that the NHS needs independence from government interference. And that, too often, politicians are governed by vanity and self-preservation.