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Human angle gets put through the mangle

re you calling me a liar?" I can still hear my late mother's indignant tones as I questioned her claim that, say, there were 40 million blacks in the country or 20 million layabouts on social security. As I write, the hills are alive with the sound of people calling each other liars.

Rose Addis, aged 94, was scandalously neglected at the Whittington Hospital, north London, says her family, with support from the Tories. She refused to allow black nurses to treat her, says the hospital, with support from Labour; moreover, her relatives didn't visit her for 48 hours.

What is so striking about this debate is the failure of either side to accept that the other may be guilty of an honest misjudgment or inadequate information or just a different opinion. Like my mother - who never attended a political meeting but was one of life's politicians nonetheless - everyone involved raises the rhetorical stakes, to the point where each accuses the other of something not far short of mass murder.

On this specific case, I would make two observations, which are boringly even-handed. First, almost everybody I know in north London thinks that, if you are ill (and even more so if you are not), you had best keep away from the Whittington. Second, any 94-year-old who goes into hospital does well to come out alive.

But there are broader issues for public services, including education. As Andrew Marr, the BBC political editor, remarked, politicians should not mess with real life; no good can come of it. Teachers or parents may well be tempted to write to an MP if, for example, they find themselves marking exercise books until dawn or they find their children being expelled by a trigger-happy headteacher. I would advise them to think twice. Do you really want Tony Blair and Iain Duncan Smith arguing over whether you went to a wild party before you started your marking? Do you want Polly Toynbee and assorted Guardian columnists discussing your child-rearing practices?

Believe me, these are real dangers. Policy is boring; this is axiomatic among newspaper editors. Every editor (yes, me too) demands the human angle.

Who wants to read some dry piece about the methods for financing university students, with figures about which social classes lose out most from loans, grants or fees? Better to plaster your front page with the heart-rending story of an 18-year-old driven to prostitution to avoid a life on bread and water. Or run a picture of a mother cuddling a cherubic 10-year-old, who has been expelled merely for speaking out of turn in class and who as a result suffers from bed-wetting or epileptic fits.

There is a more proximate reason to fear politicians invading your private and professional lives. The Tories have boxed themselves into a corner: they cannot continue to argue simultaneously for better education and better health care on the one hand, and tax cuts on the other. Their way out is to highlight deficiencies in public services, and so convince voters that the solution is to provide those services in an entirely different way - an insurance-based health system, for example, or a voucher-based school system. But to explain the workings of health insurance or education vouchers is judged far too cerebral. The case for more consumer-driven public services needs to be made through the experiences of people like Rose Addis and her family.

The comforting thought for teachers is that ministers will be forced, as in the Addis case, into defending public-service workers: "fine, dedicated men and women...unforgivable to insult them...grave blow to morale". We've heard more of that sort of thing in the past few weeks than in the whole of the past five years.

All the same, I'd advise anybody reading this to steer clear of politicians and their spin-doctors. You will want to crawl into a hole by the time they've finished with you. I'm with Andrew Marr: keep politics out of real life.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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