Saturday, August 7, 2010

New Shit, Old Shit

Managed to miss Any Questions from Bury St Edmunds. Had I managed to get along I would have asked why more people are not supportive of the Coalition. In the circles in which I move, the Coalition is deeply unpopular: there's a new sense of `Who's side are you on?' emerging, which brings back memories of the 80s. As a supporter of the Coalition I find myself playing the role of Defender, despite having very human doubts and reservations. But I detect a change in atmosphere with one or two people I know, particular those who support left-parties - who are just seething. Put up taxes a few pence they say - and we won't need to do all this. It's all so UNNECESSARY.

Well, let's look at this. Is this all about tax and spend. Yes and no. Sure, we could jack up tax on people in work to keep the public sector at a comparable level to what is now. We could leave the welfare state as it is, in which a third of the populations of places like Manchester and Glasgow live entirely on benefit. We could allow the NHS and other parts of the public sector to operate like nationalised industries with levels of productivity that are, frankly, shameful.

And we could tolerate the insane levels of bureaucracy that all of us encounter every time our lives connect with the state. I say that as a local Councillor who, in a current attempt to get a very and obvious safety change done to a patch of pavement and road (seven feet by five) have had to engage seven public sector staff (police, road safety people, engineers, planning people) over a period of five months for a total of about 100 hours - and that's a generous guess. At forty quid an hour that's four grand to solve a grand's worth of problem. Frustratingly, this particular problem could have been sorted in a quarter of that time, and that's generous. I dare say it could all have been resolved in a day. Instead, there's a mini-industry built around it, largely by the councils themselves. We just need to do away with nearly all of it.

Back to my point. The attackers of the Coalition forget three important things. First, the state is in desperate need of reform. This cannot be ducked if the we are going to deal with the challenges of the next 50 years. Second, this would have had to happen anyway, even if Labour had won, something the Harriet Harmans forget. Thirdly, Labour has absolutely nothing to contribute to the discussion of where this country is going. Neither before or since the election has a senior Labour person said anything remotely convincing about where we need to take our economy, society and polity. Its leadership contest is a joke and it is going to be a long time before they are in the game again, in my view. The only people who could have got them there (Milburn, Purnell etc) have all been purged. David Miliband MIGHT come up with something. Ed is just an old-style social democrat and Balls is a useful attack-dog but little more.

I say all this because I am a bit sick to the teeth at the moment of the Polly Toynbee anti-coalition feeling being opportunistically whipped up by the party who got us into this shit in the first place.


vince lammas said...

I agree it's only fair to give the Coalition Government a chance to address problems obvious to anyone working with the public sector.

It's hard, though, to ignore the whiff in the air that hints "the crisis" is being used as a screen to support action going further to rein back the state than most people would have supported - had the politicians been open about their plans.

The Big Society does sound attractive (like apple pie) but there are some really good critiques being made on how the government is taking things forward.

There doesn't seem to be any programme to address the capacity issues in local government or the charity sector which would need to accompany the successful rolling back of central government control.

While it's too early to tell, it is really hard to discern any real cohesive programme of government - just some vague notions and lots of scatter-gun actions.

The fact that David Cameron has admitted they are having the "learn as they go along" doesn't inspire much confidence. There is just too much "shooting from the hip" at the moment.

It's important to recognise there is no universal consensus .... just a current "political deal" which makes rapid change possible.

It's clear the Coalition has considered Tony Blair's early years (which he looked back on with regret for not acting more decisively).

My message to the politicians would be to spend more time talking to each other and coming up with some potentially radical but well-considered programmes and get these into into place.

Deliver these successfully and the political support will follow for further radical change.

David Floyd said...

I'm not sure the issues of how much we tax and spend, and the way the public sector is run are necessarily directly connected.

I'm no stranger to ridiculous bureaucracy but I'm dubious that there's a particular model of reform that will make it go away - or that this model of reform will natural be discovered and be implemented just because there are huge cuts in budgets.

40% cuts might just mean that there's 40% fewer public sector workers operating within dysfunctional bureaucratic strucures - and more than likely without a corresponding drop in public expectations about what the state can and should deliver.

I imagine we have slightly different views about the optimum size of the state but one of my big concerns is the need for the public sector to be more realistic about what it can and can't do with the resources it has available.

Then political parties can have more realistic conversations with voters about the level of tax that would be needed to fund different levels of services.