Boosting public services
There is a real need to strengthen public services. And ideological arguments against them, which marked the Conservative Government, no longer exist.
Summer of discontent...local government workers on strike for better pay.
SPENDING on public services has been the big talking point in Britain. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced an increase of £61billion pounds in public spending, spread over the next three years.
Education, health, transport, housing and defence are to receive large increases in funding. So is overseas aid. The announcement came at a time when the stock markets around the world were in turmoil. Gordon Brown's decision, however, was, he explained, part of a long-term strategy, necessary to keep the country competitive. He was clear that the increases could be afforded.
There was a general welcome for the plans, because there is a general recognition that for years the public sector has been under-funded. There has also been a note of warning in much of the reaction; this is the Government's last chance, before the next general election, to produce the improvements in the public services, which it promised when it first came to power.
By interesting coincidence, the note of warning became explicit, in a highly publicised row within one of the major trade unions. In an election for the post of general secretary of the union Amicus the country's second largest, and a major supporter of the Labour Party Sir Ken Jackson, a close ally of Prime Minister Tony Blair, was defeated by a strong left-winger, Derek Simpson. For a time, he contested the result, but then had to accept it, rather less than graciously.
There is no doubt that the mood of the trade unions, traditionally forming the bedrock of support for the Labour Party, has been growing more disillusioned with "new Labour" policies. Complaints that Tony Blair is closer to big business than to the public sector have been voiced more loudly. By further coincidence, the Labour Party faces serious financial difficulties, and any further reduction in the funds provided by the trade unions would cause great embarrassment.
The need to strengthen the public services is undoubtedly real. The problems facing the education and health services, for example, are manifest, and widely recognised. Ideological arguments against public services, which were a marked characteristic of the Conservative Government led by Margaret Thatcher, were difficult to refute at a time when many of those services were dominated by the "loony left", a fact which made Labour unelectable. That difficulty no longer exists. The Labour Party transformed itself and swept to power. After years in the political wilderness, grassroots supporters were prepared to compromise over some traditional policies, as the quid pro quo for electoral success. There was, in effect, a honeymoon period.
The honeymoon is now over. There is no mood for a return to the "loony left" days, but there is a mood of expecting to see the Government deliver on its promises to improve services. For that reason, successful results from Gordon Brown's financial bonanza are crucial. (Success is obviously important for intrinsic reasons, but the "political" reasons are equally vital for the government.)
There are some risks. One is that the money will not be spent effectively, and for that reason Gordon Brown has also announced the establishment of a number of bodies to monitor spending and performance. There are dangers in that, notably the dangers of excessive central control (an occupational disease of all governments), and of obsessive concentration on performance indicators at the expense of performance. Nevertheless, it is clearly important that public money taxpayers' money should be properly spent.
Another risk is that the extra money will be spent to increase salaries rather than improve the service provided. That is not a risk, which will be easy to avert, because there is a real need for higher salaries in the public service, not least in order to attract enough people of the calibre to deliver good services. A strike of public service workers a few days ago underlined both the strength of their case, and the disruption which withdrawal of their labour could cause.
The Government will have to engage in a delicate balancing act to ensure that it retains the support of its traditional supporters, that it rewards people fairly for the work they do, and that in the process it provides the major improvements in service, which are needed. It will no doubt be helped by the change in ideological mood. Few people now will argue that the private sector will always be more effective than the public. Given the recent numerous examples of failures in the private sector, it is widely recognised that incompetence is ideologically neutral.
The writer is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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