As we all await Mr Darling’s action-packed pre-budget report the focus is on cuts and taxes. Depending on their political orientation and the briefing they have received, newspapers can choose whether to highlight an attack on city bonuses, constraints on public spending or general increases in taxation.
The overall thrust of the package seems right; spending constraint but imposed gradually so as not to choke off recovery, tax increases weighted towards those who can most afford them. Indeed, it is interesting to speculate how different a Conservative pre-budget report would have been in these circumstances.
But there are some other messages I would like to hear from Mr Darling. And, to be honest, I’m not holding my breath.
Apparently the Chancellor will say that health, education and policing will be protected from cuts and may even have small increases in funding over the next three years. I understand the politics of this. It is in line with the Government’s commitment to guaranteed entitlements in these services. But it may not be the best policy. As SOLACE and CIPFA warned this morning, the consequence is that other local government services take the brunt of the cuts in social spending. It could be non-statutory provision like youth services, public space, sport, leisure and culture that get squeezed. This in turn could lead to a deterioration in the public sphere, just as happened in many places in the early 80s. In terms of social impact it would be much better to force productivity gains in schools, hospital and police services (where, after years of budget increases, there is plenty of scope) than cuts that will weaken the social fabric.
SOLACE and CIPFA also warn this morning that as the state pulls back, citizens themselves – individually and collectively – will have to plug the gap. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is scope for many services to become more co-productive, by which I mean that their outcome is seen to be created by the combined efforts of state and citizen. But an imposed cuts package is the worst context in which to generate a constructive public debate about reconfiguring services. We should be having a national and local conversation about how citizen engagement can help protect service outcomes even while budgets are being cut. How much emphasis will we see today on the need for a richer public engagement about the choices we now face?
This links to the wider need for a story of social mobilisation. I have written before about the message Stein Ringen gave here at the RSA about Labour’s failure to mobilise public sector workers or the general public behind goals like eradicating child poverty. Labour aspirations were noble but too often they felt like things Government was doing to people rather than with them. I also wrote last week about how well people often respond when they face a shared crisis.
It is not easy for either Mr Darling or Mr Brown, but there needs to be a sense today of the Government seeking to get people behind the mission of safeguarding society while reducing debt. The measure of a Government’s worth is not just whether it can have good ideas or pull new policies out of a hat but whether it can engage and mobilise the population.
On my way to Nottingham for a conference on emotional well being, I find myself sharing the train with half the Cabinet. Given how London-centric most of the national media are, many people won’t know that one of Gordon Brown’s political innovations has been regularly to hold Cabinet meetings outside of London.
So, today, ministers are spending the morning visiting all kinds of projects around the East Midlands, before a public engagement event at lunchtime, followed by the Cabinet meeting in Nottingham in the afternoon. Gordon Brown, for example, will be visiting a family intervention centre to reinforce Labour’s commitment to intervening with problem families.
According to the No 10 insider I was chatting to on the train, these cabinet visits go down a storm in the local and regional press and are seen as a genuine attempt to break out of Westminster and Whitehall and connect with the rest of Britain. For all of us who crave a more positive conversation between elected politicians and the public, this must be a good thing.
As I have written before, I hope an incoming Conservative government doesn’t assume that everything it inherits is bad (a mistake some Labour cabinet ministers made in 1997) – it would surely be a good thing if these regional cabinets continued.
For all of you dismissive of New Labour’s record there is now a perfect primer for your case. Its diagnosis is powerful but, in my view, its prescription less so.
Stein Ringen is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at Oxford. He speaks in clipped precise tones and with a bone dry sense of humour. So when last night at the RSA he summarised his short but powerful book ‘The economic consequences of Mr Brown’ thus: “Gordon Brown promised prudence with a purpose. He failed”, the Great Room audience sat up and took notice.
Ringen shows that since 1997 the UK’s very high child poverty levels have hardly moved, that health inequalities have grown, the downward curve of crime has hit a plateau and, while there have been some gains in educational outcomes, even these are contested.
It is a powerful analysis and not one that anyone involved in New Labour should dismiss lightly. Having said this, Ringen does look through the darkest of lenses. For example, he doesn’t ask what the trends would have been without a Labour Government (which had for example to deal with underlying drivers of greater inequality and cost generating shifts like population growth and the threat of terrorism). Nor does he recognise that some of the things Labour delivered (like the abolition of long waiting lists) were public priorities even if not ones he thinks important. Finally, the good professor doesn’t recognise the impact of major increases in capital spending, particularly on schools and in the NHS.
But while I might want to qualify Ringen’s assessment, I absolutely agree with his diagnosis. Labour’s big failing, he argues, was that it did not mobilise the public or public service professions behind its core social and public service objectives. Having failed to build this trust and commitment (which was there waiting to be tapped in 1997) ministers came to rely more and more on central control, which in turn led to public service overload and demoralisation. Anyone who has ever run an organisation knows how easy it is to get into this downward spiral.
But why was mobilisation so difficult? For Ringen it all comes down to our creaking constitution. He argues that only measures such as increasing the power of Parliament, devolving more power to local Government, and taking money out of politics will lead to better, more coherent, more honest policy making. I support these measures but I don’t think that they alone solve the challenge of mobilisation.
This, I think, comes down to some bigger problems about the way English people think about the English state, and the deeper culture of public life and democratic discourse. (It is now nearly fifty years old but still for me the classic text here is Perry Anderson’s ‘The origins of the Present Crisis’.
This is why I have argued that an incoming Cameron Government (assuming there is to be one) needs to use its honeymoon period to embark on the long process of changing the terms of trade between Government and citizens. Ringen is right that bad governance leads to bad policy leads to disappointing outcomes, but it is the content of the conversation between governors and governed – indeed the very idea of this relationship – that has to change, not just the rules that frame that conversation.
A couple of weeks ago I described Gordon Brown’s position as that of a unfancied shot putter in an Olympic final. He has had two no throws and has to get the next one right even to compete in the final round – a round few think he will win.
More positively for the PM, I listed several factors that might give him a boost as he tries to survive. These included the quietening down of the MPs’ expenses storm, the major policy announcements he was planning to make before recess and the emergence of better economic news. The bad news for GB is that while events have gone broadly to plan it has made not a jot of difference to his poll rating.
The policy announcements in areas ranging from public service to climate change were treated reasonably seriously by the more thoughtful parts of the media. But no pick up in the polls. MPs’ expenses have largely disappeared from the front pages. But no pick up in the polls. And now the economic news is getting better. But still, so far, no pick up in the polls.
I suggested three other events that might help the PM. One was his ability to craft a radical, agenda-setting, Queen’s Speech. But given the indifference shown so far to his policy agenda, and the very limited time he has to get any measures through in the truncated final session, this looks like a forlorn hope.
This leaves two final straws of hope. Governments generally recover a bit of popularity in the summer just because politics is not so much in the news. Also, GB can look forward to a conference designed by his beleaguered party to be a rally for its equally beleaguered leader.
But once again the optimism looks misplaced. Scarcely has the PM gone on holiday than leadership speculation has started to rage, with Peter Mandelson now being seriously touted as a new leader.
There can be no question that Mandy is the dominant politician in Labour’s ranks. If there is to be a change, on talent and experience alone he should be the lead contender. But, even now, and with him being in cahoots with sworn past enemies like Charlie Wheelan, he is a highly controversial figure. If Labour does change leader before the election it will be controversial enough, but to do so after a contested and possibly acrimonious leadership battle (say, between Mandelson and Harman), would surely snap the already thin patience of the electorate.
If GB is to be replaced there needs to be a candidate with overwhelming support from the rest of the party. So if the Mandy camp is serious about leadership it needs, quite apart from sorting Mandy a Parliamentary seat, to build some strong alliances with all wings of the Party.
To do this while continuing to be seen as the person loyally propping up the present PM will be a challenge even for a man of Peter Mandelson’s substantial abilities.
There are a number of reasons why it is hard for the Government to have its ideas taken seriously. It is unpopular, Gordon Brown is communicatively challenged, and its future policy plans are seen as irrelevant given it is unlikely to be in a position to enact them.
To take one example, this is an important week for the debate about climate change. After a mini blip, world temperatures are resuming their upward climb. Predicted weather extremes may have a major impact on crops and food prices. It got remarkably little attention, but there was important progress at the G8 summit, something for which the UK deserves some credit. Against all expectations just a few months ago, a substantial agreement at Copenhagen now seems possible. And later this week we will see the Government’s own plan outlining how it intends to meet the very ambitious long term target it has set for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. It remains to be seen whether the public will be interested or willing to give Brown any credit.
From green policy to green papers; today’s report on social care may also be greeted with a shrug. After all, Labour has been putting off this issue since 1999, it hasn’t got time to act on its various recommendations before the next election, and anyway, on the toughest issue – who pays and how – the paper offers options rather than a recommendation. But regardless of whether Labour will be able to implement its strategy, the package deserves serious debate.
As I understand it, the green paper is bold in two contrasting ways. On the one hand, it seeks to turn social care from being a service for the poor to one that is universal. It does this by guaranteeing that everyone needing care – regardless of their income – will be entitled to advice and guidance from the state. On the other hand, the green paper clearly implies that of its various payment options it favours the social insurance (or as it is inelegantly referred to ‘co-payment’) model. In this scheme people are opted in (another example of nudging here) to an insurance scheme whereby they commit a lump sum either at retirement or death to insure social care costs. In this way, risk is pooled and care is affordable to both the individual and the state.
I am told that there were some in Government who opposed the publication of such a radical plan fearing a public backlash against being asked to pay. But the green paper’s advocates have two things going for them: first, focus group research showing that if people believed that insurance would protect them from the risk of having their other assets gobbled up in care fees they were happy to pay; second, the new health secretary Andy Burnham – perhaps sensing this is may be one of his last opportunities to make a big policy impact – has been a strong champion of radicalism.
Politically, things still look grim for Labour. The economic recovery is fragile and slow. There is a constant stream of criticism about the Brown style of leadership. From what I hear of the canvass returns from Norwich North, England are more likely to win the next four Ashes tests than Labour coming close to winning the by-election. Yet, despite that, or maybe even because of that, the policy ideas of a Government that has little to lose from being bold are worth taking seriously.