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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Friday, September 11, 2009

What’s at Stake in the Policy Debate

By Henry Kippin

2020PST’s Ben Lucas and the RSA’s Matthew Taylor called for a real debate on public services this week, and it looks like their call to action is being heard.  The Labour line on public services has shifted to something more realistic, and the Conservatives – having come out swinging much earlier in favour of spending cuts – are being forced to start giving us the detail on scale, aim and timing.

Lots more divisions will emerge, but one interesting upshot of this is that, improbably, the Tories have committed to ring-fencing health and overseas aid, whilst the government has not.  This means that Cameron will have to make some serious inroads elsewhere, perhaps even completely eliminating MP’s rocket and balsamic vinegar allowances.

To be fair, neither party has really driven any stakes in the ground yet.  Surely some proposals will be unveiled during the Conference season, but to date it has been left to backbenchers and thinktanks to fight a proxy war.  And even this has been mostly fought (2020PST excepted!) on strategies to make immediate savings, rather than what a sustainable and productive long-term vision might require.  But as Tony Travers notes, “British politicians will surely consider radical steps in the months ahead if they are to protect the core purposes of the state.”

Charles Clarke and Michael Fallon have both weighed in this week with their suggestions on what such radical steps might be.  Both articles are worth a read (especially Michael Fallon’s depiction of the “Bermuda triangle in which local initiative and responsibility are lost”), and my guess is that they also betray two ideological start and end points:  Clarke’s a desire to ensure fairness; Fallon’s a desire for fiscal prudence and efficiency.

The fact is that both parties may have to cross this divide.  The left will need to re-think their assumptions about fairness within a spending regime that must take into account huge demand challenges and severe fiscal constraints.  Not easy.  The right will have to think hard about the implications of putting the imperative to cut before the human effects of reduced service guarantees.

The stakes are so high that we should be pleased when policymakers take some time to do the hard thinking.   But we need to feel they are asking the right questions – and thinking about short-term savings is only half the battle.

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