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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Three colours orange – but what about the issues?

By Ben Lucas

In the parallel universe of British politics everyone has now become a Cleggon – basking in the orange afterglow of the Leader’s debate.  Change has become the central question – the choice being about who can manage this best and who personifies it the most.

But the election has not yet resolved itself into a clear argument about alternative strategies for managing the big issues – the economy, the deficit and the future of our public services. Read the manifestos in detail, as I suspect few have done, and what emerges are large areas of agreement between the three main parties, especially about public services and how they need to change.  But each party puts a different gloss on this. 

For Labour the central issue is about the scale of future risk – economic, social, demographic and political.  The message is that only Labour has the experience and fair values to guide Britain through these difficult times.  From here it is only a short step to Gordon Brown’s dividing lines on what public service budgets Labour would protect.

The Conservatives focus not so much on future risk but the state we are in.  Their argument is that our public finances, economy and society are broken and that a fundamentally new approach to government is needed.  They set out their stall for the Big Society, in which families, communities, and the state will need to work together to build a stronger society – exemplified in their plans for national community service for 16 year olds.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats have presented themselves both as the change agents and the people who tell it as it is.  For them the elephant in the room is the deficit and they seek to make a virtue out of plain speaking on this – saying that efficiency savings will never be sufficient to tackle the deficit.  They identify the need for hard choices about which spending to cut and offer, as examples of this, Trident and the Child Trust Fund.

Of course each party has much more detailed proposals on public service reform.  Labour has proposed strengthening citizens rights to public services to create a bottom up entitlement driver for improvement, with new patient and citizen guarantees. The issue of long term care and Labour’s proposal to create a new National Care Service echo Brown’s message about future risk.  And Labour seeks to be our mutual friend with proposals for public service co-ops in housing, sure start and even primary care trusts.

The Conservatives have prioritised welfare reform, based on tougher conditionality and extending payment by results for welfare service providers.  They have also promoted their model for parent led schools and for public service employee mutuals.  And they have courted some controversy by sticking to their guns in advocating elected police commissioners. On health their policy has been ‘softly, softly’, as they continue with their strategy of seeking to neutralise what has been a traditional Labour positive.   

The Liberal Democrats make fairness and decentralisation their overarching themes for public services.  They promote an explicitly redistributive funding formula which targets funding at the poorest people, so that the money follows the poorest patients and pupils – education and health premiums.  They advocate strengthened local say through elected local health boards and police authorities and neighbourhood justice panels.  And, in addition to their well publicised plans to simplify the tax system, they also propose greater transparency and control over by giving people greater flexibility in accessing part of their pension before retirement.  What the Liberal Democrats do not do is set out a framework for public service reform.

But so far none of the three main parties has really managed to lodge with the public a clear sense of what their vision adds up to for public services.   The Big Society is in some ways the most audacious idea, but it has not yet resonated as it might because, apart from volunteering, it it’s not yet clear where the beef is.  Meanwhile Labour’s focus on future risk has had some effect, but at the same time seems clunky. And the Lib Dems have scored on the deficit yet their prescription is less comprehensive.

Each party appears to have more of a stance than a strategy.  Take localism.  All are agreed that significant decentralisation is needed. The policies are plentiful from elected mayors, to localised planning and housing. What is lacking is a coherent theory.  A genuine shift in power from the centre to localities would have to involve big change in Whitehall and Westminster – a re-imagined, smaller and more strategic centre whose role would be to enable and empower innovation and delivery at local level.  That could be a recipe for achieving big savings as Total Place identified. The simple test for real devolution is to follow the money – if control over funding and revenue stays at the centre then so will power..

So the challenge for the main parties as we enter the second half of the election campaign will be to crystallise their respective positions into harder propositions, which offer voters some real choices for the future.  This isn’t just necessary for winning it is critical for governing. Whoever wins the next election, and whatever formation emerges after May 6th., their job in tackling economic stagnation, rising demand pressures and growing debt levels will be made that much harder if they haven’t established a mandate for the tough decisions which will be necessary.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Return of the Mac

By Ashish Prashar

Blair’s Back! Former Prime Minister Tony Blair stepped out of the political shadows today by making a speech in his former constituency of Sedgefield.

He praised Gordon Brown’s experience, judgement and boldness.  He also said he was optimistic about Britain’s future and that “the financial crisis does not diminish this optimism.” Mr Blair then went on to attack the Conservatives accusing them of “confusion” over their own policies.

He concluded that “this country needs strong leadership. I want a future fair for all. Only a fourth term Labour government can deliver it.”

Mr Blair used his speech to rally support for Labour ahead of the start of the election campaign, and is expected to make several appearances during the campaign.

Following the speech Labour’s election co-ordinator Douglas Alexander hit the airwaves, suggesting “Mr Blair’s presence will strengthen the party’s fortunes.” Conservative Shadow Treasury Minister Greg Hands quipped “it’s nice to see Tony Blair make a speech he hasn’t been paid for.”

It remains to be seen what impact Mr Blair might have on voters, but what is certain is that his return to UK party politics will spark controversy.  Let’s hope that ignites wider public interest in the political process. Either way; it’s definitely the return of the Mac.

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Posted by Ashish Prashar at 3:17 pm
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Monday, September 7, 2009

Now for a real debate on public services

By Ben Lucas

There are signs that the Government is now groping its way to a more credible position on the future of public spending on public services. For the last year Gordon Brown has tried to maintain the Labour investment versus Tory spending cuts dividing line. But whereas New Labour’s successful political positioning always went with the grain of public opinion, Brown’s line on public finances has failed to convince anyone, few in his own government believe it, let alone the general public.

In practice, the dividing line has been Labour denial versus Tory realism. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Conservatives have been winning the argument. The tragedy for Gordon Brown is that having won international plaudits for his handling of the banking crisis and its aftermath, this success has been overshadowed by his incredible approach to public service spending. There is a powerful economic argument to be made about maintaining public spending in the recession, and the evidence seems to suggest that this has helped mitigate its social impact, particularly on unemployment, but this also depends on there being a credible strategy for reducing debt once the economy returns to growth.

A combination of interviews and briefings over the past week indicate that the Government is changing its position. The strategy seems to be to accept that there will have to be a significant spending reduction, but only once the economy returns to growth and that this will be across all public services including health and overseas aid (both of which have been ringfenced by David Cameron). Within this spending reduction some key economic and social objectives will be identified such as skills, educations and poverty reduction, where spending will be prioritised. In the other areas of spending, the emphasis will be on a return to public service reform, productivity savings, efficiency, choice, competition and more co-production. This could be allied with state asset sales and a more creative and flexible use of community assets, such as libraries, schools, parks and colleges.

But the question for Brown is can he overcome his innate caution and turn this into an effective strategy based on offering a credible alternative to Conservative realism on public service spending?. To do this, it will not be enough to hint at this new approach and hope that an upturn in the economy at the beginning of 2010 will be enough to transform the political debate. The Government will need to make its position very clear in the next few weeks and will then need at least six months to get this across to voters. The best way of doing this would be to go ahead with the Comprehensive Spending Review, which was suspended earlier this year. It’s no good waiting until there is better economic news, because that will probably not be until after the election. So the Government should be bold and push ahead with a CSR this year..

Establishing a more credible position would not only be good for the Government, it would be good for politics. The Conservatives have had it very easy because of Brown’s insistence on denial. But a debate between realists could be a different matter. The Conservatives would have to think hard about the logic of ringfencing health spending, they would have to be clearer about their own numbers and their own tax and spend priorities, including inheritance tax. So far the Conservatives have not had to explain how they would combine the increased spending necessary to tackle “Broken Britain” with 10% cuts in all public services except health and overseas aid. It is in the public interest that both the Government and the Opposition parties should have a credible strategy on the public finances, so that there can be a proper debate about how to achieve sustainable growth, how to reduce the dependency ratio and how to respond to demographic change, behavioural challenges such as obesity, the growth in chronic health conditions and global warming – all within a very tight budget.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The strange death of class in England

By Ben Lucas

Equality has been the hot political issue of the month. This started with John Denham’s interesting speech about equality and fairness, in which he reflected on Joseph Rowntree Foundation research which showed a lack of public sympathy towards poverty. He argued that progressives needed to move away from a symbolic commitment to equality, which he believes that Labour in practice has never really set out to deliver, and instead to focus on fairness, which runs more with the grain of popular sentiment and is as much about resentment towards the undeserving rich as it is about redistribution. This week Alan Milburn published the report of his review into social mobility and the professions and James Purnell launched a new initiative called “Open Left” at Demos, which is a sort of “Future of Socialism” for the 2010s.

The Milburn review provides powerful evidence about why and how social mobility has stalled in Britain. It’s the old story that the vested professional interests have pulled up the drawbridge, so that the professions have become family firms. Practices such as internships simply accentuate this. So does grade inflation in admissions policy at the top universities. Milburn makes the point that his generation were part of the first great wave of social mobility in the professions, when the rapid expansion of the professions created the potential for people like him to break through the glass ceiling. He proposes a second social mobility revolution as Britain rebuilds itself after the recession and responds to globalisation and new opportunities in the digital, creative media, and financial services professions.

Meanwhile, James Purnell says that he wants to start fleshing out a new approach to equality based on Amartya Sen’s concept of freedom as capability building. The idea being to focus not just on income but on equipping people with the capabilities that would allow them to be in control of their own lives, creating their own life outcomes.

All of this fresh policy thinking is to be welcomed. It follows an earlier foray into equality policy from the Conservatives, in which David Cameron accepted that relative inequality was as significant as absolute poverty. Britain is a strikingly unequal society and this is not only an affront to social justice it is also bad for the social health of society. As the authors of the Spirit Level argue, inequality is bad for society as a whole because of the strong correlation between unhappiness and inequality.

But there’s one word which seems to be missing altogether from the renewed interest in equality – ‘class”. It used to be that the idea of class was at the very heart of discourse about equality in Britain. It was only in the 1980s that the old left grudgingly came to accept that tackling gender and race inequality were also important priorities. For the left, building class consciousness was a critical element of egalitarianism. There were powerful working class institutions such as the Workers Education Association (WEA), trade unions, the co-operative movement, working mens club and mutual societies. These institutions gave working class people collective agency, some measure of control over their lives, strong social networks and routes for collective and individual advancement through education and training.

Despite research showing that a majority of British people still consider themselves working class, many if not most working class institutions are now in steep decline and class itself is rarely discussed by politicians. Much of this profound change is attributable to the decline in manufacturing and the fact that the social institutions which were created around mass production have now lost their raison d’etre.

This huge cultural change is both cause and consequence of 21st century inequality. The era from the second world war until the 1980s was one of social and cultural mobility. It is impossible to disconnect “Billy Liar”, “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” and “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads” from the social mobility they both represented and helped to propel. The dominant mood of the time was in favour of change, John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” was what everybody wanted to be and it was only antiquated class barriers which stood in the way of change. The objects of ridicule were middle class mores and outdated customs. But in recent years all that has changed. In much popular culture today the joke is on the working class – with the exception of Jimmy McGovern’s “The Street”, working class characters are more likely to be depicted as ‘chavs’ than ‘heroes”.

None of this is to argue for turning the clock back to an era which was in most important respects far less progressive than our one. But it is to say that class is still an important factor in thinking through new policy on equality. It is particularly odd that class should be so little discussed at a time when both sociology and behavioural economics are enjoying such a renaissance. You cannot get close to creating new social norms and building new social capacity without an appreciation of the impact class has on behaviour.

The challenge for those who want a more equal society is to find the right ways of enabling people to live the lives they choose. Income transfers have a vital role to play and renewing the commitment to eradicate child poverty is clearly critical. But what is also required is bottom up social change, which helps build individual and social agency and creates new social institutions rooted in modern times. This should involve fusing the idea of multiculturalism with individual and collective empowerment – looking to find new ways in which local communities can take ownership of assets ranging from housing to schools. Not only can this help liberate potential and build social capacity it can also enable public services to tap into social resource at a time when public funding will be under very tight pressure. Developing this new frontier should be the priority for all those who are engaged in thinking through how to create a fairer society, from “Open Left” to “Progressive Conservatism” and to “Red-Toryism”.

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Friday, July 3, 2009

a lot more power, a lot less money?

By Henry Kippin

The new secretary of State for Communities and Local Government John Denham keeps re-appearing in this weeks news cycle. Yesterday was a speech to the Fabian Society that questioned Labour’s approach to equality; today a speech to the LGA on the future of local government and plans for rolling out ‘total place’. I will blog on the former next week; but first the latter.

The Secretary of State’s speech to the LGA promised to boost the “status, powers and accountability” of local councils – implying a real shift of power away from the centre, and the extension of greater discretion over public spending to local leaders.

His agenda is built on Sir Michael Bichard’s plans for total place – which looks to squeeze out efficiency savings and better value from public spending through a two-part process. Through rolling out this programme, Mr Denham suggested that “central government (is) prepared to cede some of its powers and local councils becoming more accountable for theirs.”

Total Place is an interesting approach, and we should welcome a transfer of power from the political centre. But in an era of cuts, councillors should ask what they would actually be gaining. David Cameron might point the way here. He set out today an effective trade-off for local leaders, telling them “the good news is that I want to give you a lot more power. The bad news is I’m not going to give you a lot more money.” Greater autonomy for sure, but local leaders will need to think creatively to ensure that the power to cut services is not all they are entrusted with.

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Posted by Henry Kippin at 6:02 pm
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