Making two plus two make five
Earlier this week, the Shadow Chancellor drew one of the first clear dividing lines on policy that stands between the parties: public spending. Osborne accused the Prime Minister of Orwellian incoherence, saying that by reducing public sector spending and capital expenditure while simultaneously heralding more investment, Brown may as well be announcing that ‘2 plus 2 makes 5.’
Since taking power, New Labour has accomplished something striking with its public sector reform. Between 1997 and 2008, public spending has increased by 80 per cent with some notable improvements in crime rates, NHS waiting times and primary school literacy and numeracy.
In an effort to live up to their manifesto promise to be ‘wise spenders, not big spenders’, New Labour’s near doubling of public spending came hand in hand with the modernizing agenda of New Public Management, which put extra burdens on public services in the form of targets, indicators and auditing.
At the same time, the proportion of the population for whom the public sector failed to meet their expectations rose from 40 per cent in 1998 to 51 per cent in 2004. Moreover, after more than a decade of investment and reform, public service employees – a key Labour constituency historically – are today most likely to vote for the party of Margaret Thatcher. Even Michael Barber, the former head of Tony Blair’s Delivery Unit, was resigned to the fact that a decade of Blairite reform had only succeeded in bringing public services from ‘awful’ to ‘adequate.’
Instead of focusing the debate on investment vs. austerity, the Tories need to start asking how has this happened? How did investment plus reform make ‘adequate’ services and unmet expectations.
Tomorrow the Progressive Conservative Project launches its Leading from the Front study, which will investigate these questions and look at the potential for radical decentralisation to improve and re-professionalise public services. We will also examine the trend of highly successful and innovative private sector organisations moving away from the emphasis on hierarchy, compliance and quantifiable accountability, which has come to dominate the public sector.
If the Tories want to set themselves apart, honesty about spending cuts isn’t going to be enough. They will need to offer the public a radical new way of delivering services that supplements spending with initiative from the frontline – a gestalt reform that will need to give five for the price of two twos.