12/08/09 Jonty Olliff-Cooper asks just how progressive George Osborne's speech to Demos was.
Eight out of ten. That is what I would give George Osborne for his speech today on progressive conservatism today at Demos.
Much of the speech was spot on. For one thing, Osborne emphasized his commitment to progressive values throughout. This is no small thing, as today’s headlines recognize. now, progressive is a rather over used and under defined word, but George certainly spoke about the right things, declaring that he was “championing the progressive ideas that will take power away from bureaucracies and politicians and give it to the people”. That is rhetoric of course – many people will believe it when they see it - but the right words are all one can reasonably expect from a speech, and Osborne said them.
Secondly, Osborne took every opportunity to talk about the need for structural reform. Thank goodness. We desperately need a serious rethink of the way government operates. George mentioned Canada and Sweden, both of which undertook root and branch reform in the depths of their recessions in the early nineties. Not everyone agreed. When asked about if a recession was really the right time for reform, given the up front costs, Osborne was emphatic: a Cameron government will be a reforming government.
What was most significant here was that Osborne put innovation and reform ahead of cuts or efficiency. Innovation experts talk of the ‘ICE’ equation for solving budget holes: innovation, cuts, and efficiencies. As the questions from the floor demonstrated, the media is obsessed with cuts. The government by contrast is putting its faith in efficiencies.
Both are mistaken. There are few obvious targets to cut completely, and they are nothing like big enough. Efficiencies are of course sensible, but very often they result in cutting the programmes that are easiest to cut, not the ones that are most wasteful. Moreover, rash efficiencies can just drive costs elsewhere onto another ministry’s budget, saving little for the taxpayer.
Serious commentators understand that the point is not if we should have efficiency drives or not – of course we all want lean government. It is that they should not be needed in the first place. Our present system of government accretes waste over time because it is poorly designed and opaque. We need route and branch reform to create government that hunts down inefficiency on its own, not because Gershon tells it to.
The Conservatives get this, and have a partial picture of how to get there. George mentioned data transparency, direct election of mayors and police chiefs, and independent ‘Swedish schools’ for example. However, examples are sparse. At the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos, we are developing bold ideas to take the progressive direction George Osborne outlined today on the shape of the state further, deeper and faster.
Demos’ Leading from the Front project is examining how the most cutting edge businesses like Google, Innocent, Semco and Gore-Tex have reshaped themselves to do without top down targets, making work both more efficient and more rewarding. Our ageing project On Your Side is looking at the success of pilots in Gloucestershire which provide a better service to older people and slash care costs, by providing local facilitators who can tie help together. We believe Michael Gove should extend his pro-poor school voucher system to SureStart, business support, higher education, and even pensions. This autumn we are publishing new proposals to free all government non-personal data, expand the Freedom of Information Act, and embrace crowd sourcing. Please get in touch if you would like to know more.
The speech’s one weakness was that it was not clear enough about why all this is conservative. Arguable much of what George discussed would be common to intellectuals in all parties. However, this is not because Osborne was stealing Labour policies. Rather, since the turn of the millennium, the most subtle thinkers on the Left have increasingly adopted classically conservative positions stressing the importance of localism, community, capabilities, choice, and decentralisation.
Yesterday Osborne made a good start. The Tories have a golden opportunity to transform government and society. Take it George.