There have been many areas of note and contention in the midst of the Comprehensive Spending Review, issues for commentators to pour over and speculate upon. For me, as a non-economist looking in from the outside, it has been the politics and ideology which has struck me most, rather than the specific budgetary decisions.
From the Coalition Government’s position, I feel it has been a strong case of before and after politicking. Before, was a case study in political nuance, a demonstration of skill and media management to put Alasdair Campbell to shame. The careful management of expectations (let them think the cuts will be even higher so that they are a pleasant surprise when they arrive); the creation of a bogey-man to pin all the blame on (darn these evil benefit scroungers); the repetition of a concept until it is forced into the public psyche regardless of reality (fairness, fairness, fairness, fairness...); and the sidelining of internal opponents and contention (the negative briefings against Liam Fox and the announcement of Defence cuts at a separate strategic review) – this was political management of the highest level, made all the more remarkable by the fact that this is (however cosy and ideological compatible) a coalition government.
It was therefore surprising to see the success of this political manoeuvring, demonstrated in the broadly supportive polling figures following the CSR’s announcement, undermined by the self-indulgent cheering of the Conservative benches to the proclamation of savage job cuts, and the back slapping self-congratulation of the Quadruplets (Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Alexander) as they delighted in the most radical gamble in the history of Britain’s economy. Suddenly “We’re all in it together” seemed a rather more empty statement.
The careful management of the CSR will carry the Coalition through the initial stages, the war on scroungers keeping everyone distracted for a wee while. However, as the job losses mount, the less obviously scrounging get hit, the research showing that this review is anything but fair piles up and, God help us, the mass recovery of the global economy and private sector doesn’t happen – suddenly these pictures and video footage will come back to haunt the coalition.
The current saving grace for the Coalition is that Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition have taken the decision to play the politics of Opposition rather than set out clear and realistic alternatives to the direction the Government is taking. This is understandable from a purely political stance; however I also believe it is an abdication of responsibility, a surrendering of the debate in order to retreat to the comfort of disagreement. Ed Miliband demonstrated this very clearly with the choice of Alan Johnston as Shadow Chancellor – this was a clear political decision to attack Osborne rather than to set out concrete economic alternatives. Alan Johnston is a very competent political opponent, but he will not be creating an alternative review. This is disappointing in my opinion, and perfectly reflects the fact that neither side is actually engaging in the reality of the decisions that need to be made, but rather are returning to the delights of ideology.
The Conservatives, with their pseudo-Conservative Orange Book Liberal allies, are ideologically committed to removing the state in a way that Thatcher could only dream of. They have seized upon the crisis as an opportunity to destroy, swathed under the comforting illusion of the Big Society. If the Big Society really was a commitment of the Government (and there is much to be commended in it, as I shall explore later) then they would not be ripping apart the voluntary sector. It is ridiculous to expect that charities, churches and ill-defined communities can fill a sudden void in provision at the same time as their own budgets are savaged. The Conservatives have attacked the paternalism of Labour’s approach and the damage this has done to initiative and entrepreneurism, and there is much to be explored within these criticisms; however what they are doing does not address that properly. If those skills have been undermined then it is not just naive but quite frankly irresponsible to just presume they will magically spring up to fill the abyss left by the removal of the state’s presence. A reasoned, balanced approach to this would have legitimised the Conservative’s view; this approach instead shows it for the smoke and mirrors it has become.
However, Labour’s slide into criticising without creating is equally irresponsible. Spending has to be examined, the public sector is crying out for reform and innovation, and the opportunity for bringing positive change to communities which have stagnated requires a radical departure from simply repeating what has gone before. There must be something quite comforting for Labour MPs in Opposition – after being the enemy for a decade to many traditional supporters through the realities of being in Government, they are now able to become popular again. Ed Miliband won the Leadership on the basis of a move to the left and a rejection of much of the previous Government’s legacy, and so this is chiming nicely with the rhetoric of the Unions. Yet, to merely oppose misses the point of discussion and debate, and ultimately will struggle to convince the wider public that we as a party are ready for Government again.
For me, the most worrying political statistic was the voting intentions of the Sun/YouGov poll – 41% Conservative, 40% Labour, 10% Lib Dem (their lowest since YouGov started polling). While on one hand this makes for good reading for both the Conservatives and Labour (and the stuff of nightmares for the Lib Dems) it is actually a very worrying indication of the polarisation of the political debate, with no space in the middle for exploration of what is a shared problem.
The Big Society concept has much to commend itself in the current environment, if it was backed up by legitimate support. The role of the public sector across the UK, but particularly in the devolved nations and areas such as the NE of England, is overly pervasive, often stifling innovation and filling roles that it should not be in. Unlike the approach the Conservatives are taking, it is not because the public sector in and of itself is an evil – the public sector is a vital component of our nation. However, it can also not be sustained that the public sector’s role and presence is not open to debate, review and evolution.
Part of the problem is that we are still, even in these supposedly post-ideological days, rooted in the public versus private dichotomy, regurgitating arguments which focus on the negative aspects of the opposing view rather than the positive aspects of the one we are supporting. Rather than rehashing the public sector as inefficient against a private sector which is cheap and cruel; it is possible to celebrate the public service of the public sector and the innovation of the private sector as two sides of the same coin. Neither has all of the answers, yet equally both have much to bring.
The point is that new thinking is required, dare I say it a Third Way between private and public which seeks to compensate for their shortcomings. Within the current delivery of public sector services, this would lead to a greater development of alternative delivery models, such as social enterprises and co-operatives. Ironically they represent they opportunity for both sides of the argument to claim success, introducing the innovation of the private sector whilst retaining the moral high ground of the public sector.
The Big Society could be a powerful motivator for the nation if it seriously meant creating a new citizen-led society, where Tony Blair’s mantra of rights and responsibilities could actually be implemented through new contracts between individuals and the state. However the way the Conservatives are actually using the Big Society as a poorly disguised excuse for ideological warfare is both disappointing and, in the long term, likely to be seriously damaging to the causes of reform and localism, as the entire conceptual framework risks being tarred with the same brush.
What would an alternative look like? Well, it would involve a degree of acceptance on the main parties’ behalf that we are in an extremely challenging time, where serious debate and shared solutions are required. Sadly, this is virtually impossible as the two parties gallop into ideological bunkers, fixated on the purity of their respective views rather than the potential for the nation. The Conservative coalition’s drive to destroy the state will leave co-operation with Labour impossible; while Labour’s return to the left under Ed Miliband will likewise remove the centre ground as a meeting place. Meanwhile the Lib Dems plunge into obscurity, their attempts to justify their own existence as a political entity lost in the all encompassing embrace of their new Conservative masters.
Unfortunately in the midst of all this politicking, it is the country which suffers. True we are an innovative specified, and I don’t doubt that incredible ideas will spring up from society to fill the vacuum looming ahead of us. Organisations such as the RSA, who I work for, are contributing ideas and resources, working with other organisations and individuals to try and make some of the Big Society’s ideas come to life.
It shouldn’t be left to luck though, and it shouldn’t be without the involvement and contribution of our elected representatives. In these times of austerity and challenge, where will we find true leaders, with ideas and honesty to take us forward?
Here’s hoping that those figures make themselves known to us.