It appears we have had the first casualty of the election campaign, with the de-selection of Deputy Chairman Howard Flight by the Conservatives following his comments to a private meeting arguing for further cuts in public spending. For a while now I have been amazed by the Tories’ ability to act like turkeys voting for Christmas (or to become turkey twizzlers), and their handling of this incident is typical of their recent behaviour. Okay, it may not be quite of the magnitude that led them to select IDS as their leader in preference to Michael Portillo, but it is still a remarkable act of mismanagement.
For weeks now people have been talking about how the Tories have succeeded in setting the political agenda; that they may not be able to change the election result but they were fighting the campaign on their issues and Labour was just rolling with the punches. All that has changed, at least for the moment. I cannot believe there wasn’t a less messy way out of this predicament, that Flight (whose comments did not seem that outrageous to me) could just have said that he was speaking personally and that of course he was signed up to the Tory manifesto; with that I suspect the story would have died. Instead Michael Howard looks even more the authoritarian and autocratic leader. Who knows how this will play in the country at large, but if he acts this way with his party I certainly don’t want him to be leading the nation (not that I ever did, but you get my point).
More interesting, though, were some of the reactions I heard on a radio phone-in the other day. Fi Glover, standing in for Jeremy Vine on Radio 2, fielded a number of calls, all from Tories, who whilst divided on the matter of Howard Flight’s fate were united on the subject of public services. This particularly annoyed me; the only reason I listen to the BBC is for their unreconstructed, institutionalised leftist bias, so to hear call after call from people who were unashamedly right wing was not what I expected. The consensus appeared to be that as Labour has increased public spending, and this has not delivered, we should now be making cuts in public services to trim back the inevitable waste and inefficiencies therein.
I think these comments symbolise for me what I dislike so much about the debate about public services. The argument seems to be that because there are problems with public services, and because more money has been put in, any failings must be down to the inefficient public sector. Well, there may be inefficiencies in the public services, and indeed I am sure there are, but that is a separate issue to the amount of money they require. It seems an easy target to call for streamlining the public sector, but actual evidence of inefficiencies themselves is rarely forthcoming other than in vague statements. If the public services are not delivering, you could just as easily argue that even more money should be put in; this is every bit as simplistic an argument.
The fact is, I would suggest, that many of the people who phoned in the other day just resent paying tax and funding public services, full stop. If public spending is increased, and examples of failings are found, then this is used to support the idea that any public spending is wasted; but the public services will always fail, to some degree, because everything fails. There are always some problems, somewhere. However, when something does go wrong in the public sector, then all of the public services seem to get tarred with the same brush. This does not seem to be the case with the private sector.
Every week on television Watchdog shows numerous examples of poor customer service, bad management, faulty goods, almost always because of a problem (admittedly, often spurious in my view) associated with a private company; yet it is rarely suggested that such failings are typical of the sorts of activities related to the private sector. For some reason, however, when a problem is highlighted in for example the NHS, it is not unusual to hear the opinion that this in keeping with the sorts of problems endemic to the public sector, that it reflects similarly on the actions of local councils or police forces, as if any failure on one area shows the intrinsic problems associated with public services as a whole.
I am not suggesting that all is well with the public services, that things cannot be improved, but I think we should have a proper debate, free from silly and simplistic assumptions. Ideology alone will solve nothing. How many people thought that all the failings in the rail network could be solved by privatisation? I wonder how many of the same people are now arguing for re-nationalisation, as if that in itself is the answer. On its own, a simple change of ownership from public to private or vice versa cannot solve anything. But to be honest, I get the feeling that even of we did have a terrific rail network, some people would still moan that it wasn’t as good as (say) France’s, as if going on a train a few years ago between Charles de Gaulle and the Gare du Nord makes you an expert on the superiority of the French transport infrastructure.
Of course, it does happen the other way around as well; some people recoil in horror at the very thought of companies making a profit, as if the idea of making money is incompatible with providing a public service. It isn’t. We should be doing what is right, what works, to provide the public services we desire. In order for that to happen we need a debate free from ideology; free from assumptions that the public sector can only fail, or that profit and welfare are incompatible; free from the theory that only state action can succeed, or that the market in infallible. Too often the arguments we hear seem to be being made by people who have an aversion to either the public sector or the private sector. I feel it is very unlikely that such people have the answers.
While Labour has increased public spending, any failures in the public sector will be blamed on inefficiencies, so cuts will be argued for. You can guarantee that if the Tories are elected and public services are cut then any failings will be blamed on lack of finances, and so greater public spending will be argued for. Let’s all grow up and accept that there will always be problems in the public sector, as in the private sector; now let’s try to figure out what works best for all of us.