[A-List] UK corporate state: pump priming
Michael.Keaney at mbs.fi
Tue Jul 16 01:57:33 MDT 2002
The papers today are full of Gordon Brown's package of increased state spending on public services, which are so bad that even the vast majority of capitalist interests are concerned about their unreliability. Hence the rehabilitation of Keynesianism, of a sort. The global downturn and stock market crisis helps also, inasmuch as Gordon can be seen to be putting all his prudently saved millions to good use. Perhaps it is also indicative of the ever-widening split between the US and Britain, in that residual Thatcherite anti-statism was employed by Blair and Brown, rhetorically and practically, as a means of reassuring "the markets" (i.e. Washington and Wall Street) that they were not about to revert to Wilson/Callaghan era policies. Of course this remains true, even if Gordon is about to engage in some pump priming that recalls policies of an earlier age. But Gordon's pseudo-Keynesianism is in fact Third Wayism par excellence, because there is, unlike in the budgets of, say, Denis Healey, conspicuously little attention paid to redistribution.
The figures are vast
But can they make them count?
Tuesday July 16, 2002
The great spending review brings together the present and the past of this government.
Its substance makes real, on a huge scale, the social democratic project that New Labour has belatedly affirmed to be its purpose. That's the second-term version of Blairism. But the defining characteristic of the first term necessarily hoves back into view. The political future of the project in the middle distance will hinge on the doors of perception, otherwise known as spin.
No politics these days can be left unspun. Perception is almost everything, and nowhere is this truer than in reckonings about public services. That doesn't mean governments telling porkies about education, health, crime and transport. The spinning can't afford to be mendacious. But most people have little idea what the vast sums announced yesterday will mean. The gigantic figures and percentages are out of reach of most perceived reality on the ground, especially when similar figures and promises seem to have been heard before, albeit less vastly. They will need interpreting when the money starts to roll. The entire political argument, come the election, will be about perception. To win that argument, ministers have to find a way of spinning themselves to credibility.
Gordon Brown made a good start yesterday. Though his figures were immense, his promises were restrained. There was no talk of world-class education, health, law and order or world-class any thing at all. Such grandiloquence would have been palpably absurd, but that doesn't mean it might not have come. The old Brown would have been tempted. Now the heavy message was that this is all going to take a long time, with even 2005-06, when the election will be with us, only an interim benchmark.
The ground had been prepared. This review was less tortuous than many because most ministers knew where they stood. There were limits to effective lobbying, because the health money had been declared in the Budget, making way for education to re sume its priority, around which all other budgets had to be arranged. The Home Office produced the toughest conflict and got a decent settlement. All ministers understand that the fate of every one of them depends on what is seen, or thought, or roughly guessed to have happened to crime, hospitals and schools in the next three years.
There's plenty of money to go round, which always helps ease the political wheels. Even so, the relative absence of acrimony speaks for a project that's more genuinely collective that anything that occurred during 18 years of Tory ambivalence about public spending.
This is also a tribute to the fraternal solidarity between Mr Brown and Mr Blair, in contrast to the numerous crack-ups with chancellors during the Thatcher years. The two have been equally engaged in the exercise, which has been the prime minister's deepest concern for many months. His alleged lack of interest in detail, always a misrepresentation, doesn't square with his hard-headed working through, according to associates, of all relevant details of the three fields of potential political disaster. It's not just on the greatest of all increases, for Clare Short's international development department, that Blair and Brown share a sense of moral imperative. This whole exercise reminds us that at the core of centre-left politics, while they may use different language, they're basically at one.
The question remains, though: how will people notice? How do the vast sums translate into waiting lists that grow perceptibly shorter, kids that are more numerate, muggers thinning out on the streets, burglars being copped? Could this entire exercise vanish, politically, into the desert air of national scepticism? Part of the answer depends on things really changing. In primary schools, after the first-term reformist onslaught, this has happened. Though there have been blips in the figures, smaller class sizes, better respected teachers, more generous resources and audited results have produced rewards for the heavy investment. Many parents with children in these schools have felt the impact and seen the point.
What's happened in the primaries can be repeated in the secondaries, but progress will be achingly slow. It's certain to be slow all over the public sector, including the NHS, where Alan Milburn has established himself at the top of Mr Blair's list of effective ministers but can't be expected to perform miracles on a service so shockingly under-invested for so many years. Only the long haul has any chance of producing results. This is the hardest of tricks for ministers to learn to take.
Reform, alongside resources, is at the heart of it, as they keep saying.
Mr Brown rolled out another carpet-load of targets, audits and inspections. The Treasury is adding to its functions that of a star chamber, dispensing summary justice, not to mention hit squads, against every little hospital or school that's seen to fail.
In his desperation to push reluctant teachers, police chiefs and administrators forward by this means, Brown begins to invite the question: who's going to inspect the inspectors, and where is he going to get them?
What all this depends on, however, is credibility. In every voter's opinion about the state of public services, personal anecdote lines up with what's perceived as the general evidence.
Central audits are a necessary way of gauging how public money is spent, but the results have to be believed. So far Labour has a dreadful record of unbelievability in detail, which is in danger of seeping over into a general withdrawal of public confidence.
The Conservatives are showing how they will exploit this. It is not hard to do. Since everyone knows that schools and hospitals could be better, an opposition party can easily get away with pointing out how terrible things are. It's very simple to show that the glass is forever half empty, especially in an age when the common opinion of politicians has reached rock bottom. Michael Howard's insinuating response to Brown yesterday showed the endless possibilities available from recycled quotations and selective statistics.
Whether the voters will buy this depends on a few other factors beyond Howard's quote researchers. At some point, the Tories will have to deliver an alternative prescription for the public services, instead of just playing on Labour's failures.
Part of voters' cynicism ensures that they are not idiots, and they won't be impressed by a pig in a poke, especially when it's proffered by such an unimpressive bunch as the present opposition frontbench. In the test of the half-glass, empty or full, broader issues of stature, competence and trust will decide where the line is drawn, and which way up.
But the government has a legacy to live down. It has not been a reliable bearer of honest news about its own record. It has not been good with statistics. It promised much, claimed too much and delivered too little. That was in the era when spin equated with mendacity.
Ministers have paid a heavy price for it, which arguably may not be recovered. They spun their credibility down the drain.
On the other hand, perhaps they can spin it back again. The doors of perception need to be opened to the truth: that there are no quick fixes, that the stats will go up as well as down and down as well as up, that all reform takes time, that it will be a decade before our public services benchmark with the best in Europe. The message against short-term gratification is a hard one for ministers to deliver. But Brown and Blair, bearing their gifts, seem to have got it.
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