trust

After every election, the public sector is reorganised. It never seems to save any money.

After every election, the public sector is reorganised. It never seems to save any money.

Police Officers

BBC News – Radical police shake-up outlined.

After every election, vast swathes of the public sector are reorganised. And yet, within four years, the opposition — whoever they are — is able to point to a litany of inefficiency, bureaucracy gone mad, pointless red tape and wasteful duplication. Today, the police are being told they will be reorganised. A couple of weeks ago it was the health service. Other public sector bodies should expect the same.

We recognise that there have to be cuts. We are carrying a public sector sized for the economy in the hey-day of Tony Blair. We clearly cannot afford to carry on doing everything that we were doing, or, at least, not to the same extent. Lest we forget, it was not the public sector that got us into the economic trouble we found ourselves in. If Blair et al had had the Vince Cable-like foresight to take steps to avoid the crisis, they could have done it by dealing with our under-regulated financial sector, not by cutting public services.

But we are where we are, and we can’t simply go back. Cuts of some kind are inevitable.

But reorganisation? I’m not so sure.

Politicians, I feel, like reorganisation for two reasons. First, it gives them a feeling of being in charge — they can make their mark on history, leaving a legacy that will endure long after they are gone. Second, it makes them feel like they are running the nation like a business. Businesses reorganise, so should government. And, since businesses are driven by a profit motive, it is self-evident that reorganisation will deliver savings to the public purse, which can either go into more public services, lower taxes, or paying off debt.

Except, except.

First, since every government reorganises, even when the party in power stays the same, no reorganisation is permanent, and therefore no one gets to leave a mark in the history books. Or, if they do leave a mark, it is in pencil, to be rubbed out by the next owner of the book and replaced with their own mark. Nothing is more transitory than public sector reorganisation.

Second, businesses rarely reorganise successfully to reduce costs. Business reorganisations are as fraught with spiralling costs and new inefficiencies as public sector ones, although the losers are conveniently forgotten about. This is to some extent inevitable: public sector organisations tend to continue whether they are successful or not, and the ones which are axed are often not the ones which were inefficient. Private sector organisations that are unprofitable go under and vanish from our memory.

Business reorganisation, when it works, is done to meet new challenges and opportunities in the market place, which, under the now (in)famous BCG matrix, helps them develop the new rising stars which become cash-cows. A proportion of reorganisations can fail, as long as the business keeps its cash cows going, and creates its next generation from somewhere. The reorganisation itself is a costly process which creates duplication. But it is often out of this duplication and time of tension that new, creative, solutions to old problems emerge.

In the public sector this dynamic is not at work. First, there is no market place. The NHS cannot suddenly come up with an idea to beat crime, and move into police work. The Fire Service cannot muscle in on Education’s territory. Public services exist because we need them to exist, not because it is profitable that they exist. If the police spend their time trying to replace the fire service, then they are not catching criminals. Second, there is no profit. Any public sector organisation which underspends its budget faces having that budget subsequently reduced. It can reinvest its money in better services, but it cannot use that reinvestment to give bonuses to its staff — encouraging more efficient working — nor to develop new products for its future diversification.

Perhaps there is a case for a matrix working, self-diversifying set of public sector organisations without portfolio. A sort of generalised charity or trust, which moves to find holes in the public sector market place and fill them. Perhaps not — it would be another reorganisation.

We now face a very real possibility of the entire savings from the cuts being ploughed back into the costs of reorganisation, or, worse, real cuts which are not 25% but 50% in order to pay for the reorganisations. But our problem was not that the public sector was incorrectly organised, but because it was more than we could currently afford.

If we must cut, let us cut. But no more of this rearrangement of the pieces into another, no-more-efficient, and no-more-permanent solution which will be in turn abolished by the subsequent administration.

In the nation’s interests

I have received howls of protest over the last few days from Lib Dem members, people who voted Lib Dem but usually vote Labour, and people who have never voted Lib Dem and never intend to. Some have demanded that Nick Clegg immediately fall into line behind Cameron and stop negotiating for ‘party advantage’. Some have insisted that for Clegg to co-ally would be a betrayal of all that is most sacred. Some have told me that talking to Labour was equivalent to state treachery, and Clegg can never be trusted again. By email, phone, Facebook, txt, tweet and even visits to my door, and, bizarrest of all, an email sent from Australia by someone I had never heard of directed to all Lib Dem candidates who contested the election, it’s been made clear to me that whatever Nick Clegg did, not everyone would be happy.

I have to confess I’ve struggled to get quite as emotionally caught up in this as some people. Those of us who stand for parliament do so with an underlying notion of public service. Of course we want our party to win. And there is always personal ambition: we want to be in there, making the decisions, with our fingers on the turning of the world. But nobody would go through the five weeks of gruelling punishment, preceded by four years of selection and campaigning, preceded in turn by how ever many years of becoming involved and going through a candidate approval process, unless there was more than simply the desire for our team to win.

Nick Clegg was always honour-bound to make his decision in the nation’s best interests. Anything less would have simply ruled him unfit to be a party leader.

The only question was: what decision would be in the nation’s best interests?

I will put my cards on the table: after last year’s expenses debacle, and this year’s scandal over the Ashcroft million, electoral reform seems to me to be one of the nation’s most important and pressing concerns. The result of the General Election — no clear majority in parliament, nothing like a majority in the popular vote (Tories polled only 12% more than Lib Dems, lest we forget, but gained more than five times as many seats) — demonstrates very clearly that the public are not satisfied.

But, although pressing, electoral reform is not the most pressing concern. I do not accept the view of the scaremongerers that Britain is about to go the way of Greece. David Cameron has already had to eat his words that a hung parliament would spell economic disaster. But it is true that the economy is right at the top of the list of things that need to be fixed now, and fixed right.

A coalition with Labour was always a long-shot, and Clegg was right to honour his election pledge and talk first to the party with the most votes. But he was also right to at least attempt a deal with Labour. This was not treachery, as some of the Tory press and some of my own correspondents have suggested, but a necessary and entirely honourable step: Clegg was duty bound to explore both feasible possibilities as he decided for the United Kingdom who should be the next prime minister.

For the record, I think it would have been possible to do it. (I do not say that it would have necessarily been the best thing, but I do say that it would have been possible). Those who argued that this was undemocratic forget the very shaky ground on which they stand: Labour and the Lib Dems between them gained more than 50% of the popular vote, although, because of our misrepresentative system, this was not quite 50% of the seats in parliament. Labour certainly seemed ready to promise a much swifter, much surer route to electoral reform. And Gordon Brown nobly was willing to accept Nick Clegg’s other election promise — that, whatever happened, Brown would not continue as Prime Minister.

But it was Labour MPs themselves who made it quite clear that they had no real interest in staying in government. From the point that (then, still) government ministers went on the record in public stating this, the chances of a deal with Labour were over.

Many Lib Dem voters find the coalition with the Conservatives distasteful. I personally remained on good terms with all the candidates in the Stratford election, except for the BNP who never attended any of the debates and with whom I never spoke. But there have been instances where Tory attacks were brutal and unfounded. And we have endured the jeers and scorn of the Tory press barons for more than a generation.

It is certainly true that very few will have voted Lib Dem with the aim of putting David Cameron in government.

But Nick Clegg still had to put the nation’s interest ahead of his own. The choice between a Conservative minority government which would be almost certain to fall in recriminations within six months, in which time it would have made little real progress in tackling the economic crisis, and none at all in electoral reform, or a true Lib Dem Con coalition, was one that simply could not be made in any other way from the way it has been made.

The solution is not perfect. David Cameron could have divested himself of the lacklustre George Osborne. If having Vince Cable as chancellor was too much to swallow (though it would have pleased the nation, and the markets), Ken Clarke was waiting in the wings, the only member of Cameron’s team who had ever served in a senior role in a government. There could have been (and should have) a commitment to a referendum on true electoral reform, not merely the disproportional Alternative Vote (AV) system. If the Conservatives believe that the public has no appetite for electoral reform, then they should have agreed to a referendum on the real issue. If they were willing to accept a grudging compromise and no more, they should have offered a simple bill on AV as Labour did, and left it at that. The nation is to be put to the trouble and expense of a referendum without being allowed to vote on the real topic of discussion.

Nonetheless, the prospect of an autumn election has receded to the horizon. Cameron’s lightweight team will be strongly bolstered by 5 Lib Dem cabinet ministers, and a total of 20 Lib Dems across his ministries.

Lib Dem fortunes at the next election will almost certainly suffer, and there will equally certainly be a spate of recriminations and even member-resignations. And this is the true mark of Nick Clegg’s leadership: at personal cost, he has put the interests of the nation first.

BBC praise for plans

Stephanie Flanders, BBC economics editor had this to say about the Lib Dem manifesto: “The Liberal Democrats may be only the third largest party at Westminster – but when it comes to tax plans, they punch above their weight. Their manifesto has a lot more numbers than either of the other parties. That deserves some credit. Their tax proposals are also by far the most ambitious we’ve seen this week. Whether they would do what the party says they would do is another matter.”

On Labour and the Tories, she was less kind: “The Labour and Conservative manifestos are very different. Labour’s was big on words – and detailed promises and commitments which we had heard before. It put government at the centre. The Conservative version is longer, but lighter. About a third of its 118 pages actually contains written text – the rest is made up of pictures, fun facts, and (yes) blank pages to give readers a rest. Their focus is on the private sector – and on individuals.

“But the two documents have one important thing in common: neither of them makes any further contribution to public understanding on how Britain’s £167bn budget deficit is going to be cut. And they both leave plenty out.”

The Lib Dem manifesto is about four key policies —

• Fair taxes that put money back in your pocket.
• A fair chance for every child.
• A fair future, creating jobs by making Britain greener.
• A fair deal for you from politicians.

In the words of Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats: “We’ve had 65 years of Labour and the Conservatives: the same parties taking turns and making the same mistakes, letting you down. It is time for something different. It is time for something better.”

The manifesto itself is a pretty hefty document — strengthened, as Stephanie Flanders points out, by pages and pages of detailed costings. This is not pie in the sky, these are workable plans which — if the situation did transpire that we were in government with members of other parties willing to work with us — would form the blueprint for economic recovery. Sustainable economic recovery that is, because, despite the promises of the last four chancellors (Lawson, Clarke, Brown, Darling) the Labour/Conservative or Labservative economics has done nothing but cycle us through boom and bust.

If the full document is more than you want to read right now, here are the key points in a bit more detail:
fair taxes
that put money back in your pocket
• The first £10,000 you earn tax-free: a tax cut of £700 for most people
• 3.6 million low earners and pensioners freed from income tax completely
• Paid for in full by closing loopholes that unfairly benefit the wealthy and polluters

a fair chance
for every child
• Ensure children get the individual attention they need by cutting class sizes
• Made possible by investing £2.5 billion in schools targeted to help struggling pupils
• Give schools the freedom to make the right choices for their pupils

a fair future
creating jobs by making Britain greener
• Break up the banks and get them lending again to protect real businesses
• Honesty about the tough choices needed to cut the deficit • Green growth and jobs that last by investing in infrastructure

a fair deal
by cleaning up politics
• Put trust back into politics by giving you the right to sack corrupt MPs
• Restore and protect hard-won British civil liberties with a Freedom Bill
• Overhaul Westminster completely: fair votes, an elected House of Lords, all politicians to pay full British taxes

More questions than answers

As the great-grandson of a railwayman, and the grandson of a railway missionary, I love trains, railways, railway stations and rail travel. My natural inclination is to back them. So I’m in a slightly funny position with the consultation on Stratford’s prospective Parkway Station. The public consultation is very short — 4 March to 19 March — and the consultation presentation leaves many more questions than it answers. The consultation documents are in the form of posters, and the consultation website gives virtually no more information.

The questions I would expect to be answered in a consultation of this kind are as follows:

  • What routes are being served, and what are the train operator plans for the future of these routes, if the station is built?
  • What is the capacity of the route to take on more passengers?
  • What evidence is there that opening a new station will increase passenger numbers?
  • If the new station will not increase passenger numbers, what is the predicted impact on existing stations?
  • In the case of Stratford-upon-Avon, I have some other, very specific questions. Stratford is (or was, last time I checked) Britain’s third most popular tourist destination. It will play a leading role in the Cultural Olympiad as part of the 2012 Olympics. It is home to the world’s most famous theatre, and the world’s most famous theatre company, and also to the Shakespeare birthplace trust. Parkway stations, such as Warwick Parkway, are typically constructed on out-of-town sites to give easy parking for local people to commute to perhaps London or Birmingham. They provide ample parking, hence the name Parkway and relatively easy access from motorways. It’s true there are people who have to go from Stratford to Birmingham or London, though my local station of Honeybourne is a deal more convenient, faster and more cost effective for trips to London, and Warwick Parkway is available on the other side of Stratford. But most of the potential growth in rail use for Stratford is inward, not outward: tourism is destined to play an even larger part in the town’s future, with the reopening of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre next year.

    Therefore, I would want to know:

  • What testing has been done of likely tourist uptake of the new station?
  • Given that tourists can walk from the existing station into the town, what is the likely response to having to walk to a bus, and then take the bus into town, only to have to take it out later in order to return?
  • What negotiations have taken place with train operators to ensure good links with fast services? Even from Warwick, it is quicker to drive to Coventry to take a train to London than to take the Chiltern line from Warwick Parkway
  • I am not saying that these questions are unanswerable. But, despite laudable sections on environmental and flooding impact, the consultation posters significantly fail to answer the basic rail-industry questions, and, equally, the more specific Stratford-facing questions.

    I would very much like to be able to support the creation of a new station. However, on the evidence presented to me, I don’t believe I can. Right now — and I would be only too happy to be proved wrong — this seems to be yet another grandiose public construction scheme of the type that is plaguing this area, whether Labour-led (“Eco”-towns) or Conservative (Bancroft and Bridge).

    If they know why they are doing this, please would they tell us? Otherwise, it is time to learn that just because we can build something, it does not mean that we should.

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