Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Poundland Politics

David Cameron says he wants to raise the price of MP's salads and give Minister's a 5% pay cut. The Liberal Democrats want to scrap Trident. Both Cameron and Clegg want fewer MP's. Alistair Darling speaks of "cutting costs". Yes, with the backlash from years of Labourite fiscal prolifigacy finally biting deep into the rump of every politician, the language of financial self-mortification is bubbling thickly from the halls of Westminster.

Cameron admitted that his proposals - which as far as I can see, from the figures I can glean, would save at most £120 million per annun - would barely dent the vast £175 billion deficit that sits around the government's neck like a millstone. But by combining two fashional public pursuits - dismissing MP's as fat cats and demanding that money be saved without harming the person demanding the savings - Cameron is, again, moving slickly to broaden his appeal. Yet, he and every other politician in Westminster know that spending has to come down, and hard.

When McKinsey came out the other week and called for the NHS to cut it's staff by 10%, there was the predictable outburst of NIMBYism from NHS staff, the BMA and it's kin and 'concerned' politicians. But such numbers should be seriously contemplated - leaving the budget without a heavy pruning with the coming 'grey surge', as the baby boomers retire, would invite fiscal disaster as rising health and social care costs and falling tax receipts combine to put the Treasury into a deadly vice.

We must act now if we are to create a strong, but small, state capable of dealing what is coming. This means ending public sector final salary schemes, and pegging them down at a level comparable with the private sector. This means raising the retirement level towards 70 far more quickly, and changing the law to make it far easier for people to stay in work as long as they desire, and indeed seek new employment if they retire and then decide to go back. This means merging offices and departments, stripping out layer upon layer of bureaucracy and targets to thin down, speed up and strengthen the Civil Service - if this is done at the expense of political appointees, so much the better. This means returning to local councils much greater power to decide how they will spend the money they're allocated, and encouraging public sector bodies to move money around within themselves more thoughtfully - not spending up to the limit because they have to, and moving money from areas with a surplus to others with a deficit.

This cannot, and will not, and should not, happen over night. There have been too many years of target-obssessed governments in this country, driving public sector workers into a corner with targets, plans, schemes, drives, incentives and all the rest of the senseless political jargon. If we want to make this country's public sector the best in the world - the smallest, the quickest, the strongest - then we must, absolutely must, encourage it to think for itself. We must invest in creating a system that responds to users before it thinks of it's own needs, and which treasures efficiency as much as it does impartiality.

But simply shuffling a few civil servants will not be enough. Here, Labour must take a full broadside - all this talk of 'reassigning resources to frontline services' to paraphrase the Chancellor yesterday - is so much hogwash. I may find many of the things that the Conservatives are proposing at the next election either dangerous or laughable - scrapping the Human Rights Act is a clear example of the former - but here they have me onside. They have the guts to talk of cuts, real cuts, in public spending, and take the heat for it.

Labour have decided it is better to wash away the worries about the deficit with soothing talk of 'preserving' frontline services by mysteriously making money move from a million parasitic backrooms, it would seem, to classrooms, wards and job centres up and down the country. Yet, by simply moving the same resources around, by 'reassigning', surely one isn't actually reducing what one is spending, merely moving it elsewhere? This lack of appetite for fiscal reality makes me extremely wary of the party and their plans. They've already shown they don't like to stir the waters by delaying tax rises until after the next election. So much for 'tough' decisions, Mr Brown.

A really tough decision would be to decide which public sector jobs -have- to be cut, which services -have- to be reduced and who takes responsibility for this mess. All the scapegoating of bankers by Labour MPs won't remove the fact that it was they who spent the country into a deficit during the good times, then hurridly picked up the mask of Keynes when the going got rough - even though Keynes would probably have spat teeth at them for ignoring the vast bulk of what he said. They were the ones who let the government carry through financial regulation which effectively gutted the system of responsibility. They have failed to make the government actually make the tough choices it speaks so highly of, and they should pay for this by loosing the next election.

He says.

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