Public spending - any light amidst the heat?


The RSA has a double interest in the debate about public spending. In its lectures and Journal and other platforms for ideas, the Society aims to frame issues in ways which shed light, rather than heat, and also encourage us to understand the role we, as citizens, play in creating and solving policy problems. Also, our research programme is exploring various aspects of public service reform, with a particular emphasis on how public services can build social capacity. The question is whether the current row over public spending will be one that enhances public understanding.

Today sees the start of Labour’s autumn offensive. A speech later by Peter Mandelson and by Gordon Brown tomorrow to the TUC will be opportunities for the Government to lay out its core script.  Also, today sees a political cabinet, at which the agenda is focussed on Party matters and the civil servants leave the room. I attended a few of these, and even spoke at one. Generally, they are deeply tedious affairs. Unlike the policy issues on the agenda of an ordinary meeting, at political cabinet everyone thinks they have something useful to say about political strategy and the state of the party. This means every single person speaks, many of them sticking to well worn scripts. There are those ministers who always start their contribution with something folksy about their own constituency, those who cannot speak without reminding colleagues of their voluminous knowledge of Labour history, those who offer deep analysis and new conceptual frameworks without actually saying anything useful (this would have been my flaw had I been a cabinet member). They are the kind of meetings where people late in the order of speaking say ‘most of my points have been made already’ and then go on to make them all again.

I assume that Brown’s message to his colleagues will be that Labour can use the row over public spending to do to the Conservatives in the autumn of 2009 what the Tories did to Labour on tax in the autumn of 1991. The phrase may not be used but the tone will be ‘Tory public spending bombshell’. With this tactic having been used before, in 2001 and 2005, with the public hostile to Labour and more open to the Tories, and with opinion polls suggesting the public wants to see spending reductions, this is a much harder attack to mount. At political cabinet the thing really to listen out for is the coded subtext beneath all the waffle. Today I suspect it will be this ’We are all behind you Gordon in trying to put the heat on the Conservatives. But if it doesn’t succeed the writing will be on the wall’.

Having said which, there will be some nervousness in Conservative ranks. Whether by accident or design the Opposition are in the position that whatever Labour says on spending constraint it has to seem tougher. Labour’s task is to recast the divide from being ‘Labour denial versus Tory realism’, which was how Osborne and Cameron successfully branded the divide in the summer, to ‘Labour toughness versus Tory recklessness’. But in arguing that this is not the time for making major cuts in public services, Labour has the backing not just of the TUC but many respected economic commentators, including last week Anatole Kalestsky in the Times and Martin Wolf in the FT.

If Labour does manage to start winning this argument the Conservatives may face some hard questions (not a bad thing if they are to be the next Government). If they back away from their tough line they will look weak, but if they stick to it, the pressure will be on to specify their cuts, especially as many Conservative front benchers seem actually to be promising more investment in their own areas.

Although there is bound to be lots of political posturing, this is at least a debate that matters and where Government policy can make a real difference. The hope (but not the expectation) must be that our politicians are forced to go beyond the point scoring to engage with the bigger question of what kind of welfare state we will need in the future, and what does this mean for us as citizens.

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