I’ve been off to the Public Administration Select Committee to give evidence on good government. A strange affair. The committee chair Tony Wright asks intelligent questions and thinks deeply about the future of public administration. Other members of his committee seem intent on using the opportunity as a platform for their own personal agendas or vendettas.
So, as well as important questions about the relationship between ministers and officials, between leadership and public management and on how the centre might let go, a witness panel comprising Geoff Mulgan (Young Foundation), Zeena Atkins (OFSTED) and Sir Steve Robson (ex Treasury) and me (West Bromwich Albion) were asked to deal with questions on issues ranging from drugs policy to Afghanistan.
Most committee members did attempt at least some link between their question and the subject at hand but one somehow managed to segue from the future of Government to asking me whether I thought Labour Party members should be balloted on post office closures.
The starting point for some of the questions was betrayed by the tendency of one Labour MP to refer to the Labour administration he was presumably elected to be part of as ‘the Blair regime’.
While I’m on matters political, I had a fascinating exchange with a very well networked Conservative activist yesterday.
I suggested to him that if I was advising Gordon Brown I would be telling him to make a particular speech right now. My Tory friend replied that he was advocating that David Cameron make almost exactly the same speech. So what would be its main points?
a) we’re screwed – the economy is going to be in a very, very bad place for at least the next year and even if it then picks up we won’t feel any improvements for at least a year after that
b) for everyone things will be more difficult and some will see their hopes – whether for a career, a home or a business shattered.
c) but we will come though it. We have come through bad times before. It is at times of adversity that we find out what we are made of. That’s true of Government, it’s true of communities, it’s true of people
d) All our energies are focussed on three tasks; making the slump as short as possible, helping people (home owners, business owners etc) survive through the bad times and protecting the most vulnerable
e) But we are all going to have make sacrifices.
As a symbol of this I am giving up things you all know I care about. So I am putting on hold/closing down the following Government programmes for two years (for example Education Maintenance Allowances, ID Cards).
I am putting in place a small but significant two year time limited increase in taxation levels for the wealth.
As a further token of my commitment to provide leadership I am reducing the ministerial payroll by 25% and asking all ministers to accept a wage freeze.
The money released will be spent on infrastructure projects which are necessary will create jobs and will put us in the right place when things pick up.
f) If we understand what is happening and we do what we need to do we can come out of this crisis - as our nation has from other crises - as a stronger, wiser and more united nation
The reality of a speech like this is that it is as much about delivery as about content, which is why it may not be made. Cameron’s background makes it difficult for him to do ‘sacrifices for all’ empathy while Gordon Brown has difficulty achieving the connection with the public vital to a speech like this succeeding.
It’s a pity. Such a speech (forget the detail it’s the tone that matters) could form a strong bond between the public and the politician who made it. And it’s what we need to hear.