As we all await Mr Darling’s action-packed pre-budget report the focus is on cuts and taxes. Depending on their political orientation and the briefing they have received, newspapers can choose whether to highlight an attack on city bonuses, constraints on public spending or general increases in taxation.
The overall thrust of the package seems right; spending constraint but imposed gradually so as not to choke off recovery, tax increases weighted towards those who can most afford them. Indeed, it is interesting to speculate how different a Conservative pre-budget report would have been in these circumstances.
But there are some other messages I would like to hear from Mr Darling. And, to be honest, I'm not holding my breath.
Apparently the Chancellor will say that health, education and policing will be protected from cuts and may even have small increases in funding over the next three years. I understand the politics of this. It is in line with the Government’s commitment to guaranteed entitlements in these services. But it may not be the best policy. As SOLACE and CIPFA warned this morning, the consequence is that other local government services take the brunt of the cuts in social spending. It could be non-statutory provision like youth services, public space, sport, leisure and culture that get squeezed. This in turn could lead to a deterioration in the public sphere, just as happened in many places in the early 80s. In terms of social impact it would be much better to force productivity gains in schools, hospital and police services (where, after years of budget increases, there is plenty of scope) than cuts that will weaken the social fabric.
SOLACE and CIPFA also warn this morning that as the state pulls back, citizens themselves - individually and collectively - will have to plug the gap. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is scope for many services to become more co-productive, by which I mean that their outcome is seen to be created by the combined efforts of state and citizen. But an imposed cuts package is the worst context in which to generate a constructive public debate about reconfiguring services. We should be having a national and local conversation about how citizen engagement can help protect service outcomes even while budgets are being cut. How much emphasis will we see today on the need for a richer public engagement about the choices we now face?
This links to the wider need for a story of social mobilisation. I have written before about the message Stein Ringen gave here at the RSA about Labour’s failure to mobilise public sector workers or the general public behind goals like eradicating child poverty. Labour aspirations were noble but too often they felt like things Government was doing to people rather than with them. I also wrote last week about how well people often respond when they face a shared crisis.
It is not easy for either Mr Darling or Mr Brown, but there needs to be a sense today of the Government seeking to get people behind the mission of safeguarding society while reducing debt. The measure of a Government’s worth is not just whether it can have good ideas or pull new policies out of a hat but whether it can engage and mobilise the population.