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Public Services - Why the Labour Government's Plans for Public Services will Fail

1st October 2002

The reason why I am a Conservative now is, at its core, the same as when I started out in politics.

The reason why I am a Conservative now is, at its core, the same as when I started out in politics. Conservatives believe in individual liberty, the right to own property and to participate in our local communities free, so far as possible and within the law, from Government controls and intervention.

As a Conservative, I do also passionately believe in our nation and that our history and institutions provide cultural values and traditions, which have greatly benefited our society in the past and still have a core role in our present and indeed our future. So Conservatives do not like to see attacks on the monarchy, or the moves towards remote regionalisation of local government or indeed the Labour Party's devaluation of the role of Parliament as a central aspect of democracy in this country.

At the same time, the Conservative Party has always represented a broad church of views that have always adapted over time so as to remain relevant to the society of our country. We need to remember that at its routes, in the eighteenth century, the Conservative Party was set up to support the interests of Jacobite aristocrats (hence attracting the name Tory, meaning rebel) whose main concern was to maintain high corn prices for landowners through protectionist policies. By the mid nineteenth century the Tory Party had changed to be the main supporters of the industrialist interests and free trade, then it changed track again and, by the late nineteenth century, "Tory democracy" was the champion of widening the franchise to the lower middle classes, who joined together with the landed classes against what Disraeli called the "millocracy".

The point here is that the Conservative Party has consistently evolved and maintained its relevancy to what was important to people at any particular time and where it failed to do this, which has been the case at times over its long history, it has been out of power, sometimes for more than a decade. If we look back over the last thirty years the Conservative Party has achieved an enormous amount for our country and created a sea change in public opinion. In 1979, we clearly identified the mood of the public and the needs of the nation. We freed corporations from the shackles of state ownership by placing them back in the private sector. We increased property ownership, not only for the wealthy, but also by introducing the concept to all levels of our society, notably by encouraging home ownership through the sale of council houses and therefore providing people with a property owning stake in society. We opened higher education to the people by almost doubling the numbers whom had access to university and we gave national pride back to our country, which had come to be seen as the "poor man of Europe".

I for one will never play down the enormous achievements of those years and where we were brave and where we were radical in our vision and our implementation we won. But at the same time, looking back on those days, we clearly did make mistakes. Yes, we reformed and freed the private sector but we hardly touched public sector service provision, 60-70% of whose employees are still members of unions. Instead of freeing schools, by following our instincts that local communities know what is best for themselves and that parents know what is best for their children in their own schools, rather we centralised schools and introduced an over regulated National Curriculum. Rather than allowing so called "loony left" councils to hang themselves on their own impossible spending commitments and irrelevant policy objectives, we kept those same extremists in power by capping council spending from Whitehall and restricting what councils could do.

It is certainly true that John Major saw this problem and the very concept of the Citizens Charter was to enable the man in the street to cut through the layers of bureaucracy in the public sector in order to have their problems addressed. However, it has to be said that, although well meaning, the Citizens Charter addressed how people should have a say in the existing system, but did not address the problem with the system itself. It may have been the case that having achieved so much to liberate our country from the strangulation of socialism and with the left retreating into its strongholds in the public sector, significant reform of the public sector was a bridge too far at that time.

Nonetheless, the Labour Party certainly saw this weak link in Conservative policy and, furthermore, they not only saw the changes that were happening in our society over the last thirty years - they actually understood them in a way that the Conservative Party did not. It is therefore ironic that many of these changes were ones, which had been caused by Conservative policies. Above all of the changes was the renewed British understanding of consumerism. Before the 1980's, consumerism was something that people derived as a concept that only Americans were involved with and it did not feature in the delivery of services in the United Kingdom, where expectations had become so low.

However, closely following the Conservative Governments reforms in the 80's and 90's came a new understanding of the meaning of value and service. For instance, how many of you remember ordering a new telephone from the Post Office before the privatisation of British Telecom - having to wait many months for a standard design product. But post-privatisation, phones become available on the day on which they were ordered in any colour and any variety and, now, if you don't like the billing plan offered by BT then there are many other companies who will offer you their own plan.

Labour also saw that people were wealthier; they understood that people were more comfortable, not only financially with their foreign holidays and owning their own homes, but also comfortable in their environment with the fear of strikes having disappeared, a productive economy and national pride back once more. In fact, for many people, if there was a single event that led them to believe that the economy could be destabilised, it was the Conservative Government's decision to enter into the ERM. Although, in reality of course, the Labour Party fully supported our entry into the ERM at the exchange rate at which we entered, and it was certainly the Major Government's economic policies which controlled inflation and put the economy, back on course. But people didn't wish to see this and rather than worrying about Labour aiding a collapse in the economy, they increasingly looked at the poor performance of the public sector and increasingly compared it with equivalent services in the private sector and indeed what they saw when they went abroad - and they didn't like what they saw.

Labour understood this new consumerism well and their basic message of low taxes combined with better public services proved to be an irresistible combination to large numbers of voters in our country. The fact that Labour's strategy turned out to be one of power for powers sake, with increased taxes and worse public services, is actually irrelevant to understanding how they renewed their ability to win elections. It is easy to attack Messrs Campbell and Mandleson for bringing in a new culture of spin, but we need to appreciate that they actually understood the new rules of the game in a way that the Conservative Party ceased to do. In effect, they understood quite well the aged-old marketing ploy that people would be prepared to pay the same (or more) for a worst product if you are able to put in a fancy bottle.

But spin and lies can only last so long and now people realise that there was actually never anything in that fancy bottle. Indeed, the polls now show that most people believe that public services are worse than when Labour came into power. Looking back on the early days of this Labour administration - how they blew their chance. Lets face it, the Labour Party came into power inheriting one of the best economies any post-war Government has had handed over to them, they came in with an enormous Parliamentary majority and, in reality, also a large amount of good will from a population that wanted a change.

But Labour threw away their chance - why was this? Because, at their gut level the Labour Party is not a party of public service, it is a party of the public sector - their membership is very heavily based on public sector workers, their councillors have a heavily biased public sector background and large numbers of their Members of Parliament, if not the majority, have union and/or public sector backgrounds - and it is of course those same unions which provide the vast majority of Labour's funding. And when Conservatives proudly claim that we tamed the unions in the 80's, actually we only did so in the private sector. Indeed, if union membership is now only around 20% in the private sector, in the public sector it is still 60-70%. For these people on the left, having the public and private sectors working together for the delivery of the best available services is not an option and, if Labour spoke about reforming the public sector when it came to power, it has singularly failed to do so.

In desperation, at the time of the last Budget, Labour returned to its old answer - tax and spend - the belief that somehow by taxing people more and by ploughing billions more into public services their defunct management structures would somehow resolve themselves. But what have we seen? Well very little in terms of delivery, indeed last year the NHS wasn't even able to spend the money the Government had allocated to it because it didn't have the management to do so. What we have seen, however, and this should be no surprise for those of you who remember the Labour Party of the 1970's, are massive demands for increased public service pay - the firefighters are asking for 40%, nurses 15%, lecturers 26%, teachers are asking for more and doctors are asking to be given the same as consultants whilst consultants (quite understandably) are refusing to sign up to their new restrictive working conditions that Labour is insisting on giving them.

But of course Labour simply missed the point, because service is not only related to money; it is all about efficiency and people having pride in their jobs and cutting through the red tape that stops people effectively carrying out their jobs. The Government talk about shortages of nurses and needing to train more of them, but the fact of the matter is that there are no shortages of nurses in this country (despite my local hospital having had to recruit hundreds of Philippino nurses) because there are in reality some 100,000 fully trained and experienced nurses, who are simply refusing to work for the NHS. In effect, rather than wasting millions of pounds in employing temporary nurses and importing nurses from around the world, what we actually need is an efficient management structure within the NHS that simply retains the skills that already exist.

Again, there need not be any shortage of teachers and yet the majority of teachers are now leaving the profession within five years of joining it - but why is this? Well a recent survey showed that it is not the level of their pay that is making them leave but, actually their working conditions, and in particular, the collapse of discipline in our schools. But what did Labour do, they restricted schools ability to exclude pupils, so making it even harder for discipline to be maintained.

This Government has a lot of big problems - the economy is no longer delivering in the way it once was and with growth predictions for the next year being halved it is inevitable that tax revenues will start to fall. This is despite Gordon Brown massively increasing the tax burden on business - the National Insurance increases this year are alone going to cost companies some Â

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