What is the role of government when there is no money to spend?

by Peter Watt

I very much enjoyed reading this blog from Lib Dem blogger Mark Thompson the other day.  Mark (slightly tongue in cheek) posed the question for politicians “why is leaving things alone never an option?”  It reminded me that one the criticisms levelled at the last Queens Speech was the relative paucity of proposed legislation.  As if one test of sound government was how much they added to the statute book!

But actually I think that it was a perfectly fair and indeed increasingly important question that Mark raises.  Politicians really do seem to feel the need to reach for the statute book or to make regulations to try and solve an increasing array of problems.  Some work, some don’t and some seem to make things worse.  It doesn’t really matter as long as “something” is done.  Just think Dangerous Dogs Act, the cones hotline, rewrites to school curricula, and endless reorganisations of services.

Whatever the latest moral crisis is then you can guarantee that a politician will announce the solution.  And if you really can’t think of anything to do then call a summit of experts at Number 10 and at least you will be seen to be taking action.

But the state does actually do lots of things and spends lots of money doing them.  And there is a large degree of political consensus over some aspects of what the state does like maintaining our defence and managing our criminal justice system.

But there is more debate as to the role and extent in other areas; from the choices about how we organise (say) health care and how we support the most vulnerable to the role of the government in managing the economy.

On the left we tend to be warmer to the notion of a more interventionist and active state, in particular when it comes to supporting the most vulnerable.  But Conservative governments have hardly been immune from interventionist tendencies.

Interestingly, Mark’s article provoked some comments from some along the lines of “but if the government did nothing how would you solve..?” The basic assumption of these responses being that unless the government intervenes, then the social ill will not be solved.  But surely this is wrong, or at least not always right?

Lots of problems have been, are being and will be managed by people themselves.  Either as individuals or as groups, people get lots of things sorted without governmental help.  Community groups are formed; families provide support to relatives; people save for their own retirements; charities are set-up; people form businesses.

There are countless ways that, day in and day out, people just get on with it.  This is obviously not to say that the government should not get involved in things – clearly they should.  But just that there should not be an assumption that governmental intervention is automatically the right response.

In fact voters are increasingly sceptical about the extent to which government intervention can have an impact.  The current economic problems seem to be a problem beyond government.  Many social problems seem to get worse despite repeated initiatives and interventions.  And there is a sense that the government is just a black hole into which billions of pounds are wasted.  Politicians are seen as promising big and delivering small.  So whilst voters doubt the efficacy of government intervention, politicians themselves still seem to overstate their ability to solve things.

Put the reasonable cynicism of voters alongside the fact that governments will generally have less money to throw at problems in the future and Mark Thompson’s question suddenly doesn’t seem quite so unreasonable.  In fact it becomes a pre-requisite for any party serious about delivering effective government.  Quite frankly governments are going to have to start being honest with voters about what they can and can’t deliver.  They will have to start prioritising and picking and choosing what problems they can realistically tackle.

Some things may be best sorted by people themselves.  Some may well be best sorted by government but the solution can’t be afforded.  Many others will be dealt with by government supporting and enabling others to deliver their own solutions.  In other words, governments in future will have to buck the trend of recent years and stop intervening at each and every opportunity.  They won’t find it easy but they will simply have to accept that there are some things that they can’t sort and in doing so they may well find that often, when left to sort things themselves, people may well do a better job themselves.

And by deciding that sometimes leaving things alone really is an option, a Labour government will be able to prioritise using the machinery of the state in ways that really can deliver economic growth, jobs, prosperity and social justice.

So Mark Thompson asks a question in his blog that those on the Labour front bench preparing for government should take seriously.  It is not only an important question, it is one that could hold the key to how to deliver social justice when there is little or no money to spend.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party

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5 Responses to “What is the role of government when there is no money to spend?”

  1. Nick says:

    nd by deciding that sometimes leaving things alone really is an option, a Labour government will be able to prioritise using the machinery of the state in ways that really can deliver economic growth, jobs, prosperity and social justice.


    No you won’t.

    150 bn a year of Keynsian spending is currently going on. There has been no effect. That spending along with all the hidden debts secreted away from any accounts mean that the UK is bust.

    You have lead the UK into bankruptcy.

    The result is that the very people you purport to help are going to be hit so hard, that even the current state of Greece looks like Utopia.

    For example, civil service pensions. Are they on the books? Is the money owed to them a debt? Not according to you and your ilk.

    I can here it now. If its not on the books, it doesn’t have to be paid.

  2. Nick says:

    You have to ask why the UK needs so much new legislation?

    After 300 years, that’s plenty of time to get things right. However, more and more legislation arrives.

    A sure sign that MPs are crap at their jobs.

    If New Zealand can get away with a small number of legislators, and just one chamber, then the UK can too.

    It’s just a scam to get your mates a job, a pension, all those expenses, and then when the electorate don’t want you, you get to go to that retirement home in Westminster, the lords. The cost of one lord attending is 2,700 a day to the taxpayer.

    It’s just a fraud. Just as the pensions are a Ponzi. An Greece tells us what happens when the Ponzi collapses. Those who are forced to rely on the fraudster are going to be the ones who are destroyed in the process.

  3. Anon E Mouse says:

    The problem is that ministers want to look important and by constantly fiddling with things it gives them something to do and if they can do it with less money all the better.

    With the majority of laws being imposed from Europe where they have no power it appears to amend the nonsense it means MP’s have nothing to do.

    What is more annoying is where they make claims that we know simply are not true they continue to insist we the public are wrong until quietly agreeing we were right all along.

    Prime example is on immigration where Labour flooded the country with a mass open borders policy resulting in a huge demand on the state and schooling and housing.

    They then denied there was a problem and came out with dishonest statements like “British jobs for British workers” when those jobs clearly weren’t.

    And today we have Yvette Cooper finally admitting Labour got it wrong. Nice.

    The point is I want less government and fewer MP’s sucking off the state so less of our money is wasted by these idiots in power…

  4. Robin Thorpe says:

    “politicians themselves still seem to overstate their ability”

    Nuff Said. Slightly off-topic but can someone please explain to me what politicians think they mean when they describe someone as “a talented politician”. David Laws was “talented”, as was Chris Huhne, William Hague, George Osborne, Iain Duncan Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. All seen by some as failures and others as crooked.

    From the OED
    talent (tal¦ent)
    Pronunciation: /?tal?nt/noun
    1 [mass noun] natural aptitude or skill:

    he possesses more talent than any other player
    [count noun]: she displayed a talent for garden designpeople possessing natural aptitude or skill:

    I signed all the talent in Rome
    [count noun]: Simon is a talent to watch

  5. Robin Thorpe says:

    Good article Peter; I have been thinking the same thing myself for some time. The current coalition are a clear example of how things can go wrong when no clear parameters are set for what government can and can’t achieve.
    To be an effective legislature parliament must understand not only the limitations of it’s power but also the limitations of legislation on behaviour.
    I think that often politicians let themselves down by not having enough experience of trade and industry outside Westminster. I would like to see the Labour party reverse its (unofficial) policy of selecting candidates from the SPAD/researcher/PPE Oxford route. Yes these individuals may understand how law, parliament, economic cycles and party politics operate in Westminster but they do not have enough experience of the effects of government policy in the workplace. In the last leadership election not one candidate had worked outside media, politicial parties or a trade union.

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