by Jonathan Todd
There is probably a significant degree of cross-party agreement that Douglas Carswell is wrong to argue that the present government is a continuation of the last. Even David Cameron’s critics in the Conservative party would claim that he is an improvement on Gordon Brown, while many Labour party members see Cameron as the worst prime minister since Margaret Thatcher or perhaps even worse.
Yet the evidence that Carswell is not entirely wrong was clearly on display during the last PMQs. Cameron and Ed Miliband, in one sense at least, jostled for the crown of heir to Brown. They did so by benchmarking their success against how much they are spending or propose to spend on particular public services.
Given the unpopularity of Brown, this is curious politics. To make a virility symbol of state spending is even worse policy. To assume that more government is necessarily moving us closer to solutions ignores even in the best of times the reality of government failure.
These are far from the best of times. There is immense pressure on public resources. And this will continue, as Patrick Diamond notes: “Actuarial estimates suggest that an ageing population will have a bigger impact on public finances than the catastrophic effects of the financial crisis.”
This context demands a politics capable of deliberating seriously about the effectiveness and efficiency of public spending and which doesn’t simply seek to win arguments with reference to how much money is being spent in certain areas. Yet the very first thing that Cameron said in response to Miliband’s questioning was: “This Government believes in our NHS and are expanding funding in our NHS.”
Ring-fencing the NHS budget is supposed to be a signal that the service is safe in Conservative hands. One consequence of these politics is that average GP salaries are preserved at £110,000, while the welfare payments of the very poorest are cut, as the DWP does not benefit from the same ring-fence as the NHS.
Cameron’s most effective rebuttal to Miliband reminded us that the scandal of Stafford Hospital occurred under the Labour government when NHS resourcing was considered plentiful enough to take GPs salaries to these relatively high levels. Miliband immediately retorted: “Let me just say to the Prime Minister that he is the guy who cut NHS spending when he came into office and was told off by the head of the UK Statistics Authority for not being straight with people about it.” This challenges Cameron’s claim to be maintaining NHS spending but accepts the flawed logic behind the claim, which is that the size of the NHS budget in itself gives any real indication of how effectively the service is being managed.
Tom Winsor, the chief inspector for constabulary for England and Wales, would not be seduced by such thinking. He wouldn’t take a headcount of police officers or the amount spent on this service to be an indication of how effectively it is doing its job. Instead, in a recent speech, he said that police should focus on preventing crime. The effectiveness of police spending is measured not by the size of this spending but by the amount by which it prevents crime.
Equally, the effectiveness of health spending is measured – pace Cameron and Miliband – not by the size of this spending but by the amount it makes us healthier. We need to move beyond a politics that says “my spending commitment is bigger than your spending commitment”. And towards one that is clear about what we are trying to achieve – reduced crime, improved health. And which is also genuinely innovative about joining-up government resources and the nascent potential of the private sector, communities and individuals in pursuing these goals.
As soon as we think in terms of reducing crime and improving health, we do not think only of the police and NHS budgets but also of how effectively these budgets complement other public budgets. The silos of the public sector dissolve in pursuit of shared goals in the public interest. And new means for the public to contribute towards this interest become apparent. One of the catchphrases of the comedy Early Doors is quite right: Crime won’t crack itself. It needs active citizenship and strong communities – not just decent spending on the police.
This is not, however, the politics that we have. We have a politics that makes a fetish of budget allocations to particular departments, which encourages ministers to engage in what James Page calls “fiscal nimbyism”: defending the budget of their department above all else. Instead, as Page argues, we should be looking at cross-departmental savings, based upon new ways of working between departments.
The old Whitehall silos are still there. The old ways of allocating budgets and doing policy are too. Better policy would move on from all of this, which would be encouraged by a politics that desists with Brown’s old metric of claimed success: increased departmental spending.
Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist