by Kevin Meagher
Whisper it, but governing is the boring part of politics. Ironic, really, given so many would-be ministers would scramble over broken glass on their hands and knees for the sniff of a chance of becoming a parliamentary under-secretary for paperclips and sustainable date-stamps.
It’s not that governing – sitting behind a desk and running things – is pointless or unrewarding; it’s just that it’s hard and time-consuming and politicians are easily distracted by the thrill of the chase. Tony Blair, of course, famously did sofas rather than desks. So Labour’s approach to government for 13 years was, crudely, to announce things then throw money at officials and assume change had been made. Job done.
This approach was tested to destruction. For public services to improve, more state spending was always needed. To make them improve a lot, spend a lot. As a result, ministers often overspent and over-legislated, but, paradoxically, under-governed too. Of course you have to put money into the Whitehall fruit machine to make the lights come on, but you still need to know which buttons to press. That’s what governing is all about.
When the buzz of the press launch has faded and the television cameras have gone away, all that is left is the spadework of navigating bills through parliament, rolling-out new programmes, retraining staff to implement the changes to policy (which invariably takes a fiendishly long time), listening to the gripes of one lobby group or another and sitting in meetings. Lots of meetings. All this slog takes time and commitment and, frankly, a few Labour ministers found themselves bewitched by the Age of Spin last time around and didn’t do the hard work that real change demands.
Take the police. Measurable crime halved under Labour (for a variety of reasons, not least the longest unbroken spell of economic growth in 200 years) but anti-social behaviour, the bureaucratic term for describing thoughtlessness and thugishness, flourished. Police numbers also swelled, while Parliament passed twenty odd pieces of criminal justice legislation. Although the police had everything they could possibly need from Labour ministers, they still barely made a dent in tackling anti-social behaviour.
Not enough was demanded from them. In fact, unlike other public services, police performance targets were actually scrapped, apart for the single watery invocation to ‘raise public confidence’. Yet ministers didn’t ask why there had been a catastrophic loss of public trust in the first place. No chief constables were sacked for poor performance. The focus, especially after 9/11 was on security and no-one much bothered what the plod was doing – or not doing – on other fronts. It’s only now we get a sense of the rottenness at the heart of parts of our police force.
The same is true of the NHS, with the Mid-Staffordshire and Morecambe Bay cases exposing scandalous failures of management, quality control and accountability.
Meanwhile reforms to their contracts in 2004 saw GPs get a 58 per cent pay rise, taking average salaries to £113,614, although the National Audit Office found there was no productivity increase in return. At the same time, nine out of ten GPs – these princes of public service – opted out of providing out-of-hours care altogether, leaving a perverse outcome where GPs had fewer responsibilities in return for a massive pay rise.
Then there was education. Rather than deal with the problems of failing teachers and coasting headteachers, Labour ministers tunnelled around them by embarking on massive (and expensive) structural reform to schools instead. No-one seemed willing to focus on the stubborn workforce failings in parts of the profession and address these head-on: demanding better performance for the millions of kids with precious few prospects in life.
And then there were the generals and admirals. They demanded ever more military hardware, regardless of the cost or efficacy, with defence ministers meekly signing-off whatever they wanted, leaving what was, on some estimates, a £38 billion black hole in the department’s finances.
These were all failures to govern effectively. Although cash went in and useful reforms were made, hard choices were often avoided by the last Labour government, while vested interests were too readily appeased.
Despite these – and other examples – Ed Miliband was still right the other week when he said that governing with little spare cash can still be radical. But it requires a totally different mindset to government next time around and a new tradecraft from the next tranche of Labour ministers.
In future they should be sat at their desks pushing reforms through, holding officials to account, keeping projects to budget, demanding performance and making policy work, even at the edges of their departmental empires.
They should eschew grandiosity, knee-jerkery and announcement-itis. Crucially, they should make better judgements between what may be desirable and what is actually feasible (NHS ICT projects and ID cards spring to mind).
They should make policy in a more strategic way and be prepared to take on vested interests. They should speak the ‘language of priorities’ and know a thoroughbred idea from a civil servant’s hobby-horse. And they should hold the line with vigour in return for being given longer in the job to drive change through.
Necessity is the mother of invention and the concept of ‘small state socialism’ is the hand Labour has been dealt. It’s not a game the party is used to, but it’s still one worth playing if ministers learn to govern better next time.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut