Posts Tagged ‘size of the state’

Small can be beautiful when it comes to the state

05/09/2013, 01:44:19 PM

by Paul Connell

It’s not meant to be easy being a lefty. If it were, everyone would be doing it.

Being so at the moment is as testing of stamina as ever.  In the face of a global financial crisis that has demonstrated the truth of just about every criticism of capitalism ever made, the alternatives we are offering, or being offered, seem scant.

Ed M and every other European mainstream socialist party leader must be casting nervous glances at France where electoral victory has soured so quickly that le pauvre Hollande has managed to pass from glory to ignominy without passing through indifference. He is paying the price of disappointed expectations, curious as he didn’t actually raise any except not being Sarkozy, on which he has done quite well. There’s that and there is the Mori-Ipsos poll of generation Y which suggests a strong rejection of welfarism in the shape of redistributive tax and benefit policies by the electorate of the future.

Let us leave aside for the moment the question of the contribution of public spending to current economic woes (answer – not much). Let’s just acknowledge that there isn’t going to be the money for a large scale regeneration of state-run services anytime soon and people aren’t going to vote for a party proposing it. Back to the future won’t work. Labour has to plan for government without a commitment to expanding the state.

Of this necessity let us construct a virtue. Where, after all, is it written that socialism means a big state, generous benefits or “something for nothing?” Lots of places, in fact, but let’s leave that as a rhetorical question.

Having spent the best part of the last 30 years working in the UK public sector at local government, civil service and voluntary sector levels, I experienced periods of austerity and spending booms. Clearly, periods of plenty were more enjoyable than the thin years but it wasn’t as simple as big spending= good, low spending = bad.

When Labour got back in in ‘97 and after the brief reign of Queen Prudence, we had an explosion of czars, rollouts and initiatives, followed by a breathless rush to delivery. Delivery of what? Not results but evidence of results.  Local Authority departments became machines for recording performance indicators.

Take one example, school exclusion. It had been well established that children excluded from mainstream schooling were at higher risk of low attainment, early parenthood, criminality and substance misuse. Evidence based policy dictated that kids should not be excluded.  So they weren’t. Some great work went into keeping difficult kids in school and supporting teachers to keep them there. Some, inevitably, were just too difficult. So, many no longer went to school but, with a bit of imagination, could be found another designation for their status and the excluded box didn’t have to be ticked. Success!


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

21/06/2012, 07:00:12 AM

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?


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