In the parallel universe of British politics everyone has now become a Cleggon – basking in the orange afterglow of the Leader’s debate. Change has become the central question – the choice being about who can manage this best and who personifies it the most.
But the election has not yet resolved itself into a clear argument about alternative strategies for managing the big issues – the economy, the deficit and the future of our public services. Read the manifestos in detail, as I suspect few have done, and what emerges are large areas of agreement between the three main parties, especially about public services and how they need to change. But each party puts a different gloss on this.
For Labour the central issue is about the scale of future risk – economic, social, demographic and political. The message is that only Labour has the experience and fair values to guide Britain through these difficult times. From here it is only a short step to Gordon Brown’s dividing lines on what public service budgets Labour would protect.
The Conservatives focus not so much on future risk but the state we are in. Their argument is that our public finances, economy and society are broken and that a fundamentally new approach to government is needed. They set out their stall for the Big Society, in which families, communities, and the state will need to work together to build a stronger society – exemplified in their plans for national community service for 16 year olds.
Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats have presented themselves both as the change agents and the people who tell it as it is. For them the elephant in the room is the deficit and they seek to make a virtue out of plain speaking on this – saying that efficiency savings will never be sufficient to tackle the deficit. They identify the need for hard choices about which spending to cut and offer, as examples of this, Trident and the Child Trust Fund.
Of course each party has much more detailed proposals on public service reform. Labour has proposed strengthening citizens rights to public services to create a bottom up entitlement driver for improvement, with new patient and citizen guarantees. The issue of long term care and Labour’s proposal to create a new National Care Service echo Brown’s message about future risk. And Labour seeks to be our mutual friend with proposals for public service co-ops in housing, sure start and even primary care trusts.
The Conservatives have prioritised welfare reform, based on tougher conditionality and extending payment by results for welfare service providers. They have also promoted their model for parent led schools and for public service employee mutuals. And they have courted some controversy by sticking to their guns in advocating elected police commissioners. On health their policy has been ‘softly, softly’, as they continue with their strategy of seeking to neutralise what has been a traditional Labour positive.
The Liberal Democrats make fairness and decentralisation their overarching themes for public services. They promote an explicitly redistributive funding formula which targets funding at the poorest people, so that the money follows the poorest patients and pupils – education and health premiums. They advocate strengthened local say through elected local health boards and police authorities and neighbourhood justice panels. And, in addition to their well publicised plans to simplify the tax system, they also propose greater transparency and control over by giving people greater flexibility in accessing part of their pension before retirement. What the Liberal Democrats do not do is set out a framework for public service reform.
But so far none of the three main parties has really managed to lodge with the public a clear sense of what their vision adds up to for public services. The Big Society is in some ways the most audacious idea, but it has not yet resonated as it might because, apart from volunteering, it it’s not yet clear where the beef is. Meanwhile Labour’s focus on future risk has had some effect, but at the same time seems clunky. And the Lib Dems have scored on the deficit yet their prescription is less comprehensive.
Each party appears to have more of a stance than a strategy. Take localism. All are agreed that significant decentralisation is needed. The policies are plentiful from elected mayors, to localised planning and housing. What is lacking is a coherent theory. A genuine shift in power from the centre to localities would have to involve big change in Whitehall and Westminster – a re-imagined, smaller and more strategic centre whose role would be to enable and empower innovation and delivery at local level. That could be a recipe for achieving big savings as Total Place identified. The simple test for real devolution is to follow the money – if control over funding and revenue stays at the centre then so will power..
So the challenge for the main parties as we enter the second half of the election campaign will be to crystallise their respective positions into harder propositions, which offer voters some real choices for the future. This isn’t just necessary for winning it is critical for governing. Whoever wins the next election, and whatever formation emerges after May 6th., their job in tackling economic stagnation, rising demand pressures and growing debt levels will be made that much harder if they haven’t established a mandate for the tough decisions which will be necessary.