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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lights, cameras, action…

By Ashish Prashar

Last night the chancellors squared up in a the first live TV debate in the UK and although it wasn’t always electrifying the programme was certainly a triumph. The three would be chancellors clashed over how quickly the deficit should be cut, tax and what to do with the banks but there was concensus – the candidates were “all agreed that the cuts would have to be tougher than those imposed by Baroness Thatcher in the 1980s.”

In a fiesty hour-long debate the chancellors started off by talking about their personal qualities but it really got going when Alistair Darling and Vincent Cable ganged up on George Osborne to heap derision on the Conservatives’ proposed tax cut. Then the Chancellor attacked Osborne saying he “did not have a single penny in the bank” to pay for his plan to reduce National Insurance contributions and that he was taking a terrible risk… and with Osborne on the ropes Cable weighed in.

Vince Cable went from strength to strength by simply telling the truth. He won the most applause by presenting himself as the man who saw the recession coming, adding “we are not beholden to either the super-rich or militant unions” and winning the biggest cheer of the night when he described people unhappy with 50p tax as “pin-striped Scargills”.

They all criticised the financial sector and the banks in particular came under heavy fire. There was also consensus on public sector pensions until Darling pointed out the Tories’ failure to support Labour on care for the elderly. Osborne then accused Darling of stealing the Tories policy on stamp-duty, Darling replied with “there’s nothing like cross-party consensus Geroge” getting his biggest laugh of the night.

Darling did boob on the death tax and Osborne’s position on child tax credits still remains confusing.

So what’s my verdict?  Well, Darling made no big mistakes. There were a couple of decent gags that got a few laughs from the audience and some flashes of passion, which may have surprised some. Osborne stood his ground and certainly looked calm. However, he made little of the National Insurance announcement and sometimes looked like he was being ganged up on. Cable threw and landed the most punches, and in my opinion secured his place as the people’s favourite by smashing MPs and bankers, and clobbering Osborne over his IHT cut.

This was always going to be a warm-up to the main event; the leaders’ debates. Although I don’t think they will have the same drama and impact as the US Presidential debates they will certainly be interesting.

One last quick note Krishnan Guru-Murthy was excellent and played it really well… Watch Ask the Chancellors!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Now for a real debate on public services

By Ben Lucas

There are signs that the Government is now groping its way to a more credible position on the future of public spending on public services. For the last year Gordon Brown has tried to maintain the Labour investment versus Tory spending cuts dividing line. But whereas New Labour’s successful political positioning always went with the grain of public opinion, Brown’s line on public finances has failed to convince anyone, few in his own government believe it, let alone the general public.

In practice, the dividing line has been Labour denial versus Tory realism. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Conservatives have been winning the argument. The tragedy for Gordon Brown is that having won international plaudits for his handling of the banking crisis and its aftermath, this success has been overshadowed by his incredible approach to public service spending. There is a powerful economic argument to be made about maintaining public spending in the recession, and the evidence seems to suggest that this has helped mitigate its social impact, particularly on unemployment, but this also depends on there being a credible strategy for reducing debt once the economy returns to growth.

A combination of interviews and briefings over the past week indicate that the Government is changing its position. The strategy seems to be to accept that there will have to be a significant spending reduction, but only once the economy returns to growth and that this will be across all public services including health and overseas aid (both of which have been ringfenced by David Cameron). Within this spending reduction some key economic and social objectives will be identified such as skills, educations and poverty reduction, where spending will be prioritised. In the other areas of spending, the emphasis will be on a return to public service reform, productivity savings, efficiency, choice, competition and more co-production. This could be allied with state asset sales and a more creative and flexible use of community assets, such as libraries, schools, parks and colleges.

But the question for Brown is can he overcome his innate caution and turn this into an effective strategy based on offering a credible alternative to Conservative realism on public service spending?. To do this, it will not be enough to hint at this new approach and hope that an upturn in the economy at the beginning of 2010 will be enough to transform the political debate. The Government will need to make its position very clear in the next few weeks and will then need at least six months to get this across to voters. The best way of doing this would be to go ahead with the Comprehensive Spending Review, which was suspended earlier this year. It’s no good waiting until there is better economic news, because that will probably not be until after the election. So the Government should be bold and push ahead with a CSR this year..

Establishing a more credible position would not only be good for the Government, it would be good for politics. The Conservatives have had it very easy because of Brown’s insistence on denial. But a debate between realists could be a different matter. The Conservatives would have to think hard about the logic of ringfencing health spending, they would have to be clearer about their own numbers and their own tax and spend priorities, including inheritance tax. So far the Conservatives have not had to explain how they would combine the increased spending necessary to tackle “Broken Britain” with 10% cuts in all public services except health and overseas aid. It is in the public interest that both the Government and the Opposition parties should have a credible strategy on the public finances, so that there can be a proper debate about how to achieve sustainable growth, how to reduce the dependency ratio and how to respond to demographic change, behavioural challenges such as obesity, the growth in chronic health conditions and global warming – all within a very tight budget.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Pas devant les enfants!

By Henneke Sharif

Crikey! Big cuts for public services coming our way soon. There are lots of conversations among the ‘people who know’ on the options: cuts to existing services, stopping some things altogether, more means testing, taking the state out of the equation, finding new ways of paying for stuff….

Politicians are slugging it out today on how much the public should be told about the cuts. Instead of telling, they should be asking people what options they would choose. After all, the welfare state belongs to all of us. But the problem is we have a democracy that finds it very hard to have a conversation – there are hardly any decent mechanisms or forums for this outside of an election. Bit rubbish really.

Posted by Henneke Sharif at 9:40 am

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