The public sector now looks set for months of bitter confrontation between the government and the unions. The doctors have announced a day of industrial action - their first in more than 40 years. Meanwhile teachers are set to strike in the autumn over changes to pensions. Earlier in May tens of thousands of public sector workers including police and prison officers, lecturers and civil servants took part in a day of action and union leaders have warned of more to come. It is clear that the mood among public sector workers is one of anger – and in their fight against the coalition’s programme of cuts and reforms the unions are looking to Labour for strong, unequivocal backing.
How should the Labour leadership respond? According to the former cabinet minister, Charles Clarke in a new article for IPPR’s journal Juncture, by adopting its own radical reform strategy for public services. Clarke's prospectus is bold and much of it controversial: he calls for tight control over pay and spending, greater hypothecation of tax and an extension of user charging and competition. He acknowledges that many of these reforms are unlikely to win the support of the industrial wing of the labour movement but argues that Labour shouldn’t allow "vested interests, even including some of its own members and supporters" to stand in the way of change. He does however offer new forms of institutional dialogue with unions and professional bodies to get agreement over areas such skills development, pensions and working arrangements.
Clarke is right that a future Labour government would have to make tough decisions. This is underlined in a new briefing published by IPPR today in conjunction with the CBI. The report highlights the fact that long-term trends, especially an ageing population, will increase demand on public services, while reducing future tax revenues. The analysis is based on projections from the Office for Budget Responsibility showing how Britain’s budget balance is likely to move from a surplus of 1.3 per cent of GDP in 2015-16 to a deficit of 0.6 per cent of GDP in 2030-31 and then to 3.2 per cent of GDP in 2060-61: a deterioration of 4.5 per cent of GDP or £66 billion in today’s terms.
These pressures are not unmanageable, still less an excuse for cutting back on providing high quality universal services. But they mean that any future government will have to make very difficult choices. The way forward is to create a broader, more sustainable tax base, take big strategic decisions about which services we as a country should prioritise and get serious about raising public sector productivity over the long term.
In terms of prioritisation we should be investing in universal affordable childcare: the success of the Nordic countries shows that this has massive long term pay offs in terms of reducing educational inequalities, as well as helping to expand the tax base by raising the female employment rate. In short, investment in early years is a massive win/win. But if we put our eggs in that basket it means that other services will face a tighter funding settlement over the long term.
That brings us to productivity. The electoral success of New Labour was built on the idea that social justice and economic efficiency could go hand in hand. It is my contention that the success of a future Labour government would depend on making public service productivity and the values of social justice, association and democratic empowerment go hand in hand.
Lets be clear: being serious about productivity means being hard headed about reducing costs. In particular that means looking at where new technology can deliver services in a less labour intensive way. For example, new technologies in health mean that people will be able to monitor their own conditions much more actively without the need to consult a doctor. In another example, increasingly universities in the United States are opening up their degrees to the public by allowing online access to teaching material. This could radically transform the nature of a university education by allowing wider access at lower cost.
But delivering better value also requires the engagement and enthusiasm of those who deliver our public services day to day. An agenda that seeks to marry the values of cooperation and employee participation to the need to improve efficiency has the potential to secure the buy-in of public service professionals.
For example, could staff be rewarded by collective bonuses when a service improves? Or for example could we create new forms of not for profit service delivery organisation in which staff and users are jointly in control? The prospect that social care users could mutualise their personal budgets to create community led care providers is an enticing one.
Of course user and producer interests will still clash and it is for that reason that we need robust forms of accountability in public services. We should also be realistic: it will be impossible to achieve agreement on every reform. And Clarke is right that before working out how it can better engage staff in the process Labour will need to be much clearer than it has been about its overall strategic approach to reform and the kind of changes that are necessary. But it is important to remember that reform will get nowhere if it starts and ends with confrontation with the workforce.
Rick Muir is IPPR's associate director for public service reform