Efficiency, Murdoch and summer time

So-called "efficiency savings" will lead to a decline in the quality of public services.

Both Labour and the Conservatives insist that their public spending cuts won't affect "front-line services" but will concentrate instead on "efficiency savings". I would find this more convincing if I had the faintest idea what politicians mean by efficiency. In the private sector, an efficient firm gets maximum revenue for the lowest costs. What this often means is that inefficiencies are loaded on to the customer.

From the point of view of your bank, utility company or broadband provider, it is very efficient to require that you spend 20 minutes pressing buttons on your "telephone keypad" and then another 20 listening to Vivaldi before some poor sap in Mumbai comes on the line. But it isn't a very efficient use of your time. As far as you are concerned, the front-line service has deteriorated.

It's similar in the public sector, where measures of productivity, while superficially reasonable, are inevitably crude and limited: shorter waiting times for operations, higher short-term survival rates, more blood pressure tests by GPs, for example. A longer consultation with your GP, on the other hand, will show up as a drop in productivity; so will the employment of specialist cancer nurses, who may improve the quality of a patient's life without necessarily increasing its length. Again, larger classes in schools will count as more efficient unless test scores fall. But lessons will probably be more limited in scope and parents may have to fill some gaps at home.

No doubt bureaucrats will record spectacular efficiency gains. But my hunch is that you and I will experience them as a decline in the services we receive.

The Times, they are a-chargin'
Nearly 17 years ago, Rupert Murdoch pioneered newspaper price-cutting, slashing the cost of the Times by a third to 30p. At one stage, he
sold it for 10p (at a significant loss on every copy purchased) and observed that the top people's paper should sell for a price that was "of no
consequence to the reader". Now, he pioneers charging for newspaper websites. Whether many readers will consider £1 a sufficiently inconsequential sum for a day's access to the Times and Sunday Times remains to be seen.

Murdoch presumably thinks that the select group which surmounts his pay-wall will be so well-heeled and engaged that they will prove more attractive to advertisers than legions of casual users. Perhaps he expects to lure some into print subscriptions, which give free website access as well as the Times and Sunday Times for £6 a week (against £8.50 if bought in shops, or £2, under Murdoch's plan, if accessed online only). All papers try to maximise subscriptions: they secure regular purchase, improved cash flow, a mailing list and a more detailed readership profile to attract advertisers.

I wouldn't put it past Murdoch eventually to make the papers subscription-only, cutting out vast distribution costs. The next step would be to drop the papers entirely and tell subscribers who can't live without the columnist David Aaronovitch reminding them that Tony Blair's Iraq invasion was a brilliant success that they must read it online. No, it doesn't make much sense, but then nor do other papers' strategies of pouring resources into their websites without charging a brass farthing.

I dream of Gini
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has issued graphs with deeply satisfying slopes showing - or seeming to show - how 13 years of Labour government affected the distribution of income. It reports that the poorest tenth of the population gained more than 10 per cent in income and the richest tenth lost nearly the same. It looks admirably and symmetrically redistributive. My old friend Denis MacShane MP is most excited at this vindication of New Labour and has written to the Guardian, revealing that Peter Mandelson's pro-wealth remarks were a cunning device to throw "sand in the eyes of oligarch millionaires".

But the story isn't as good as Comrade MacShane seems to think. The IFS shows the effect of New Labour's tax and benefit changes compared with the effect of continuing the system inherited in 1997. Labour's policies were better than the Tories', but not good enough to stop the Gini coefficient - the standard measure of inequality - climbing higher in 2007-2008 than when Labour came to power (or, indeed, at any time since the IFS calculations began in 1961). That may be good enough for MacShane but not, I suspect, for most NS readers.

Make mine a double BST
Whenever the clocks are changed, journalists and politicians demand British Summer Time all year round, or even double BST from March to October. I suspect this is because neither journalists nor MPs have to get up very early, unless they have young children. Rising and going to work in the dark - which many people would have to do throughout the winter and for parts of the spring and autumn, if we had double BST - always strikes me as unnatural. Birds don't do it, so why should we? It gets light earlier in London and the south-east than anywhere else in the UK, so this campaign should be dismissed as another example of metropolitan, middle-class indifference to everyone else.

Blair minimum
Tony Blair, it is reported, will campaign for Labour in the run-up to the election. Perhaps he could also be persuaded to spare an odd million from the estimated £20m he has made since he left office in 2007. When rung by Labour headquarters and asked for a donation during the last two campaigns, I gave them a number for a Mr G Robinson. This time, I shall suggest they write to an A Blair Esq, c/o JPMorgan Chase & Co, New York. I advise readers, if approached, to do likewise.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, GOD