After two months of doom and gloom from the coalition, David Cameron has today tried to give voters something to smile about. His invitation to join the government of Britain that he used during the election campaign is now to be turned into a programme of action, or structural reform plans, for every Whitehall department.
Cameron doesn’t like systems of bureaucratic accountability, nor targets, nor performance indicators. So instead of targets, his structural reform plans will include specific deadlines for specific action. Sounds like a target to me!
I wonder what happens when a deadline for action doesn’t get met? Apparently, these will bring democratic accountability and create the structures that put people in charge. So if the government fails to meet its specific deadlines, we can vote it out? Doesn’t sound so radical when you put it like that.
Maybe senior civil servants will be sacked? Without performance indicators, maybe pigs will fly.
Cameron’s got a big idea and he’s proud of it. Having outlined plans to cut back the state in the name of deficit reduction, he now sees the space for the “big society” to blossom. Today he has shown that his pre-election “heir to Blair” positioning is here to stay, as he argues in favour of competition between organisations providing public services because it’s the richest who can opt out while the poorest have to take what they are given. Choice is back.
Cameron even lays claim to Blair’s record, saying that the academies are transforming education results and foundation hospitals are bringing the very best care to the people who need it most. Yet this is the reform agenda that Ed Balls has said led to the impression that Labour was against hard-working public servants. Lest we forget Blair’s forces of conservatism speech and the wreckers of reform briefings.
More importantly, Cameron’s call for more independence and more freedom as an automatic mechanism for raising standards across the board rewrites the history of Labour’s second term, a time when public spending and capital investment were rising year on year. New Labour at its best was always a combination of investment and reform. Building Schools for the Future was an investment programme that complemented academy freedoms and both were used by the education department to negotiate change with local authorities.
The big political challenge during deficit reduction is to articulate a credible reform agenda that can operate in an age of austerity. Today, Cameron didn’t produce a list of private and third-sector suppliers who have agreed to provide public services on a payment-by-results basis. That was the test set for Blair when he announced the academies programme.
And perhaps most importantly, if Cameron is going to design the necessity of provider failure in to his competitive system, what happens to the poor — who can’t opt out — when the services they rely on inevitably fail?
This agenda is as important for Labour’s leadership candidates to get to grips with as the issue of deficit reduction, or electoral reform. These three debates look like they will define politics over the next year. And in an age of new politics, Labour’s new leader will need something new to say about how New Labour has moved on.
Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.