The “efficiency” that dare not speak its name

With Gordon shakily back in the saddle, the big political row of the week is over the old hark-back to public spending cuts. “Cuts” is a word all sides avoid like a plague, so nobody knows what the hell they’re really talking about, as columnist Matthew Parris observes. Nevertheless, David Smith of the Times manfully tries to sort out the Labour sheep from the Conservative goats. The recession may be coming slowly to an end reports Smith, and the Conservatives are planning for recovery. This is not necessarily good news for public sector dependent areas like Northern Ireland where the Tory low opinions of public sector performance augurs swingeing “efficiency” cuts. Do we like “efficiency” better than “cuts” and do we believe they mean no reduction in “frontline” spending? Like hell we do. The election of a Conservative government next year would mean an emergency budget to bring in cuts a year earlier than Labour. It’s an interesting case and one that may be creating strains within Labour too. . David Cameron’s attack on Brown last week was blunted by Brown seizing on shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley’s blurted-out admission that the Tory pledge to continue increasing the health budget would mean cuts of 10% in other budgets. In a second article ( tucked away in a box after the Mandelson piece), Smith repeats the general views that Labour’s assessment of the state of the public finances in reality differs little from the Tories.

But a real choice exists between the two parties. Both parties will cut spending, but the Tories will seek bigger reductions, partly through efficiency savings. Labour might deliver slightly smaller spending cuts but will, instead, have to put taxes up more. It is a choice, although not necessarily an appealing one.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London