Vince Cable: Cutting public services in order to retain public value…

Talk to a Tory of any standing and bring up the subject of Vince Cable and they all mumble something about him being in the wrong party or wishing for some kind of pact with the Lib Dems so he can be the next Chancellor. There is – comparatively speaking – very little confidence in the shadow Chancellor George Osborne, at least at the base. Cable launched this paper he’d written for the think tank du jour in London at the moment, Reform, not just on the need for fiscal cuts, but how they might be managed to least affect those services deemed necessary for the smooth running of society…

This is precisely the kind of work the Tories should have been doing over the last three years, but have thus far seemed unable or unwilling to get to grips with (at least within the public domain), given the inevitable tightening that’s going to be foisted upon the next UK government(s), regardless of their political colouring… These paragraphs from the executive summary demonstrate a foresight which is missing from a Brown administration knackered from dealing with targeted daily attacks on their key figures, and frankly being too long at the centre of power… and the young turks of the Conservative party, who seem determined to test Blair’s old trick of dominating that diurnal round of news to the point of destruction…

The emphasis for fiscal consolidation must fall on controlling public spending, not higher taxes: to commit to additional tax revenue raising from the outset undermines any commitment to setting priorities in spending.

This process will be painful and difficult. It will involve real cuts in many areas and will mean that the big budgets – health, welfare, defence and education – must be tackled. There should be no “ring fenced” areas of
spending. Existing spending has to be justified, not simply assumed to be necessary and trimmed at the edges.

The traditional method of “salami slicing” with across-the- board cuts to all services without any priorities being set, causes considerable damage to valued services. Instead, a systematic process of selecting high and low priorities for public spending is needed. Radically decentralising decision making to local government through transferring revenue raising powers would help achieve better value for money. Engaging democratically elected politicians in the choices would inject democratic accountability.

The debate should not become distracted by a focus on “efficiency” savings. No doubt public administrators can be made more conscious of costs and efficient management, but it is not credible to believe that greater “efficiency” is a panacea, not least because it has been invariably promised and not delivered in the past.[emphasis added]

This is a game politicians right across the UK are going to have to learn to play… And they are, as they in the Belfast vernacular, going to have to ‘grow some’ and level with the wider electorate about what’s facing us all… As Matthew Taylor noted back in May:

…we are unable to have a grown up conversation about the challenges which politicians can only resolve if we work with them: notably, public spending restructuring, population ageing and climate change. We the citizens are stuck in a bad place; increasingly unwilling to be governed but not yet willing to govern ourselves.

That will not go down well with the green ink brigade who tend to think in terms of storming the Winter Palace and getting rid of ‘public service’ altogether…

Good that Cable’s setting new terms for the public debate… Bad that, barring a miracle, it’s more likely he will have absolutely nothing to do with how the next UK government sets about reforming government…

Anthony Seldon, Tony Blair’s authoritative biographer noted at a Total Politics panel yesterday that upon his arrival at number ten the former Labour Prime Minister signalled that “he intended to head up a reforming liberal or Attlee style government, but in the end he gave us Iraq and target setting…”

Cable’s more modest targets fit the current demand for a reductionist Zeitgeist… But his worthy suggestions will also demand of political leaders that they keep open channels to a populace more used to politicians who have over-promised and under-delivered…

Whether they’re in Westminster, Holyrood, Stormont, or even Leinster House…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty