Why Cameron must give Power to the People

Yorkshire Post, November 10th, 2006

IT is fascinating to be able to witness the end of a political epoch and perhaps even to see a great political turning point.

The Tony Blair political era will come to a close over the next six months. Will it also be the end of the era of New Labour? Can Labour renew itself? Will leadership of our country pass to a rejuvenated Conservative Party?

How would such a party respond to the challenge of the future?

I would like to begin by stepping back and trying to see the broad picture. Thirty years ago, Britain was the sick man of Europe. Our economy stagnant but racked by inflation; working practices outdated and labour relations a battlefield; government finances a mess and public services collapsing. Few believed things would change, but they did.

The Thatcher revolution the supply side changes, labour law reforms, deregulation, the city's big bang and privatisation were all hugely beneficial. Yes, manufacturing declined sharply, but this, too, was fortunate. For, unperceived at the time, the international terms of trade were changing, and the decline of much of the manufacturing industry has been more than offset by the increasing profitability of the financial and other intellectual services that have made the British economy grow faster than our European neighbours. But Thatcher's revolution was limited in its impact on public services.

It has been Tony Blair's historic achievement to consolidate these changes. New Labour did not try to turn the clock back. Indeed, in an important respect, it went further, by giving the Bank of England its independence over interest rates and framing its objectives in terms of both stability and growth. Staying out of the euro was a natural consequence of this.

The historic challenge for Labour was the reform of public services. There has been a massive increase in public spending. The inputs (staff and resources) have gone up, but the outputs have not increased to the same extent, and public dissatisfaction, especially now that spending is virtually at its limit, is growing. Few would say that Labour's reforms are a success.

Will Gordon Brown, if he succeeds Blair, make a difference? He was New Labour before Tony. Yet the evidence suggests that the Chancellor has been more cautious and more statist than the Prime Minister. We know that he and Blair were often at loggerheads, but the only issue of principle was over the euro. It will be a considerable surprise if he now branches out in a new direction. A Brown premiership will probably be fundamentally the same, with differences in detail and style. There are unlikely to be changes for the better. In other words, it will be a typically Labour case of "Buggins' turn".

This is David Cameron's opportunity. He can acknowledge Labour's successes, but point out that they have not just failed on their preferred ground of public service, but shown that simply spending more and more money is not enough. What is needed is a reshaping of services designed 50 years ago to meet the situation today. Public services themselves are popular and the professionals who work in them are respected. But people see themselves as consumers. They want the quality of service and the choice they enjoy in so many other fields. They dislike the bureaucracy and are no more inclined than ever to accept that the man from Whitehall knows best. Moreover, no matter how many targets and guidelines are issued, the man in Whitehall cannot actually manage public services throughout the country.

This brings us to another discontent. Many in England feel that they do not get a fair say in local matters, compared to people in Wales or Scotland. Labour tried to solve that by suggesting devolution to the English regions, but that is unpopular.

Could both problems be solved by devolving administration in local public services to counties or cities, or perhaps even small communities, as was suggested in the somewhat underwhelming White Paper on the future of local government?

They would, of course, have to be free from indirect Whitehall control through standard spending assessments or similar abominations.

Would it be a huge problem for the government if today a council could do what Joe Chamberlain did in Birmingham in the 19th century?

It would mean accepting that there might be differences from one area to another through choice, or bad management. But could we not leave the decision and the responsibility to local people, who could exercise accountability through local councils much more effectively than can be done at present through Parliament? Government has been too centrist. Micro-managing nearly everything from Whitehall just does not work. Whitehall, especially under Gordon Brown, will fight tooth and nail against surrendering any power to local people. David Cameron is already regarded as new and interesting by much of the electorate. He has the opportunity to make his party equally appealing, especially in those places which regard themselves as a little different from the metropolitan elite in London. He can do this by going even further than he has already done in empowering local communities.

(November 10th, 2006)

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