Friday, October 11, 2002

It's Friday afternoon..

The last three weeks have been full of party conferences. It's time for something better. How about some dope on dope?

Pass the twinkies, Emily.

<< Home

Golly gosh.

From the Friday afternoon department of institutional distractions. Thank's to Why do they call me Mr Happy for this visual illusion, which had colleagues gathered round my desk sticking holes in bits of paper and murmuring appreciatively.

<< Home

Am I an idiot on Zero Tolerance?

Iain Murray, over at the Edge of England's sword takes me to task for opposing the zero tolerance/broken windows approach to the civil society in Middlesbrough. Kris Murray suggests that It's likely I don't know what I'm talking about.

Can I clarify? I don't have a problem with the "Broken window" style of enforcement. What I have a concern about is the intense, highly personal way in which Ray Mallon seems to translate this approach into his own agenda. My comments in the piece reflected that ("when he speaks of "controlling behaviour" I wonder about freedom")

Now, I believe that by focussing on these issues, you can make a big difference to crime rates but do you have to do it in a way that is calculated to
a) increase the fear of crime by painting the situation as a flood of rising crime, when in fact crime is falling in Cleveland?
b) Creates the sense that certain people are undesireable scum?

To take a random quote, he refers to beggars, routinely, as scum. He sees the divide between the social and anti-social as a black and white divide. He proposed in his election campaign taking every anti-social family in Middlesbrough and placing them in the same area of town, so "decent people" could live in peace.

He also comes to this as an ex policeman, suspended on charges of turning a blind eye to certain drugs dealers (though I will admit that the proof for this is far from complete, but it's certainly more concrete than that against Brian Paddick, for example) who even his admirers admit bent rules on evidence.

So when he talks about making sure "evidence will be found" on the anti-social it sends a shiver down my spine.

The situation in Middlesbrough is as much about Ray Mallon as an individual, as it is about the Broken window approach.

Now, it's absolutely right that this approach has made Mr Mallon extremely popular, but I believe that it is a dangerous populism, made possible by the failure of local politicians to really deal with the issues of crime and anti social behaviour. Give me the broken windows approach without such an ambiguous figure as Mr Mallon at the heart of it, and I'd be happy.

<< Home

Smiling Happy Tories?

Well, according to this mornings newspapers, the Tories are back. IDS has them on the right path. There may be an everest to climb, but he is at the base camp. Yet, not just I, but Stephen Pollard found IDS's speech yesterday one of the most turgid, unlistenable aural tortures of modern times. How to explain?

Well, you need to understand the process of briefing. What happens is the night before the speech, a spokesperson for the leader goes out unto the press office and holds a briefing. He or she emphasises a few of the key points the leader is about to make, put's them in context, explains the thinking behind them, takes a few questions and generally explains what the leader is going to say and why. The next morning, you get some headlines in the press with words like "IDS will tomorrow deliver a stern message to the Tory conference" or "IDS is tomorrow expected to say that Tony Blair is in fact an alien slug, and therefore should not be PM". The next morning, the process is repeated, with a few more tidbits, for the TV people, so Adam Boulton at Sky, Andy Marr and the others can sound knowlegeable about the speech for the breakfast and one o'clock news.

After the speech happens, another briefing will take place, where reporters, who have the text of the speech will raise issues that mattered to them, the spokeperson will emphasise fresh passage and provide even more tidbits (like, for example, who wrote the "determination of a quiet man" line) which will feature in the next day's diary columns.

So, for most reporters, the speech happens, not in isolation, but as part of a continuous process of briefing. Done skillfully, emphasising important points, this allows the message that the leader wants to get across to become detached from the speech itself. The message is delivered formally by the speech to the conference, but in reality by the briefings to the media.

Now, this can backfire. John Major's "Back to Basics" speech made no mention of personal morality. Indeed, if you read the text it sounds like a totally reasonable call to go back to the issues that matter. However, it was briefed (by Tim Collins, I believe) as a return to higher standards of morality, and the briefing, rather than the text, became the accepted meaning of the speech. John Major could quite legitimately say "but I never said that.." but the media knew that his press people had, and they speak with authority.

It's also a useful for journalists. You get an early indication of what the speech is about, a chance to compose your thoughts, a chance to discuss this with colleagues so you don't look like an idiot, and a chance to get reaction forom other sources. However, there is no question that the process of briefing distorts how the speech itself is seen. That's the whole point. You can see the difference for yourselves. I'll wager Richard Littlejohn, Ben Macintyre or Simon Hoggart didn't attend any briefings, and their personal, less briefed, reaction to the speech is very different to the tone of the political editors and the op-ed writers. It's a bit more like the reaction you'd have if you were there, had to listen to it, and hadn't had it explained to you what the speech meant, what it's signifcance was and who it was really aimed at.

I posit that the total disconnect between the reaction of those watching and those reporting was first, that the Tory media operation did a good briefing job, Second, that the media, having expected a bloodbath were impressed when it did not occur, and therefore credited the Tories (and their leader) for not having disintegrated and that the briefings emphasised this achievement and indicated IDS intended to use it as a platform to go further. Finally, when you are surrounded by hundereds of people who want a political party to do well, it is hard to remind yourself that the country is not really paying attention.

So what effect will the speech have? I expect it will keep the Tory party quiet for a few months, The polls won't change much (though the education fiasco might hurt Labour) then, as the Tories realise that they are 2 years into the parliament, in the middle of the mid term, and still in the mire (notice that the Tories are briefing the FT that they don't expect to make any gains in the May local elections), they'll begin to get unsettled again, just in time for the 2003 Conferences to reassure them all over again.

What fun!

<< Home

Thursday, October 10, 2002

Tory Conference set. The Final day.

What a let down. All week we'd been building up to it. Giant Heads, Withered Arms. Pensioner at bus stop (or decrepit prostitute? hard to say). I switched on my TV longing to see IDS's backdrop. Avidly speculating, praying for 40 foot tall bald chap or giant shadow cabinet montage. Instead I get some plain bloody text. "LEADERSHIP WITH A PURPOSE" What is leadership without a purpose? It's not leadership. Why do parties insist on meaningless gibberish as conference slogans?

<< Home

Tory Traitors

According to Iain Duncan Smith some members of the Conservative party won't like him putting his country before playing partisan political games. Name and shame them I say. Off with their heads.

<< Home

Duncan Smith speaks

I'm sorry, but does anyone else just drift off? As far as I can tell, his biggest applause line so far was "Do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man". I keep trying to listen, then end up going off and doing something else.

<< Home

A tale of two Mayors

Last May, The first ever directly elected British Mayors came into office. At the time, attention focussed around two victors, controversial ex-Policeman, Ray Mallon in Middlesbrough and the Monkey football mascot Stuart Drummond in Hartlepool.

Local politics, especially local politics outside London, is generally treated with contempt and disinterest in National Media circles. It's not really surprising that the election of a Monkey mascot is news, but the election of Tory Chris Morgan in North Tyneside wasn't.

However, it's been 5 months since these Mayors were elected. We can begin to see the outline of their aims, their objectives and their vision. We can begin to see if the biggest experiment in local democracy in a hundred years is making any kind of difference. I'm going to focus on Mallon and Drummond because they've both been making news recently.

Stuart Drummond is a 28 year old former call centre worker, elected while standing on a platform of "free banana's for schoolkids". He had a platform because he was the mascot (H'angus the Monkey) of the local football team. (Why H'angus? well, the legend is that the good people of Hartlepool mistook a monkey for a frenchman during the Napoleonic wars and hung it). After his election there were persistent rumours that some kind of betting scam had been involved, but they don't seem to explain how he got over 5,000 votes. More likely the local and national media attention he got, plus a dissatisfaction with all three major parties on the local council explained his victory.

Since his election, he has gone relatively quiet. He has put away his monkey suit, acted professionally, broken his free bananas pledge on the grounds of cost, saved a local sports centre, backed a local newspaper campaign against poor landlords and, most imaginatively, campaigned for a large cut in the number of councillors. However, the local MP, Peter Mandelson, can (according to the Guardian) only "thinly veil his contempt" and the impression given by most locals is that the officers and other cabinet members go about their business untroubled by detailed management by the Mayor.

Now, This may not appear a particularly impressive start. However, it has attracted more local media attention than many local councils, the Mayor has a definite political persona and style and local politics is certainly interesting. Sadly, all this has been overshadowed by the news that the Mayor spends his sunday afternoons attending local Strip shows. Predictably, Hartlepool's mayor has only broken into the national media for being a monkey and being a horny monkey.

Middlebrough's Ray Mallon cuts a different figure. A former senior police officer with Cleveland police, feted by the media and politicians for his "zero tolerance" approach to crime, which was credited with cutting crime by by 25%, he was suspended in a disciplinary and corruption enquiry (Operation Lancet) not long after the 1997 General election. The charges were complex, but basically revolved around turning a blind eye to drug use by officers, tipping off drug dealer suspects about raids and lying to investigating officers. Mr Mallon denied the allegations for four years, but pled guilty before an internal enquiry, saying it was the only way he could leave the force in time to stand for Mayor of Middlesbrough. This he did, and despite the Chief Constable of Cleveland calling him the centre of an "Empire of Evil" he won a thumping victory.

Since then he has called for powers to review the performance of councillors, set up a Labour dominated cabinet, spoken at a Labour party conference fringe and consistently stated that his aim was to end anti-social behaviour and cut crime.

Yesterday, he revealed his plans for reducing crime in Middlesbrough as mayor, not as police officer. It is a remarkable document. The political editor of the Northern Echo, a perceptive and witty writer by the name of Chris Lloyd (I don't know if he wants a Fleet street career, but should be offered one) who has covered Mallon for years, commented

"At times it was visionary, At times it was frightening

By next year Middlesbrough will have the largest private police force in the country. It will be computer controlled but will rely on old fashioned policing methods. The computer will identify the anti-social hotspots; the 90 community wardens will hit the streets to sort them out. Four teams of rapid response clean up men wil deal with outbreaks of fly tipping or graffitti. Closed circuit TV cameras wiull scan the number plates of every car entering Middlesbrough and known prostitute users will be tailed and curtailed, possibly even having their cars siezed"

"And Mallon's frightening too. It sounds as if Middlesbrough could beomea police state run by a demagogue with his own private army. People will cower behind their doors, afraid to go out in case the litter squad spots them.

"He says "People will not throw litter onto the street if there's a warden there because they don't like being confronted. Big brother will watch your every move. He says "we will control behaviour so we can change it. It's called the Law of enforcement. Middlesbrough will do a lot of stop checks on the hard core criminals.""

All this is done with the aim of reducing crime by 15%. It is ambitous, it is controversial, it is politics.

Ray Mallon is the type of populist that makes my skin crawl. When he says that beggars are scum, that he will "remove them" from his town, I feel the stirrings of a dangerous authoritarianism. when he speaks of "controlling behaviour" I wonder about freedom.He is a politician now, not a policeman. However, there is no question that he is articulating, and trying to do something about, issues that really matter. In doing so, he makes local politics interesting and important again. He places a duty on those who disagree with him to state their alternative and make it compelling.

Whether Ray Mallon succeeds or Stuart Drummond fails, they are, in their different ways, making local politics become the centre of local life. This is a definite sea change in politics. It is a shame that no-one outside of these towns and cities is really paying attention.

<< Home

Wednesday, October 09, 2002

That Tory Conference set redux

The withered hand is history. The giant heads are gone. Now we have, well it's hard to tell., is it a girl on a street corner? Ah.. just checked the webite. It's a pensioner waiting for a bus.

Sadly the pictures don't give the real, looming, horror of this set. It's dark in there. These things are 30 foot high. It's Bladerunner meets brave new world. At least this time, since it's a crime debate, I can see a reason for scaring the hell out of the unsuspecting BBC parliament viewer.

<< Home

How well do I know the Shadow Cabinet?

Trust me, I'm an anorak. Thanks to Junius and the Virtual Stoa for allowing me to reveal my true colours!

"You scored 10 out of a possible 10
Congratulations! Impressive knowledge... are you Iain Duncan Smith by any chance?"

What better reason could you have for coming back to read more?

<< Home

Oh dear, oh dear

The Tories really have a problem with this women's stuff, don't they?

Pam Parker, chairman of the Conservative Women's National Committee, said: "This is absolutely not a class thing. I sit down with my cleaning lady and she has exactly the same concerns that I do."

<< Home

Rumsfeld in Baghdad

I'm no great fan of Robert Fisk, but I think he scored a palpable hit today. I, for one, did not know Donald Rumsfeld had been Reagan's special envoy to Iraq in 1983.

"we absolutely must forget that President Ronald Reagan dispatched a special envoy to meet Saddam Hussein in December 1983. It's essential to forget this for three reasons. Firstly, because the awful Saddam was already using gas against the Iranians – which is one of the reasons we are now supposed to go to war with him.

Secondly, because the envoy was sent to Iraq to arrange the re-opening of the US embassy – in order to secure better trade and economic relations with the Butcher of Baghdad.

Thirdly, because the envoy was – wait for it – Donald Rumsfeld. Now you might think it strange that Mr Rumsfeld, in the course of one of his folksy press conferences, hasn't chatted to us about this interesting tit-bit. You might think he would have wished to enlighten us about the evil nature of the criminal with whom he so warmly shook hands. But no."

I tend to beliive that pointing to the West's moral hypocrisy on Iraq does not lessen our obligation to the eople of Iraq, but rather increases, and as such, I disagree with Mr Fisk's conclusion, but still, it is a useful reminder of times when the black and white was a little more shaded.

Still, I quote Former President Clinton on this.

"The West has a lot to answer for in Iraq. Before the Gulf War when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds and the Iranians there was hardly a peep in the West because he was in Iran. Evidence has now come to light that in the early 1980s the United States may have even supplied him with the materials necessary to start the bio-weapons programme. And in the Gulf War the Shi'ites in the South East of Iraq were urged to rise up and then were cruelly abandoned to their fate as he came in and killed large numbers of them, drained the Marshes and largely destroyed their culture and way of life. We cannot walk away from them or the proved evidence that they are capable of self-government and entitled to a decent life. We do not necessarily have to go to war to give it to them, but we cannot forget that we are not blameless in the misery under which they suffer and we must continue to support them."

<< Home

The hot-tubbers sensationalizeby R. Robot

Judging from the way the New York Times front page misrepresents Tony Blair today, you'd think that the American people were about to elope with Saddam.

"Since Sept. 11 we've squandered our goodwill," says British Spin. For shame! Now that's just blatantly bitter poison.

In 1938, George Orwell wrote, "The appeasing moral equivalence of the Saddamphiles is little more than treason."

We should invade Saddam's country, kill him and convert him to Episcopalianism. "Since Sept. 11 we've squandered our goodwill," says British Spin. Well, duh.

After all, this is a man who has bullied his neighbors.

After all, this is a man who has tried to kill the President's dad.

<< Home

Tory Glory Days?

Well, what a surprise. It's wednesday and the Tories have scored a few decent headlines (and will score more on Thursday, I'll warrant, when Oliver Letwin causes op-ed writers to swoon this afternoon).

When I say decent headlines, I mean that the Sun and Mail are ecstatic about extending right to buy, The Today programme (biased? not us, guv) remarks upon the fact and the Times is being vaguely approving (apart from Simon Jenkins calling on IDS to resign, of course).

Well, It's an improvement. Of course, the Op-Ed writers are behind the curve, ignoring all these new policies and talking to themselves about the misery of it all, like horrified 24 hour news reporters filming aimlessly at the scene of an rail crash, focussing on the mangled bodies and twisted metal of a once organised and impressive machine and unable to detect if somewhere under the damage, there might still be a functioning train track under it all. After all, how important are the first signs of revival and possible reconstruction when the destruction is so painfully evident?

So are the some life signs fluttering here? Oliver Letwin can guarantee a good press wherever he goes (he's doing a real reverse Blair as shadow Home Secretary, not being tough, and how he is loved by the commentariat). David Davis's new "Right to buy" policy will undoubtedly prove popular, if not on ideological grounds, but because how many tenants will object to being given free cash?. Theresa May has flagellated the Tories in a a way which always sends a frission through the bodies of public school educated Tory Boys. Damian Green and Liam Fox have both proposed something which sounds nice on the surface but appears to fall apart on closer inspection.

But what does it all add up to? First, It seems to mean Tax Cuts are dead. I'm not sure exactly how all this house buying are to be paid for, but it has got to cost something. Same for all these Offender rehabilitation Centres. So, in effect, unless the Tories are committed to savings elsewhere (no sign of it so far, old boy) the new Tory policy is, erm, to spend more than Labour. (see ex SDP lad, Finkelstein, for more details on hw Tax cuts now would be politically and economically untenable for the Tories).

So, we are at a new situation. The Tories, are, in effect, proposing to revive their fortunes by either maintaining or increasing public spending. It's interesting, it's imaginative, but is it Conservative?

<< Home

Tuesday, October 08, 2002

I should have done this ages ago

But the always excellent Junius is now on my on my links list. Any suggestion that the delay in this happening is down to hit-envy will be treated with the contempt they deserve. *cough cough* . Still, we wimpish leftists need to stick together now. After all, there is such a thing as a left wing bloggers community.

<< Home

Northern Ireland

John Reid is just about to talk on this. It seems the Government is doing all it can to buy time. I generally do not envy ministers, but I have nothing but sympathy for those who have the job of preserving the peace process when some parties are still fundamentally committed to using force if needed (even if they do not intend to use that force) and others for political and moral reasons are forced to oppose their very presence in government. It is a Gordian knot you are forbidden to cut through.

Look at this another way. The Health and Education ministers for Northern Ireland are members of a party whose staff has been accused of spying on members of the British parliament with the presumed intention of knowing how to murder them. If they do not stay in government the possibility of war will move ever closer. If they do, it would be an indication that these actions are acceptable in democratic politics.

Again, I advise you to read Slugger O'Toole (sadly down at the moment), Shamrockshire Eagle (whose quote from the Guardian today on the republican attitude is especially interesting for someone as ignorant of the internal politics of Northern Ireland as I am)or Hawk Girl (I've not read too much of her myself, and she seems pretty hardline -hey, not an insult for someone whose byline is give war a chance, surely?-, but Slugger's recommendation is good enough for me).

<< Home

The Tories conference set

My obsession with this continues. Now they have replaced the giant heads. With a huge withered arm extending across the stage. what is that about?

<< Home

Lycos gross out

One of the pleasures of doing this blog is the ability to see what search engines have decided you talk about. I usually directed to me after enquiries on British Politics, Amanda Platell (you freaks), various journalists names (ego googling, that's what it is. Rachel Sylvester, J'accuse) but today someone came on to my site having looked, in all innocence, for belly button torture.

I'm afraid my humble site was destined to disappoint. Lycos, you have failed the intrepid seeker after Belly Button torture. shame on you.

<< Home

Spread a little harmony...

Well, since everyone keeps talking about it. How could a leadership challenge to IDS actually happen? According to the rules put in place by Hague

"there can now be a leadership election if 15% of Conservative MPs trigger a vote of no confidence by signing a letter to the chairman of the 1922 Backbench Committee.

If the leader then wins a simple majority in a vote of MPs, then he or she continues in office. If defeated, they cannot stand for re-election and MPs will vote again in a primary election for new candidates."

Let's see. With the defection of Andrew Hunter, there would need to be 25 Tory MP's prepared to sign that letter. 87 would need to vote for the motion of no-confidence (not for a particular candidate, just for "no confiidence"). IDS would then not be allowed to stand in the subsequent election. Iain Duncan Smith managed only 54 votes in the leadership election. Doesn't sound that hard, does it?

For those interested in comparative politics, In order to depose a Labour leader, a special motion has to be passed at party conference, then a new leadership election would be held in which the leader could still stand. It's not clear how you'd ever get that motion on the conference agenda. Much tougher.

<< Home

Monday, October 07, 2002

Clinton and Blair and Bush

Undoubtedly the highlight of Labour's Conference, from the point of view of the delegates I spoke to, was former President Clinton's address on Wednesday.

Partly this was becasue he is a star. I remember people saying the same thing two years ago, when Nelson Mandela spoke at Labour's Brighton shindig. Now, I find it hard to remember what President Mandela said. (Gerhard Schroeder didn't quite get the same reaction last year, partly because of the September 11th attacks, partially because he spoke in German.)

Partly, it was because the man is a virtuoso political speaker. From his opening lines, ("Conference, Clinton, Bill, Arkansas CLP") to the flattery ("It's nice to be in a place where our side is still in power") to his tour of the world horizon, Bill Clinton is able to hold an audience like the Labour Party in the palm of his hand.

Partly, it was because it is a pleasure to be able to lift your head from the day to day internal battles of British politics and just cheer someone. Sure, if you took Clinton's political positions on a range of issues, from the death penalty to welfare, the vast majority of Labour delegates wouldn't let the man be the conference delegate from "Arkansas CLP", but in some mystical, ineffable way, Labour delegates knew that Clinton was one of them. It showed.

Mostly though, it was because Clinton sailed so close to the wind. On a whole host of issues Bill Clinton went right over the line seperating friendship from partisanship.

He attacked the Bush administration openly:

"I disagree with him on just about everything".

He hinted that he questioned immediate war on Iraq:

"I still believe our most pressing security challenge is to finish the job against Al Qaida and its leaders in Afghanistan and any other place that they might hide. I would support even committing more forces to that. We have only about half as many forces in Afghanistan today that we had in Bosnia after the conflict was over"

He even hinted that he felt that war on Iraq was at least questionable at any time:

"the rest of us should support his efforts in the United Nations and until they fail we do not have to cross bridges we would prefer not to cross"

he hinted that the reason he was so suportive of Tony Blair was that he restrained Bush

"Weighing the risks and making the calls are what we elect leaders to do, and I can tell you that as an American, and a citizen of the world, I am glad that Tony Blair will be central to weighing the risks and making the calls"

This refernce to elected leaders, mind you, minutes after he had impugned Bush's election ("won fair and square 5-4 in the Supreme Court")

and he publicly attacked the British tory party:

"your Tories are calling themselves compassionate Conservatives. I admire a good phrase. I respect as a matter of professional art adroit rhetoric, and I know that all politics is a combination of rhetoric and reality. Here is what I want you to know. The rhetoric is compassionate, the Conservative is the reality. This is kind of fun for me, I don't get to do this much any more."

From a foriegn, retired politician, this is strong stuff. If you want to know why the British Labour party responded so strongly to it, it is because it provided the extrenal validation they longed for. Here was an american president, no less, teling them that their sacrifices were worthwhile, that their leader was a great man, that their opponents were malicious of fools and that President Bush, a man they do not like or trust, is not likeable or trustworthy but must be worked with nevertheless.

For Labour delegates, Bill Clinton was able to acknowledge the central truths of Tony Blair's policy that Tony Blair cannot say.

Bush is not one of us. we don't like him or his party. We think his policies may be dangerous or misguided. But there's nothing to be gained by walking away, no benefit to the world in letting America do as it will.

We might not like every step or action, but by god we need to be as trustworthy an ally as possible to try and show that there is a way through this that all can support. we must remember that America is justifiably enraged and hurt, that it need brook now argument if it chooses not to, that sneering or carping at their rage risks precipitatating a breakdown in international co-operation, because if we allow a breach, America can do what it wants in the end, and the result will be worse for us all.

We don't seek reward, or bribery, or pay off. We seek something more difficult- the trust of an ally with whom we may disagree frequently, the right to be listened to by an ally that need not listen, Compromise from a country that sees no value in compromise right now.

<< Home

Have the Tories gone over to the Dark side?

Just looking at Theresa May's speech. My God it's dark in there.

I'm trying to think of a visual reason for this darkness. No backdrop, low lighting. Black (or deep navy blue) background. It looks like a scene from the death star. I'm depressed just looking at it.

And what' that huge Stalinist black and white shot of a little girl? Now I'm scared.

This isn't a party conference, it's a scene from Bladerunner.

<< Home

Oh and Mr Crabtree

I think I count as a lefty blog.. over here.. yooo! hooo!

<< Home

I've been catching up on my blogging today..

and this is the funniest joke I've seen all week. My congratulations, Mr Briffa.

<< Home

Labour Party Conference

I expected the week to revolve around Iraq. It is a mark of the Labour team that the week will be remembered for public services and Bill Clinton.

Paul Routledge wrote in the Mirror last week that Gordon Brown’s team thought they had a deal on PFI with the unions. They couldn’t understand why the deal was off the table when they got back from Washington. I suggest that it was because the Leadership of the party wanted a fight, even one they were destined to lose.

The bigger the row, the more likely the media would be to make it the centrepiece of the week (Contrast with the debate on Iraq on the same day, where the NEC of the party even withdrew it’s own statement as too provocative).

I have a feeling (informed by the prompting of Mr Mandelson on the BBC, the subtext of the PM’s speech and the general attitude of No 10 advisers) that the New Labour team want to break more radically with the past in public service provision. Indeed, some of this could be related to a sense that despite the desire for more public service provision, the public are just as individualist and consumerist as they were in the 80’s and woe betide any government who tries to make one public size fit all.

Many Blairites, after an initial obsession with public service performance targets, managing the machine and empire building, now see central control as fundamentally a problem and a roadblock to reform.

They get this impression from talking to Headteachers, hospital chief execs, and what one might call “front line managers” who tend to be optimistic, enthusiastic and imaginative about what can be achieved. They are, some of them, the kind of public servants New Labour would like to see everywhere- “can do” people, aggressive in demanding more power and authority to change things. New Labour responds to this (it is nothing if not in a hurry), and against the hidebound senior civil service. (For those of you who are interested in such things, there is a link to Clinton here- the first time we meet the central characters in “Primary Colors” the Stantons are debating just this issue)

From this belief in the ability of individuals to change their own services in the way their local communities wants flows a policy of decentralisation, a focus on local needs, on the needs of the patient and the parent, Foundation hospitals, specialist colleges etc etc etc…

Indeed, I think most New Labour figures would listen sympathetically to the case being made by the Tories today to take this process further and faster. (This is not to underestimate the divide- Labour want to do this while pouring money into the services, The Tories want to do it instead of investing and that changes the whole game.)

The argument they make, rightly, is that the public want to see services that are locally responsive, that are part and parcel of their community, over which they have a say, not merely be passive consumers. They want to be able to mould services in their own images, or at least have a say over them. Or, some say more cynically, they at least want the appearance of responsiveness- after all, you feel you have a choice at McDonald’s, but try asking for a baked potato. So we need to hand over the reins, let local managers take responsibility in a national framework of expectations.

There are real risks here for Public services. These risks will frighten unions, civil servants and the wider Labour party. Decentralisation and local control means variation in quality, almost by definition. One of the benefits of the target driven process has been an increased focus on deprived communities, who have had to increase performance to meet he targets. It is possible that the decentralised, go ahead services, the ones with the good teachers, the good doctors, the imaginative governors, will once again be the middle class services.

Again, if local pay can vary for local needs, will the unionised workforce in the North be expected to accept worse pay and conditions than their southern confreres? How will this be introduced?

How will increased rights to borrow impact the PSBR? Will the state have to act as guarantor to services it has no control over? This is the heart of the battle over foundation hospitals.

Finally, what if things go wrong? The downside of local control is that some local managers will by definition be as incompetent and idiotic as you could ever imagine, while others will amaze with their skill and dedication. It’s the same in the private sector, but badly managed private companies go to the wall. How many hospitals and schools are we prepared to see go to the wall, sacking employees, getting into debt, slashing pay to save jobs?

None? OK, well we need a very sophisticated way of spotting failure and correcting early. If this isn’t done right, you come pretty close to going full circle back to central control following this diagnose and prevent route.

I have not yet heard New Labour address how they will solve these conundrums. One answer might lie in the financing arrangements. If inner city schools and GP’s funding are increased so they have superb facilities and the ability to pay more- well this might well have an impact. Another might lie in the success of projects like New Deal for Communities in creating strong State/Voluntary/Community hybrid groups in many deprived communities. There may well be answers, but they have not been confronted.

New Labour doesn’t need to persuade the country of the benefits of this approach. If they are to persuade their party however, they need to develop a coherent argument to show how this process will reduce inequality. The argument is there to be won, and it’s there to be won not least because if this process is to succeed, it would require sustain investment and support. If the focus is on reducing inequality, through transforming the delivery of services, Labour can win another great battle. If the sound and fury of internal battles drown their bigger message out, the Tory message of it’s broke and your can’t fix it will gain currency . If new Labour needs any advice from the likes of me, it is “keep your eyes on the prize”.

<< Home

I'm back, from outer space...

Well, OK, from Blackpool, where Labour Party conference took all of my time and I was unable to post. Terrible thing an open press room for a man trying to hide his secrets from colleagues.

I have my thoughts on the week, which I shall release in dribs and drabs as the Tories have their do down South (which thankfully, I have been told I am surplus to requirements for- Media bias for which I am very grateful).

In the meantime, The most important issue is Northern Ireland. I am not qualified to discuss it, so read Slugger O'Toole.

<< Home