Sunday, September 25, 2005

Badly governed

I’ve always voted Labour, and I doubt if what follows here will change this much. But my newspapers tell me that all of the money spent on reducing truanting has been a complete waste. There are also few journalists who see the passing the Council Tax chalice as anything other than political cowardice. Paul Anderson sees it as a harbinger of an almighty unravelling. He's probably right.

Most of us ‘continuity Labour’ types would agree with these assessments. We'd mutter something about middle England, focus groups and pandering to Murdoch. None of us are very surprised by the way things have turned out either.

So far, no-one has really noticed glaring examples of poor government because the economy has been OK. Some of us even think a bit of reckless goverment spending is a step towards the kind of Keynesianism that we've been asking for.

But now it seems that Gordon’s forecasts are looking genuinely dodgy for the first time.

Has cash blinded us from seeing just how badly a country can be governed? Has the case for high public spending been fatally undermined by the inability of a socialist government to spend it sensibly?

I think Martin Kettle is broadly right about this. It's a massive failure in public policy. But for some reason, he shies away from a solid conclusion.

Allow me: There are three reasons why new Labour are mismanaging the country:
  1. Our civil service are amateurs. They have neither the expertise or conviction to pursue policy goals. Instead, high government spending has created a mushrooming and incompetent bureaucracy.
  2. Our political culture is in freefall. Centralisation, the power of pressure groups and the media have all been growing for decades. But that growth has accelerated rapidly since 1997. We are becoming a direct democracy because this is an ideological blind-spot that Labour politicians have. They actually don’t understand that it’s a bad thing.
  3. Professionals have never been held in such low esteem. Not only are we seeing a micromanagement from the centre, but that micromanagement is carried out at the behest of fickle politicians and executed by incompetent civil servants.
So a competent professional teacher is forced to jump to every new populist tune that an airhead minister whistles - and that tune comes with fifty new forms and procedures courtesy of Whitehall. Labour was so defensive about public sector reform that they didn't think it was worth learning to distinguish between 'producer interest' (alive and well in Whitehall) and professional expertise.

If Labour had wanted to, it would have been able to get away with wholesale administrative reform in 1997. A politicised Civil Service has never done the French or the Yanks any harm.

It could also have got away with significant media reform at that time.

That’s why new Labour has always been skating on thin ice.

Postscript: More in the 'Best Societies in the World' series. The best education system in the world (Finland); No league tables, no Sats, long holidays. (from todays Observer)

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