9th March 2016
The Value Added
How much should a country like the UK be spending on public services? It seems like an innocuous question, but it gets to the heart of current debates surrounding austerity and the government’s ‘cuts’ agenda. George Osborne’s desire to reduce government spending to 36% of GDP is, quite rightly, portrayed as an ideological attack on the welfare state. Understandably, Labour has opposed this policy and has sought to be seen as the defender of public services in the face of a Tory attack. It’s reasonable to assume that there have been real worries expressed among voters about widespread cuts to public service budgets but, as the general election of 2015 showed, the electorate are far from convinced by Labour’s alternative agenda.
Labour’s first challenge in making the case for protecting provision is to start explaining how, while opposing the government’s salami slicing of services, it can start to reaffirm the value and values of public services. It is still the case that the poorer you are, the poorer the level of service you get from our health and education systems, among other services. One major reason for this is that too often services are developed with the interests of professionals and institutions in mind, rather than the interests of the people they are supposed to serve. It is of course right that teachers, doctors and other professionals are central to the planning of public services, but as a party committed to championing public services Labour should always be wary of technocratic solutions that favour narrow professional self-interests over the more general well-being of the public. The patient participation movement within the NHS is one example of how people are trying to take back control of their own services. This isn’t only right in terms of fairness, it is essential to understanding the service for patients, parents and pupils. There would be less non-attendance and ‘inappropriate’ interventions if services were made more meaningful to people.
Another key challenge for Labour is to become the party of real devolution. The big state is as remote and cold to people as are big corporations. Labour should actively seek to put the control of local services directly into the hands of the people who rely on them the most. The development of free schools and personalised health budgets have been welcome developments and Labour must be bold in getting behind and continuing to support such initiatives. The portrayal of Labour as the unquestioning champions of the big state is not only damaging, it is historically incorrect. Labour has as rich a history rooted in the mutual and cooperative movements, as it does the large statist approach so beloved of some of the party’s activists.
Finally, Labour needs to emphasise the value and values of public services. While spending more on public services generally improves outcomes it is far from a perfect equation. Labour needs to show that it recognises that cost is only one side of the value coin, on the other side sits quality. By obsessing about the outcomes (quality) of services not just the inputs (cash) we can start to see the value that public services add to people’s lives in terms of general health, well-being and helping people to achieve their hopes for the future. This focus on value is actually more important in austere times, as most people recognise in their own struggles to seek better value in their daily lives. This realisation should help Labour recognise that protesting about privatisation while never mentioning patients, parents and pupils and the quality of service they receive is an ideological self-indulgence that doesn’t reflect well on the party and is off-putting to voters. Labour also needs to reassert the values of public service and how they enrich us all. At the heart of public service – whether they be state, voluntary or privately run – sit notions of integrity, honesty, empathy and accountability. The fact that David Cameron could even begin to appropriate these under his failed Big Society banner should have served as a wake-up call to anyone who had become mired in the big-state-knows-best approach to public services.
So back to the original question: how much should we be spending on public services? Well, I’d suggest that setting an arbitrary amount isn’t very helpful and what matters most is the effectiveness and value of services. Only then can we be credible in our calls for higher spending, if that is indeed what we need. At the heart of this will be a Labour government’s willingness to give power away to the people. Of course it will need to get back into power first. Sadly, at present, that goal seems to be drifting ever further away.
By Steven Duckworth