The Dissenter's Voice

The ocassional comments, opinions, rambling and rants of a liberal dissenter in New Labour's Britain

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

It´s choice, stupid!

We LibDems have long prided ourselves on our willingness to address uncomfortable truths, think new thoughts and challenge outdated consensus. Indeed, in most areas this is true, from Iraq, to the Environment, to civil liberties - it´s the Lib Dems who have set the pace with others running to catch up. However, there is one policy area where we have been woefully lacking in new thinking - choice in public services.

For many years, ever since the Alliance days in fact, we have allowed our thinking on public services to be dominated by the views of the professionals who run them, doctors, teacher etc, rather than the people who use them on a day to day basis. Don´t get me wrong this isn´t a criticism of their work - their ability to battle through the the long hours, bureaucracy and interference they face speaks for itself. No, my point isn´t about service providers at all, its about their consumers.

If you are poor in this country, you are likely to live in a council flat, receive your income from the government, have your children educated in the state school, use the NHS and rely on public transport to get around. You are in fact likely to be entirely dependent on the state. What do we as LibDems say to someone who lives in that situation? Well by and large we say vote LibDem and we will run the state better on your behalf. Use your vote every 4 years and leave it to us to sort it all out. That is not exactly a satisfactory stance for liberals to take, posing as managers of one size fits all public services.

It wouldn´t be fair to say that we haven´t done any thinking on this issue the Huhne Commission of a few years back attempted to look at what modern public services would look like in a Liberal Britain. It wouldn´t be unfair to sum up its conclusion as ´more local and more democratic´ - that is in effectthat more powers would be given to local councils, with responsibility for services such as the NHS and policing made directly accountable through them. I doubt there is a single LibDem who would disagree with that in as far as it goes. However, the idea that the sum total of our thinking on how to empower the powerless, or even the aspirational, through public services is to give Lambeth or Doncaster or Glasgow Councils more power and control over peoples lives is to say the least somewhat disappointing. review.

You might be forgiven for having forgotten that when last year we came up with our dramatic new tax policy we also had a major review of our other policies. The result was an extraordinarily limp document, which rather than challenging party orthodoxy and fundamentally rethinking our ideas simply tried to distill and clarify what had gone before, unsurprisingly it has been left on the shelf since the day it was passed. It barely addressed the issue of public services and how to give people more control over them, indeed it deliberately avoided discussing the issue of choice. At the time I was serving on the party´s Federal Policy Comittee, when the final draft came before us I asked why the section in particular on public services was so weak? The answer came from the Co-chair of the policy review group that this was indeed the weakest section of the review, because ´they had not had time´ to look at the issues properly in the 8 months of the review process. In short when we were looking at how best to make our future policies relevant to the electorate, reformng public services was the last priority, almost an afterthought for which there wasn´t enough time to examine the issue seriously. That is a pretty savage indictment not just of our policy making process but also of our priorities.

The leadership election provides us wth an opportunity to correct this mistake. Both canidates must address the issue of choice n public services. Why should someone be stuck with shoddy, second rate services which they can only influence every 4 years. Arguing that we will make these services more local will no longer do. One of the many reasons I´m voting for Nick Clegg is his willingness to address this issue and try and find a liberal way of squaring the circle and enable everyone, whoever they are the opportunity to choose the services they deserve. If his stance means that as a party we finally have a real debate about the role of the state and public services in the 21st Century then so much the better.


Blogger Tristan said...

I find our policies on 'public services' very disappointing.

There is a lot of thinking which implies that giving a local bureaucracy the power will sort things out. This is absolute rubbish though, it will be just as bad.

Liberalism is meant to be a philosophy of individual freedom and choice. We should be enabling choice, not, as the current system does, removing it.

Most people have only one choice in services - the local school, the local GP and the local hospital. Why not give them full choice from many different suppliers?

The problem the NHS surely sought to solve was that some people didn't have access to health services. The solution should have been to enable them to choose rather than restricting everyone else's choice.

Liberals, until Thatcher came upon us, used to believe in markets and choice and oppose monopoly. In public services we support monopoly and oppose markets and choice. There is something horribly wrong there.

2:44 PM  

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