Monday, June 05, 2006

Public Good, Private Bad?

So the latest piece in the Cameron jigsaw of attracting back the centre vote is to enthuse about the merits of the public sector. As a dyed in the wool Thatcherite you might expect steam to be coming out of my ears, but it isn't and I'll tell you why. In essence I still believe that unless there is a damned good reason for something to be run by the government, it shouldn't be. However, the private sector has failed to live up to the opportunities provided by the Thatcher and Major privatisations in so many areas that it is only natural now to enter into a debate about why that was and to learn the lessons from it. There's no doubt that the cumbersome privatisation structures and ensuing regulatory framworks put some real barriers in the way of entrepreneurial initiative, but the outright greed displayed by some executives in a few of the privatised companies has done real harm to the reputation of the private sector. The private sector has also been lamentably bad at its own marketing and PR - almost as bad as the public sector.

But the other problem for Conservatives has been the language we have used in attacking public sector inefficiencies. We have made people who work in the public sector feel that we are attacking them personally rather than the system they are working within. Would you want to vote for a Party which constantly told you you were rubbish? Of course not.

None of this means we should be reticent about pointing to public sector failures where they occur, but just as we should be more open about the failures of the private sector we should also be prepared to say so when the public sector gets it right too.

If we're to win next time we need the votes of more teachers, nurses, local government workers, civil servants. David Cameron's speech won't win their support on its own, but it signals that the Conservative Party is continuing to change. And isn't that the whole point of the Cameron strategy of building the bigger tent? In six months he's already added 6-8 points onto our poll levels by attracting more support from the centre ground. There are far more votes to be harvested from the centre and I firmly believe this can be achieved without compromising our principles or philosophical heritage. It won't be achieved overnight but it's been a bloody good start. No doubt what I have said will be seen as heresy by those who belong to the scorched earth tendency in our Party, but do they really think there is an alternative? There isn't and we'd better all get used to it.


Bob Piper said...

"Would you want to vote for a Party which constantly told you you were rubbish? Of course not."

Certainly in my ward, with a lot of public sector workers amongst the electorate, although they resented what they perceived as the Government attack on their pension schemes, they indicated no enthusiasm for switching to the Conservatives. The 'privatising Tory' is still deeply feared by public sector employees. In actual fact New Labour has also shown an undying commitment to privatisation, but the TUPE regulations and other protections for transferring employees have lessened the impact.

Tom Greeves said...

Excellent post.

Although it's for similar reasons why I don't think we should celebrate not having to pay tax ...

Paul Linford said...

I'm not about to vote Tory, but you are right in your analysis Iain.

Hearing DC talk positively about the public sector will him win a lot of votes from public sector professionals who are sick to the back teeth of Blair telling them what a waste of space they are and lauding the private sector all the time.

Cassilis said...

Couldn't agree more. Although history has portrayed Mrs T as a raving idealogue she wasn't devoid of pragmatism - the Blairite "what's right is what works" wouldn't have sounded out of place coming from her. Cameron has recognised that in Health & Education the UK population is very centrist - not ideologically opposed to private sector involvement but neither ideologically hungry for it at all costs. Public or private, the test will be "does it work, is it value for money?"

Anonymous said...

I worked for over 2 years on contract at a part of the Home Office, before escaping just before Christmas.

The bit I was working in was about the nearest there is in the Civil Service to a dotcom startup - not the abyss of something like the IND etc.

In spite of that, the civil servants wer all completly useless. No private sector firm with even a vestigal instinct for survival would have hired any of them.

Cameron can say what he likes, but if this country is going to become a better place to live in, there need to be really drastic reductions* in the number of civil servants and the tax burden.

Just ask yourself one question: would you prefer to buy an MP3 player from Apple, or DEFRA?

And why is it that Tesco can organise country-wide operations of astounding complexity & responsiveness, yet the Home Office can't manage to deport people who it has only to transport from the prison to the airport?

(*ie at least half of the Ministries need to be closed down as soon as possible: they serve only as obstructions. It would be better to pay the beauracrats their money on condition that they didn't come into work, than to allow them to continue messing things up the way they are at the moment)

Anonymous said...

Good - let's shrink Government. A future government to have say a Cabinet of Eight Ministers; to abolish the PPS and the Junior Minister roles and let Civil Servants do the jobs.

To remove political advisers. Let's really shrink the size of government and get rid of the public sector inefficiency which seems endemic in Ministers of The Crown.

WE could abolish the Treasury and have a proper Ministry of Finance and an OMB - Office of Management & Budget

phone cam foolery said...

that and you didnt make the A list,another snout at the trough given half a chance

Anonymous said...

At the risk of sounding obsequious, this is one of the most insightful things you’ve ever said on this blog. I agree with every word. It’s not heresy for we Thatcherites to look back at her legacy and question whether some things could have been handled better. What would really be heresy would be to sullenly cling to a rigid ideology that meant we could never hold office again. The Lady was a woman of principle, but she was also practical enough to understand that you can’t do anything unless you actually get elected. We still have a long way to go, but can anyone seriously doubt that we’re (finally!) on the right track?

Anonymous said...

Well, Iain, I certainly don't believe you've died in the wool. Maybe dyed in the wool is what you meant.

I don't like David Cameron's face, but anything that gets that toxic hissing snake Blair out of his roiling vipers' nest is fine with me. I must admit it is entertaining to see them all hissing and turning on each other.

- Anonymousette

Apuleia said...

Hear, hear.

Richard Allen said...

No! No! No!

The intelectual surrender of the tory party under Cameron continues on all fronts

The problem with privatisation was the way it was handled. Rather than allowing genuinely free markets to flourish we created private monopolies or imposed a regulatory framework that sheltered the big boys from market forces.

kingbongo said...

I have worked for myself and employed 16 others, worked as a contractor within the Civil Service, worked as an Established Civil Servant, worked in Private Banking and now work as a teacher in an FE college. I have worked with great people and useless people in every one of those roles, so it's about time we as Conservatives stood up for the people who want to do a good job, whether they are in the private or public sector.

This analysis is spot on Iain and I'm glad DC has decided to make this speech. Hopefully he will follow it up by encouraging more public sector workers as candidates.

The Daily Pundit said...

Cameron's acknowledgment of public sector workers is timely and welcome but doesn't change the fact that more than a billion pounds a year is being wasted on non-jobs such as 'Diversity Directors' and 'Supporting People Managers'.

It doesn't change the fact that private sector workers will have to work until they drop while their opposite number in the public sector are hang-gliding or swimming with dolphins as soon as they hit sixty. I agree that the last thing we need is a 'scorched earth' approach, which would ultimately end in confrontation and make the miners strike look like a playground squabble. But sooner or later he's going to have face some difficult questions.

Until then we should revel in the ten point lead and await the next Labour scandal. Can't be too long now, it's been a whole week since the last one.

Tom said...

I'll second the chap who said this was the most insightful thing he's read on here - I was genuinely surprised and had to check it was really Thatcherite Iain rather than a guest writer.

An objective assessment of the 80s/90s privatisations is long overdue - some are clearly successful, some are clearly public money pits (hello, Railtrack). The question is 'why'.

Why is Rolls-Royce making the world's best jet engines while Thames Water is losing millions of gallons of water? Why is the electricity industry putting up prices 22% while there's hundreds of years of coal in the ground? What's the incentive to improve or innovate in a private monopoly that has no fear of going bust?

I can guess at the answers, but any intellectually-gifted politician who promised to draw a line round will run best state controlled and leave the rest to run itself would be better than either a rabid privatiser or a state-controlling madman.

The democratic deficit inherent in private monopolies needs to be addressed - if the public are locked into a public service supplier they can't vote out or walk out of that's a form of economic slavery (see PFI).

Basically we need less ideology. Blair isn't a pragmatist, he's a gut instinct ideologist who overestimates his own ability and convinces himself that his instincts are the same as the public interest. They clearly aren't.

Anonymous said...

So BAA was privatised only to end up in the hands of The Government of Singapore and a Canadian public Sector pension Fund in Quebec in a bid fronted by a Spanish Construction Company.

London Electric is owned by a French State Corporation EdF.

Railtrack is owned in terms of debt by the British taxpayer but operates like a private fiefdom

The Tube cannot install communications systems 18 years after first proposed but Shriti Vadera and Gordo Brown can spend £500 million privatising it to US corporates.

RAF Refuelling tankers are privatised to EADS - a France-German State Corporation

Is there logic in this ?