The Fabian Society kindly gave me a media registration for their new year conference and I spent last Saturday at Imperial College mingling with the Labour Party faithful. I sadly missed Gordon Brown’s morning address but sat in on two discussions: “What not to spend” – a discussion on what public spending cuts the government should make; and “Tribes or causes: Can we campaign across party boundaries?” Both featured Lib Dem speakers, and I attended the former to keep an eye on Vince Cable and the latter to support Evan Harris (or should that be the other way around?).
What not to spend was, of the two sessions, the most frustrating. This was partially because there was no Labour Minister there to give us their perspective, partially because the Nigel Stanley and Janet Daley failed spectacularly to stay on topic and partially because Vince himself was being incredibly cautious. My hope that Vince might give us a tantalising glimpse of what he thought needed cutting, beyond that which the party has announced and reannounced over the past few months ended up dashed (despite his tantalising flash of leg in Parliament the preceeding week). And because the Cult of Vince seems to have extended as far as both the audience and the other speakers (I don’t think anyone breathed a word of criticism of him during the entire 90 minutes), he wasn’t even pressed on the kite flying list of spending cuts he flagged up in his Reform pamphlet last September. A man suggests means-testing child benefit and doesn’t elicit even a single squeak from a Fabian audience; what is going on? Indeed, the one area there did seem to be some tentative agreement on was the rolling back of middle class welfare.
Instead of talking about the current economic situation, Stanley and Daley preferred to continue a traditional left-right ding-dong which you might have heard in any political meeting at any point over the last twenty years. Both, I have to say, were much more nuanced and less dogmatic than they might have been, but neither seemed interested in really addressing what savings government needed to make. To be fair on Stanley, as a TUC staffer, it wasn’t really his job on the panel to do that, but I did expect to hear something substantial from Daley. She made a dig at the start about “not defending David Cameron’s economic policy because I don’t know what it is” yet pretty much the alpha and omega of her own economic policy seemed to consist of one word: “vouchers”.
“Vouchers” – whether they are vouchers for education, healthcare or whatever – have been a real rallying cry for the right in recent years. The aforementioned Reform think tank was for a while obsessed with them. Speaking personally, I’ve always felt it is a bit of a cop out of an argument. We’re constantly invited to believe that the key to the success of the Swedish education system lies in the voucher system, not in the amount of cash each of those vouchers represents, and to believe that, somehow, a voucher based on UK spending levels would have the same effect. I don’t buy it. I can see how they could be made to work in, say, an inner city area where the population density is sufficiently high enough to create a genuine market, but how it would work in a rural area is something I still haven’t found a satisfactory answer to.
Furthermore, while they might be a suitable topic for discussion in a debate about getting value for money from public services, I just can’t see how introducing them during an economic period where we are having to make cuts makes much sense at all. It won’t address any problems in the short term, and indeed the cost and bureaucracy that would be involved to establish the system would make it harder to introduce cuts.
The other area that troubled me was the aforementioned apparent consensus around the idea of scaling back the “middle class welfare state”. Some of this, I have very little trouble with. Creating a shorter taper for tax credits so that people earning £50,000 aren’t entitled to some tiny amount which is eclipsed by its own administration costs makes perfect sense. But that is the trouble with means-tested benefits. By contrast, there is a real danger in means-testing what few universal benefits we have left in the name of cutting costs. Partially, this is because you end up having to establish a whole new bureaucracy to administer the scheme, partially because it means that those most in need often end up failing to claim for it precisely because of that bureacracy, but also because it helps create a sense of solidarity between the comfortably off and the poor. As Sunder Katwala himself said at the Lib Dem conference last September “services for the poor will always be poor services“.
I hope that my concern about the comfort with this rhetoric proves to be unfounded and that things like child tax benefit won’t be regarded as low hanging fruit after the general election. But the way this idea seemed to be supported in the generality at the session did cause me some discomfort. It was the elephant in the room.