By making the public sector more efficient, is Tony Blair killing off the public sector ethos? Blame the cult of individualismby Barry Cox / July 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Since the fall of the Berlin wall, the great economic debates that once divided the mainstream right from the mainstream left have largely dissolved. But as the election has just illustrated the form and funding of public services has emerged as the central issue in British politics, especially for the new centre-left. The left’s vision of the good society-in particular the goals of social cohesion and a decent start in life for all-requires the public sector, especially health and education, to deliver first-class services to every British citizen. It also requires that these services remain free and funded out of general taxation.
After a patchy performance in Labour’s first term it is hard to exaggerate how much is now riding for the Blair government on the promise of delivering improved services in its second term. A failure to deliver could prompt voters to ask what Labour’s social democracy is for. When Labour has just won another thumping majority it may seem odd to argue that the party could quickly lose the argument over services. But it is possible to imagine a scenario in which Labour wins a referendum on the euro, burying the schism which has so damaged the Tory party, and that-in the face of public services that have not improved enough-radical Conservative arguments about vouchers, private insurance and a smaller state could become attractive to a big group of voters.
As a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research put it: “If in five years time, after a period of strong funding, citizens feel that services are still failing there could be a backlash. Those opposed to collective provision would find it easier to argue that public services are an anachronism: blunt, inefficient, restrictive of choice. If the case for universal public services cannot be won now, it could be lost forever.”
This essay is an assessment of the public services debate. The first part looks at the recent arguments over the funding and delivery of services; the second part looks at the decline of the “public service class” and some of the broader cultural and economic problems associated with state provision of public services in an increasingly affluent and individualistic society.
In the run up to the 1997 election Labour promised “not the politics of a revolution, but of a fresh start.” The promises were minimal. Indeed, the story of the public services in Labour’s…