Mistakes in opposition have strengthened my resolve, particularly on student feesby George Osborne / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
Tuition fees have sparked major protests—but Labour is making a short-sighted mistake in opposing them, says the Chancellor
There were plenty of low points during the 13 years the Conservatives spent in opposition. But I remember one particularly dismal moment: the day, in 2004, when I joined most of my fellow Tory MPs in voting against Labour’s introduction of top-up fees. It was meant to be a moment of victory. Tony Blair’s government was divided. The chancellor, Gordon Brown, and his circle of political advisers were deliberately encouraging dissent to further his personal ambition. And we, the opposition, were suddenly presented with the opportunity to defeat a government with a huge majority.
There was only one problem. Introducing top-up fees was the right thing to do. They increased resources for universities. They gave the third-level education sector greater freedom from Whitehall control. They gave students greater responsibility for paying for their education, instead of relying on the taxes of people earning far less than what those students would go on to earn.
We heard all this at the time. But we didn’t want to listen. And so we concocted an alternative policy no one really believed in to justify our opposition. I understand the temptation facing the Conservative leadership at the time—and I certainly don’t blame them. They felt they had lost too many times to pass up the chance to win. And I didn’t speak up at the time, or defy the whip like a few of my colleagues did. But we made the wrong choice. Tony Blair, helped by a powerful Commons speech from Alan Johnson, won the vote with a majority of just five. We lost not just the vote, but something far more important: our credibility. Far from bringing us closer to political victory, we had drifted further away.
A group of new Conservative MPs, including David Cameron and myself, came to learn an important lesson from this. We decided that the most precious political commodity is intellectual integrity. Important for a government, it is even more precious in opposition, when people have little else to judge you by. So when David became the Conservative leader, one of the first things we abandoned was our opposition to student fees. Instead of trying to defeat a divided Labour government on issues like school reform, we voted with Tony Blair against his backbenchers and emerged with the real victory.
Now the wheel has turned full circle. Once again, an opposition is sacrificing its credibility in order to vote against an increase in student fees. Never mind that the policy is progressive; that lower income students will actually be better off than at present; that access will be improved; and that British universities will remain world class. Like last time, the temptation to jump on the bandwagon is just too great. This time, there’s a particular irony of an opposition led by the same Labour politicians who commissioned the very report (by Lord Browne, published in November) that recommended the policy. They’ve even repeated the mistake of concocting an alternative policy no one believes in: a graduate tax. The politician who has made the strongest case against this particular tax just happens to be the shadow chancellor, Alan Johnson. So be it.
In time, this opposition will learn the hard way what the last opposition had to learn. Whether it’s voting against tuition fees, deficit denial, or opposing education and welfare reform, you must not mistake opportunism for opportunity. There’s no short cut back to office. You have to build your credibility; build your intellectual argument; and build political organisation to deliver it. How you oppose says much about how you might govern.
The absence of the Labour party from today’s battlefield of ideas is striking. But it should not make our coalition complacent. For there is a lesson, too, for governments from recent history. If you are not pushing forward the frontiers of reform, then you end up being pushed backwards by the forces of reaction. There are powerful forces ranged against any attempt to improve the way things are done—especially when that improvement depends on breaking open the monopolies that dominate the provision of state services, and the location of state power.
There is no purpose in accumulating political capital if it is never spent achieving political change. That is what that same group of new Conservative MPs also learnt in the middle part of the last decade, as the Blair government failed again and again to live up to its potential. The leadership of the Liberal Democrats learned the same lesson. And now, together, we have set a brisk pace of reform: tackling not only the immediate problems that confront us which no serious government could duck, like the budget deficit; but also the longer-term challenges that politicians elected on short cycles can all too easily avoid. Each challenge is different—from the reshaping of public services to meet modern aspirations, to the startling shift of global economic power eastwards, to confronting the failures of western welfare systems. But the approach we take to each follows a set of consistent principles.
First, we need a dramatic shift down in the balance of power—from the centre to the local, and from the top to bottom. The last government presided over the greatest centralisation of power in our public services since the 1950s. It was driven by the increasingly desperate desire of ministers to improve standards without really altering structures. The result was an increasing burden of targets, assessments and guidance imposed on communities, their services and their elected councils.
We want public service professionals, the people working on the frontline and who know what works, to innovate, improve processes and respond to local democracy. As part of the spending review, we have removed the bulk of ringfencing in local government. Under our health reforms, GPs will get control over their budget. Our police reforms will make police forces answerable to their community. And our school reforms will allow parents to choose schools rather than the other way around.
But reform is not only about who decides, it is also about who provides. Contestability is the second area where radical thinking is needed. For too long there has been only one alternative to the public sector: going private. That is not good enough. People who depend on taxpayer-funded services need a genuine choice of provider. Choice must sit alongside contestability: the ability to challenge poor performance by turning to an alternative that is able to deliver the service more effectively. That cannot happen in monopolistic public services—but it can happen when you devolve power away from the centre, and empower providers to think of better solutions. This is the principle behind proposals for public sector co-operatives, and for more voluntary and big society involvement in our public services. And it is why we are looking at how we
can break up state monopolies by setting proportions of services that should be delivered by the independent sector.
Third, we need to rethink our approach to fairness. In his Hugo Young lecture, in November, Nick Clegg set out an important distinction between the old progressives, in the Labour movement, and the new progressives in the coalition. The old progressives defined their progressivity almost entirely by the amount of money they spent—until their irresponsibility meant that the money ran out. They spent vast amounts to “lift” thousands of families just above an arbitrarily-chosen poverty line, while further entrenching many of the reasons for the very poverty they were trying to address. As Nick said, poverty plus a pound does not constitute social justice. December’s report from the independent review on poverty and life chances, chaired by Frank Field MP, contributes to a new approach that focuses on social mobility. This approach has underpinned October’s spending review, with money for health visitors, new nursery provision for disadvantaged two-year olds, a pupil premium, and less costly university education for the poorest: a ladder of opportunity from a child’s first shoes to their first job.
A good guide to future political fortunes is to identify the current source of all the new ideas. The ideas in British politics are all coming from the coalition government. As the atomic physicist Ernest Rutherford memorably said: “We have no money, therefore we must think.” That’s exactly what we’re doing.