Oops, he did it again. Having spent years giving the impression of being all “grand narrative and no radical policy,” David Cameron is on a roll. He recently announced plans to publish every government contract, a genuinely radical change. And now he has announced something even more daring: giving all public sector workers the right to take over the body in which they work (reaction from Conservative Home is here, and Phillip Blond’s original idea proposing something very similar to this is here. ) Three thoughts:
The media are on a Tory crisis trip, which looks increasingly odd. The Guardian, unless I’m missing it, haven’t written this up. (George Osborne was on the Today programme talking about it.) Very odd, especially given how yesterday Toby Helm wrote in the Observer that Cameron was beset by a “growing sense of crisis.”
I have to say I don’t see this. Yes, there has been a good deal of faffing on the right about whether to cut now, or later. Labour are in the right place on this—cut when you know you aren’t going to damage the recovery, not before. But the Tories have a point too: credible plans are needed to do the cuts: at the moment we have no such details, just a pledge to cut later. Both approaches miss the fact that any plans need to relate to whatever happens with GDP, which went up by much less than everyone expected last time, and could go either way next time the figures come out.
But, putting that to one side, behind the budget issue the combination of things like this employee ownership pledge, and the open contracts push, should make their opponents view the Tories as worryingly composed, and increasingly ready to float big ideas. Fair enough, in some areas, Labour are already here—they have co-op schools, and also some rights to spin out parts of the NHS. But a general right, in all areas, seems a different order of magnitude to me.
Cameron also seems, in some areas, to be fleshing out his rhetoric. In the past Tory policies were often less impressive than their rhetoric. Slogans about “giving power away” seemed empty and looked empty (and still do in many cases) with regard to how to change the fundamentals of who had this power, or, more specifically, who had control over the money (especially in local government.). Claims of radical reforms in schools and welfare looked hollow next to policies that largely continued or extended Labour’s plans.
And in terms of health, the Tories are still doing a pretty good impression of a party with almost no new policies at all. But, bit by bit, that seems to be changing. As the election approaches, in some areas at least, Cameron looks like someone ready to throw big punches aimed at fleshing out his big picture ideas (like the “post-bureaucratic age) with a real policy agenda. Good for him. If Labour respond in kind—which people like Ed Milband and Liam Byrne are surely capable of doing—this election could be genuinely interesting.
The real win on Cameron’s new employee ownership agenda is “teacher-led schools.” There are obvious ways in which this new agenda can go wrong. Public sector workers are at a huge disadvantage in terms of information and mangement expertise, and will need help to even consider taking over a swimming pool or a park, let alone a Job Centre Plus, or a hospital. Equally, a universal right may turn out to be unwise: my guess is that there will be some areas in which employee ownership will work, and others (especially those where procedural justice is crucial) where it may not.
But it is in relations to schools where this has real potential. Michael Gove is surely going to have a few really big fights with the National Unions of Teachers. He, at least, needs to change the framework for teachers pay, to allow variable rates for good teachers. He also badly needs to free the Department for Children, Schools and Families of the producer and union capture on public sector data, which has stopped people building a meaningful schools comparison website.
But what about letting teachers run failing schools? This happens in the US, where my reading of the evidence is that “teacher-led” charters perform better than almost any other arrangement. This shouldn’t surprise us: teachers, after all, know how to run schools. And it would be splendid if the teachers’ unions, rather than always defensively managing government, changed their approach—and decided to beat the other education providers at their own game.
Why shouldn’t UNISON, or the NASUWT, take on ARK or Edison schools—and prove that public sector, or employee owned, providers can do a better job? And why doesn’t Michael Gove strike a grand bargain with them, in which he would help them do this in exchange for other reforms? Nixon, China; Gove, teaching unions. Stranger things have happened.