Friday, December 31, 2010

Coalition politics

The country was left in a parlous state by the previous government. Ed Milliband has charged that the cuts put in place by the government since the general election are "born of political choice". My perception as a taxpayer is that the expenditure and tax increases of the previous government was "born of political choice", and in over a decade of Labour government, they failed to get on top of the fact that the departments of government were incapable of making competent spending decisions. They also, for political reasons, did nothing substantive about the appalling black hole in state finances that is the public sector pension deficit, whilst incapacitating the private sector pension industry. It used to be the case that public sector employees had worse terms and conditions than their private sector equivalents, but this was made up for with the pension. The balance shifted during the Labour government - not only did the public sector grow like topsy, so that there were many more people on state salary at the end of their period in government, but the terms and conditions improved at a faster rate than those in the private sector. At least, this is the perception. And through this period, the "productivity" in the public sector did not improve. Simply throwing money - my money! - at "problems" in education, health service, defence and so on did not fix the problems, and resulted in a bloated and inefficient state sector, that simply was not sustainable.

An example of this is what happened with university education. For ideological reasons ("all must have prizes") the government said that 50% of young people should go to university - with first degrees, at that stage, being largely paid for by the government. Needless to say, this was hugely expensive. But no real evaluation has been made, as far as I can tell, of the benefits of having three more years of "education" in general. There is value in doing a degree. Science and technology jobs need people who have learnt more than can be taught by the age of 18. And whilst it may be harder to determine the benefit to the economy of studying arts and humanities, there is, in fact, a need for people who are capable of higher level reflection and expression than is offered up to A-level standard. However, with respect to acquaintances of mine, none of these skills are obtained in a "degree" in Travel and Tourism, or Golf Course Management. If you want to learn about those jobs, just go and do them - don't expect the country to pay for you to study them.

Whilst companies have the right to seek to avoid paying more tax than is necessary, I don't think that personal "tax dodges" can be counted under this heading. So it needles me to see Philip Green in the role of efficiency consultant to the government, for example. But what is the alternative? The civil service has failed to get to grips with how they ought to be spending money - they have shown themselves far too ready to make the sort of spending decision that would lead to serious financial problems if carried out at corporate or personal level - they have failed to grasp the fact that this is not, fundamentally, "their" money, and they should be behaving in an accountable manner with regard to its expenditure. If the only way to achieve that is to employ a money-grabbing capitalist pig to bang their heads together, then so be it.

With regard to the coalition, to be honest, I think you have to pretty much disregard what was in the manifestos of both of the parties in the coalition. Neither expected nor planned for the form of government that they find themselves in now. As a consequence, the policy choices that have been made bear little resemblance to the commitments that either had. The key questions as far as I'm concerned are: would I rather see the Conservatives in power without the Liberal party having some input into their policies? No. Do I want Labour back in power? No, not at all, not at the moment. Would I like to see the Liberals in power on their own? No, not really - they are too inexperienced. The coalition has had to make difficult and unpopular decisions - and this has resulted in some of the cracks showing. But actually, that's the sort of government I want! I don't want one political party able to do whatever it chooses, and not have to take into account the opinions of anybody else. The Conservatives did that for nearly two decades, on the back of around 40% of the popular vote. Then Labour did it for 13 years, on the back of around 35% of the popular vote. I would much rather see the Conservatives and Liberals struggling to work on things together on the back of 60% of the popular vote than anything else I've seen in my lifetime.

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