Coalition of the Incompetent Will Regret its Haste

Imagine the scene. Labour has just about managed to form a government with the Lib Dems, after missing the widest electoral open goal in the history of modern politics. Despite the lack of a clear mandate, the party is paranoid about missing its chance and embarks on a series of upheavals, routinely labelled “the biggest shake-up since 1945”. Building enormous, wide-ranging policy blocks on a flimsy pillar of “it’s all the last lot’s fault”, the new government launches into the following initiatives in its first five months:

1) Cancels Building Schools for the Future, a vital source of income and employment for the private construction sector. In the process of this hurried cancellation, list after list of the schools affected is issued and reissued and within weeks, protesters are marching on Westminister, led by the government’s own MPs.

2) Uses parliamentary protocols usually reserved for emergency terror legislation to rush through a dramatic centralisation of power in education. New “Free Schools” can be established with no local authority control, no requirement to co-operate with existing schools and the ability to implicitly select pupils (through religion or catchment area). So popular are these new schools, accountable only to the Education Secretary, despite being paid for by the tax payer, that the grand total of 16 are approved.

3) Embarks upon the biggest ever top-down reorganisation of the NHS, despite explicitly stating that the new government would not embark on any top-down reorganisations of the NHS. The new policy, which opens the way to a private healthcare system, was not in any manifesto, will cost over £2bn to implement, is attacked by healthcare professionals, industry experts and patients groups as risky, expensive and badly thought-out.

4) Cites Ireland as a shining example of how to tackle a deficit, with savage spending cuts praised as “brave and necessary” by the IMF. This shining light is quickly extinguished, however, when the government notices that because of the excessive austerity measures, Ireland has fallen into a double-dip recession, its deficit remains high, thousands of people are suffering and those gods of the markets, the ratings agencies (“triple A” for a junk US mortgage CDO, anyone?) have downgraded Ireland’s government bonds because of the cuts and the complete lack of growth in the economy.

5) Announces at its annual conference that in order to tackle the deficit, Child Benefit for high earners is to be scrapped. In the haste to launch this policy, no-one considers the blindingly obvious problem of the considerable unfairness of hitting higher paid single earner families with a stay at home parent, versus two working parents on a much higher combined salary.

6) Following uproar amongst its own supporters, the government desperately tries to cover its tracks on Child Benefit by announcing a tax break for married couples, thus completely destroying the argument that the benefit cut was made in order to address the deficit. People search the conference hall for the fag packet on which the policy was devised and senior ministers admit they had no idea the policy was due to be announced.

7) The new PM apologises for not including the Child Benefit cut in its manifesto, but goes ahead and does it anyway. He cites something about new politics and parades his new baby in front of the cameras in a bid to ease the pressure on him and his government.

All this comes before the new government has got round to announcing the biggest cuts in public spending in living memory, while the economy remains desperately fragile and there are five people applying for every job. They have been repeatedly leaking rumours of cuts to the press though – £4bn of cuts to welfare here, a devastation of the armed forces there.

Now imagine, if you will, the press reaction to the Labour government’s actions. The newspapers are frothing at the mouth in anger. “We didn’t vote for this coalition of the incompetent!”, they cry. “Is this the worst start to a government in history?” questions The Times editorial. Sky News is running a clock estimating how long it will be before the government is forced to go back to the country. The Lib Dems are annihilated as a party, support slipping to a historic low.

Have you spotted those headlines (apart from the last one, that one’s true)? No? Funny that, isn’t it.

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19 Comments

Filed under Coalition, Economy, General

19 responses to “Coalition of the Incompetent Will Regret its Haste

  1. A perhaps not surprising similarity to the National (Tory) Govt. in New Zealand (in association with The Maori Party) who are still using ‘urgency’ (think 3 line whip or Nick Brown) to rush through similar ill-thought-out ‘policies’ with an election only now a year away (3 year fixed term).

    Perhaps these diverse issues are still ‘urgent’ in the sense that they believe in their bones that their time will be up soonish.

    Also we should look at the Australian election result where a few ‘independents’ hold the Nation in their very mixed bag of National Interest Talent with the early consequence, I believe, that :

    a) an early re-run
    b) little will get done
    c) reputations will be trashed
    d) very few labour policies enacted

    Just my initial thoughts as a re-enlisted member of CPL.

    • ST

      Greg,

      Great piece. I think even more concerning than the media’s lacklustre response to the coalition’s policies is the lack of democratic legitimacy the government has for its actions. In order for an election to be fair, surely the parties have to be held accountable to their manifesto commitments, or else voters are simply being misled. In the course of a parliament a government can be forgiven a few changes of direction, in exceptional circumstances, but as your list above demonstrates, the coalition has succeeded, in the space of a few months, in introducing a variety of sweeping, far reaching reforms, which were either absent from their respective manifestos, or are in direct contradiction to what was stated during the election campaign.

      Regardless of whether one agrees with the coalition’s policies or not, the fact is that those who voted both Tory and (particularly) Lib Dem did not vote for a government that would, amongst other things, axe 600,000 public and 700,000 private sector workers, scrap the building and refurbishment of schools, increase VAT, initiate fundamental changes to the education, health and policing policies of this country, cut child benefit, and introduce public spending cuts on an unprecedented scale. The Lib Dem voters must feel even more aggrieved after voting for a party that explicitly campaigned against the “economic masochism” of early cuts and the bombshell of a VAT increase, whilst pledging to oppose any increase in tuition fees. It is a common complaint amongst apathetic voters that a party says one thing during a campaign and does another when in power, but the speed with which manifesto pledges have been junked make this government stand out.

      The coalition’s common defence is that this is indeed an exceptional and unique situation, and that it was only on entering office that they realised how bad the state of the economy was. This is simply not plausible. Back in June the Prime Minister made a speech where he gave an early airing to this now ubiquitous defence, claiming that the public finances were in an “even worse” state than the coalition had expected. This was despite the fact that a few weeks earlier the budget deficit was revised DOWN from Alistair Darling’s budget prediction of £163.4bn, to £156bn.

      Even if one agrees with the coalition’s policies, it is corrosive for future political engagement that a government, particularly one where the main party just about scraped a third of the votes cast, can blithely ignore so many commitments it made during the election campaign.

      Come 2015 it will be difficult to argue with a first time voter who believes there is no point in casting her vote because she can’t believe a word politicians say.

  2. It worries me that the Main Stream media is becoming more & more unreliable in terms of balance & publishing the actual ‘news’.

    Furthermore the continued attack on media independence by Murdoch (takeover of majority interest B-Sky-B), probably will not be resisted by Cable.

    We are definitely in the age of ‘1984’

    The BBC often disgusts me by it’s apparent ignorance of fair, balanced, and honest reporting, despite being probably the best of the bunch.

  3. Sean O'Hare

    Greg,

    The incompetence of this imaginary government of which you write is outmatched only by the incompentence of the last real one.

    • I am not sure which part of the government I discuss in the article is “imaginary”. Perhaps you have missed their actions on schools, child benefit and the NHS?

      The problem is Sean, for us to live in a decent society, these things should be provided by the state, in my view. Yes, they need to be provided properly, but launching into ill-considered policy shifts, without a mandate and in complete contrast to the promises made to the electorate is a recipe for poor services, poor accountability and a complete lack of trust in government.

      • Sean O'Hare

        You start your article by hypothesising thus:

        Imagine the scene. Labour has just about managed to form a government with the Lib Dems

        Hence my reference to an “imaginary government”.

        Please explain why, in your view, these things should be provided by the state? Why exactly does the state have to employ teachers, nurses and doctors?

        NI was supposed to be a state run insurance scheme. Rather than the ponzi scheme it has become it should have been ring fenced. A lot of private medical insurance companies operate quite well without employing doctors and nurses, they simply buy medical services as needed.

        I’m quite sure that independent schools would offer bursaries for the less well off. I could even stomach paying taxes for grant funded schools (subject to means testing). I just don’t see why a government has to be the bigest and most inefficient monopoly employer in these areas.

  4. Sean O'Hare

    You make a pretty good case for a small state. The less the government has to “manage” the less likely it is to screw things up and if it does screw up the less the impact on the rest of us.

    • ST

      Sean,

      The state does not “have to” employ teachers, nurses and doctors, but it is the provider most likely, on balance, to administer those services fairly. Once you introduce the private sector the pursuit of profit inevitably becomes the overarching ambition, and you only have to look at the USA to see how that can distort the provision of services.

      You hint at it in your own reply when you mention independent schools offering bursaries; you are sure they would but who knows.. I agree that government inefficiencies should be addressed, but private sector involvement is no panacea.

      • Sean O'Hare

        If for the sake of argument I accept that the state should be acting as an insurance company I would expect the insurer to put my premiums (NI) aside and when a claim is made, for the money to be used to buy the best treatment available. This is what happens with private medical insurance. The fact that the state does not do this says to be that they are not the most likely to administer the service fairly, as you put it.

        With regard to the introduction of a profit motive. I think this pulls in two different directions. Firstly it can lead to increased efficiency and improved services as providers compete with each other. This is in my opinion the healthy side of private enterprise. On the other hand the profit motif can lead to skimping and/or cutting corners. This is of course unhealthy, but just looking at the state of some NHS hospitals in this country it is obvious to me that the public sector is equally likely to cut corners, not so much because of government cuts, but because administrators want an easy life and can’t be bothered to put themselves out

  5. My belief is that we should work towards the phasing out of any Tax-payer contribution to ‘faith’ schools & much more regulation of them in the mean time to ensure that, for example, teaching of such things as ‘creationism’ is not allowed. Whilst I’m sure there are some very good such schools, there should be a complete separation of church & state with no contribution from the public purse to religion in any form. I believe this because society is already on a very slippery slope toward widespread religious conflict, and any impetus caused by indoctrination of our children should be avoided.

    • Sean O'Hare

      Geoff,

      I agree 100% that the taxpayer should not be funding faith schools. Where we differ is that you want more regulation whereas I want less. In fact I want none at all. If a school wants to teach kids about creationism, sky pixies or David Ike’s lizzard men then thats fine providing they publish that they are so doing. It is then my choice as to whether I send my kids to such a school or not. Freedom of choice, no state interference, what’s not to like?

  6. ST

    Sean,

    There is a fairness issue at the heart of your argument; private medical insurance companies, by their very nature, choose their clients; the NHS does not. Those who are born poor, or sick, are generally not an acceptable risk to an insurance company and will be offered premiums to reflect that. It may be hard or impossible to renew cover for those suffering from incurable or long term ailments. The NHS has to try and provide a service (granted sometimes inefficently) that is free at the point of use for all… of course there will be some people who are ultra fit, or lucky, and do not have to use the NHS till later in life, or at all, but the only way for the state to provide it is to tax everyone and hope that people accept the greater benefit to the majority by providing such a service. Your NI contributions can’t just sit in an account somewhere until you’re ill because they’re used in order to keep the service afloat.

    I agree that the profit motive can work two ways, but experience of countries where the private sector has become involved in medical care does point towards the creation of a two-tier system.

    By all means do everything to make the current system more efficient but I think it is unfair to compare the NHS to private insurance companies when they are so different.

    • Sean O'Hare

      Hi ST

      I am willing to accept that a state run insurance scheme may be a good thing as it solves the problem of the poor and chronically sick not being able to afford premiums.

      However, you then say that the state can’t place NI premiums in a holding account (or safe investment) because they need to keep the NHS afloat. I don’t think that the state should be running hospitals, or schools for that matter so in my view there would be nothing to keep afloat. If someone falls sick and needs treatment then they present at a private doctor/hospital with their NHS number which the private practice then uses to bill the state. Treatment is still provided free at the point of use as was the original intent of the welfare state, but not needing the vast and incompetent management structure that currently runs the NHS. The state would only need to employ a few accountants and procurement people. Because everyone would acquire treatment the same way the two- tier system you speak of, and which currently exists, because the wealthy have private cover would not exist.

  7. ST

    Hi Sean,

    I don’t think Greg would be very happy with us if we turned his blog into a philosophical debate on the pros and cons of libertarianism, so let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that the state doesn’t run hospitals!

    What would prevent a private hospital turning away a person presenting with their NHS card because the credit on it was inadequate for the care they required? If it was not profitable for the hospital in question to provide that care would they not simply turn the patient away?

  8. Sean O'Hare

    Hi ST

    I wasn’t suggesting an NHS credit card, rather one that entitled everyone paying into the scheme to the same level of treatment. Obviously there would have to be a limit to the level of treatment available as there is now.

    I have already let Greg know that he can tell me to sod off anytime. He can DM me on twitter if he wishes and if he does so I shall not darken his website again. Anyways, I hadn’t mentioned the L word. Was it that obvious? 🙂

    There is no point me commenting on libertarian blogs as I agree with most of the ranting that goes on. Unfortunately a lot of leftie blogs are moderated and the sort of comment I make never appear. Well done Greg for allowing free debate.

  9. Hi All

    Delighted to be a forum for debate here and appreciate the comments.

    Sean, my concern with your approach can be illustrated by the way private provision works in a number of other industries. Take broadband. If you had an entirely unregulated market, then rural communities would never receive services, because they are too costly to implement and the profits would be negligible. The same is true in health and education. In affulent areas, where health levels are generally higher, there would be a genuine competitive market in the provision of healthcare. However, take a poorer area, with more chronic illness and suddenly this looks like a very unprofitable business to be in. So, the government needs to regulate to force companies to provide services in this area and already market forces are being distorted.

    Add to this, the requirement for some form of quality control (the healthcare market cannot be allowed to regulate its own service provision – people will die) and fairly quickly you’ve reached a position where there is growing demand for beauracy and central administration. Similar issues arose in the past under the GP Fundholder scheme, where practices refused to accept older or chronic patients because it was a big drain on their profits. That system was widely regarded as a failure for everyone except GPs, who did rather well out of it.

    Obviously this relies on an acceptance that everyone has a right to be treated if they are unwell. The alternative is a rather nasty form of social eugenics.

  10. Paul Whitworth

    I vaguely remember the jubilant scenes back in ’97 when the last labour government was elected. Back then there was no budget deficit. 180 billion quid later those who celebrated are no doubt trawling through details of the unavoidable cuts to identify those that best suit their rose-tinted agendas.

    What’s your beef Greg? Forces? HMS whatever? The beeb?

    • I am sure you and I have more interesting things to catch up on first, but since you mention it, the deficit in 1997 was 2.9% of GDP, before the banking crisis, in 2007, the deficit was 2.7% of GDP. It fell over the first decade of the Labour government.

      I am concerned about two things – 1) Increasing inequality in a society which no longer properly looks after it’s poorest and 2) A double-dip recession or very low growth because we remove all the demand stimulus from the economy.

      As for defence, I don’t really have a problem with adjusting our forces, but I think building an aircraft carrier to leave it sat in dock with no aircraft seems like a pretty stupid thing to include in a “strategic” defence review.

  11. As expected the ‘Root & Branch’ review did not happen because of too many entrenched attitudes. We DO NOT need trident, we do not need two aircraft carriers, we do not need 496 top brass to run an armed forces the same size as the US marines who manage with about 50, we don’t need a new helicopter that is unfit for purpose & so on & so on. In fact do we need at all a defence force that is geared to defence against an enemy that can only be defeated by Heart & Mind measures, if at all, & certainly not by our current strategy. The review should also be ongoing & not every 5 years. By the time we’ve prepared for the next threat it has already passed us by, at tremendous cost.

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