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Mandelson v Osborne round 3

August 13, 2009

The annual August spat between George Osborne and Peter Mandelson is becoming quite the new summer tradition. This year’s has centred on whether the Conservatives are now, as Osborne claimed this week, the dominant progressive force in British politics or whether, as Mandelson rather waspishly retorted, they were simply indulging in political cross dressing.

Unlike last summer’s Corfu shenanigans, however, this week’s row is at root about some serious political ideas.

Osborne used a speech at the Demos think tank to outline his thesis that:

“By pursuing a course of illiberalism, centralisation, fiscal incontinence and opposition to meaningful public service reform, the current leadership of the Labour Party has abandoned the field of progressive politics.

In its place, the modern Conservative Party is now the dominant progressive force in British politics.”

Essentially this was an argument about fiscal responsibility and public service reform.

“there is nothing progressive about out-of-control spending that the poorest end up having to pay for, and nothing fair about huge national debts that future generations are left having to pay for.

And it is that fiscal responsibility allied to a passionate belief in public service reform – particularly in education – which is the only progressive route out of this debt crisis.”

He then goes on to outline the case for professional autonomy, diversity of provision and payment by results in healthcare and Swedish style supply side reform in education.

Osborne’s argument is that only radical reform will allow us to do more for less. The government he believes, unable to make such radical departures, will inevitably have to meet financial pressures by making cuts.

Unsurprisingly, Peter Mandelson begs to differ,

“Their talk of public sector reform – which has never been more vital – is simply code for cuts.

A genuine progressive would argue that a programme of fiscal restraint and spending prioritisation must go hand in hand with investment in Britain’s strengths and a commitment to frontline services, including training and support for those seeking work.”

Most of the reaction to this speech has centred on the use of the never-quite-defined term “progressive”, and although there is a slightly playground quality to all this – “we’re the real progressives”. “No we are” – there is an interesting theoretical debate to be had about the compatibility of conservative methods with progressive aims. A debate which the Demos Progressive Conservatism project has largely been setting the agenda on and which we will return to in a later post.

But fascinating as it is, the focus on whether conservatives can claim to be progressive risks missing the immediate point which is that the challenges Osborne sets out are very real. The Audit Commission’s report (also published this week) on When it comes to the crunch highlights the financial pressures that councils are now operating under as the second wave of the recession starts to bite. Osborne is almost certainly right that these cannot be met by efficiencies alone. Whoever is in government this time next year will have to meet this ‘more for less’ challenge to maintain public service provision and balance the books (irrespective of whether we describe this goal as “progressive”).

Beneath the rhetoric we now start to see the battle lines being drawn, though the view remains opaque. Osborne emphasising supply side reform, Mandelson stressing investment, while both agree that reform is vital and that business as usual will not be good enough.

The debate about rethinking public service delivery and the role and scope of the state will determine the shape of British politics over the coming years, but for now I’d like to note two interesting features of this week’s events.

Firstly, the Tories do seem to be making the political weather, using the dog days of August to set out a bold statements and a clear agenda (even if it remains light of actual policy). Labour’s response looks very reactive in comparison.

Secondly, Osborne was explicit that the Conservatives were looking to local government – and particularly to ‘star’ Tory councils like Barnet, Essex and Hammersmith and Fulham. This is a welcome development and LGiU has long argued that it is at local level and not through central government dictat that innovative solutions to public policy challenges are generated. It’s good to see this being acknowledged at national level But this also poses a challenge for local government of all political persuasions. At a time when the political weather is changing, when necessity drives a greater openness to big ideas: now more than ever local government must be bold in setting the agenda, demanding to lead and not be led.

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