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Sunday, December 26, 2004

Those third term blues

For those of us who have been around politics for sometime there is something depressingly familiar about the story in today's Sunday Times that Labour are developing policies for their General Election manifesto to give the elderly vouchers or a smart card to pay for non-NHS services such as meals-on-wheels and long-term care. OAPs would be encouraged to spend the vouchers with private companies rather than rely on local authorities.

This is because an almost identical process of policy development was on-going in the lead-up to Margaret Thatchers' third term, involving proposals for education and nursery vouchers amongst others. Is it the case that all Governments start moving to the right in their eighth year in the search for fresh ideas and a new appeal? Is this a sign that rather than stick with what we have got we need to look for something different and if so what is that alternative?

I think that I speak for most of Britain when I say that not only is a Michael Howard Government an unpalatable fiction but an unrealistic possibility also. There is no doubt in my mind that the Liberal Democrats will perform better than they have done since 1922 and may even become the main opposition. That appears to be the fear of many Labour and Tory apparatchiks as well judging by the number and quality of the attacks on us. However, despite being the effective opposition, I believe that it is doubtful at this stage that we can overcome the electoral arithmetic and go the extra mile to replace Tony Blair and New Labour in the hallowed corridors of power. As the election approaches and the polls change I may be proved wrong on that score but we will wait and see.

We may well be stuck with the right-wing agenda being laid out for a third New Labour term therefore. That is not to judge it before I have seen it as some ideas may well have merit, but it does bode ill for the future of democracy that authoritarian, centralising ideas seem to be dominating debate. The only consolation is that the last time this happened the third-term Government rejected its authoritarianism and its leader and moved back to the centre ground in the face of electoral oblivion. Whether Labour would follow this pattern I do not know.

What is most concerning about the direction New Labour is moving in is its obsession with Central Government as the solution to local problems. This battle is not just about public services but local democracy as well. There are already proposals on the table to effectively take the funding of schools in England out of the hands of Local Education Authorities, as if Ruth Kelly and her Opus Dei friends are in a better position to make decisions on the future of schools than the local politicians who are elected by the parents and teachers concerned and who serve on their governing bodies. Now, we have proposals that will take the care of the elderly out of the hands of local Councils and put it into the private sector with all the additional costs and inefficiencies that this will bring.

There is a huge difference between a local Council deciding to let a contract for a particular service to an outside provider on the grounds of the cost and the quality of service available and the sort of free-for-all voucher system being proposed by New Labour. The main difference is the additional financial burden on the Council taxpayer that will be imposed by the bureaucracy behind such a voucher scheme, as was illustrated by the ill-fated nursery vouchers in the 1990s. But also, there is the danger that in taking these services into an open market-place where choice is the determining factor, that the quality of provision will suffer whilst the cost soars. The decision to set up a Welsh Assembly in 1997 to protect Wales against the ravages of an out-of-touch right wing UK Government has never seemed so relevant.

Whatever, New Labour decides to put into its third-term manifesto, the main casualty seems to be democracy. That is not because the realistic choice of government is so limited but that the government we may end up with does not trust local people to make real democratic choices for themselves. For Tony Blair and New Labour it seems that the choice of the market place has precedence over that of the ballot box.

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