For the first time in a generation the Conservative Party assembles this week as an opposition party which the voters are weighing up as a potential government. Our words and actions over the next few days and weeks will do much to determine whether the voters believe we are ready for government.
Their key concern will be to ensure that our priorities reflect their priorities. It is not difficult to see where theirs lie. The deepest recession since the Second World War is leaving deep scars:
- Fast rising unemployment;
- High levels of household debt and government debt;
- High levels of government spending, linked to disappointing levels of public service delivery;
- Rising levels of crime and lawlessness.
Any party which wishes to form the next government will need to demonstrate clearly how it intends to address these issues.
David Cameron and George Osborne have both made clear the priority which they attach to dealing with these issues. The challenge over the next few weeks will be to avoid being distracted by the political story of the moment and focus clearly on the answers to the questions which are being sought by the voters.
Discussion of the future of public services will lie at the heart of that debate for two reasons:
- It is impossible to sort out the public finances without addressing questions about future funding of public services;
- Experience of the Labour years has demonstrated that simply sending a bigger cheque does not resolve the issue.
These considerations present the Conservatives with a major opportunity. We have argued for years that we are committed to the same objectives for these services as everyone else – equitable access to high quality and good value services. But too often our insistence that the commitment of additional resources should be matched to a commitment to innovative and effective service delivery has been caricatured as “cuts”.
The lazy assumption that better services require more resources is now much easier to challenge for two reasons:
- Labour has unarguably committed substantial additional resources, but these resources have delivered a disappointingly small improvement in services. Most voters accept that the challenge in future will be to get more out of the resources already committed – rather than continuing to seek more.
- Even if there were a temptation to seek additional resources, voters know that the deficit must be reduced and they accept that additional resources would mean additional taxes – at least in the short term. At a time when voters are also worried about their household finances they will expect any government to keep additional resource commitments to a minimum.
Against this background the Conservatives are well placed to lead debate on public service reform. I hope and believe we are committed to following through this opportunity by showing:
- We are committed, even against a hostile background, to the continued growth of healthcare and education in particular;
- No government will be able to fund all increasing demands on these services on a straight line basis;
- The ability of the next government to deliver its policy objectives will therefore depend critically on its ability to achieve significantly improved value for money for budgets which will grow slower than underlying demand.
Andy Burnham recently signed Labour out of this process altogether by making it clear that he was not interested in ideas for improved service delivery in the NHS which came from the private sector.
Alan Milburn’s response was completely right. “What price public service reform now?”
There’s a simple answer, Alan: the Conservatives “get it”. Labour doesn’t.