Under Charles Kennedy’s leadership, the party had a simple and generally popular approach to public services: Kennedy consistently supported higher spending on favourite public services and appointed as party spokespeople those with experience of that service. So in education, for example, it was ex-headteacher Phil Willis leading for the party, promoting costed policies to put more cash into the party’s priorities.
Overall, the party’s plans involved raising at least as much in extra taxes or savings as it wanted to spend, so the net effect was fiscally respectable but for each individual public service the party’s answer was pretty much, “we’ll pick a few things and spend more on those”. There was not much in the way of changing how public services are provided or improving them other than through changing spending plans.
There is a whole debate about how wise that approach was and whether 2005 was a big missed opportunity for the party. But certainly as the economic situation has got worse and the room for “tax a bit more and spend the cash on public services” policies has receded, it left the party often struggling to say much about how we would improve public services.
In theory the answer to that should have involved devolving power, but as I’ve written before,
The party has often had a rather unusual relationship to the question of who should provide public services. The party’s general support of diversity, love of cooperatives or mutuals, belief in local provision and local accountability and suspicions of state power could naturally lead to many forms of local provision of services through means other than staff on a public sector payroll. And yet, it never really quite has on a significant scale.
It is almost as if we are in favour of all of those principles – except for the particular area of public services currently being discussed.
Since May 2010 the party has successfully seen off a Tory push for a very right-wing draft of the Public Services White Paper:
An early draft of which caused consternation in Liberal Democrat ranks (with one senior Liberal Democrat calling it shocking) due to its enthusiastic backing for introducing widespread private provision of public services. In the latest draft … the emphasis is much more on bringing in mutuals, not for profits and charities to provide services rather than private firms.
Liberal Democrat influence has been heavily responsible for those changes – so much so that Ben Brogan in the Daily Telegraph has said of these changes that, “Nick Clegg is winning the big battle” and that “it is being systematically filleted by Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who is proving adept at using his internal leverage to shift Coalition policy in favour of the Lib Dems”.
But simply blocking or moderating other people’s ideas is not enough. What is the broad Liberal Democrat vision for how to improve public services?
David Boyle – former Lib Dem candidate, former editor of Lib Dem News and my friend and sometime co-author – has been asked to lead an independent review of choice in public services by the Cabinet Office.
The Cabinet Office press release announcing the review says:
“The Government today starts the next phase of its commitment to improve public services by increasing choice and giving people direct control over the services they use. Increased choice can greatly improve the quality of public services and equality of choice is an important part of this.
“To help us deliver equality, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander and Minister for Government Policy Oliver Letwin today announce the appointment of David Boyle, author and Fellow of the New Economics Foundation, to lead an independent choice review.
“The review will look into what people currently do with the choices that they have, whether barriers exist that are currently preventing individuals from exercising choice and the factors necessary to ensure choice is available to everyone.
“Mr Boyle will be speaking to a broad range of people from commissioners and providers to the users of public services and invites anyone with experiences or views they wish to share to contact him.”