Let us face down the enemies of social reform

September 10, 2012

The 144th annual conference of the Trades Union Congress that opened yesterday is a mark of the durability of a movement that has represented and supported workers through great change. On the whole, unions today provide good services to their members. So it’s sad to see some leaders tarnishing that reputation by reverting to rash, outdated militancy.

As this week’s gathering in Brighton will show, some public sector unions are threatening more disruption and more strikes. They are worrying families with inflammatory tales of how reforms to public services mean our cherished NHS and education systems are being dismantled and privatised – all because new providers, such as charities and mutuals, are being allowed into the public sector to help deliver services. It’s back-door privatisation, they rail, and the public won’t stand for it.

Tell that to the patients denied access to good medicines and treatments, purely because state bureaucrats blocked their use by doctors in their areas. Tell that to parents whose children couldn’t gain access to any good school and will now be able to do so because a free school is coming to their area.

Some parts of the Government may worry that going further on reform will inflame controversy; but we should not confuse a media bust-up with the hard Left with what normal voters think. As a new Policy Exchange report published today shows, there is clear evidence that the British people want reform.

The research shows that many people cannot get access to good public services. One in five parents can’t find a decent school for their child and one in seven cannot get on to the lists of a good GP. People are clamouring for change. A clear majority – including a majority of public sector workers – said they would prefer to see poor services taken over by new business and charity providers rather than the Government trying to substitute better performance targets for existing ones. Furthermore, previous research shows it is those who rely most on services who most want more choice.

Progressives in the Labour Party such as Lord Adonis and other Blairites know this. They made real moves to try to pull public services out of monopoly state control when last in government. But with others around them linked too strongly to the unions, they couldn’t finish the job. This Government must.

Jeremy Hunt, the new Health Secretary, will soon discover just how powerful and reactionary the medical unions can be. But he should take heart from the example set by Michael Gove at Education, who has shown that the ideologues can be beaten back.

Fighting vested interests who oppose people’s needs and ambitions cuts through to something very powerful in politics. Our polling shows that the people who most desire public service reform are in the crucial lower middle and skilled working classes – the “C1s and C2s” in the pollsters’ jargon. The support of these key swing voters is crucial to the fortunes of the Coalition.

However, it is precisely the nature of being in coalition that makes the job tricky. Greater radicalism on public service reform means more noise from the unions. It is an easier job to focus instead on policy areas that are relatively less controversial, such as welfare and immigration.

The Tories need to reboot a narrative about a social mission, as well as remaining trusted on the economy – while at the same time showing they will stand up to the enemies of public ambition in the unions, Civil Service, and yes, their Lib Dem coalition partners, if need be. Past elections fought in difficult financial or political times have shown overwhelming electoral support for a real vision of social hope, best articulated by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

Some reforms, such as welfare and immigration, are important but not defining. There’s no public crusade to win and Labour’s pollsters won’t let their party oppose them. There’s no producer interest to wage war against. There is no sense of being in a fight for the aspirations of ordinary people as there was when Blair and Thatcher took on their militant opponents.

As both those prime ministers discovered, to be credited with standing for something meaningful in politics, and to have a lasting legacy, means saying to hell with vested interests who oppose the change that people want.

What we need now are tough new powers to prevent the state blocking businesses and charities from giving people a new choice of alternative free public services. This would be backed by clear safeguards against profiteering to reassure people that private firms can’t just come in to make a quick buck in a market free-for-all. In addition, simple league tables, such as those we have for schools, should be published for every key public service area. This would unmask poor quality and show people which services are best.

Policies like this help demonstrate a real sense of social purpose. I am convinced this is central to keeping the Tories on the winnable centre ground – and Labour, too, should it stop drifting over to the unions’ position and gets behind the change people need.

At the half-way point in this parliament, fighting for better public services on behalf of ordinary families is a political crusade our country desperately needs.

This article originally appeared on the Daily Telegraph’s website

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