Sunday, June 15, 2008

So Nealy Right

Comrade Lawson

Neal Lawson. What can you do with him, eh?

Neal runs the left-wing campaigning outfit Compass. And just like us, he and his colleagues are now aghast at the total bog-up Labour has inflicted on Britain's public services. Wringing his hands, he says:

"Schools are failing, doctors are at war with the health department, and patients have not reaped any reward from choice and competition in the NHS... Investment has changed the fabric of much of the public services, but something fundamental is wrong. Everyone agrees that the old bureaucratic state has reached its sell-by date. It was right for the era of mass production and mass politics, but is wrong for less deferential, more complex times."

Let's not carp at his assertion that nationalised, top-down, one-size public services were ever right: it seems we all agree they're certainly not right now.

Of course, for us the solution is simple - get the state out of the way and let choice and competition do their magical work. Easy.

But for lefties like him that's a bit difficult.

He has come to realise that choice and competition are the only way to improve standards and get value for taxpayers' money. But he won't permit it:

"We must grasp a deep paradox. We want diversity because we believe in innovation and experimentation, but we want as much equity as possible too. Rightly, we don’t like the postcode lottery. The centre can push equality but will crush creativity. Diversity lets a thousand flowers bloom, but some grow much taller than others."

Let's not dismiss him out of hand: at least this is honest. According to Lawson, the reason we can't have real choice and competition - with all those benefits to efficiency and standards - is because equality might suffer. Remembering that New Labour claimed we could have both, this is progress.

But although on one level Lawson recognises reality, he still won't accept its implications. Instead, he fantasies about something he calls "engagement and democratisation":

"Let’s take education. Too much emphasis has been placed on diversity, so that the fierce competition for places in the best schools means the pushiest and richest parents get first place. This causes social division. We all pay the price...

What if we are given a collective ability to motivate the staff to perform better? Then we can improve the big things about public services, such as an underperforming school, for the whole community and not just be confused consumers struggling on our own. School governors, if properly trained and paid, could perform a much deeper role. And what if the headmaster or mistress was elected by the local community? That would serve as a huge incentive towards improvement. The same approach works for the local GP surgery."

So Lawson wants elected head teachers and elected GPs.


On BOM, we have long argued for the direct election of local law officers. But that's because it's tricky to apply the market mechanism to criminal justice. With education and health, such problems do not exist, and we could easily have the far superior market-based system (albeit with the state picking up the tab for the poor).

Lawson and the left have never understood how markets serve us - how the brutal process of choice and competition drives improvement for all through raising standards and cutting prices. And similarly, they have never understood how political processes -however well intentioned - will always lack the bite and responsiveness required to make real progress.

PS Yeah, well, we may label him a leftie, but OK, the truth is that Lawson is as much hated on the left as he is on the right (and see here and here). For one thing, he was hot for Gordo when Blair was in charge, and has now dropped him like the proverbial. With friends like that...

PPS When Tyler worked as a Civil Servant, he had to sign the jolly old Official Secrets Act (to which he is presumably still subject). And he was given a special security briefing by someone from the Establishments Division (so much more impressive than a ho-hum HR department). On no account was Tyler to remove classified documents from the Department - at pain of being shot. And all such documents were to be locked in the office safe before he went home in the evening. Indeed, on the one occasion he inadvertantly left a low category "Confidential" note overnight in his in-tray amidst a pile of other papers, it was found by a security officer. Tyler was summoned to explain his appalling lapse, and to receive what was technically known in the Service as "a bollocking" (doubtless still on file somewhere). So WTF are these idiots leaving all these classified files on the 18.48 to Woking? WTF are they even reading them on the train? And WTF's happened to the Establishments Division?


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