Thursday, October 07, 2010
Reflections From Brum
As we've noted before, the main function of member attendees at party conferences is as walk-on extras in a giant mediafest. This year, with the party in power, the media were more pervasive than ever. According to Birmingham council, there were 2000 of them buzzing around, vastly outnumbering the 800 police reportedly guarding the event.
Now, Tyler discovered that all the UK's commercial radio stations were being served by just one reporter (who also doubles up as a station manager). Which raises the obvious question as to WTF the rest of them were all doing? Especially the legions from the BBC.
One thing was wining and dining each other, presumably on expenses. Mr and Mrs T were themselves seriously unsettled by a close encounter with the Bishop and Pol enjoying a candle-lit dinner a deux.
But mainly - as always - the media kept themselves occupied by manufacturing stories about party splits.
This year's big split story was over George's Child Benefit announcement. There was supposedly a "backlash" from Tory activists against this "vicious attack" on the middle class.
Backlash? The only backlash Tyler could discover among activists was the one against the media making up stuff about backlashes ("you wonder which conference they're reporting on"). Without exception, everyone Tyler asked thought it was mad to pay CB to those on £40k pa and wanted George to press on asap.
Yes, of course, the CB change as announced was pretty crass inasmuch as the details have clearly not been thought through. And sure, the announcement was only made because politically George needed to counterbalance the announcement of his cap on total welfare benefits per household. But there's plenty of time to refine it before implementation in 2013.
The key point is that CB will no longer be a universal benefit. George has broken the spell. CB will be means tested just like most other working age welfare. And that means there is absolutely no reason why it shouldn't be rolled into IDS's Universal Credit (see this blog).
The best bit of previous conferences was the fringe - the side meetings that take place outside the main event to debate specific policy issues. Often they were attended by shadow ministers and you got to challenge them face-to-face on the stuff that had been bugging you. Sadly, this time through most of the fringe events attended by Tyler had no ministerial representation. Speakers mainly comprised think tankers, lobbyists, and familiar talking heads, repeating arguments that are already familiar to most of us.
The best of the fringe was undoubtedly the bit taking place outside the main conference altogether. This was organised by the Freedom Association in conjunction with the TPA, and for the second year running featured an all-day programme as an alternative to the main conference proceedings. There were many fascinating sessions featuring the best of the centre right - Redwood, Carswell, Murray, Dan the Man, and our star local councillors - ie the ones who have managed to cut spending.
And Cam's Big Society? No, it certainly hadn't gripped anyone Tyler spoke to, despite hours of worthy attempts to explain what it might actually mean in practical terms.
The reason everyone struggles with the concept of course, is that we don't yet know how the space vacated by a shrinking government will be filled.
According to the BBC and the rest of the left, nothing will fill the space other than disease, ignorance, and giant snakes. But for those of us who believe in markets, the space will soon be filled by the education and healthcare equivalents of M&S, Tescos, and BUPA. Oh, BUPA fills part of the space already - that's handy.
This is a key point to grasp. The left's argument that parents will have to work all night running the new schools themselves distracts us from the reality. The reality is that private companies will have to come in - just like they've already done under the US and Swedish school reforms. Gove doesn't want to say that right now because of all the media flak he'll take, but that is the reality.
Because under a market based approach, there is no clearcut masterplan you can announce upfront. You can never be quite sure ahead of time precisely how things will pan out - you only discover that once the market has done its magic work. And for many people, that's a very scary prospect.
So while choice and competition is the only way to drive better value in our public services, and the only way of delivering better services for all, Cam has the tricky job of navigating us from here to there without scaring everyone back into the arms of Millie.
Hence the comfort blanket.
Hence The Big Society.
PS Did you see Jezza Hunt on Newsnight telling us straight that people shouldn't have children they couldn't afford to pay for out of their own pocket? Blimey. We thought unmarried three child Paxo was going to explode with righteousness. How dare taxpayers seek to limit the number of welfare kids they have to support? And then this morning some woman on R4 Today told us taxpayers should be happy to pay for these welfare kids because it's an "investment in the future". Not a burden that escalates from one welfare generation to the next, but an investment. No wonder we're in this mess.