Saturday, November 25, 2006

Tories promise impoverished public services

David Cameron’s been talking about relative vs absolute poverty:

“Even if we are not destitute, we still experience poverty if we cannot afford things that society regards as essential. The fact that we do not suffer the conditions of a hundred years ago is irrelevant. In the nineteenth century Lord Macaulay pointed out that the poor of his day lived lives of far greater material prosperity than the greatest noblemen of the Tudor period. But as Dickens observed, the poor of those days were still poor. Fifty years from today, people will be considered poor if they don't have something which hasn't even been invented yet. So poverty is relative – and those who pretend otherwise are wrong.”

Let me put aside for today the question of how good his analysis of the causes of and solutions to relative poverty is (it involves charities, don’t you know). Because I want to highlight something else.

This (ridiculously belated and probably opportunistic) Tory admission, that it’s possible to get materially better off in absolute terms yet still be in relative poverty because richer people are getting richer faster, and that this is bad, has an interesting and damning consequence for a key part of the Cameron platform: “sharing the proceeds of growth”.

George Osborne reminded us of it this week: “I want to see the share of national income spent by the state reduced over the period of an economic cycle. We want the economy to grow faster than the government. That's what sharing the proceeds of growth implies.”

So. The public sector, while it may grow in absolute terms, will grow less quickly than the rest of the economy. Do you see where this leads us? Yes: a Tory promise of an ever-widening relative poverty gap for the public sector. The quality of services such as state schools, hospitals, welfare, public transport, the police, even the armed forces, will decline relative to the increasingly better-resourced private sector.

Now, this is not just a slightly glib contrast between a couple of Tory statements (although it is that in part). There’s a vast flaw with their ‘slowly-shrink-the-state’ position, based on the way that different funding levels translate into quality of service. It’s utterly misleading to claim that the public sector will improve while its budget declines as a proportion of GDP, just because its budget is increasing ahead of inflation.

If the public sector shrinks relative to the private, so do the salaries it can afford to pay; recruitment becomes increasingly difficult. This leads to understaffing and underqualified staffing, and the quality of service in schools, hospitals etc. declining not just relative to the private sector but in absolute terms. The public sector will increasingly be seen as providing a poor-quality safety net for those who can’t afford to go private, and so momentum will build for greater tax cuts for the better-off, who will no longer touch public services with a bargepole.

If the Tories truly appreciated how relative poverty matters, then they’d know that their spending plans (such as they are) spell slow doom for public services. Or maybe they do know this, and it’s precisely what they want.

(Oh, and I’m too stricken by contempt to comment coherently on Cameron’s new ‘sort-it’ interweb down-wiv-da-yoof travesty: “To create an online home for a whole bunch of issues, with practical things that you can do to make a difference. … Take the Tosser Test.” Luckily, the Ministry of Truth has trashed it with vim and vigour. See also Ridiculous Politics for Cameron’s wriggling to justify it.)

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