McTernan on politics

In almost every public service barely a day goes by without the
smallest variation in provision giving rise to a complaint about
the “postcode lottery”. Whether the difference is in funding
formulae between neighbouring local education authorities, charging
regimes for social care or access to health treatments, the
underlying point is always the same – that difference means
inequity, and that it must be evened out.

This view, though commonplace, is wrong. In truth, variation
reflects diversity – different communities have different needs and
priorities. These are expressed both in patterns of funding and in
levels of provision. They are not readily changed because they
reflect profound local realities, so an evening out that is
enforced from the centre creates uniformity, not equity.

This tension, though, goes to the heart of some of the greatest
challenges the government faces. Voices calling for a “new
localism” are welcomed by local councils, though Whitehall’s
terminology of “earned autonomy” gives a sense of grudgingly
granted freedom and a short leash.

But even given the signalled shift, the actions and behaviours of
ministers are contradictory. Health secretary Alan Milburn wisely
observes that he cannot run the NHS from the fourth floor of
Richmond House, no matter how diligent his civil servants. Yet just
across Parliament Square, successive education secretaries have
consistently tried to nationalise the education service, and a
little further away in Queen Anne’s Gate we find a home secretary
bent on creating a national police force. What is going on?

Partly, we are still living with the consequence of New Labour
adopting “pledges” as a key plank of campaigning. These, originally
inspired by Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America”, were intended
to be simple, symbolic, deliverable policies.

In reality, they have been rods for ministerial backs. Struggling
to deliver key pledges, politicians swim further and further
upstream – setting targets, prescribing ways of working. This does
not work, indeed it cannot. Yet, the instinctive response is to
pull harder on the choke-chain.

The difficulty is that the problem is wrongly framed. Differences
in outcomes from schools, hospitals and police forces reflect real
differences – not, in the main, to do with leadership or
effectiveness, but with social class. This is the real lottery, the
real inequality, but it requires more refined tools to address it
than attacks on postcode-based differences. It requires us to
acknowledge that there will always be diversity, and then to agree
on which inequalities we have to eliminate, and how we will
marshall our resources.

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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