Blair must get real on public services

It was not so much Harry Potter as Tony and the Philosopher’s
Drone. Last week, anxious to establish his legacy (politicians
often end up impaled on the twin prongs of their vanity and
arrogance), Tony Blair yet again relaunched his government, in a
lecture to The Fabian Society on the importance of modernising
public services.

He said that six years ago when Labour came to power there was a
lack of responsiveness to people’s rising expectations. “A two-tier
system,” had been created. “It was choice for the few not the
many”. The public, Blair argued, “want the consumer power of the
private sector but the values of the public service. They don’t
want services uniform and undifferentiated… unable to respond to
their individual needs and aspirations… Choice and consumer power
are the route to greater social justice not social division.”

He is wrong. First, there is an irony in warning of the dangers of
a two-tier system while endorsing specialist schools, foundation
hospitals and city academies. Second, it is a dangerous illusion to
peddle the belief that public services – if they are truly to
provide a decent service to all – can possibly match the breadth of
choice of the private sector.

Public services do need to devolve power; do have to improve wages
and training and status for those who stagger under the increasing
weight of expectation, as well as their own workload – but what’s
also required is a prime minister who stops promising “Yes, You Can
Have It All!” and starts educating his electorate in the realities
of social provision.

A society truly based on social justice accepts that priorities
have to be decided; a rationing system applied; the degree of
vulnerability taken into account and those employees who make it
all possible, have to be valued above all, because it is they who
embody the public ethos – according to need not according to the
amount in one’s pocket.

Instead of peddling the false promise of choice and the
satisfaction of individual needs – which will continue to be denied
to so many on the margins of society no matter how “modernised” our
public services – Blair should be underlining the importance of
mutuality. We each have a little less, at different times in the
life cycle, in order that we and others can have a little more when
it is urgently required.

It’s not so glitzy as the ad man’s waffle – but it makes more

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