Tom Papworth has posted a forthright message of support for the choice side of the “Choice vs. One Good Local Service” debate. Jonathan Calder reckons that “Nick’s speech at the weekend has gone down [very well with] the party (to judge by Lib Dem bloggers, at least)”. Paul Walter will no doubt be adding me shortly to his extensive trek through the coverage that the thing has so far generated.
Actually, what I really want to talk about is the first of those. I was surprised to see that I agreed with a good deal of Tom Papworth’s post. But what I would like to pick up on is the following sentence:
Choice is too often seen as a Trojan Horse for privatization, but that is a lie spread by those for whom individual as opposed to collective solutions are anathema. Real choice may very well be private, but it just as equally may be public, voluntary, charity, religious, co-operative, self-help or any of a host of other possibilities.
My problem is not with the presence of this pair of sentences in Tom’s post. It is with their absence from Nick Clegg’s speech. The problem is,
“the state must oversee core standards and entitlements. But once those building blocks are in place, the state must back off and allow the genius of grassroots innovation, diversity and experimentation to take off”
does sound like some kind of bizarre bit of Tory trojan-horsery coated in Lib Dem custard. The press in this country are at best thick, and at worst going to take everything we say in as unhelpful a way as they can find. We know this already. So why are we not at least reaching out to the former constituency amongst them by spelling out, as Tom did, why this is not just about privatising?
I know the Lib Dem Blogs have broadly gone with this speech. But people in the Clegg inner circle would be silly to imagine that there isn’t a sizeable group within the Lib Dems who this will be making feel slightly awkward. And they needn’t feel slightly awkward. I am as much of a social liberal as anyone, but I am quite happy with this policy provided that we make it as explicit as possible that we don’t mean simply privatising the provision of education.
So why not follow this speech up with some announcements on new bits of policy window-dressing to make it easier for local communities to start up co-operatives for this purpose. (I know Cameron did this not so long ago, but if ever there were a bit of territory which we surely have a natural claim to, co-operatives are it.) We need to make some noise about something a little bit more specific than “the genius of innovation” which we want to see in the place of a central, state controlled service, otherwise people will simply fill in the blanks with their own personal nightmare. As Tom points out,
(The point of choice – and competition, and markets, and all those other scary things that cause Social Democratic stomachs to knot in fear – is that it is the most effective driver in improving standards.)
a lot of this isn’t about a fully formed articulate opposition to choice, it is about fear. And I’m not going to say there’s nothing to be afraid of, because there is, and it’s called Thatcherism. We need to make it more obvious that that’s not what we’re about.