Magazine article The Spectator

Opportunism and Black Holes: The Dumbing Down of New Labour

Magazine article The Spectator

Opportunism and Black Holes: The Dumbing Down of New Labour

Article excerpt

Top people are unpopular at present. Deference has virtually disappeared over the past generation and much of the public has little confidence in British institutions. This has helped to create a mood of sourness, envy and resentment directed towards anyone earning a high salary - pop singers and footballers excepted. So in electoral terms it was a smart move for Gordon Brown to announce that a Labour government would cancel proposed pay rises for cabinet ministers, generals, permanent secretaries, judges et al. The voters will approve. But the voters are wrong.

It is probably hopeless to try to arouse public sympathy on behalf of politicians, or even for judges, but Mr Brown's freeze would also weaken the forces and the civil service. Clever people are in short supply. There is an international market for their services, which is why City and boardroom salaries have risen so much in recent years. That has its impact on the public services. Relatively low salaries for very senior people may not deter bright youngsters from joining the civil service or the forces, but the problems will come later.

Largely because of recent cutbacks, promotion is slower than it used to be in both the civil service and the forces. Their upper reaches used to resemble a tower; they have now become a shrinking spire, and the way things are going, they will soon look like the north face of the Eiger. Once he reaches his thirties, and is probably supporting a family, the bright youngster might well be bored, frustrated and marking time, just at the stage when he has acquired a rather impressive CV.

His contemporaries in merchant banks, meanwhile, are reaching board level - no promotion barriers there - and becoming quite indecently affluent. The danger is that some of the brightest youngsters from the public service will be tempted to join them. It is important to deploy counterattractions, and one of the most obvious of these is a willingness to honour pay review board recommendations. Top salaries in the public sector will never match private sector levels, but the existence of pay review bodies may at least prevent the gap from widening further.

It is not as if the costs are high. Partly, again, because of the cutbacks, Mr Brown's proposed freeze would save only 6 million a year. Given the risks to the future quality of the public service, that would be a false economy.

Opposition politicians are not on oath. Their job is to win power and they are entitled to a few stunts and wheezes to help them do so. Mr Brown is not the first Opposition spokesman to have been guilty of opportunistic populism on a peripheral issue, though he has chosen a particularly damaging one. But the problem does not relate to the periphery: Mr Brown's - and new Labour's - entire stance is one of opportunistic populism.

Take his pledge to stick to Tory spending limits. That would mean committing a Labour government to an additional use of private finance in hospitals, and in prisons. Are they prepared to make such a commitment? Er, well, um, ah: nobody seems to know. It would also prevent them from allowing indebted local councils to spend their receipts from council house sales, which the Tories have prudently required them to retain as security for the debts. Are they so committed? Mr Brown's deputy, Alistair Darling, says not; instead, Labour would redefine the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement (PSBR). But the councils' debts would remain as a potential liability which no respectable definition of the PSBR could ignore. …

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