You get a very queasy feeling when you have to acknowledge that noted scum bag Peter Mandelson has a point. George Osbourne’s widely discussed speech on ‘progressive politics’ was indeed an exercise in ‘political cross-dressing’, though probably he is just dressing up as New Labour. As I pointed out a few days ago, under the thin veil of being ‘progressive’ Osbourne offers nothing more than continued neoliberalism in continuity with the Thatcherite legacy. Mandelson is right to read the rhetoric of ‘effectiveness and efficiency’ as vicious cuts, but ‘efficency’ has also always meant the continuation of privatisation by other means, so we can expect public services to be handed over to Osbourne’s corporate buddies as well as strip mined. While readers of this blog should not find the ideological shape of Osbourne’s ‘progressive’ proposals particularly surprising, as unfire points out in comments, it is Osbourne’s ability to achieve this agenda and the lack of real opposition that is most worrying.
Most agree that the education system in the UK is broken. But Osbourne’s solution is to marketise education provision, using ideas along the lines of the Swedish model. The system is Sweden is not without its flaws, but it is how Osbourne’s commitment to austerity and low taxes tallies with this reform that is the most immediate question, since the necessary restructuring and the generous funds the Swedish provides for each child results from their aggressive taxation policy. In Sweden you pay roughly 48.1% income tax and VAT is at 25%, which I doubt Osbourne has the stomach for. Moreover, markets are not the only, or even the best way of running education. Finland, consistently rated the best education system in the world, is not marketised and neither are the majority of top countries in the international rankings. Pointing to the Sweden serves Tory market rhetoric, as it does the rhetoric of other free market thinkers world over, but naturally does not tell the whole of the story. Ask any academic or teacher if further marketisation and corporate aping in the running of educational institutions is a good idea. After all, this is what New Labour have been doing haven’t they Mandelson? Dave Hill has a summary for primary and secondary education (pdf), Andy Robinson and Simon Tormey have the university (pdf) covered, The Storm Breaking On The University being the most comprehensive resource in this regard.
For the NHS the situation is more concerning. We face what might be termed a ‘reverse Obama’. Osbourne offers the standard neoliberal rhetoric of ‘patient choice’ and ‘diversity of provision’ that will usher in a two-tier health care system and another wave of disastrous public-private partnerships, pushing people towards private care. The internal market in the NHS, brought in by the previous Conservative government was hardly a success (pdf). The internal market resulted in worse health care for those unmeasured but vital rubrics (like dying a heart attack in an emergency), while marginally fiddling the numbers where things were measured (waiting lists) and overall the linked report concludes grimly that deaths were higher and quality was lower where marketisation was greater. Osbourne is quick to remind us that Blair spent many year fighting his own party, including Gordon Brown himself, to introduce foundation hospitals, a very similar scheme. Indeed, Andrew Lansey himself tells us that 2006 Blair’s aims for modernisation of the NHS via ‘independent sector involvement; practice-based commissioning and Foundation Trusts’ were correct, though unachieved. Mandelson might warn that ‘independent provision’ is another term for ‘everyone going private’, but might remember his own former leader provided the template, yet another proof of the shaping of our contemporary political scene by Blair despite his departure is more than merely aesthetic. Yet the difference between New Labour and the Conservatives is with no possibility of large-scale back-bench or union rebellion and once in power, Osbourne’s slow privatisation of the NHS would be unstoppable. After a general election, with incoming opposition in disarray and a parliamentary majority in place, the debate over foundation hospitals will seem a quaint reminder of times run roughshod over and ‘reform’ of the NHS will be possible beyond Blair’s wildest dreams. Education would likely follow a similar path. The roadblocks Osbourne often refers in Labour do not exist in his own party which suffers from no pull of something like the ‘old Left’.
One must concede to Mandelson, that Osbourne is still committed to letting the market ‘rip’, almost as if the credit crunch never happened. We should not be deceived that the Tories are hell bent on continuing their market romance unabated. Where Mandelson is dangeously wrong is in noting that the old Thatcherites may be unable to see past the progressive rhetoric, and might be opposed to Osbourne. As I pointed out, the recent speech to the Centre for Policy Studies by David Cameron shows that the New Tories are well aware they must cover these bases as well as appealing to voters weary of Gordon Brown, invoking a nostalgia for the battles and revolutions of the 1970s, summoning up the Thatcherite will to fiscal austerity and spending cuts. Without coherent opposition, Osbourne has the potential to enter a zero friction environment after the election which could be utterly disastrous and sadly, not totally unprecedented. For the Tories progress is just another name for the grim apocalyptic mantra There Is No Alternative.