Last night I was not surprised by the arguments used by Margaret Hodge and her Guardian helper. Labour have gone straight into the public sector Union trenches. They plan to fight every cut, and make any discussion of improved public sector economy or efficiency into the actions of unacceptable axemen from the “Condems”, as they unkindly call the Coalition.
It was as if the last thirteen years had not happened. There is no sense that they left things in a parlous financial state, not even a memory that their last act in office was to pass legislation requiring that the next government halve the deficit, mainly by revising down Labour’s own plans for substantial increases in public spending. On capital spending there is complete amnesia. The Coalition government has decided to spend exactly the same amounts on new schools, hospitals and transport systems as the outgoing government. Because this was the one area which Labour did cut, they are now up in arms about the cuts they planned but failed to specify in detail.
What did interest me was the audience reaction. There was a strong body of support for any proposition that required the expenditure of more public money. It showed that Labour will find an audience for its advocacy of higher public spending, even at a time of national financial crisis over the levels of state borrowing and debt.
The Coaliton government needs a strategy for handling this situation. I think the government must present in a calm and measured way the truth about the figures. All too many people think that public current spending is going to be slashed. They express surprise when I point out the government plans to increase this spending from £600 billion in the last Labour year to £690 billion in 2014-15, with modest increases each year. If the public sector works together and accepts these figures, it should be possible to provide a good level of public service in all the important areas. There is no need to cut schools or hospitals or policing by 25%. There will be even more money for these core services, if there are 100% cuts in needless, wasteful and less desirable spending of the kinds we have often talked about on this site.
The government also needs to come up with some answers on its school building programme quickly. Many of us are happy to see an expensive and cumbersome way of building new schools swept aside, as Michael Gove has done with the Schools for the future programme. What we need to see is what projects we will then get for our money and how he will allow or approve the building of better value schools. I appreciate work needs to be done to sort this out, but Labour will occupy any vacuum, play on any uncertainty in the meantime.