Conference: Erm, Vince, hold on a sec

by Stephen Tall on September 16, 2008

For all that Bournemouth 08 is Nick Clegg’s first Lib Dem conference as leader, this has been Vince Cable’s week.

Spontaneous cheers break out at the very mention of his name, lengthy queues form for the privilege of being photographed with him, and his speech yesterday was rewarded with a standing ovation of proud and very genuine affection. His economic prescience knows no bounds, and his gently courteous manner allows him to barb opponents in a way no other politician can get away with.

And yet, and yet… whisper it gently, but if anyone else other than Vince had made the speech he delivered yesterday, it would have received a far harsher reception. Let’s start with his too-sweeping condemnation that

“we have a public sector which is, all too often, bloated, over centralised, incompetent and unaccountable”

Steady on, Vince. Yes, almost all of it over centralised, and much of it is unaccountable; but to bundle up these legacies of Labour and Tory governments’ disdain for localism with taunts such as “bloated” and “incompetent” is a generalisation too far, and a silly slur on those many parts of the public sector which do work.

But most bizarre of all was Vince’s statement that a Lib Dem government would:

“require every non-front line public sector employee on £100,000 or more to reapply for their jobs. Those allowed back would take a cut in pay and public sector pension entitlement.”

There was a distinct intake of breath in the conference hall when Vince uttered this, part surprise, part bafflement. It’s a self-evidently unworkable proposal; and even if it were workable it would be undesirable. I’ve no doubt that many of us, many in the electorate, resent the idea of (for instance) Council chief executives on six-figure salaries. The reality is, however, that councils pay a market rate commensurate with the responsibility of employing someone who controls a multi-million pound budget of taxpayers’ money and manages hundreds, sometimes thousands, of staff. Councils which are doing their jobs properly will want to appoint the best person possible, and that sometimes means paying unpopularly high salaries. It’s populist nonsense to suggest they should do otherwise.

Vince is, of course, Vince: perceptive, astute, a grown-up. He is, without doubt, the best advocate the party could wish for as the British economy approaches recession. So let me finish by defending Vince from one charge levelled against him in yesterday’s Make It Happen debate: that by announcing public spending cuts before we know exactly how they will be found the Lib Dems are sacrificing the hard-won economic credibility which Vince has won for us.

Because while £20bn of cuts sounds a lot, it is in reality 3% of government spending; now I’m not going to pretend that cutting 3% of government spending is easy. But it’s certainly not impossible. Those of us who have served in local government will be familiar with the so-called ‘Gershon efficiencies’, which required councils to find such recurring savings not just in one year, as the party is now proposing, but year after year.

Now I believe it was wrong that such measures were imposed on local government by central government – and the demands for cuts year on year has sometimes resulted in bad and unpopular decisions by local councils of all colours – but it was also a useful discipline, forcing councils to take a cool, hard look at the services they run, and think again about whether there were more efficient ways of achieving the same public benefit. So I don’t find it much of a stretch of the imagination that Vince and his treasury team will be able to trim 3% from current government spending without hitting front-line services.

Credibility is not won by detailing every single line of a finance bill 18 months ahead of a general election; it is won by setting a clear direction of travel, and having the confidence of your convictions. That has been Vince’s achievement as Lib Dem shadow chancellor. (So please don’t spoil it, Vince).

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“we have a public sector which is, all too often, bloated, over centralised, incompetent and unaccountable”

Sorry Mr Tall, but the phrase ‘all too often’ is correct. Everyone knows there are bits that work and we would all want to keep, but that does not save the ordinary person from being burdened and sometimes oppressed by the bits that are bloated, over-centralised, incomptent and unaccountable. It is the duty of any serious political organization to face these facts and come up with solutions. Pretending it isn’t so is not going to help anyone.

What to me seems bizarre is that you can have any doubts at all about the truth of this. You should get out more into the real world.

by Technomist on September 16, 2008 at 1:22 pm. Reply #

“It’s (the proposal to get people to reapply for their jobs of over £100k) a self-evidently unworkable proposal; and even if it were workable it would be undesirable.”

It’s also clearly not been thought through in any detail. Nick was left floundering by Paxman when asked a simple detail about this proposal – “how many people would be affected”

It’s very dangerous in any relationship when people get love-blind to the flaws in their relationship 🙂

by Hywel Morgan on September 16, 2008 at 1:31 pm. Reply #

Stephen – I suspect he was thinking of Whitehall rather than local Govt Chief Execs. Rather more £100k+ folk there, I reckon.

‘Technomist’ (sounds like dry ice!!) – which bits in particular do you see as ‘incompetent and unaccountable’? I have my own views, but as you think it abundently self evident, maybe you’d like to go first and tell us yours?

by Terry Gilbert on September 16, 2008 at 1:39 pm. Reply #

You can argue about “non-front line” but the rest is clear – all “public sector” employees over £100,000. Not just Whitehall (anyway what is “Whitehall” nowadays?).

This idea is just crackers and shows that Cable has allowed his fame and fortune to go to his head.

As for the public sector: 95% of it is not “bloated, incompetent” – the reverse – and a lot of it is not even “unaccountable”. Mukch of it is too centralised but that is a matter of organisation not size and resource and to conflate all these things is loony-right stuff frankly.

Cable is turning into the Lambsdorff of British politics or worse and we are very rapidly turning into a party of cranky right-wing economic policy which at this rate will be out-flanking the Tories on the right.

Everywhere you look in and around the party today (and I mean this day) there is a scattering of people saying they are resigning or not voting for us again. I guess that the skirmishes at Bournemouth are just the start of a series of long-drawn out battles which will gain in their destructive power as people begin to realise what this all means in practice.

I have no problem with parties thrashing out their policies but this is not the right time in the electoral cycle. For the leadership to declare civil war inside the party a year or not much more before a general election is not in my judgement rational behaviour.

Tony Greaves

by Tony Greaves on September 16, 2008 at 2:54 pm. Reply #

Oh Dear. Perhaps the ‘Re-apply at a 100k’ should be extended to members of the upper chamber too?

by Martin Land on September 16, 2008 at 4:17 pm. Reply #

I must say that even after what had gone before I was a bit surprised to see Cable’s speech given the headline “Taking an axe to the bloated public sector” on the party website.

Apparently someone thought better of this, because it has since been retitled “Taking an axe to public sector waste “

by Clegg's Candid Friend on September 16, 2008 at 4:22 pm. Reply #

I personally doubt Vince meant the latter statement literally. Of course it would be impossible to have every public servant reapply for their job – who would interview them?

No, instead i think he meant it metaphorically, as in ‘every aspect of the civil service should have to re-justify itself, and if it cannot then it should be scrapped’. That seems a fair proposal, to my mind; doubtless he used hyperbole for a more eye-catching, press-grabbing effect. Rather that than couch the thing in impenetrably dry and unexciting terms.

by carrion on September 16, 2008 at 4:54 pm. Reply #

I don’t think that interpretation is supported by the party website

“Government should do fewer things well, rather than many things badly, argues Vince Cable in his keynote speech to the party conference. Vince proposes that every non-front line public sector employee on £100,000 or more should be forced to reapply for their jobs.”

“The coward’s way is to sack or squeeze the pay of low paid public sector workers,” said Vince. “The correct way is to start at the top: require every non-front line public sector employee on £100,000 or more to reapply for their jobs. Those allowed back would take a cut in pay and public sector pension entitlement.”

by Hywel Morgan on September 16, 2008 at 5:01 pm. Reply #

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