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).