Why Danny Finkelstein is wrong about the Lib Dems and the public sector

by Stephen Tall on March 10, 2009

There’s a distinctly odd posting by The Times’s Daniel Finkelstein over at his Comment Central blog today, Our poll and Nick Clegg’s strategy, focusing on the result of the latest Times/Populus opinion poll which breaks down party support according to the public and private sectors as follows:

Lib Dems: 23% (public sector), 17% (private sector)
Labour: 26% (public), 29% (private)
Tory: 38% (public), 45% (private)

Here’s Danny confusing (and confused) analysis:

Nick Clegg’s party does much better among public sector workers than among private sector ones (23 to 17 per cent). This must put a further question mark over his strategy of arguing that a great deal of public spending is wasteful and should be cut to allow lower taxes.

Let’s pause a second to think that one through.

I’m assuming that the subtext of his comment runs something like this… Public sector workers who vote Lib Dem like wasteful public spending because it keeps them in a job. Therefore Lib Dems shouldn’t argue for cuts to wasteful public spending because it will do some public sector workers out of a job, and so hurt the party’s popular support.

There are some deeply flawed – and lazily insulting – assumptions underpinning this argument, not least of which is that Danny seems to presume that public sector workers are self-interested only in their own jobs. This is contrary to my personal experience with councils, where employees are often among the most critical of their organisation’s waste and inefficiency – very little of which, by the way, is the fault of front-line staff. (More likely it’s their managers who signed-up to daft IT systems or poor value-for-money contracts). After all, they see the downside of such bad practice every working day, and are frequently frustrated by its effects. Of course, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, it’s true; but that’s the same for anyone, regardless of whether they work in the private or public sector.

And if it’s really the case – as Danny implies but prefers not to state – that public sector workers are more likely to vote for a party which protects their own interests, why does he think the Tories attract 38% support from the sector, despite the party’s history of under-investing in key services?

Danny’s posting also ignores one of the key public sector reform touchstones of the Lib Dems: decentralisation of public services from Whitehall to local control. One of the most common complaints of public sector workers is Labour’s (and before them the Conservatives’) obsessive centralisation of the public sector, and the ‘targets culture’ that expanded with it. As a result, public services have been forced to become agents of Whitehall, rather than be free to respond to local circumstances. The Lib Dems have long pledged to reverse this Labour/Tory trend, and to allow public services to become local once more. It’s a policy which, unsurprisingly, appeals to many in the public sector, and many will vote for the Lib Dems as a result.

Declaration of interest:
I work for a private institution in receipt of some public funding. Does that make me a private or public sector worker? These are the kinds of questions opinion polls (or at last the repoorting of them) obscure.