It’s not often a single politician gets the blame for a policy that crashes and burns. Of the exceptions, one thinks of wars – Chamberlain, Eden and Blair are all now indelibly linked to failure in that regard. In peacetime we have Thatcher and the poll tax and Duncan Smith and Universal Credit. But responsibility for what goes wrong is often lost in the Whitehall mists of forgetfulness, or in the jargon ‘buried.’ I was rummaging around in my old files the other day when I came across this piece I wrote for LabourList in 2011. It had taken years for a costly failure to be recognised, that is long after the perpetrators were out of office. I suppose it will be years – if ever - before David Cameron is brought to book for his mis-conceived EU referendum. Does government have a learning curve?
“The National Audit Office has published a report which exposes the £500 million of public funds wasted on the ‘FiReControl’ system – a plan launched under Labour to regionalise the fire brigades control system. The NAO said the project was ‘flawed from the onset.’ The project failed and we now have half a billion pounds invested in empty regional control centres, useless and redundant. How could it have happened?
I remember this scheme well. The FBU insisted years ago that it was going to be a waste of money – and that even if it got off the ground it would not enhance public safety one jot. Quite the opposite. I wrote to ministers, but to no avail. It was as if the trade union perspective was as passé as the winter of discontent.
Why raise the matter now? Surely we would rather the public believed that this was a failure of some obscure government or a failure of a rogue department rather than – God forbid – our fault. According to Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, “We will want to know how the department got in to this mess and why the taxpayers will be saddled with a burden of at least £469 million.” (Guardian, 1/7/11) I have to say Margaret, we were in charge – and the FBU’s argument was treated with haughty disdain.
This was a not inexpensive example of how institutional arrogance, the product of political hubris, got in the way of common sense. It demonstrated how we should have recognised the role our partners in the trade unions have in informing the development of public services. But they, the trade unions, were implicitly regarded as too heavily ‘producer’ orientated and thus only bothered about their own well-being.
Of course, ministers have to be decisive but we ended up making so many mistakes without pause it became an embarrassment. Our last five years in government became the embodiment of the old saying ‘activity is not a substitute for achievement,’ an epithet of managerialism if there ever was one. We were obsessed with re-arranging the delivery of services without asking whether our last re-arrangement had succeeded. Talk of a Maoist revolution – it was more like a flower arranger on speed. I believe that at the heart of this hyper make-believe activity was a nagging fear. It was the fear of – forgive me – an existential political emptiness, a loss of direction which could only be filled with management consultants and their unerring ambition to re-arrange deck chairs.
At the heart of the refounding of Labour we need an open dialogue with the trade union movement and many other partners (let’s drop this stakeholder crap – it means nothing to anybody). Should we need reminding – trade unions probably have the largest ‘third sector’ membership in the country? Dialogue means honesty all round and less of the patronising talk which tends to ebb and flow on all sides.
If we’d listened seven or eight years ago, it could be persuasively argued that the deficit might be half a billion quid smaller. But it wasn’t fashionable to listen to the FBU, a classic ‘producer interest’ union, even whilst our Prime Minister donned a white tie and tails to wait upon the Mansion House set. As somebody once said, it’s time to press the reset button. Endless doses of re-organisation are not a sign of virility. It is a lesson the ConDems have yet to learn, but once again, it is the poor so-called stakeholders who will suffer.
Afterthought: with years of managerialism in practice, how is it that the MoD can’t account for £6billion of assets? Fetch the consultants!”
There’s a good lesson here for a post-managerialist Labour Party.