We have a quite depressing spectacle of politicians offering daily statements about the numbers they wish to cut from public spending. Few of these statements are clear and virtually none of them are about efficiencies. Both Labour and the Conservatives have offered up economies, simply stopping certain activities or functions. So they suggest putting back the age at which we qualify for a retirement pension or removing some of the bells and whistles on public sector pension schemes. They then also pledge to reduce bureaucracy – whatever that might mean. None of this is about changing the relationship between inputs and outputs (i.e. efficiency). It is all concerned with reducing inputs with little evident regard to the impact on outputs, let alone outcomes. On a slightly different tack, the Liberal Democrats appear to be spelling out the programmes they would stop, such as the replacement for Trident or scrapping ID cards, ones they have on the whole opposed as a matter of principle. This is fine as far as it goes.
But there are some big questions that need addressing. For more than thrity years, we have heard politicians talk about reducing the size and scope of the state with little evident impact. And each passing day we are met by more demands on the state’s resources (this morning we hear that prisoners are not being released early anymore for fear of public reaction should they reoffend). The two sides (costs and services) are rarely put together to forma sensible discussion abiout what we want from collective provision and by who/where this might be done.
So, if the standard of political debate is so low, can we do soemthing to raise it? Recently, I was asked for 5 questions I thought we should be discussing in the election campaign. The intention was to have an alternative election debate on issues of deeper relevance than those discussed above. I struggled with this for some weeks and have offered four:
1. Can our socio-economic and geo-political decline be a catalyst for creating a vision for a different future?
2. ‘Modern’ institutions (banks, governments, corporations etc.) have been found wanting. In what different ways might we come together to achieve common purposes?
3. Are we as self-interested as we are treated?
4. Is ‘how’ (and, though this is perhaps a different question, ‘why’) more important than ‘who’ and ’what’?
My fifth suggestion was more flippant. I would welcome any comment on these questions – even answers if there are any. Or are there other questions others might want to offer up?