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David Leighton and John Stevenson: We must challenge Labour's spurious narrative that public spending cuts always lead to worse public services - because that has been central to the rise in government waste

Picture 1 David Leighton and John Stevenson were council candidates in London at this year's council elections. Here they emphasise the importance of exposing Labour's empty rhetoric on spending and public services.

The population is now increasingly aware of the public waste in the UK. Shockingly, about half the working population has first-hand experience. The state largesse during the New Labour years knew no bounds and consumed many through state and quasi-state employment.

While dreaming up fanciful projects with no regard for the electorate – either in terms of whether, shock horror, the public requested or needed a project, or whether that was an appropriate and responsible use of the public’s money – the budget deficit and debt grew and grew.

Many a left-wing friend incessantly blames the bankers and says why didn’t you come forward earlier? To answer that charge, we need turn no further than to the Party’s 2005 manifesto, which states:

"Today, government is spending too much, wasting too much and taxing too much. Britain cannot continue indefinitely to spend more than she is earning without higher taxes or higher interest rates – either of which will harm our economic prospects. If we are to secure our future prosperity, government must once again start to live within its means."

So the daily digest of stories of waste since May 7 is no surprise, whether it’s French designer sofas, contemplation rooms, medium-size engineering projects for bored local authority officials, Blackpool jazz jamborees or must-attend conferences in Cape Town.

During the election campaign we found ourselves more angry than ever about Labour's record of waste and economic failure. But, worryingly, we found that this anger was not shared by too many voters.

Perhaps one reason is that whilst wrapped in the virtual comfort of transient fiscal stimulus voters could be persuaded by Labour's story on the economy and remain unconvinced about the problem of waste. The other reason of course is that we let them. As the days of the campaign went by, this was a cause of increasing frustration and anxiety. Not only did it raise fears about our ultimate success or failure in the election, it also raised fears about how voters would judge a Conservative government, if elected.

Clearly, the Party is now trying to address the latter by spreading the message on 'Labour's legacy' and the notion (quite rightly) that we are carrying out 'Labour's cuts'. Debating how adopting this approach during the campaign might have affected the outcome of the election has some merit. As we acknowledge, it is, however, possible that party strategists felt constrained by certain real and perceived psephological realities, not least those arising from the size of the State.

Whatever counterfactuals people choose to devise, it is welcome that the Party is at last making a determined and concerted move to tackle Labour on the economy and waste. Our success or failure will have a crucial impact on the future of the Party and the country.

Whilst the financial bubble has been burst by economic reality, economic reality alone will not burst the political bubble created and perpetuated by Labour spin. Financial markets have been criticised for seeking to create their own economic weather; Labour has cynically exploited spin to try to achieve the same in the debate about spending and public services - sadly, with considerable success (often thanks to the complicity of parts of the media). Labour's obsession with power for its own sake means they will continue to pursue this strategy.

Given that we are in office in the appalling circumstances bequeathed by Labour, combating this will be hugely difficult. Challenging the now widely accepted Labour maxim that cuts in public spending will always lead to worse public services is absolutely critical. This spurious narrative, promulgated to support the vested interests upon which Labour depends, has been central to the rise in government waste. Together with Labour's contempt for taxpayers, this notion led to a complacent malaise in government about ensuring value for money.

The country has paid a heavy price for the cowardly failure to reveal the flaws in Labour's argument, not just in abstract economic terms but in real life; the drugs in the NHS that couldn't be bought because too much money was being wasted on bureaucrats, and so on. Herein lies the powerful ethical case that can finally allow us to demolish Labour's empty rhetoric.

A true public service ethos is one that has efficiency at its heart. If everyone in the public sector aims to deliver more-for-less then we stand a much better chance of protecting services when money is tight. Accepting Labour and their union backers' lazy assertions that all cuts in spending will necessarily lead to poorer services therefore poses a real danger of causing unnecessary suffering.

In short, Labour and the unions are the enemies of better public services and the champions of waste. Without a single, powerful and consistent message like this, the reforms we seek to implement to tackle waste will flounder against the force of standard Labour rhetoric on spending and public services. The price to pay will not just be electoral; the opportunity to restore integrity to the debate on public services will be lost, not to mention the long term prospects for a better politics and better government in the UK.

The benign economic environment that Labour enjoyed for most of its years in government helped Labour divert attention away from their shameful record of waste. Our attempts to encourage scrutiny were subdued by the fear of eliciting viscous Labour attacks accusing us of wanting to attack public services. This has been a catastrophe for Britain. We cannot afford to be fearful ever again. From now on we must act with courage, showing how Labour's record on waste means that tackling the deficit and debt is not at all about seeking to undermine public services.

In 2007, one idea to facilitate some useful discussion about reducing waste was to create an organisation, Campaign on Waste (COW). As part of this, there was an intention to hold an annual COWpat awards ceremony. Of course, Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown MP was to receive the Golden COWpat, a lifetime achievement award for instigating the most waste in the public sector in living memory. It is time to invite Mr. Brown to collect his prize.


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