John Pugh MP writes… What I have learned from ‘The Mafia’

Stephen Tall on this site last week queried why it was that so many Liberal Democrats sounded ‘conservative’ on public sector reform. Supporting local democratic bodies (ie, councils) was likened to Conservative support of business and Labour support of unions— both sectional interests.

I think this is a flawed analysis. Liberal Democratic attitudes follow not from any sectional interest but a belief in democratic accountability. Opposition to many alleged reforms in public services hinge on a conviction that they are a poor substitute for it.

To understand what’s going on I have learned from Mafia films you must ‘follow the money.’

We all agree that public services spend a lot of our money to achieve publicly (democratically) agreed goals. Many of us Liberal Democrats agree that how much of that money is spent is better and more efficiently decided by democratic decisions made locally.

Inevitably that means there must be some body which represents local opinion. Call it a ‘council’. A sensible thing would be to have those who spend our money accountable to this body and thus indirectly to us. It is of course not necessary for such a body to run or micro-manage all local public services.

However, the general drift of public service reform advocated by those on the right of politics is to replace this very simple form of accountability with other kinds of pseudo-accountability. Foundation hospitals are ‘accountable’ to their members, academies may be ‘accountable’ to parents, local services to users, etc. With these new forms of ‘accountability’, often comes a reduction in any power publicly accountable bodies have over the ‘reformed’ entities.

Two crucial things are worth noticing about this ersatz accountability:

  1. The use of public funds at best is only accountable to the people who enlist at the school, join the hospital, use the service—but it is not just their money that is being used!
  2. The ‘accountability’ is rarely more than the accountability of a retailer to its customers — it never stretches to a ‘power of command’ to do something differently, or to stop doing something.

Compare this with the situation where we can unelect or elect people who spend our money wisely or unwisely.

In effect the general drift of recent public sector ‘reform’ has been to increase the number of unaccountable people and institutions spending our money, a substitution of ersatz for genuine democratic accountability. In effect those few with increased leverage on such bodies may be somewhat ’empowered’. If it was only their money that was being spent that would be fine, but it does not follow from that the democratic will of people is not being edged out.

One accepts that underlying this debate there is another debate as to whether local democracy in practice works.

One accepts as sociological fact that whether you buy into ‘real accountability’ or ‘ersatz accountability’ might depend on whatever cultural preconceptions you have about council life. The more upwardly mobile, metropolitan, male and unmunicipal you are, the more you feel you can do without the communal voice.

However, I do not see the flaw in the above analysis which can be tested daily.

In any argument over public service the question who accounts to whom for spending our money is sure to put the cat amongst the pigeons, is often glossed over with cliché—but if answered with precision tells you much.

* John Pugh is Lib Dem MP for Southport.

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7 Comments

  • I’m not really certain what to make of this article, it actually sounds a bit like “State good/private bad”, but IMHO it actually misses a general point which I will touch on at the end. In the meantime I would like to (hopefully) add to some of the points raised by Stephen W, who I think has made some very valid comments, especially regarding layers of bureaucratic control.

    I’m ex-Forces, we used to have a very couth saying, “Praise Floats, S**t sinks”, this is a phrase that could equally be applied to political accountability. If a school does exceedingly well there is a good chance that they will be visited by a senior politician, it will be explained to the press that this shows that “our policies on x, y and z are working”. However, if another school one street down (i.e. in the same authority area) is shown to have lost lots of public money and has done incredibly poorly, you are more likely to see a press release stating that a minister will investigate why the teachers at that school have failed.

    In case that is a little too obtuse, simply put, politicians like to be accountable when things go well, but tend to find a fall guy to take responsibility when things go bad. The school scenario is just an example but it is something that I, as an ordinary member of the public, seem to notice a lot in all areas of Government (regardless of the rosette colour). Now obviously it is also a generalisation but, to use your own phrase, I do not see the flaw in the above analysis which can be tested daily.

    Regarding the part about schools and the statement “The use of public funds at best is only accountable to the people who enlist at the school”

    Is this really a bad thing? I’m no sociologist (or any other -ist for that matter), but I can’t recall ever meeting a parent who wanted their child to do badly at school. If the school is directly accountable to the parent (who I assume you are referring to – rather than the child), then surely they are far more likely to push the school into raising its game instead of leaving it to some inspector who may just have a tick list. If the school is good, it surely must follow that there is a better chance of it producing better members of society, which in turn is of benefit to the people stumping up the money (i.e. us tax payers).

    Regarding the general point of accountability resting with elected politicians, what is the point of accountability without redress? The traditional political answer is that you can kick us out, which actually means that the public have a 16 hour window every 4 or 5 years to try and gain redress for any perceived failings.

    Although it is an extreme example, people could elect an MP who decides that he can’t be bothered going to London every week and decides to go once a month. Is it really fair to insist that the MP has to stay in post for the whole 5 years?

    If politicians are serious about putting power back in the hands of the people, then surely this is one of the first things that they need to address?

  • And the politician who has reneged on her/ his election promises- should s/he not be recalled?
    Was not this power of recall an election pledge?
    Funny no one has mentioned it recently.

  • @Chris
    I don’t think the rush for privatisation is about taking power away. It is a delusion attempt to save money through an irrational belief that the private sector is more efficient and cheaper than the public sector. Those who hold this irrational belief tend not to factor in the private sector’s need to make a profit. They also tend to ignore quality of service. Or working conditions. Or the fact that if the private sector organisation goes belly up, the public sector has to pick up the pieces.
    But that doesn’t mean that private sector is always bad, just that the choice should be based on what’s appropriate for the circumstances, not on ideology.

  • This does assume that local authorities are democratically accountable.

    I think most are as bad as Whitehall these days – think 10,000 employees.
    and Councillors not allowed to talk to staff directly – except via chain of command and Vice versa.

    Information is power !

  • phil harris 12th Oct '10 - 2:04pm

    Sums it up with – what he’s learnt from the mafia…

    What’s next – trust no-one and keep your enemies closer ?

    Ha, ha.

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