Leadership Platform 4: Chris Huhne speaks…

Please find below a video I’ve recorded explaining my vision for our public services.

Thanks for watching!

Yours sincerely,


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This entry was posted in Leadership Election and Op-eds.


  • Chris makes persuasive arguments against the gigantism of public service provision and for giving people more ‘voice’ in their communities. But I don’t believe replacing a central state monopoly with a local government monopoly can possibly be the whole answer.

    People need, and increasingly will demand, choice and control in their own hands. In cases like police reform local democratic control may be the best option, but wherever possible power needs to be devolved further downwards to individuals so that they have a real ‘purchase’ on the system.

    This means breaking up state monopolies at all levels and being open to new (private and voluntary sector) providers. It does NOT mean abandoning the principle of access to core public services regardless of ability to pay.

    I would like to think that Nick agrees with the central thrust of this – he is certainly asking the right questions and has grasped the key point about citizen empowerment. I’m glad he’s spoken enthusiastically about direct payments in aspects of health and social care. But in my opinion he has been too defensive and not bold enough in the policy implications he draws from this.

    He’s certainly been an articulate advocate of the approach the party is already pursuing in education and health, but hasn’t offered much that is new or that takes the party outside its ‘comfort zone’.

    Chris seems dismissive of the choice agenda, which as a liberal I find unsettling.

  • Oh and another point: Chris has repeatedly accused Nick of ‘flip-flopping’ on public services, yet his own position strikes me as ambiguous.

    Rhetorically he has clearly come out against choice/competition/markets in public services – eg in his letter to members of November 5th (“I have clearly dismissed the use of competition in public services”).

    This is different from the more neutral and non-doctrinaire emphasis of the public services commission that he chaired a few years ago, which was enthusiastic about local experimentation.

    Indeed, one of his main arguments for local devolution is that it would allow various alternatives to be tried and ‘best practice’ to emerge.

    It’s interesting that when he was interviewed by Andrew Neil (a strong believer in market-based reforms) on ‘Straight Talk’ a couple of weeks ago, Chris substantially toned down his opposition to the choice agenda, especially after Neil challenged the various caveats/objections he raised.

    In this interview Chris described the Swedish pioneer schools as “a potential model” and “a very interesting way of doing it”, and said “there would be areas which would undoubtedly do that” under his localised system.

    He later assented when Neil said: “You said earlier that you may look kindly – I wouldn’t put it any higher than that – on Swedish-style pioneer schools and the ability of people to start up their own school – charities, teachers, parents, private companies – meeting minimum standards…”

    But he has given the impression during most of this leadership campaign that Swedish-style schemes are fundamentally misconceived, rather than a promising option to be tried within a more pluralistic education system…

    Here is an excerpt from Straight Talk (worth watching the whole interview if you can track it down; Chris makes some good points on his approach to welfare and tax reform that haven’t really come out in the campaign):

    ANDREW NEIL: What are the policy differences between you and Nick Clegg?

    CHRIS: …I think there are going to be some nuances of difference… My fundamental view [on public services] is that we aren’t able to hold to account local decision-takers, in a way that makes sure that you can sack people who aren’t working and you can reward people who are through the ballot box.

    I suspect, but you would have to ask him, that in Nick’s case that there would be more stress for example on personal consumer choice, and I think if you look at where we’ve attempted to make that work there are quite considerable problems with it.

    I’m not saying that can’t be done within a local democratic framework, but I think it must be done within a local democratic framework because frankly economics is not such a clear-cut science – as you know – that we have all the answers.

    What we need in the public sector, it seems to me, is a way of discovering innovative, new, experimental ways of doing things – not imposing the same solution on everyone from on high in Whitehall.

    And if you get to this local accountability model that I’m talking about then people can try different things, and the people who succeed will be followed, the people who fail will be shunned and chucked out, and that seems to me a way of bringing some of the dynamism which we normally associate with the private sector into the public sector.

    ANDREW NEIL: But the reason I have power over Tesco is not because I elect the manager of the local Tesco store, it’s because I can take my little pot of gold and go to Waitrose or go to Asda.

    It would give me more power as a patient in the NHS if I could do the same with a hospital – I don’t want the power to elect the head of the hospital, I want the power to say ‘I don’t like this hospital, I’m going somewhere else’.

    CHRIS: In principle you’re absolutely right.

    Let’s take the example of schools, though. In those areas where there isn’t a lot of parental choice… I mean I’m lucky as a Hampshire MP to be in an area where 94 percent of parents get their first choice of school, so this is a slightly academic issue which is really only particularly a London and metropolitan issue.

    But the whole thrust of saying let’s get to a situation where parents can choose schools – actually what happens in those areas where that’s not working at the moment is that people make a great rush to a few popular schools and very soon it’s no longer parents choosing schools, it’s the school choosing the pupil.

    ANDREW NEIL: Why don’t you let new schools start up, as they have in Sweden?

    CHRIS: Well you can, and I think that that’s a potential model, but I think that what happens to the people who are left behind in the failing school who don’t have a voice, how are you going to make sure that those ones actually have a change of management very quickly?

    ANDREW NEIL: In Stockholm the failing school closes and the kids go to a better school…

    CHRIS: Well I think that’s a very interesting way of doing it.

    ANDREW NEIL: But your party doesn’t… These are known as the pioneer schools in Sweden – it’s not exactly a right-wing idea, Sweden is a social democracy…

    CHRIS: Absolutely, it’s a social democracy…

    ANDREW NEIL: Why don’t you go for something original like that?

    CHRIS: Well I think we obviously do need to look at this, but I think one of the original things which we should try first, precisely so you can allow for experimentation – and there would be areas which would undoubtedly do that – is local democratic control and accountability.

    If local politicians running a big city like Leeds said ‘right, we’re going to try the Swedish model’ then we’ll try Andrew Neil’s ideas on the Swedish model, and if they work…

    ANDREW NEIL: They’re not mine, they’re Sweden’s…

    CHRIS: But if they work then everyone will turn round and say ‘look, it’s a fantastic success in Leeds, let’s do what Leeds is doing’, and that builds in a process of learning which actually you don’t necessarily have otherwise.

    ANDREW NEIL: And which you get in America sometimes, where an individual state – as Wisconsin did with welfare reform, it started there, was seen to be a success, and before you know it the federal government is doing it. Is that what you mean?

    CHRIS: Yes, absolutely.

    ANDREW NEIL: That needs a lot of devolution of power…

    CHRIS: You need a lot of devolution of power. We are one of the most centralised countries in the universe, I mean it is astonishing… We’ve had this steady destruction of local accountability and local power, over decades now, and I think we’ve got to begin rolling it back and say we’re going to trust local people, we’re going to trust local communities to be able to do things and try things and let a thousand flowers bloom, and we will then find ways in which public services can be delivered better.

  • Peter Bancroft 21st Nov '07 - 6:44pm

    Alex @ 2 – Ironic really, isn’t it? Huhne has explicitly not ruled vouchers out, but he’s been on at Nick for 2 months to keep doing so himself with some subtext that they’re American.

    I’m a huge fan of Huhne’s localising & experimenting approach (indeed, I think it’s the most sensible for most public services), but the new “campaign Huhne” approach of going hard against public service reform is something which would have lost him my vote if I hadn’t already been supporting Clegg.

  • Exactly. To be clear: Huhne has not ‘ruled out’ vouchers – at least not if you go by this interview, which took place *during the campaign*, rather than something he wrote 2 years ago – while Clegg (unwisely in my view, but that’s beside the point) has… Which makes the claims about Clegg’s hidden agenda look rather bizarre.

    The main effect, as far as I can see, has been to close down all debate on the actual merits or otherwise of vouchers, competition and other public service reform ideas – not just for now but probably for years ahead.

    I think that’s a big mistake.

    I’m interested in whether Chris stands by his commitment to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ and allow Swedish-style pioneer schools within a localised system of service delivery.

    If not, what has changed his mind in the last 3 weeks?

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