Jeremy Corbyn – Reformer of the week?

16 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn is not, perhaps, the most obvious candidate for the “Reformer of the week” award in our weekly email. He would not, I suspect, call his views on education and health “reforming” in any way. He may however bring a new voice to the debate on intergenerational fairness, which could challenge over-generous spending on elderly people.

In his acceptance speech, the Opposition leader defined his views on public services by mentioning his support for the Socialist Health Association and the Socialist Education Association. These organisations stand for big increases in public spending, for example ending the means-test for social care so that the entire burden falls on the public sector. They are strongly against private sector delivery of public services. They believe that health and education services should be accountable through the democratic process, to both national and local politicians, rather than to the users of services through choice and voice.

(In passing, and very interestingly, the SHA did not ban the private sector from healthcare in its recommendations to the Labour Party in 2014. While the NHS was to be “overwhelmingly publicly provided”, the private sector would be allowed to provide “by exception, where it evidences enhanced care and innovation”).

Clearly these views stand outside what has become the mainstream of discussion on public service reform. That holds that services should deliver value for money and that services should respond to the views and needs of individuals and families. Leaving ideology aside, there were very practical reasons why (say) the Conservative governments of the 1990s wanted to try alternatives to local authority governance of schools. They wanted innovation leading to higher standards. That new thinking continued under Labour governments in the form of academies and LEA outsourcing, and again under the Coalition via free schools. Reform research has shown that not all academies have yet reached the full flower of innovation. Nevertheless an end to all of this thinking would represent a sharp decline in the quality of ideas and people available to the schools system.

Mr Corbyn may find himself on stronger reforming ground when it comes to intergenerational fairness. The Conservative Party has strongly favoured very generous spending towards pensioners, despite the long term impact on the public finances. See Reform research here. The temptation for politicians is almost irresistible given the huge difference in voter turnout between old and young. Nevertheless it has to be resisted if the public finances are to stay in balance (together with over-generous promises for health spending).

Jeremy Corbyn’s first broadcast interview was to Radio 1’s Newsbeat. That is the hint of a different approach, which might bring the issues of intergenerational fairness into clearer focus.

Andrew Haldenby, Director, Reform

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