Friday, 28 January 2011

The coalition so far: good or bad?

A recent blog post by Neil Harding lists what are, in his view, The ten worst (and five best) things the coalition have far.

He is particularly upset about the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance and the cutting of numerous budgets, all moves that will, by and large, hurt the poor more than the rich. The increase in VAT also attracts his opprobrium. I am inclined to agree with most of this. How can the government possibly claim that VAT is progressive? Why not raise the money instead by increasing income tax on the rich? Why can we not be more like Scandinavia, whose economies incidentally are consistently more successful than Britain's?

Neil is also highly sceptical about the proposed NHS reforms, and I fear he may be right. It is unclear how it will improve services, and seems more likely to waste public money than save any. An article in this week's British Medical Journal bluntly describes the whole scheme as "mad". All past evidence is that major restructuring of large organisations hardly ever delivers the advantages claimed, and seriously damages efficiency while the upheaval is under way.

On the plus side, Neil Harding approves of Ken Clarke's "Prison doesn't work" stance, and I very much agree. Some of us have been trying to make this argument for more than 30 years, but know-nothing tabloid kneejerk populist yelling always seems to win the day over the calm appraisal of facts in the area of law-'n'-order. We wait to see whether it will really be any different this time.

Defence cuts, and raising the income tax threshold, are positive moves as far as they go; but, as Neil points out, the defence budget could be slashed far more than this without any discernible disbenefits to the country as a whole. Some jobs would be lost. But the present level of defence expenditure -- on pointless macho toys like aircraft carriers and Trident missiles -- is a remarkably expensive way of sustaining a few hundred thousand jobs.

On big item missing from his "good things" list, I think, is transport. Rather remarkably, the coalition has stuck so far to its determination not to expand airport capacity in the south-east, in the face of a great deal of doomist bleating from the vested interests concerned. Also, Philip Hammond as Transport Secretary is proving a good deal less of a "petrolhead" than most of us feared. Not only are Crossrail and Thameslink going ahead, and a certain (albeit too limited) amount of railway electrification also; but the man has actually been going around saying that railways are an essential part of the economy's infrastructure, and have to be invested in whether they make a "profit" or not. This is about as different from the usual Thatcherite dogma as you could reasonably get, and deserves more credit than it has so far received, especially in the present economic circumstances.