Is this the last chance for public services?

If all teachers do is simply what they already do, except for lots more money, then we have had it

There is little that is psychologically more unsettling than having your wish come true. In 1976, in the last Labour administration before this one, the last Labour chancellor before this one negotiated a loan from the International Monetary Fund for which the collateral was cuts in public expenditure. Twenty-six years later, 18 of them spent under Conservative governments, politicians, public and public-sector workers watched Gordon Brown allocate billions in new spending to education, health, police, the armed forces and the lollipop fund for girls with dimples.

There is little that is psychologically more unsettling than having your wish come true. In 1976, in the last Labour administration before this one, the last Labour chancellor before this one negotiated a loan from the International Monetary Fund for which the collateral was cuts in public expenditure. Twenty-six years later, 18 of them spent under Conservative governments, politicians, public and public-sector workers watched Gordon Brown allocate billions in new spending to education, health, police, the armed forces and the lollipop fund for girls with dimples.

It wasn't a trick, it wasn't a sleight of hand, nor was it statistical manipulation: it was what a majority of people in this country said they wanted all along. And that is part of the problem. For those who believe in tax-funded, universal public services, this is as good as it gets.

In WW Jacobs's short story The Monkey's Paw, a couple lose their only son in a gory encounter with a combine harvester. Some months later the grieving couple acquire the eponymous limb and discover that it will grant their dearest wish. The mother precipitately desires the return of her lost son. It is only as the appalled pair hear the slow, squishy footfall up the gravel path at midnight, that they realise that there were some stipulations that needed to be made. It was their wish, and they buggered it up.

This week, as term ends, a series of strikes will spoil the last primary school days of the year-six children at the school at which I am a parent governor. Unison workers will be having their stoppage alongside other council workers, the schoolkeeper (a member of the G&M) will be out, and – at the time of writing – a Tube strike over government plans for the Underground will lead to other children and teachers not being able to get to school. The fact that some of these workers haven't taken industrial action since the days of Denis Healey seems, on the face of it, to be wonderfully ironic (all those years of Mrs Thatcher and they wait till now to walk out!). But what it means is that they just aren't scared any more. They know they're not going to lose their jobs; they are on a one-way ratchet upwards.

This year's statutory Annual Report of the Governors to Parents was presented to the relatively large number of 30 parents (out of some 700). It reported good progress in many areas, but reflected on the difficulty in retaining staff in London. Even so, the finance report showed that the increase in last year's budget (something like twice inflation) had been swallowed up by a 9 per cent increase in wage costs, wages representing 85 per cent of the school's costs. In other words, just about all the extra money the school was getting went on the staff. They need it. No teachers, no happy and motivated classroom helpers – not enough progress. But if they all simply do what they already do, except for lots more money, then we have had it. And that goes for every other area of public expenditure.

Yesterday the Prime Minister was interviewed by the MPs who chair the parliamentary select committees. One of his least surprising answers was to a question on the Comprehensive Spending Review; he was asked how he would manage to get value for money for the extra investment without micro-managing the public sector. "It's a balance you have to get right," he replied. "The public expects to see outcomes for that money."

I would have felt slightly more confident had the PM left the public's perceptions out of it. The Government's perception of our perceptions are (I perceive) invariably what causes it to go wrong. But his meaning is quite clear; the Government has to believe and to be able to demonstrate that lots more money means better services. If not, then this next phase of the social democratic experiment in Britain will be seen to have failed.

There are small signs of revival on the intellectual right. True, they haven't yet managed to animate a painfully moribund Conservative Party. In the Commons, on Monday, Michael Howard seemed instead to endorse a variant on the social democratic proposition. "We will not," he said, "support the policy of money without change – but... let me point out that that does not mean that we are against spending more on education and other services. However, we are against his plans to spend more without real reform." Just give him four years and he may tell you what some of those reforms are.

Not content to wait upon Mr Howard's invisible progression, there are a growing number of people advocating the abandonment of universal tax-funded provision. They say that the public sector is, by definition, an unresponsive "dinosaur", that additional money is being poured into a "black hole" and that market-led approaches such as school vouchers or privately insured medicine should be adopted. These may be positions that the Opposition dare not articulate, but you can bet that if the Blair/Brown approach runs into trouble, Iain Duncan Smith will soon be rediscovering his Thatcherite radicalism.

My perception, from the grass roots of serving on a school governing body and watching a good headteacher and her team at work, is that we can find mechanisms for delivering improvements, without stifling initiative and flair. But it is extraordinarily difficult. Who judges if a school or hospital is failing, and by what criteria? Everyone may agree that there should be devolution of authority, but no one will agree that it is acceptable for public money to be wasted on failing institutions and failing staff.

The key phrase, as ever, is best practice. All the reforms you read about are, in fact, mechanisms for establishing and spreading existing good habits. In our school, advances have been made by properly managing and properly motivating ancillary staff who, in many other places, have been overlooked. But the best practice in spreading best practice is to have people wanting to adopt it (and adapt it) rather than enforcing it. They have to become self-starters.

I think that the Government now understands this. And provided it is no longer seduced by the mirage of "managing" public perceptions, and not thrown off balance by the inevitable crises that happen along the way, then its particular social democratic vision for Britain stands some chance of success. But it's our last chance, whether we be a Liberal Democrat spokesman, an NUT representative, a unison shop steward, John Edmonds or a parent governor at a state school. Unless we want to hear wet feet on the patio.

An apology: In last Friday's column I invented a reactionary Bishop of Barking who would stand up in the House of Lords and oppose a hypothetical Government move to liberalise the law on transsexuals. So carried away was I by my own alliteration that I neglected first to check whether or not a real Bishop existed. As you have already guessed, there was indeed such a figure. And, equally inevitably, The Right Rev Roger Sainsbury turned out to be an impeccably liberal clergyman, as well as a long-standing Independent reader. To make things worse, last weekend he retired, after 11 years in his post. I hope he will forgive me.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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