Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The limitations of 'people power'

I'm all in favour of parents being helped to start their own schools. Indeed, I helped develop legislation under Labour that would make it easier for them to do so, and I would support its liberalisation. A few have done so successfully,and doubtless the Tories have a few more lined up, but it never felt like the groundswell - faith schools aside - that would make a significant difference to the school system. The truth is that the Conservatives - who made 'people power' their manifesto theme today - will rely on extending the role of the sort of organisations that are already engaged in academies to develop their Swedish schools, rather than a rush of parent power or even workers co-ops. And for them to pretend otherwise is disingenous and a tad deceitful.

Equally, it may be that there is a huge groundswell of untapped voluntarism just waiting for the chance to become the new government. If there is, I'll be the first to applaud. But there is simply no evidence that there is. Of course, there are plenty of volunteers around and their work is to be applauded and encouraged. But the idea that they can take over the bulk of the public services - and improve them - is fanciful. Improving public services demands good leadership, skilled professional staff, clear measurable goals (particularly minimum standards) and strong accountability. External drive from the private or voluntary sector can also make a big difference, as in academies and some health services, but not without the combination of other facets in place too. Because the Conservatives have chosen to lie about the extent of progress in the public services since 1997, they have chosen to ignore the importance of all these factors in combination. And that is the big flaw in their odd document today.

By all means, let's get more people engaged in government and public services. But by pretending that this is the solution to society's ills, the Tories are either hopelessly naive or unforgivably cynical. Sure, their media cheerleaders who don't visit state schools or wait in A&E will cheer their prescription. But when it comes to putting all this into action - should they get into power - let's see how much genuine people power takes off. I won't be holding my breath.

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