Ideology is dead - long live consumer politic

Article by John Blundell in The Scotsman

Ideology is dead - long live consumer politics


IT HAS been called the eighth wonder of the world or, in Einstein's case, the greatest invention in all of mathematics. More prosaically, we call it the power of compound and it and other trends are about to change our way of life. In school, third form I recall, Mrs Schofield told us about the rule of 70. It's very easy: if something grows at 1 per cent a year, it will double in 70 years. But at 2 per cent it takes only half that time and at 3 per cent only a third that time, or 23.3 years.

Why is this important for public policy? First, at 3 per cent growth, we double our wealth every 23.3 years, yes 23.3 years. Given such growth, our wealth will double by 2026 and quadruple by 2050.

Second, the deregulated competitive skies of the past two-plus decades and the virtually unregulated internet have done three things: they have opened our eyes to what is possible in terms of standards and service; dispelled many statist myths and have left no place to hide for those who would assure us that only governments can perform certain functions.

Third, we are all living a lot longer. Life expectancy doubled in the past 100 years. In the next 100 years it might double again. Certainly, reaching 100 will be the norm for those born today. Over a 50-year period, the Queen sent out 100,000 birthday telegrams to centenarians. That quaint custom will cease as too many of us will hit 100.

Just this past year, we reached a milestone when there were inexorably more of us over 60 than under 16 for the first time in our history. The implications for work and pensions are just enormous. No more firemen retiring at 50 on a pension equal to 100 per cent of salary.

Fourth, just as we all know in our hearts that public sector standards are going to the dogs, so the private sector just gets better; continuous improvement is a must or you die in global competitive markets.

Fifth, the locus of political decision-making is moving quickly. Devolution is a sham, smoke and mirrors. The real trend is away from Westminster, Whitehall and our political parties and toward, rushing toward, Brussels, the NGOs and the pressure groups.

Fifty years ago, the Tory Party had 2.5 million members, the RSPB had 60,000 members and voter turnout was in the 80 percents. Today the Tory Party is one-tenth of its former size while the RSPB is 20 times bigger and voter turnout has dropped from the 80s to the 50s. Less than one in four of us voted for Tony Blair, the lowest mandate any Prime Minister has ever had.

So what do these trends add up to? I find myself agreeing with Blair far too often than is good for his future. He was spot on, for example, to describe the 2001 General Election so simply and directly as "an instruction to deliver". Our wealth, the growing inability of politicians to hoodwink us, and our growing life expectancy all add up to the death of ideology.

New Labour is more than happy to contract with the private sector to produce what the voters want. New Labour, in particular, recognises that results, not ideology, count increasingly. We are moving beyond ideology to an era of consumer-driven politics, where pressure groups, not political parties will achieve their goals, from education and the environment to health and crime prevention.

And given the inability of the state to do anything pretty much except tax and fight wars, this heralds a huge growth in the private provision of public services, albeit tax-financed, for the moment.

The politician who survives in the coming decades will be the one who learns from the US, where it has long been known that the best way to get re-elected is to deliver, regardless of party ideology. If the streets are thought to be cleaner and safer than the day you got elected, then you will be re-elected. It's that simple.

So contracting out, privatisation, PPP and PFI will continue and will grow and will move into areas still thought to be sacrosanct. One day cities will have three employees: a chief executive/manager; a lawyer to oversee contracts and a shared secreta