Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Now which one shall I have? Blair at Euston again

One of the more bewildering aspects of the language of New Labour is its penchant for picking two irreconcilable concepts and saying that Labour is neither, yet is also both - simultaneously. This is what happens in Blair's defence of choice.

It is more subtly stated here but is present none the less. The first phase of public sector reform is described by Blair as being based on "strong central direction and public targets". The current phase is now, apparently, a process of "transfer of power from providers to citizens". Note the language here; it is a transfer of power from providers not government. Implicit in this is a view that the public sector behaves as a monopoly with, at best, complacency, and, at worst, an intrinsically hostile attitude towards its users. In this way there is a supposed unity of interest between government and citizens against the recalcitrant providers of public services. The circle is squared. Centralised government direction can happily co-exist with the devolution of power to citizens whereas I had always assumed that increasing the ability of people to decide for themselves had to result in a reduction of central power.

This analysis would be fine if it were true. Those of us in Adult Education, which has long operated in a genuine market with provision solely driven and determined by consumer choice, are acutely aware that there is currently a shared interest between providers and users against the government as it uses its powers of funding to effectively impose a narrow model of instrumental education to be delivered at NVQ level 2, regardless of the choices of citizens. A swathe of popular adult education provision is disappearing across the country because it does not match the government's funding criteria.

In reality, choice is a very limited form of power compared to ownership, control and democratic governance. This is even more so in a model based on central direction and targets. What results is not a choice of provision, which will remain centrally directed, but a choice of provider. In other words, "you can have any colour as long as it is black - but you can choose from all these showrooms where you buy it". This is hardly, "Power to the People".

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