View from the House.

The first is the country at large or at least that bit of it which chatters about elections and party preferences. The point of Gordon Brown’s exercise was giving Labour a sharper profile and to that end the government’s flag has been nailed ever more tightly to the mast of public services.

Commentators must now identify Labour as the party of higher spending – without sacrificing that hard-earned reputation for prudence.

Without pushing the key ratio of spending to GDP much above 40%, thanks to the continuing buoyancy of the macro economy, Brown has stamped Labour with the reputation as the friend of the public servant and also all those who rely on state schools and surgeries.

Gordon Brown’s generosity with public money has allowed Labour to put space between it and William Hague whose recent equivocation on taxes and spending has stalled his fast-building momentum. Labour now has its election cry: the Tories will cut and they won’t say where.

The second audience is more circumspect. It is no secret Gordon Brown has a network of political friends, some in the Cabinet, more in the Labour Party. These are the people who see him not just as Tony Blair’s successor but the great white hope of latter-day socialism. Elements in his spending package were clearly addressed to them.

Last week – no coincidence – Yvette Cooper, the health minister, published new figures on inequality. The message was that Gordon’s spending plans would make the UK a fairer place (and the chancellor’s credentials as a neo-socialist burnished).

The third audience is that relatively small expert community who know how scatter-shot public spending really is and how much needs to be done to target it. This ambition is hardly new. John Garrett, the warhorse of public management reform, says the principles underlying the chancellor’s latest Public Service Agreements go back to 1948 and American federal performance budgeting. Whittled down from the 600 separate targets published two years ago, this year’s list is certainly more manageable.

There is a lot of window dressing in the PSAs. Some of the targets allocated departments are woollier than a New South Wales lamb. Whitehall departments will still have to contend with overlapping targets.

And yet, despite the way money is being allocated to health and education without much thought about targeting, the Treasury has managed to base its spending review on a much firmer intellectual base. In theory we can now ask of any given tranche of spending ‘what is it for?’ and in most cases get an intelligible answer.

  • David Walker writes for the Guardian

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