The UK Election – How Will Spend Matters Vote?

ducks woodenHappy Easter!

Today is a public holiday across much of Europe, so not too much in the way of new procurement stories today. But as we move into the critical four weeks up to the UK’s general election, how are things looking for the most uncertain and complex election for decades?

So far in the campaign, Ed Miliband has come over better than many expected, whilst Nicola Sturgeon has proved to be just as skilled a politician as her predecessor Scottish Nationalist leader, Alex Salmond. The Tories are campaigning very much on the “don’t let Labour mess it up like last time” theme, without painting a very inspiring picture of what another five years might look like with them in charge. On the other hand, my personal view is that the fear of the Scots holding the balance of power is going to build as we get closer to May 7th. I think that could be worth 2 or 3 percentage points to the Tories, points that might not show up in the opinion polls.

On other major issues, the major parties are all pretty much ignoring the NHS funding crisis, all doing the equivalent of covering their ears and singing “la la la” to ignore the scale of the problem. Labour are dishonestly claiming the Tories are privatising the NHS, whilst the NHS CEO Simon Stevens has committed the service to making efficiency savings far greater than any previously achieved, and even that assumes another £8 billion from the taxpayer. But no-one wants to talk about that, because no-one has a solution. Unfeasible suggestions on house-building, another pretty intractable macro-issue, are now coming thick and fast too.

We will be covering the parties’ ideas that have relevance to procurement over the next month or so, but as you read anything here of a political nature, please bear in mind that I have no allegiance and no idea for whom my personal vote will be cast. However, we’re in the constituency of Michael Gove, Chief Whip and ex Education Minister, which is so rock-solid Conservative it doesn’t really matter.

I rather like Gove, used to very much enjoy his columns in the Times, his socially liberal (in most ways) but economically quite dry views suit me fine, and I do admire the way he has taken on the educational establishment. However, I think faith schools are a really bad idea – I’m with the Americans on this – and one day we will come to regret letting them expand as they have.

I’m conflicted in other areas too. Immigration is one of the factors that has made London the greatest city in the world, but I can’t help feeling that no-one asked us if we wanted the population of the UK to grow by over 5 million since the Millennium. And supply and demand does suggest that this must have depressed wages at the bottom end of the scale. On the other hand, I do support the concept of what Ian Duncan-Smith is trying to do with welfare (even if implementation has been a disaster). It has been too easy in the past for people to decide they didn’t fancy doing certain jobs and settle for a life on benefits.

As a procurement person, if I have any really strong “political” view, it is probably around the benefits of competition. As a profession, we know how much better markets work and how much the buyer – corporate or personal – benefits from competition. Accepting that it doesn’t always work (accident and emergency services in hospitals being a classic case), it is a principle worth pursuing. Yet both parties are disappointing in this regard.

Labour seem to be going back to the old dream of a state managed economy. And the comments they have made in areas such as capping profit for NHS providers or zero hours contracts don’t exactly fill you with confidence that they have the capability to run sectors more effectively than the market can do itself.

On the other hand, we have seen too much “crony capitalism”, where real competition is avoided and the consumer or citizen loses out (but give Francis Maude some credit here for doing his bit to open government contracts to new suppliers). It strikes me that in so many areas, we seem quite happy to let de facto monopolies exploit the consumer, everything from rail firms to water and power, to catering in airports. (The cheapest beer we found in Germany recently was in the “brew pub” inside Munich Airport. I love Wetherspoons, but their pubs in airports charge real premium prices and everyone seems to just expect this).

The salaries of CEOs and bankers also suggests market imperfections, and huge firms paying no tax in the UK, whilst my little businesses dutifully pay 20%, really bugs me! So I can sympathise at times with Miliband’s desire to intervene and redress the balance away from the fat cats. But you can only do that successfully, I suspect, if you really understand business and finance, and you don’t feel confident that is the case here.

I have voted LibDem in the past and was a founder member of the SDP – the only time I ever got involved in canvassing and real electioneering, back in the 1980s when the SDP almost made the big breakthrough. But the LibDems now seem more schizophrenic than ever, although history will judge Nick Clegg more favourably than the voters of Sheffield might.

The Greens couldn’t run a parish council, although I sympathise with some of the their ideas, and as for UKIP - well, let’s not go there. However, I am not a big fan of Europe, not because I’m a Little Englander but the opposite – I think Europe may hold the UK back and we need to be looking farther afield to more dynamic countries for our inspiration, trading partners and collaborators.

So I don’t know, and bear that in mind when you read anything we write in the next few weeks on matters political! My vote is up for grabs basically... anyway, it will be a fascinating few weeks for the political geeks amongst us, and we will be back with coverage of the manifestos when they emerge.

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