Not a lot that the odd £6 billion can't cure
But I do not think that the Labour Party has picked a winner with this issue. No doubt it is in Labour's interest to have as many Government spokesmen as possible popping up on our television screens: the less visible or audible this Government is at the moment, the less unpopular it be- comes. But ministers are unreasonably overworked for most of the time, and their holidays are therefore good not only for them but also for the rest of us.
What would really help the Labour Party would be if Tory backbenchers never took any holidays. For now is the time of year when they can drift round the drinks party circuits in their constituencies at a suffi- ciently leisurely rate to take in what people are telling them. The news is not all bad; but it is sufficiently worrying in marginal seats for a significant number of Conserva- tive MPs to be plucking up courage now to demand some real changes, both of emph- asis and of policy, in the run-up to the party conference at Blackpool.
On some issues the discontent is vague, yearning and inchoate: here, better pre- sentation may be the main thing needed. For every ten people who feel that 'the Government ought to do something' about pollution, I doubt whether there is even one who can describe in any detail what the Government is doing and has already done: its desulphurisation programme for power stations, its role in negotiating the Montreal Protocol on chlorofluorocar- bons, its granting of new powers to the National Rivers Authority under the Wa- ter Act, and so on. Similarly, discontent about the Health Service reforms has been encouraged by the Government's complete failure to explain what they will mean for ordinary patients. When I accompanied
canvassers at the Vale of Glamorgan by- election earlier this year, we met one old lady who thought that under the new system she would have to pay the full price of all her medications, and several people who thought that, if their local hospital 'opted out', this meant that it would leave the NHS and join BUPA.
On some of the Government's other problematic policies, the solution seems to lie not so much in making a better pre- sentation as in making bigger and better presents — or 'dowries', as they are now quaintly called. The water authorities are to receive a dowry of more than £6 billion, and the privatisatised electricity industry will have nine ageing nuclear power sta- tions removed from its trousseau. (Not so long ago, the state's relationship to its nationalised industries was meant to be like the Boston Strangler's relationship to his victims; now, apparently, it has turned into a doting papa, wiping a tear from his eye as he escorts them to the altar.) Having veered and teetered back and forth, trying now to protect the consumers, now to entice the City, Mr Michael Howard has finally reached a point of equilibrium where the City will be moderately satisfied, the customers moderately dissatisfied, and the Treasury almost penniless on the whole transaction. Having been red-hot, this issue is now merely simmering. Price rises and land sales will make it flare up again every now and then. But for the time being it is off the list of those topics which, at meet-your-MP garden parties, are making Tory voters choke on their Pimms.
Top of the list, by a long way, is the poll tax. Here the Government has managed to offend more people in more ways at once than you would have thought possible. There was always an element of Realpolitik in Conservative Central Office's view of the poll tax: they realised that in parts of Scotland, the North of England and the 'inner cities' a majority of voters would be worse off under the new system, but comforted themselves with the thought that those voters were Labour ones any- way. But now that the Government has announced its transitional 'safety-net' scheme for the first four years of the poll tax, millions of Tory voters have disco- vered that they are in effect going to be worse off because they will be paying cross- subsidies of up to £75 a head.
For the last two years they have been
told that the purpose of the Community Charge is to encourage accountability, by getting voters in high-spending areas to feel the full cost of their councillors' policies. So they can hardly be blamed if they regard these cross-subsidies as a direct contradiction of that argument. Prudence, it seems, is being penalised, and profligacy palliated. But the criticism could be re- phrased in a form which would invoke no moral principles at all: if the Government is going to act in accordance with Realpoli- tik, it should just do it properly.
It is worth looking, however, at the ' principles which are officially behind the poll tax, because it is those very principles that suggest a way out of the Government's problem here. The main principle behind 1 the Community Charge is that it is a charge, not a tax. We are meant to think of local authority not as a form of govern- ment, pursuing political programmes which might encompass the redistribution of wealth, but merely as quasi-commercial ' agencies, performing services for which we pay fees: we are their customers, not their subjects.
Most people would happily swallow this argument where a wide range of minor services is concerned — parks, libraries, refuse collection and so on. But there is at least one major issue where it sticks in the gullet: education. As a privately educated childless person I am in no sense a 'custom- er' of my local education authority. Accepting that a free national education system is one of the functions of the modern state, I accept that I should pay my whack; but any such payment that I make is quite obviously a tax and not a charge.
There is now a groundswell of support among Tory MPs for the idea (which, as it happens, I suggested in this column 19 months ago) of funding all education ex- penditure from central government. Cecil Parkinson has expressed an interest in it, , and if he is at the Treasury this time next year it may be in with a chance. On its own, this measure would cost central gov- ernment about £6 billion; though it could be partly off-set by making Community Charge payers pay the full, unsubsidised cost of some of their more obviously service-like services. But, as the Govern- ment has already shown in its privatisation policy, there are times when defending one's principles (and one's majority) may require digging deep into one's pocket.