The “party of business” fails the business test

Conservative party conference 2019
Conservative Party Conference 2019

Experienced business people negotiate using reasoned dialogue over bullying. By each party allowing that the other must achieve a degree of satisfaction, a lasting deal can be struck. Successful transactions are also oiled by good manners and honesty rather than arrogance and one-upmanship. When the latter are used, the resultant deal tends to be marred by poor relations, as demonstrated by the government’s Brexit deal negotiations with the EU.

Similarly, in a democracy the relationship between citizen and government is, at least in part, transactional. Each offers something to the other:

  • Citizens choose a party or parties to run the country based on their manifesto or election promises; the elected party or coalition government reciprocates by implementing the policies for which the majority of citizens chose it.
  • The government needs funds for its programmes; each citizen pays taxes in line with that need.
  • Regular elections allow citizens to review the government’s performance and planned future programmes, and to adjust their own preference accordingly.

Democracy works when all this is conducted in a civilised manner – politely, openly and fairly. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

A government with a sufficiently comfortable majority in parliament may, for example, say, “Never mind what we told you, we are actually going to do something completely different and we want even more tax income with which to do it.” Or it may say, “We will protect you from harm, provided you behave in a certain way” and then fail to fulfil its side of the bargain. In such circumstances, democracy is clearly not working as it should and the electorate will likely rethink their allegiance.

One defining democratic transaction involves the sharing of a nation’s wealth among its citizenry more evenly and fairly than inherited fortune or chance allows. The method most commonly used to achieve this redistribution is through the provision of public services, such as education, healthcare and transport, paid for through the taxation of those who can best afford it. The government collects taxes and allocates funds to services; the people pay their fair share of taxes and obtain these essential services and opportunities.

Of course, the proper use of tax income demands both fairness and transparency, not only in terms of the transaction itself but also in how public services are resourced. Fair procurement and value-for-money provision of services lie at the heart of democratic accountability, and they underpin the understanding between citizens and government as they strike a mutual bargain.

In commerce, effective procurement will typically entail tendering with multiple sources to ensure competitiveness, and penalty clauses to ensure delivery. Yet this year, our current government has repeatedly given lucrative PPE contracts to companies with little or no relevant experience, but that are owned or run by Tory donors and associates of ministers and/or advisers, without either competitive tendering or penalty clauses.

Unsavoury as such behaviour may be, outsourcing without tendering is legally excused by the “emergency powers” granted to the cabinet by the Coronavirus Bill in March 2020. However, nowhere does any manifesto or parliamentary motion say that state-employed professionals should be overlooked as suppliers in favour of friends of the cabinet!

A government which lines its own supporters’ pockets when purchasing services for the public is, quite obviously, acting corruptly. And when such egregious behaviour extends into areas of healthcare under the NHS badge (and during a pandemic, no less), it breaks yet another covenant between government and citizen: maintaining the NHS in public hands.

Street mural by artist Rachel List
Street mural by artist Rachel List

The expertise of government services also plays a part in creating confidence among citizens. To expect people to continue paying taxes while diverting them into opaque organisations of ministers’ personal choosing, rather than to those best placed to deliver the promised benefits to society, goes against the basic social contract upon which taxation is founded.

Conservatives have long claimed to be the most appropriate governing party on the grounds that only they really understand business. It is certainly clear that many members of this government understand only too well how a business transaction works, judging by the contracts, peerages and favourable planning decisions exchanged for donations and favours to the Conservative Party. But Johnson’s government won power primarily by convincing traditionally left of centre voters in the north of England to support them, by offering the transactional pledge, “Vote for us and we will make your lives better.” These same voters are today among those most adversely affected by the failures of the government to deliver on their side of the reciprocal deal.

The government may feel able to let its electorate down right now, safe in the knowledge that it has a majority of 80 seats, but it will surely suffer serious − and long-term − consequences when it next appears before the jury of public opinion. Business expertise? Not any more.

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