14 December 2020

Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon are all reflex and no reflection


I was hoping for a little bit of peace and quiet this Christmas, instead the chap who used to lead the Labour Party has promised us a last minute present that no-one has asked for — a Project for Peace & Justice. 

In a video released at the weekend, Jeremy Corbyn said that he thinks this has been a bad year for all of us with the coronavirus exposing the “scale of injustice and inequality in our society” and that “its mishandling and devastating human consequences have shown the inability of our privatised, hollowed out system to meet the challenges of our time”.

No, I’m not sure what the ‘its’ there is referring to either. Nor do I have any idea which privatised system Jeremy is wittering on about this time. Certainly not our precious NHS, which has been elevated to religious status — with protecting the health system put before actual human lives. 

He can’t mean Public Health England either. The fully public quango whose job is literally pandemic preparation but which has spent years hectoring and lecturing us on how much salt is in our sausages or how much sugar is in our smoothies. 

Public Health England’s intransigent ‘command and control’ strategy of testing following a fictional influenza model instead of real-world data, as well as track-and-trace, followed them having rebuffed offers to help with testing from companies, universities and charities for months. It led to Britain having one of the worst outbreaks and then outcomes in the Western world.

Nor does the decision from hospitals to let  untested patients back into care homes, upon threat of cancelling NHS contracts, strike me as a particular failure of the private sector. In fact it was private care homes refusing in April to readmit patients without tests that led to our discovery of this awful choice being forced onto managers in our NHS-first, lives-second system.

The state’s attempts at testing were also woefully slow, over-reliant on a huge centrally overseen sites and turned out to be a mess of double-counting and a huge backlog of untested swabs. This exacerbated the public health challenge when a large number of private sites trading on their professional reputations might have ramped up quicker and with more accountability — risk and reward on a mass scale, not just patronage or contracts seemingly dished out to the well-connected.

Overall our public health response has been a masterclass in the failed incentives at the heart of the public sector system: a reliance on old models, no incentive to bring in outside expertise, an invented-here approach and an ingrained preference for scaling up government-led initiatives, rather than letting the private sector provide a dynamic supply. And it is the private sector, after all, that now offers us a way out of this, with vaccines developed with quite miraculous speed and skill.

These are the lessons of our pandemic. That the private sector is more responsive, has incentives that allow for quick adjustment, have more inputs, and supply chains that are diverse enough to withstand shocks than attempting to build a public sector response out of Whitehall, Holyrood, Stormont or Cardiff Bay.

If we look right across the world the states that limited human contact — but which kept the flexibility of their private market systems in getting provisions out to people (whether groceries, or masks), which focused on the dispensation of information and not noble lies to maintain public sector supplies, which moved public services like schooling online, upped limits on spending on cards, or allowed managers to target resources effectively at local levels — all fared better than those that fell back on sweeping diktats of a few at the top of national systems. 

Not that Corbyn or his acolytes will ever see things that way, of course. His take on the pandemic is really just an epic case of confirmation bias. He’s seen the evidence and he’s decided it fits his theory even when it plainly does not; his prescription is the same in December 2020 as it was when he lost the election in December 2019 – and the same as it has been his entire political life. If there’s a problem, it’s because there’s not enough government, if there’s a solution, it must be the state that provides it.

On the other hand, it is free marketeers who have actually shown some flexibility in the face of extraordinary circumstances. Where ordinarily economic liberals would advocate letting businesses go to the wall, many on the right – not least the Chancellor – supported a big increase in borrowing required to keep the otherwise solvent companies afloat and prevent permanent economic scarring. This matters, those that have no new policy prescription when the symptoms change, might as well be selling snake oil for all the good it is going to do. 

Where Corbyn’s answer to any policy conundrum is ‘more socialism’, up in Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has decided that no matter the disease, the answer is more nationalism. More division, more Holyrood, more centralised control. 

No matter that this actually disempowers the managers who are meant to manage, no matter it ignores those whose lives are lived across borders, no matter the fact her medical experts also sent Covid-ridden folk from hospital to homes without a care (and still were this Autumn), no matter that British taxpayers’ funds have secured the livelihoods of millions of Scots this year, no matter that it is our shared United Kingdom’s purchasing power that is delivering the antidote to this disease.

What strikes you about both the Corbyn and Sturgeon approach – aside from the sheer zealotry and vitriol of their online supporters – is how unthinking, how reflective it is. With the economy tempest tost, and many of our loved ones gone before their time, this is a time for serious thinking, not dud cliches and glib soundbites. Thankfully there’s plenty of that on the British right, from the likes of Julian Jessop at the IEA, Number 10’s new policy man Neil O’Brien, Tom Clougherty and his colleagues at the CPS, and, of course, from us at the Adam Smith Institute.

As we start to rebuild our lives after this pandemic it might be better, instead of a new project to break up our United Kingdom or a new Corbynista talking shop, that Corbyn and Sturgeon give us some peace and quiet. In the meantime, those with actual ideas based in the real world will quietly get on with the job of ‘building back better’.

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Matt Kilcoyne is Deputy Director of the Adam Smith Institute.