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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 June 2006, 11:51 GMT 12:51 UK
Why the warm words on public servants?
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

You might be forgiven for thinking Britain's big political parties have been engaged in a long-running contest to see which of them can be most beastly to the public sector.

John Reid and Tony Blair
Reid said department was not fit
Tony Blair has spoken about "wreckers" in the services and the "scars on his back" he suffered when attempting to radically reform them.

The Tories have a record of planning to cut the level of spending on the sector, with former leader Michael Howard pledging to slash whole swathes of public service bureaucracy.

And both parties have commissioned studies into how they can reduce the number of public servants as a way of funding increased government spending.

Most recently ministers have been accused of trying to scapegoat civil servants for their own political failings.

Notably, Home Secretary John Reid damned his department as "not fit for purpose" and suggested heads would roll over the recent foreign prisoners crisis.

Blame game

Apparently, any idea this all amounted to a sustained attack on the public services is an unfortunate misunderstanding.

Both Tony Blair and David Cameron have set out to correct that impression and show just how much they love the public services, both insisting the "blame game" and "bureaucrat bashing" should stop.

David Cameron
Cameron plans to reduce size of state

Which of them first decided to launch this charm offensive is open to question. But the timing of their speeches cannot be pure coincidence.

One reason for the campaigns is presumably because both parties know just how many votes lie in the hands of the vast and growing public sector, which employs almost 6 millions. With their families that accounts for about a quarter of all voters.

It is also suggested that the public is increasingly sceptical about what they see as attempts to demonise employees when, in their view, the buck should stop with politicians.

But there are dangers here for both leaders.

Major changes

Tony Blair risks accusations he is backing down in the face of opposition from public sector workers, such as the nurses who recently gave Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt such a rough ride and the civil service union which hit back at Mr Reid's comments.

Nurses protest at Westminster
Nurses have protested over reforms
And David Cameron may anger traditionalists in his party who fear he is abandoning a cornerstone of previous successful Tory policy, to cut the size of the state, in his dash to the centre ground.

But, however warm the words, there is no sign that either party is planning major changes to their policies in this area.

For a start, the prime minister's big speech is mostly concerned with another re-stating of his position on the need for that radical reform he has been attempting to pull off since he came to power.

His line is that the public will not accept all the extra cash being thrust into the services without seeing some big reforms in return.

At the same time, Chancellor Gordon Brown is demanding a three year pay freeze on the public sector.

That may be designed to show he has no intention of backing away from Blairite reforms, if and when he becomes prime minister, but it also risks whipping up resentment amongst just those voters the parties are attempting to woo.

And, as far as can currently be told from David Cameron's remarks, he has no intention of backing away from the previous policy of reducing the overall size of the state.

The trick for both leaders, then, is to convince voters that the public services are safe in their hands and that the real danger lies in inaction.


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