The Observer: The marketing of Blairism
“You could be forgiven for thinking that think-tanks exert more influence on the Prime Minister than business and unions combined.”: “There is lingering suspicion that think-tanks are skewed by the financial backing of big business. The SMF has a business group that companies like pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline and oil major Shell pay over £10,000 to join.”
Sunday July 31, 2005
Nick Mathiason meets Ann Rossiter, head of the Social Market Foundation think-tank, and leading light in the Third Way
Last May, Philip Collins, director of the Social Market Foundation (SMF), was parachuted into Number 10 as Tony Blair’s top speechwriter and strategic adviser. There to greet him was his old friend Matthew Taylor, former head of the Institute of Public Policy Research, now Blair’s chief policy guru.
You could be forgiven for thinking that think-tanks exert more influence on the Prime Minister than business and unions combined.
‘We have the ear of government because we have independence,’ said Ann Rossiter, 39, who last week was appointed to replace Collins as boss of the SMF. ‘We don’t have an agenda.’
Observers may disagree. Once regarded as John Major’s favourite, the SMF think-tank was founded in 1988 out of the ashes of the Social Democratic Party. But it faced irrelevance after Labour came to power. It may have wrestled with Third Way issues long before the phrase popped into Blair’s head, but the SMF didn’t have any clout. Four years ago, however, the SMF replaced its Tory-supporting chairman, Lord Skidelsky, with leading Labour peer Lord Lipsey. It hasn’t looked back.
Today the SMF provides the intellectual battering ram for government to introduce more competition in public services. For more competition, read the private sector. ‘We’re pro-market, but not free market. We care about what happens to people within markets,’ said Rossiter last week, seated in the characterless basement conference room in Westminster that ministers regularly choose as a venue to unveil key policy initiatives.
There is no doubting the SMF’s strength. In recent years, with Rossiter as its director of research, it argued that government budgets for disadvantaged children should be spent earlier in their lives. The advice gave rise to the government’s Sure Start programme and additional tens of millions of pounds now reserved for nursery provision.
And its suggestion that the public should be forced to save for a pension unless they specifically opt out is now causing heated debate among government officials.
The current focus of debate is providing more choice in public services. Some say the public doesn’t care about having the ability to choose between more than one service provider. They just want a decent doctor, hospital and school in their area. Rossiter counters: ‘Consumers are used to dealing with banks and having convenient ways of dealing with shops so they have an expectation about services that the public services have to meet. The only real way is to introduce competition so that if you’re a patient you can say “this GP doesn’t know much about my health problem or isn’t nice to me or respectful of me therefore I’m going away to someone who’ll treat me better”.’
There is a real urgency to introduce competition to run key elements of essential services – not least so Blair can claim modernised public services as one of his enduring legacies.
For Rossiter, though, choice and competition ‘is a way of getting a good school at the end of your road. But where I’m moving the debate is by doing a cost-benefit analysis of these kinds of choices.’
Not all choice works, she says. Rossiter doubts whether the introduction of city academy secondary schools, which have freedom to set curriculum, is working because traditional schools don’t have the same flexibility. ‘That’s not a level playing field and perhaps we should be looking at a core curriculum that applies to both.’
Meanwhile, the rise of the MRSA bug on hospital wards is blamed on substandard cleaning by private contractors. School dinners produced by Compass for less than 50p have been publicly ridiculed by Jamie Oliver and sparked a national debate.
‘It’s about the terms you set when you are [contracting out]. One of the things about contracting out labour is the things not put in contracts. There was nothing put in about who you employ, what you pay them, and the quality of staff. In one sense the private sector should be paying attention to the results it delivers. You also have to be saying what happened when those contracts were drawn up.
‘I don’t have a problem about who provides healthcare – whether it’s the NHS or a private provider. I think the question you have to ask is the grounds on which competition is happening. For example, the diagnostic treatment centres have been awarded a certain amount of work and that’s not necessarily an approach I’d advise. It doesn’t sound terribly much like competition.’
The government last week unveiled plans for reform of all NHS care outside hospitals to run GP surgeries.Changes will be profound, predicts Rossiter. ‘You might see foundation trusts starting to set up GP services in competition. You might see the government trying to draw in private providers and you might see GPs in pharmacies and very different sorts of models. There may be GPs operating near your work or working different hours. There are lots of ways you can change the traditional approach,’ says Rossiter.
While many believe that the government is intent on gradually introducing charges for NHS services, Rossiter isn’t so sure. ‘Charging is the ultimate taboo. Labour will never actually break it. So much of the party’s support is about honouring that.’
Rossiter is determined to explore how cultures within the public sector stifle entrepreneurialism. ‘You have got to get inside the organisations themselves and challenge the silos. The classic one is the medical model and the social services model and they butt up against each other and don’t work well.’
But public services are by no means Rossiter’s only concern. She is determined to investigate government regulation and competition policy.
Government’s instinct to protect consumers through regulation, she argues, too often produces ‘a very negative cycle of behaviour’ among business which means, particularly in financial services, that the customer gets a raw deal. Regulation should be relaxed and moved to a trading or value-based system that gives companies an idea of what behaviour is expected of them, she says.
She is fiercely critical of competition policy and points to the recent investigation of supermarkets by the Competition Commission, which failed to get to the root of the problem of their massive buying power resulting in small suppliers being treated unfairly.
There is lingering suspicion that think-tanks are skewed by the financial backing of big business. The SMF has a business group that companies like pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline and oil major Shell pay over £10,000 to join. But Rossiter says that most of the foundation’s money comes from two charitable trusts and that all research is free from corporate financial influence.
Cardiff-born Rossiter advised Labour on the introduction of the stakeholder pension and has worked for Fishburn Hedges, the public affairs firm.
She says she is astonished by the degree to which business and the public sector fail to understand each other. ‘Often politicians glamorise business because they think its full of driven, ambitious profit-orientated individuals. On the other side business tends to see the public sector as terribly dull and risk-averse and yet you often meet tremendously creative, entrepreneurial people struggling against the barriers of it.’
If Rossiter’s ultimate ambition is to follow her predecessor into Downing Street, the book-loving philosophy graduate is not saying. ‘I’m not temperamentally suited to toeing the party line,’ she said. ‘You come under pressure and scrutiny in a way I wouldn’t like. I’m very independently minded.’
Name Ann Rossiter
Born 18 May 1966, Cardiff
Education Philosophy degree at Birkbeck College, London University
Career Four years at the BBC in political research and political programming. Four years working in parliament for MPs John Denham and Glenda Jackson on pensions and transport policy. Drew up Labour party policy on stakeholder pensions in the early 1990s. Four years as a director of Fishburn Hedges, the corporate communications consultancy, and of Lexington Communications
Lives with partner in Brixton
Likes Modern literature, going to gigs
What they say
‘We can only hope Ann Rossiter wakes up to the fact that private contractors in health and education are reducing rather than improving the service the public receives.’
‘She has a clear vision, and a strong agenda for extending the SMF’s work into, for example, microeconomic policy and deregulation. The SMF will thrive in her hands.’
SMF chairman David Lipsey