OPINION: Citizens choose to be greedy

In case you've missed it, we are already preparing for the next General Election. Michael Howard has picked the team to hammer home the 'new' policies worked out by his now almost forgotten predecessor. And Labour's much heralded consultation exercise was launched in Bristol last week. This, we are told, will help shape the manifesto Tony Blair hopes will bring him a record third term.

Without wanting to prejudge the outcome, the key-word for both sides already appears to be choice. The Tories will offer the choice to select the school or hospital you want and take with you the pot of cash government has set aside for your family.

Labour's consultation exercise will apparently ask citizens to choose whether they want smaller class sizes, more hospital beds, better roads and so on. It won't be possible to say yes to all of them, or no to the billions spent on occupying Iraq. There's also very little chance of people on the margins being consulted. Even if they are, how favourably would their options be weighed against the wishes of the majority?

Even if some list of priorities emerges, there will be the chaos of trying to accommodate all these individual choices in a national system. The Tory idea of us all rushing round from school to school, brandishing our gift vouchers like shoppers at the January sales, will turn the already overly-bureaucratic education system into a shambles.

But there is a much more important downside to this debate about choice.

It risks negating any understanding of collectivism and social responsibility - in short the values our sector tries to promote. Turn citizens into consumers whose only interest is in getting the very best for themselves, and you create expectations that are never going to be met this side of complete social disintegration.

It's a bleak picture - and one that demands that we all raise our voices in protest, whether it be by joining the audience in the consultation exercise, or by letting the party planners and MPs know that the menu they seem likely to offer us at the next election is an unappetising one.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards

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