“Facing a new world with new challenges, we need to think again about how we can best serve the people we seek to represent”.
So argues an email which Ed Miliband sent to Labour party members last night. As Ed acknowledged in his conference speech yesterday, one of this new world’s realities, even if we were to now have a Labour government, is the necessity of cuts; and one of the challenges, therefore, is to deliver more for less.
Deficit reduction, however, has simply brought into sharper focus an inescapable trend. An ageing society makes ever less viable established means of financing and delivering pensions, health and social care. Innovation will remain a precondition of improved public services beyond the correction of the structural deficit, which all major parties are committed to achieving over this parliament. Successful adaptation to our cold fiscal climate isn’t simply about muddling through coming years but of making sustainable for the long-term, given profound demographic shifts, vital public services.
Ed accepting that there would have been cuts under Labour was hardly the stuff of Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech. Gordon Brown isn’t, pace the right-wing media, Joseph Stalin and Alistair Darling’s deficit reduction plan was passed into law by the Labour government.
Labour controlled councils have been preparing for the inevitability of straitened times for some 18 months. Yet, the Tories want to claim that Labour lacks a plan for controlling the deficit and remains capable of committing only to spending increases. They point to the spending commitments made by Labour leadership candidates during their campaigns and the lack of firm proposals for cuts needed to flesh out the Darling plan.
It would be helpful, therefore, if Labour were able to advocate itemised cuts by the time of the comprehensive spending review. Sadly, our polling on competence and unity has nosedived in recent years. The latter won’t be helped if David Miliband does decide to leave the frontbench. The former requires that Labour exude an ability to adapt to fiscal reality.
A truly credible platform, whether at national, city or local level, requires not just resistance to the depth and speed of George Osborne’s cuts, but a demonstrable ability to achieve better public service outcomes on more limited resources. The lack of this ability will be taken by many to mean that Labour can only offer diminished public service standards and potentially rising taxes.
People will expect standards to decline under Labour if we appear unable to adapt to severely constrained budgets; and they will expect tax to rise if our only prescription for better services is more money. A hard-pressed public would begrudge additional taxation and be disappointed, if not downright angry, should we be unable to find new ways of maintaining public service quality.
We can avoid this outcome, however, as we are capable of finding these new ways. And while we should argue for a fairer tax system, we can do so while avoiding adding to the overall tax burden beyond those additions which are necessary to fulfil our deficit reduction plan. Nonetheless, such services are likely to require a changed relationship between the citizen and the state. To avoid leaving the public disenchanted by poor public services in future, we should now be starting an engagement about how this relationship can and should evolve.
These issues were under-discussed in the leadership election. Perhaps they will be raised during Ed’s Q+A on the conference floor this afternoon. He won’t, though, be in a position to put his ideas into practice unless he gets into Downing Street. In contrast, Labour leaders in local government already have the power to reform the way they deliver services. Hopefully, the ranks of these leaders will soon be swelled by a raft of new city mayors.
Steve Reed of Lambeth, as the pioneer of the co-operative council model, is one of the most dynamic of these leaders. The co-operative council embraces all of the best elements of reform: bottom-up; co-production; empowered citizens; pro-social behaviour; culture change; and much more rich gravy besides. This may sound like a wonk’s recipe list but they are the stuff of improved services and community transformation.
Nonetheless, like some of the best meals, the full flavour of the ingredients takes time to interact and be revealed. The wheels of bureaucracy invariably turn painfully slowly and the wheels of enduring cultural change within communities – the genius genie in the bottle of innovations like co-operative councils – more slowly still. So, let us use the power that we have in local government – a majority of London local authorities, for example – to release this genie as quickly as possible.
If we do this now, we are more likely to have a strong record of delivering more for less to point to the next time these councils are up for election. More importantly, we’ll have made these communities as resistant as we possibly can to the inequities that Osborne will inflict upon them.
Ed should celebrate and encourage this local innovation, while holding a strong enough line on deficit reduction to prevent fiscal credibility being a bar to him and his chancellor. Whomever that may turn out to be.
Jonathan Todd is a consultant at Europe Economics and was a Parliamentary candidate at the 2010 general election