The power of Labour’s left means Ed Miliband’s speech on public service reform has already been neutered

by Atul Hatwal

This evening Ed Miliband will make speech mentioning Labour’s great unmentionable, a policy area that has been mothballed since Tony Blair’s departure from Number 10: public service reform.

The new left inquisition which dominates much of today’s Labour party views Blairism as the most egregious of all the possible heresies. To openly suggest our public services are in need of reform is dangerously Blairite.

It virtually invites the type of twitter auto-da-fé experienced by those hardy Labour souls who have had the temerity to call for a tougher line on welfare or public spending.

The only criticism of public services permissible in the current orthodoxy is funding: everything would be better if there was more money and the Tory cuts were reversed. All else is doctrinally suspect.

As a result there is some excitement in anticipation of what Labour’s leader will say.

It is also why we know that Ed Miliband’s foray into new territory will only advance Labour’s thinking in the most nugatory manner.

Public service reform has always had two inextricably linked aspects: shifting power from providers to service users and improving efficiency. One leads to another: as power is shifted, and resources allocated to better reflect demand, so cost is driven down and quality, up.

In a world of limited financial resources, and rising demand for services, public service reform is the only way to get more from less in government spending.

Miliband is expected to sound the familiar notes on empowering users and devolving decision-making. He will talk about power and accountability and acknowledge the need to find ways to make government spending go further.

But this is as far as he will go.

Measures that have already been trailed, such as a trigger for parents to initiate action to raise standards in schools, are worthy yet merely tinker at the edges of public service reform.

It’s easy to talk in sunny generalities. Which politician would seriously oppose moves to empower the public and achieve better value for money from government spending?

But it is much harder to discuss the specific policies that will achieve the level of radical change required to ensure the public receive the services they want in a way that is affordable by the Exchequer.

When Ed Miliband speaks this evening, expectations will be set in the general discussion of the potential benefits of public service reform that are then not met in any way by the specific commitments on offer.

It’s a common formulation for speeches from senior Labour figures on topics of totemic importance to Labour.

This is because giving specific commitments that achieve substantive change would inevitably hit Labour’s most vocal vested interests.

In the case of public service reform, it would entail transferring power that is currently in the hands of public service providers, so strongly represented within Labour, to service users.  There would be major changes to jobs in the public sector and most likely some job losses in certain areas.

This is the sharp end of what public service reform means.

Needless to say, any hint at this type of upheaval would cause chaos within Labour.

First would come the onslaught of twittervist outrage, swiftly followed by columnists and bloggers bemoaning any drift to what might be seen as Blairism and then concluded with barrages from unhappy union leaders decrying crypto-Tory policies.

The dwindling poll lead and growing deficits on leadership and economic competence mean Ed Miliband is not politically strong enough to pick a fight with the left, even if he wanted to.

Neither he, nor any senior Labour politician, will say a word about public service reform that could be construed as upsetting the status quo within the party.

Yes, there will be some more detail later this week on potential policies. The idea of devolving budgets for three to five years to local authorities and regional public sector organisations, in areas like health, to help foster a greater emphasis on prevention, has been widely trailed.

But this will do little in itself to change the structure of delivery or distribution of power between providers and users and so will not address the major issues that lie at the heart of public service reform.

When Ed Miliband became leader, there was much talk of abandoning the old Blairite ways of triangulation. Yet today, this is exactly how major policy announcements are framed.

But it is not a case of triangulating between left and right to occupy the centre-ground – now Labour are triangulating between the angry left and the political centre.

The result leaves Labour stranded to the left of the political mainstream. The priority is party management not public resonance. Is it any wonder that the British public are sceptical?

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut

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8 Responses to “The power of Labour’s left means Ed Miliband’s speech on public service reform has already been neutered”

  1. Henrik says:

    In an odd sort of way, this steady drift to defeat in 2015 will probably end up being good for the Labour Party. Whereas, actually, in retrospect, you guys should have had your civil war in 2010-11, sorting out, at least for this generation, whether you were going to be a pragmatic, electable – but social democratic and centrist party, or whether you were going to swing dramatically Leftwards, rendering you probably considerably less electable, but at least possessed of an ideology rather than a set of managerialist mantras, you elected to pause, to mark time, with a weak leadership and a whole raft of tripartite unreconciled tensions between the Blairite and Brownite wings and the unions.

    Never mind, water under the bridge. Assuming a loss in 2015 (dramatic indeed, if Scotland leaves the Union), the leader’s position will be utterly untenable. That’s going to be the time to get all that bad blood sorted and then try to craft a compelling narrative of why folk should actively seek to vote for you, rather than just, you know, not vote for the other guys.

  2. Robert says:

    Labour should be to the left of the mainstream! This is not the same as committing political suicide by going towards the hard left like in 1983.

  3. John ried says:

    Henrik, you do realise that Sam kowles. And co will wright up saying Ah but labours 3% ahead in the opinion polls we’re going to win,but without beg. Even more of a devils advocate, if you feel you know about Labours history. If you’re right,what normally happens is people like Ken Livignstone say when we swing towards the left and lose,is that we lost as it wasn’t left wing enough,

  4. Lee Butcher says:

    I think the idea that localising service provision saves money is something of an unproven assumption.

    Having now read Ed’s speech I can see at least one major flaw with his thinking. It is false to assume that local views on health (or any other) services are singular and settled, if only the professionals would recognise them and implement them. The truth is that there is competition between various types of patients and users over finite resources.

    Should Ed’s plans be introduced it is entirely likely that the newly empowered voice of patients will manifest itself in a chorus of contradictory requests that the local NHS cannot acquiesce to. At some point the professionals will have to pick (as they do now) who gets what and who goes without. That reality will not be changed by further localism but may make the system’s limitations more apparent to more people, potentially leading to greater dissatisfaction.

    Much of what we would discover via the public’s voice we know already. What constitutes good health care is not a mystery, the over-riding problem is finding sufficient resources and ensuring effective delivery if those resources are found (a big if that is unlikely to be met for many years). It is difficult to see how more cooks would improve this broth.

    It will also likely be the case that by introducing more and conflicting voices to the decision making process it will increase the complications in the system making it more difficult to arrive at decisions, impacting on long term budgeting decisions and introducing a system which may prove more costly to administrate and certainly prove politically difficult to manage.

    In principle Ed was right and no doubt popular, but I fear the practicalities could overwhelm his ideas, thus making them unworkable in practice.

  5. Jas says:

    The tragedy is that Brother Blair (and one suspects his acolytes) mixed up the aim of perfectly reasonable public sector reform with the totally repugnant public sector privatisation! This tended to re-inforce the falsehood pubic “bad”, private “good”, and even more dangerous that a somewhat artificially enforced (and no doubt to the diehards limited) competition would somehow bring benefits to the consumer/user. In practise this has introduced “contractivitis” and rendered the hapless customer/user with frightening fragmentation, unwelcome transaction costs and all kinds of non transparency under the guise of “commercial confidentiality”!
    There is no need for Ed to sanction this nonsense, reforms and efficiencies can be introduced with a healthy dose of “economic democracy” and social enterprise.

  6. John reid says:

    To its core vote who’d stuck by, over the wilderness years the things that we did in the first term were popularism, the minimum wage, hereditary peers, the London assembly welsh Scottish Northern Irish parliaments ,Macpheron report,and fighting off those who wanted us to seing to the left on trade union laws, a such we own a second landslide on a much smaller turnout, after the second term there was feeling from some we’d swing towards the left, David Blunkett was known for his left wing views when he was on Sheffield council and many were hoping he’d continue the work started by Jack straw on police reform ,but he turned out to be the most reactionary Home Secretary ever,

    Yet the 2005 election was sayng that Iraq over shadowed the second term can we have another so we get it right his time and 210 was saying the same but over the leadership struggle so, we begged for. A forth term, yet now we may have seen 8 or so right wingers leave such as Dan Hodges, but we’ve hardly won back many who left over Iraq or whatever,

  7. BenM says:

    Henrik is in for a shock in 2015.

  8. Tafia says:

    but we’ve hardly won back many who left over Iraq or whatever

    Yep. You won’t be getting my vote back or the vote of many people I know until you publicly condemn every single Labour MP who voted for that war and expel them from the party for life. Until you do that you are a totally amoral faux-apologetic sham.

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