Big and bold? How about hard-headed and realistic?

by Kevin Meagher

The most surprising thing about yesterday’s letter to the Guardian from a wide collection of august Labour thinkocrats is that there was nothing surprising in it at all.

Unfortunately, in setting out what Labour needs to do to address the “unprecedented challenges” of dealing with austerity, tacking inequality, sorting out climate change and fixing our clapped-out political system, the authors avoided making the hard choices that Ed Miliband and Labour’s frontbench are confronted with.

Granted, it was just a 250-word letter, but we’re now at the stage where anything less than hard, practical suggestions are pretty worthless. In urging Miliband to be less cautious they in turn were taciturn about what, specifically, he should do that he’s not already doing to rebalance our economy away from over-mighty finance, lift up those who are ground down by poverty and refloat our scuttled public services.

But the next Labour government has to make good on issues like these with little money to do it. The New Labour model of avoiding tough spending challenges – the ‘spend, don’t offend’ approach – has had it. This means Labour has now to be much clearer on prioritisation, which in turn means squeezing more out of existing public spending, which in turn means making very hard choices that some people – many in the party’s own ranks – will not like.

Yet in arguing for Labour to embark on “a transformative change in direction” and to earn “a mandate for such change” the signatories still frame their argument in the abstract.

Talk of “accountability of all powerful institutions, whether the state or market, to all stakeholders” could mean for want of a better phrase, regulatory capitalism, making markets work better with stronger disincentives and penalties for abusing market position. In seeking to make capitalism work more efficiently in the interests of consumers, will the same ambition be set for the public sector too?

While “devolution of state institutions, by giving away power and resources to our nations, regions, cities, localities and, where possible, directly to the people” is a welcome concept, we’ve seen so many false dawns when it comes to localism and double-devolution. Each of the organisations which signed yesterday’s letter is based in central London, which tells you something about Labour’s factory setting: Old or New, Labour’s instincts are top-down.

Reducing postcode lotteries in health provision means setting centrally-driven targets to ensure basic standards are universally met. If you want to make sure money is spent on children’s services, adult social care or any of the other key statutory functions carried out by local councils, then you ring-fence the money. Sixty per cent of council spending is now earmarked by Whitehall diktat, often, it has to be said, for laudable reasons.

But any meaningful approach to pushing down power means some hospitals will get better and some will get worse when left to the decisions and choices of local managers. It will also see well-led councils succeed and the poorly-run ones fail. This may still be the right thing to do in the name of devolving decision-making, but is Labour prepared for the fallout?

Then there’s the idea that “prevention of the causes of our social, environmental, physical and mental health problems, which requires a holistic and long-term approach to governance.” This is already pretty mainstream. Responsibility for public health has already switched from the NHS to local authorities and the integration of NHS and council services around adult care needs is underway.

In terms of environmental protection, this kind of preventative investment usually requires spending on expensive contingency measures like flood defences which are low-yield when it comes to electoral payback.

Meanwhile, the suggestion that there should be “co-production of public services by workers, users and citizens, to make them more responsive and efficient” is a bit of a cop-put. There’s a nice idea that the state can be reshaped into a series of workers’ co-operatives. It’s illusory. The real challenge is to get the state’s running costs down to free up cash for the frontline, ensuring a much tighter focus on outputs and outcomes rather than on inputs (think how many times New Labour ministers talked about 80,000 more nurses and the like). As we have seen, shroud-waving about falling police numbers has not seen an increase in crime.

Alas, “empowerment of everybody, so they are equipped with the resources (time, money, support) to enable them to play a full role as active citizens” is so vacuous that it’s clearly a filler, to pad the letter out to make up five key principles.

The letter is right, though, that the “the days of politicians doing things ‘to people’ are over.” The era of commissioning government rather than the state running everything is indeed a big change, but the letter doesn’t follow through with the inexorable logic that there will be more outsourcing, charity and faith group involvement, payment by results, and, yes, privatisation. Is Labour really going to spend a fortune it doesn’t have renationalising the railways? Really?

Labour needs to break out of the habit of woolly thinking or it risks sowing the seeds that will destroy Ed Miliband’s government. A lack of hard-headed thinking now will doom the next Labour government. The casual radicalism of the 1974 manifesto, with its pledge to enact a “fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families” was abandoned after just two years when IMF austerity measures had to be imposed by Jim Callaghan’s government. Idealism gave way to realpolitik which led to the betrayal narrative taking hold and the near-destruction of the party in the early 1980s.

Hard choices and harder ministers are needed to govern effectively after May 2015. Given austerity is going to be a fact of life for much of the next Labour government, as Fraser Nelson sets out, small state socialism may sound less ambitious, but it is still a prize worth pursuing if Labour ministers are prepared to prioritise effectively.

What was genuinely new in the letter – and has been little commented on so far – is the recognition that the age of inconclusive election results may be upon us and the concept of a Labour government may even be academic. The letter talks of the need for a Labour or “Labour-led” government. But why so coy? This means a coalition with Nick Clegg. Labour has to be clear that this is a likely outcome in 14 months’ time. Indeed, if it does come to pass, Labour should snatch the opportunity with both hands. Better that than five more years of watching him propping up David Cameron.

If the intention of the signatories is to encourage Ed Miliband to think bigger and bolder and be clearer about the challenges ahead and what he intends to do about them, then, dare I say it, the same applies to them too.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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6 Responses to “Big and bold? How about hard-headed and realistic?”

  1. swatantra says:

    Its unfortunate that many in Labour are blinkered and unimaginative and think that ‘Nationalisation’ and State Delivered Services are the only answer. They are not. There are other solutions and models which actually involve ordinary people in the providing the service for themselves.
    So COMPASS and the FABIANS are to be congratulated in opening up the debate and empowering ordinary people. Labour should be listening to Think Tanks and Pressure Groups because they think outside the box. Labour’s Policy Making Forums don’t because as has been said before they only see Nationalisation and State Control as the only solutions. For Rail and Energy and Health a co-ordinated National Strategy does work, but in other areas it does’t.

  2. Tafia says:

    This is a fair observation:-

  3. Tafia says:

    I don’t know whether this has got through or not because I keep getting 404 errors, but this is a fair observation:

  4. John reid says:

    2 very small reasons that crime has fallen,is scrapping targets,and not caring for clear up rates, when labour pushed this cops would turn up see the fallout of a rowdy exit from a Pub, nick them all give them breach of the peace cautions, and it looked like police solve a crime,also getting crime figures down serious crimes are marked as less seruiosly than they are, IE robbery regarded assault and theft, A padlock kicked off a door is called criminal damage not attempted burglary.

    As Safer neighbourhood teams have gone, when there no one around to watch a fight, or an old garden wall collapses and it’s not witnessed, it can’t be recorded as a crime due to fighting,but wear and tear,
    The cuts in police has meant that the police are now pressurised to have higher clear up rates and massage figures, imagine every tourist who took a Flick knife through a X ray machine at a museum, was arrested, then the security guard who sees it now has a reported a crime, and museums become crime spot areas, but police solve a crime,clear up rates are up, and massaged crime figures make them look good.

    The recession, also massively cut anti social crime as people couldn’t go our binge drinking,

    Getting NHS waiting list down is done by seeing if there’s 4 operations that take 10 minutes, and one that takes 4 hours, doing the 4 operations that take 10 mins, and the person who needs the serious operation, has to wait,and the NHS waiting figures fall.

  5. Tafia says:

    Labour needs to break out of the habit of woolly thinking

    Until it stops meaningless childish and grossly irritating slogans – ‘cost of living crisis’, better together, stakeholder, tough in crime, tough on the causes of crime’ etc etc retch retch. then it has no chance.

    It also needs to decide what it is – it pretends to be the party of the working class one minute them the party of the aspirational middle class next.

    People don’t like confusion – one position, one message and bollocks to the rest is what people like.

    THey also forget that only about a third of the workforce earn the average wage or above it. To two thirds of the workforce the average wage is a sod of a lot of money and 30 grand is an absolute fortune. When they understand that, they will learn how insulting it is to the bulk of the workforce to make out people on the average wage are somehow struggling. And people don’t listen to or vote for politicians that insult therm (or think they know more, or think they are superior).

    Look at that fool Ed Balls – sending out the budget response via twatter. Exactly how many of what he considers Labour’s core vote can be bothered to read that via twatter.

    You want to beat the tories? Start attacking them over everything. Every last little thing. Be different and stop agreeing with what they say. Start being confrontational.

    People vote for change. Labour is to similar to the tories therefore there is no change to vote for.

    Labour needs to get both it’s feet firmly on the ground and firmly in one camp. Then it will have a message and then it can concentrate on selling it’s message. Until then it’s just a spoilt bastards club, just like the tories.

  6. John Reid says:

    As well as manipulating crime figures.police now are manipulating stop and Search figures.

    Getting stop search figures down, the police are doing things like giving those who they feel by their look may have drugs and are acting rowdy,anti social dispersal orders, telling them they’ve got 2 minutes to get out of the town centre, then if they don’t leave in time, arrest them and search ,them once they’ve been arrested, that way, the stop search figures go down, persuade the ones they’ve arrested for breach of the peace,to accept a caution, then,ethers no wrongful arrest, or negative outcome for stop and search

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