How Labour can redefine the public sector debate

Reform will get nowhere if it starts and ends with confrontation with the workforce.

The public sector now looks set for months of bitter confrontation between the government and the unions. The doctors have announced a day of industrial action  -  their first in more than 40 years. Meanwhile teachers are set to strike in the autumn over changes to pensions.  Earlier in May tens of thousands of public sector workers including police and prison officers, lecturers and civil servants took part in a day of action and union leaders have warned of more to come.  It is clear that the mood among public sector workers is one of anger – and in their fight against the coalition’s programme of cuts and reforms the unions are looking to Labour for strong, unequivocal backing. 

How should the Labour leadership respond?  According to the former cabinet minister, Charles Clarke in a new article for IPPR’s journal Juncture, by adopting its own radical reform strategy for  public services. Clarke's prospectus is bold and much of it controversial: he calls for tight control over pay and spending, greater hypothecation of tax and an extension of user charging and competition.  He acknowledges that many of these reforms are unlikely to win the support of the industrial wing of the labour movement but argues that Labour shouldn’t allow "vested interests, even including some of its own members and supporters" to stand in the way of change. He does however offer new forms of institutional dialogue with unions and professional bodies to get agreement over areas such skills development, pensions and working arrangements.

Clarke is right that a future Labour government would have to make tough decisions. This is underlined in a new briefing published by IPPR today in conjunction with the CBI. The report highlights the fact that long-term trends, especially an ageing population, will increase demand on public services, while reducing future tax revenues.  The analysis is based on projections from the Office for Budget Responsibility showing how Britain’s budget balance is likely to move from a surplus of 1.3 per cent of GDP in 2015-16 to a deficit of 0.6 per cent of GDP in 2030-31 and then to 3.2 per cent of GDP in 2060-61: a deterioration of 4.5 per cent of GDP or £66 billion in today’s terms. 

These pressures are not unmanageable, still less an excuse for cutting back on providing high quality universal services. But they mean that any future government will have to make very difficult choices. The way forward is to create a broader, more sustainable tax base, take big strategic decisions about which services we as a country should prioritise and get serious about raising public sector productivity over the long term.

In terms of prioritisation we should be investing in universal affordable childcare: the success of the Nordic countries shows that this has massive long term pay offs in terms of reducing educational inequalities, as well as helping to expand the tax base by raising the female employment rate. In short, investment in early years is a massive win/win. But if we put our eggs in that basket it means that other services will face a tighter funding settlement over the long term.

That brings us to productivity. The electoral success of New Labour was built on the idea that social justice and economic efficiency could go hand in hand. It is my contention that the success of a future Labour government would depend on making public service productivity and the values of social justice, association and democratic empowerment go hand in hand.  

Lets be clear: being serious about productivity means being hard headed about reducing costs. In particular that means looking at where new technology can deliver services in a less labour intensive way. For example, new technologies in health mean that people will be able to monitor their own conditions much more actively without the need to consult a doctor. In another example, increasingly universities in the United States are opening up their degrees to the public by allowing online access to teaching material.  This could radically transform the nature of a university education by allowing wider access at lower cost. 

But delivering better value also requires the engagement and enthusiasm of those who deliver our public services day to day.  An agenda that seeks to marry the values of cooperation and employee participation to the need to improve efficiency has the potential to secure the buy-in of public service professionals. 

For example, could staff be rewarded by collective bonuses when a service improves? Or for example could we create new forms of not for profit service delivery organisation in which staff and users are jointly in control? The prospect that social care users could mutualise their personal budgets to create community led care providers is an enticing one. 

Of course user and producer interests will still clash and it is for that reason that we need robust forms of accountability in public services. We should also be realistic: it will be impossible to achieve agreement on every reform. And Clarke is right that before working out how it can better engage staff in the process Labour will need to be much clearer than it has been about its overall strategic approach to reform and the kind of changes that are necessary.  But it is important to remember that reform will get nowhere if it starts and ends with confrontation with the workforce.

Rick Muir is IPPR's associate director for public service reform

A future Labour government would have to make tough decisions on funding. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation

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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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