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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder