Echoes of Tony Blair in Cameron’s “big society”, but . . .

. . . at least he has a Big Idea and his pet philosophy is to be turned into action plans for Whiteh

After two months of doom and gloom from the coalition, David Cameron has today tried to give voters something to smile about. His invitation to join the government of Britain that he used during the election campaign is now to be turned into a programme of action, or structural reform plans, for every Whitehall department.

Cameron doesn't like systems of bureaucratic accountability, nor targets, nor performance indicators. So instead of targets, his structural reform plans will include specific deadlines for specific action. Sounds like a target to me!

I wonder what happens when a deadline for action doesn't get met? Apparently, these will bring democratic accountability and create the structures that put people in charge. So if the government fails to meet its specific deadlines, we can vote it out? Doesn't sound so radical when you put it like that.

Maybe senior civil servants will be sacked? Without performance indicators, maybe pigs will fly.

Cameron's got a big idea and he's proud of it. Having outlined plans to cut back the state in the name of deficit reduction, he now sees the space for the "big society" to blossom. Today he has shown that his pre-election "heir to Blair" positioning is here to stay, as he argues in favour of competition between organisations providing public services because it's the richest who can opt out while the poorest have to take what they are given. Choice is back.

Cameron even lays claim to Blair's record, saying that the academies are transforming education results and foundation hospitals are bringing the very best care to the people who need it most. Yet this is the reform agenda that Ed Balls has said led to the impression that Labour was against hard-working public servants. Lest we forget Blair's forces of conservatism speech and the wreckers of reform briefings.

More importantly, Cameron's call for more independence and more freedom as an automatic mechanism for raising standards across the board rewrites the history of Labour's second term, a time when public spending and capital investment were rising year on year. New Labour at its best was always a combination of investment and reform. Building Schools for the Future was an investment programme that complemented academy freedoms and both were used by the education department to negotiate change with local authorities.

The big political challenge during deficit reduction is to articulate a credible reform agenda that can operate in an age of austerity. Today, Cameron didn't produce a list of private and third-sector suppliers who have agreed to provide public services on a payment-by-results basis. That was the test set for Blair when he announced the academies programme.

And perhaps most importantly, if Cameron is going to design the necessity of provider failure in to his competitive system, what happens to the poor -- who can't opt out -- when the services they rely on inevitably fail?

This agenda is as important for Labour's leadership candidates to get to grips with as the issue of deficit reduction, or electoral reform. These three debates look like they will define politics over the next year. And in an age of new politics, Labour's new leader will need something new to say about how New Labour has moved on.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Why Labour's rise could threaten Nicola Sturgeon's independence dream

As the First Minister shelves plans for a second vote, does she join the list of politicians who bet on an anti-Brexit dividend that failed to materialise?

The nights are getting longer, and so are generations. The independence referendum sequel will happen after, not before the Brexit process is complete, Nicola Sturgeon announced yesterday.

It means that Scottish Remainers will not have the opportunity to seamlessly move from being part of a United Kingdom in the European Union to an independent Scotland in the European Union. Because of the ongoing drama surrounding Theresa May, we've lost sight of what a bad night the SNP had on 8 June. Not just because they lost 21 of the 56 seats they were defending, including that of their leader in Westminster, Angus Robertson, and their former leader, Alex Salmond. They also have no truly safe seats left – having gone from the average SNP MP sitting on a majority of more than 10,000 to an average of just 2,521.

As Sturgeon conceded in her statement, there is an element of referendum fatigue in Scotland, which contributed to the loss. Does she now join the list of politicians – Tim Farron being one, and Owen Smith the other – who bet on an anti-Brexit dividend that failed to materialise?

I'm not so sure. Of all the shocks on election night, what happened to the SNP was in many ways the least surprising and most long-advertised. We knew from the 2016 Holyrood elections – before the SNP had committed to a referendum by March 2019 – that No voters were getting better at voting tactically to defeat the SNP, which was helping all the Unionist parties outperform their vote share. We saw that in the local elections earlier this year, too. We knew, too, that the biggest beneficiaries of that shift were the Scottish Conservatives.

So in many ways, what happened at the election was part of a bigger trend that Sturgeon was betting on a wave of anger at the Brexit vote. If we get a bad Brexit deal, or worse, no deal at all, then it may turn out that Sturgeon's problem was simply that this election came a little too early.

The bigger problem for the Yes side isn't what happened to the SNP's MPs – they can undo that with a strong showing at the Holyrood elections in 2021 or at Westminster in 2022. The big problem is what happened to the Labour Party across the United Kingdom.

One of Better Together's big advantages in 2014 is that, regardless of whether you voted for the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats or the Labour Party, if you believed the polls, you had a pretty reasonable expectation that your type of politics would be represented in the government of Britain sometime soon.

For the last two years, the polls, local elections and by-elections have all suggested that the only people in Scotland who could have that expectation were Conservatives. Bluntly: the day after the local elections, Labour and the Liberal Democrats looked to be decades from power, and the best way to get a centre-left government looked to be a Yes vote. The day after the general election, both parties could hope to be in government within six months.

As Tommy Sheppard, the SNP MP for Edinburgh East, observed in a smart column for the Herald after the election, one of the reasons why the SNP lost votes was that Corbyn's manifesto took some of the optimistic vote that they gobbled up in 2014 and 2015.

And while Brexit may yet sour enough to make Nicola Sturgeon's second referendum more appealing on that ground, the transformation in Labour's position over the course of the election campaign is a much bigger problem for the SNP.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496