Pragmatic Radicalism: big ideas from Labour's next generation

A bigger state isn't necessarily a better state, argues Mike Harris.

Under Gordon Brown the Labour party went through an intellectual desert in which radicalism of any shade was viewed as highly suspect.

While the Tories took big ideas to the core of their mission - especially Phillip Blond's Big Society (demolished in the London Review of Books here) - Labour went into the last election with an ideology so narrow and statist we may as well have used Hobbes's Leviathan as our manifesto. The public viewed us as the 'big state' party.

As Josie Cluer, John Denham's former special adviser, says:

During 2010, Labour sometimes sounded like we thought all that mattered in public services was increased investment. To any question raised about quality or poor service, every Labour minister and activist had been taught to trot out the real terms increase in spending on key public services since 1997. We resorted to cheap political point-scoring by deploying "Tory cuts vs Labour spending" dividing lines. In fact, they were more damaging to us than our opponents.

In opposition, Labour is undergoing an intellectual renaissance. Sadly, much of it seems to be replaying the Blair/Brown/left dialogues of the past. Even if it isn't, the blinkered media (many of whom made their careers upon spreading each camp's smears) want it to be.

Pragmatic Radicalism, a series of snappy articles by Labour's next generation, attacks the aridity of the past, and attempts to break out from the Blair/Brown rut we found ourselves in.

Luciana Berger MP launches the project tomorrow in committee room 12 of the House of Commons alongside Lord (Stewart) Wood, Ed Miliband's strategic adviser, and the editor John Slinger, who if there is any justice ought to be in the next intake of Labour MPs.

The articles are diverse. Will Straw and Nick Anstead want reform of the party itself. In a brave move they embrace the offer in the coalition agreement to fund open primaries. Amanda Ramsay wants a one per cent football transfer tax to fund school playing fields. Larry Smith wants to 'unsqueeze the middle' with targeted VAT cuts.

One common theme is that the last Labour government felt that more state was better state. Josie Cluer writes: It's a common doorstep conversation: why should I pay my taxes and work hardm when others milk the system?" She adds:

It's the little things. Even though there are five million people on waiting lists for social housing, some people still rent out their council homes... those responsible for the 12.6 million missed GP appointments and the 4.3 million missed nurse appointments are not just wasting millions of pounds, they're preventing people who really need healthcare from getting it...

The more often principles of fairness are undermined, the weaker public support for public services becomes.

It's not just that Labour's bigger state often failed the fairness test; it was given too many powers. I call for the rebirth of liberal Labour - whose heyday under John Smith saw Labour call for the European Convention on Human Rights 'brought home' into British law.

In a lecture to Charter 88 in 1993 he said: "I want to see a fundamental shift in balance of power between the citizen and the state - a shift away from an overpowering state to a citizens' democracy where people have rights and powers."

Smith's 'rights and powers' is so much more uplifting than Blair's 'rights and responsibilities'. Key to a reborn liberal Labour is recognising the importance of the liberal tradition in our party's history - a history that former Stalinist John Reid and David Blunkett did their best to bury. It's a history we need to reconnect with in order to begin winning elections again:

Labour is now perceived as the big state party. Our reckless disregard for the personal sphere lost us 5 million votes between 1997 and 2010: we were the bossy party.

To recognise this history, Labour should call for a Bill of Rights that creates a home-grown privacy law, protects free speech and demarks the boundaries of state intrusion.

Admittedly, in otherwise thought-provoking articles in the collection, the Pavlovian impulse to make cheap points about the Tories sometimes obscures sounder criticisms.

In Tom Tabori's article on housing he outlines some depressing statistics: 1.5 million adults in the UK live in homes with overcrowded conditions; a quarter of overcrowded families have children sleeping in living or dining rooms; the Government classes 250,000 social homes as overcrowded. Yet according to the Government, five million people are still stuck on waiting lists.

Labour failed on social housing, but Tabori is too polite to say so. I would argue that without the ability to criticism the last Labour government, whose record on housing was patchy at best, we're unable to discover our blind spots.

It's been a good seven days for Ed Miliband. He took on the largest media owner in the country - and won. If he is prepared to listen to his vocal membership, Labour has a manifesto in waiting: both pragmatic and radical. The disastrous 2010 election must not be repeated. Never again should 'big' ideas be taken so lightly.

Mike Harris is a Labour councillor in Lewisham Central and Head of Advocacy at free speech organisation Index on Censorship. He tweets: @Cllr_MikeHarris

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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

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