An open letter to Labour's new shadow education and health secretaries

Labour has too often looked as if it is simply the defender of the status quo and vested interests.

Dear Stephen and Andy,

Since the general election, Labour has played a largely reactive role on public service reform, as the Coalition has made most of the political running. To some extent this is understandable: Labour is no longer in charge of the reform agenda and needs time to rethink what it got right and where it went wrong during its 13 years in government.

However, Labour's first year in Opposition has also been characterised by a further weakening of its intellectual and political leadership on public services. From the late 1990s to the mid-2000s Labour led the debate on improving the NHS and raising educational standards. Since then, it has largely run out of ideological steam and political energy. Your task - as the new lead Shadow Ministers for Education and Health - is to recapture the spirit, political ambition and intellectual creativity of the best Labour reformism on public services.

Whilst you will surely want to oppose misconceived Coalition reforms, you cannot be left having little to say on the future shape of the nation's public services. Lacking in alternative proposals for reform Labour has too often ended up looking like it is simply the defender of the status quo and professional vested interests.

Reform will be critical to improving services simply because there will be little if any new money to spend after 2015: even after the structural deficit has been reduced, long term demographic trends will continue to put huge pressure on the public finances. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that Britain will need to spend around 5 per cent more of our GDP every year just on meeting the costs of caring for an ageing population by 2060. This will heavily constrain spending in other areas and means that if Labour wants to invest in new priorities, such as childcare and early years' education, it will have to find ways of making mainstream services like the NHS, schooling and the police much more efficient and effective.

You also need to think through what the public service landscape will look like in 2015. It will be impossible in practical terms, as well as undesirable, simply to reverse everything the Coalition has done.

Overall Labour should position itself clearly as on the side of the citizen, a champion for parents, patients and victims of crime, willing to use a judicious mix of government pressure and bottom up user empowerment to drive improvements in services. The party should also be more sensitive than it was in government to the need to design public services that create spaces for us to come together as citizens and work collaboratively to achieve mutual ends.

With that in mind, you should consider the following ideas in your respective portfolios.

Education

Michael Gove is determined that by 2015, the majority of secondary schools will be academies and there will be hundreds of new free schools. Once free schools have been established they are likely to be popular with parents and it is inconceivable that a future Labour government would abolish them. Likewise, Labour created the academy school model and these have greatly improved educational attainment in disadvantaged areas. A future Labour government would want to build on that model, while retaining the school autonomy that is at its heart.

However, Michael Gove is obsessed with numbers and categories of schools rather than thinking through clearly the balance between school freedoms and the need for local and national coordination and accountability. Hundreds of schools are now funded and commissioned directly by the Secretary of State. It is truly Napoleonic. Currently if an academy were to underperform Michael Gove would personally have to intervene. This is a crazy way of holding schools to account; we urgently need a new model of local accountability for schools.

You should therefore support the creation of powerful new Schools Commissioners at the local level, starting in the big cities where they would be appointed by the new city mayors. School Commissioners should not be involved in managing schools, but instead act as local champions for standards, with control over admissions and other local coordination functions, and the power to replace a school's management where it is failing to improve standards.

Despite recent budget cuts, the Pupil Premium offers a transparent way of ensuring that more funding goes to disadvantaged children. You should insist that all of this money is spent on the disadvantaged children for whom it is intended. Every child eligible for free schools meals should have a Pupil Premium Entitlement, which would guarantee that the pupil premium will be spent on one- to-one tuition or enrichment activities for those children that need them. Parents could even be given the ability to spend the money on extra private tuition outside the school - something currently only available to wealthier families.

If we want to ensure that schools focus on helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds we need to reform school league tables. Currently they incentivise schools to focus on children on the C/D borderline because that is what determines their league table position. Michael Gove's new E- Bacc, which is an accountability tool rather than a curriculum reform, means they will now focus on those children who are likely to do well in traditional academic subjects. This should be replaced by a School Report Card, as exists in New York City, which gives each school a single score but one based on a wider range of measures of performance, including the attainment of poorer children.

All of the international evidence demonstrates that improving the quality of teaching is crucial to improving standards in our schools. The government has recognised this but has focused excessively on teachers' academic qualifications and going back to traditional forms of classroom authority. We need to focus more on rigorously assessing quality at the early stages to remove poor teachers, on-going professional development, peer review and regular re-licensing.

Other areas need greater stability: there has been far too much tinkering with the curriculum and we need a political consensus around the future of 14-19 education, in particular with regard to vocational routes which have been plagued by institutional instability.

Finally, Labour should focus additional investment on introducing a universal and high quality system of under-5's provision. This is a 'win win' in policy terms: all the evidence shows that early years' education is crucial for improving the learning and development of children from disadvantaged families, whilst affordable child care helps women into the labour market, thus raising family incomes, reducing child poverty and expanding the tax base.

Health

The coalition's health reforms are misconceived, driven by an ideological commitment to markets. But Labour needs its own strategy for improving efficiency, innovation and productivity in the NHS, while retaining it as an integrated publicly owned service. The rising costs of treatment and of caring for an ageing population will put huge financial pressure on the NHS over the long term.

Labour should always be prepared to do what works in the interests of patients. The party is right to oppose the ideological imposition of market competition across the health service. But Labour should be pragmatic about using private or third sector providers in areas where they can increase capacity or improve quality and efficiency of provision.

Whereas the government has focused on empowering professionals, in particular GPs, Labour should directly empower patients to create a more personalised and responsive service. More and more people are living for decades with chronic conditions such as diabetes, arthritis and hypertension. These patients should be offered personal budgets so that they have greater control over their own long term care. Medical professionals will be sceptical that people can make the right choices about their own care: Labour faced down similar concerns with direct payments in social care and was right to do so.

You should avoid the chaos of further top down reorganisations of the NHS and therefore retain the basic organisational architecture of clinical commissioning groups and local health and well being boards. However, there is still a Chinese wall between health and social care despite the fact that both are caring for the same population of people. You should set out plans for joint commissioning and planning of health and social care provision at the local level. This also means looking at re-skilling and integrating much more effectively the health and social care workforce.

You should be in favour of providing better quality health and social care in the home and in community settings. The provision of integrated health and social care services is an area ripe for the development of new mutually owned and managed organisations, controlled directly by service users and their families. A lightly regulated social care market dominated by a small number of too-big-to-fail providers is crying out for reform.

In a tight financial context, you will also need to think hard about how to improve productivity in the NHS. This will involve changing ways of working, re-thinking roles and careers, stronger performance management and fostering a culture of continuous professional development.

An approach such as this across both your portfolios will enable you to get back into public service debates. Labour should be committed to sustaining and improving high quality universal services. It should be on the side of the parent and the patient and pragmatic about the means of providing them with the best possible service. Crucially Labour needs to develop a clear strategy about how it would deliver better services without increased spending. That era is behind us. Without being clear about this, Labour will struggle to deliver a sustainable social democratic agenda if it returns to power.

Yours sincerely,

Rick

Rick Muir is the Associate Director for Public Service Refrom (IPPR)

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