Labour would reform the state, not just rebuild it

Tight budgets will demand imagination and innovation in the way public services are run.

Against a background of austerity and pessimism, it is Labour’s duty to set out a vision for Britain’s future which is both optimistic and hard headed. As Ed Miliband has said it is our One Nation mission is to tilt the balance from despair to hope.

Optimism is needed to counter the Tories’ divided, inward-looking version of Britain. But Labour must also be hard headed because the country will take time to change. Tight financial constraints will require tough choices. As some budgets are increased to reflect our priorities others will have to be scaled back. These “switch spends” will not be an option but a necessity.

The road will not be easy. One Nation Labour is a decade’s commitment to national renewal. It offers a new contract for Britain’s future, committing a Labour Government to support ambition, fairness and strong communities. We are under no illusion that to win two successive elections we will have to demonstrate our progressive passion can deliver real change for families in an era where there is less money around. 

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Ed Miliband has led the debate on the need for big changes to the economy. He and the shadow cabinet also know that One Nation Britain will require big changes to the state, which, by 2015, will have been battered by cuts and subjected to an ideological onslaught on its value and integrity. Our vision for a new state is not about simply repairing the damage, recreating the post war state or replicating the state we built between 1997 and 2010. It will reflect both financial limits and the challenges of a changing world. Labour knows both that an active, effective state is an essential force for good   but that it should never be suffocating, overcentralised, undermine autonomy or diminish the importance of non-state factors in building the good society. That is why we will reduce the role of the state where appropriate and strengthen it where necessary.

This article is primarily about the states place in our one nation story about national renewal, a new social contract, public service improvement and a new democratic engagement between Government and citizen. I recognise a major priority for the state is always to protect the security of its citizens. I have no doubt this will rightly be the focus of other peoples contributions to the debate about a new state.

A One Nation approach recognises that both unconstrained markets and an over-bureaucratic state can frustrate people, holding them back from the lives they want to lead. All MPs surgeries include often vulnerable individuals who receive poor treatment at the hands of one public institution or another. So tackling inequality is about improving life chances and living standards but also requires us also to ensure people irrespective of status are treated with respect in their interactions with the state.

Labour’s vision of a new state must signal our commitment to a new engagement between government and citizen. The story we tell about the One Nation Britain we want to nurture recognises both the virtues and the limits of the state. As Jon Cruddas has said, people’s lives are shaped by relationships with family, colleagues, friends and community networks focused around leisure pursuits, the voluntary sector, faith and community identity.

The NHS, schools, policing, council services will always be vital, but our quality of life is heavily dependent on these non-state relationships. So the state needs to achieve the right balance between supporting these positive relationships and networks without seeking to replace or undermine them. Cameron’s Big Society did not fail because the public didn’t want a greater voice in shaping their own neighbourhoods and services. It failed because of deep rooted cynicism about Tories who claimed to champion active communities while cutting the voluntary sector, failed to appreciate the enabling role the state can play and were enacting policies that corrode the foundations of strong communities.

By the end of our period in government, Labour’s failure to talk about family and community left the impression that we saw Britain’s future only through the prism of state and market. One Nation Labour believes our future success depends on our capacity to harness the best of an active state, aspirational individuals, strong families and community networks supported by a vibrant private sector. A healthy life usually achieves the right balance between independence and interdependence.

A new "Rights and Duties" social contract will define the relationship between state and citizen. Rules and expectations that are explicit about both government’s responsibilities and the duty of citizens to make a positive contribution related to their ability and means. What does that mean? A tough and fair welfare system with a greater correlation between what people contribute and what they should expect in return while recognising that vulnerable people must always be treated with dignity and compassion. This includes a compulsory jobs guarantee for the long term and young unemployed and a clear requirement to take work except in cases of sickness or serious disability; rewards and incentives for wealth creators who innovate and invest for the long term with a clear expectation that businesses will contribute their fair share in taxes and decent pay; a living wage that will reduce the numbers dependent on the state for their income; a cap on non-EU immigration with immigrants supported to integrate, including a requirement to learn English; neighbourhood policing with the powers to enforce a zero tolerance approach to anti-social behaviour. The vast majority of British people are fair-minded, tolerant and generous but they want to be sure their government  will be tough in ensuring that the system is fair and not abused by their fellow citizens.  

Labour will need to undo the damage this government is doing to public services but we will also set out our own radical programme for change. When we left office, NHS waiting times and crime were at record low levels. Schools were improving with disproportionate progress being made in deprived communities. This didn’t happen by chance but through a combination of investment and reform. Many of the reforms were necessary and effective but it is also important to acknowledge that some top-down targets led to unintended consequences and sapped the morale of staff, crowding out innovation and creativity.

One Nation public services means a commitment to minimising the post code lottery with core entitlements and standards. It means striving to bring up the levels of the worse to those of the best in every community. Service improvement is essential to meet public expectations, reduce inequality, enable us to do more with less and cope with the demographic challenge of an ageing society.

This should not be about perpetual organisational upheaval but improving the quality and efficiency of the frontline. National standards, expressed in terms of entitlements, would be coupled with support for local delivery and innovation, transparent measures of performance, tough new value-for-money duties and audits, more empowered and more accountable staff at all levels, and a relentless focus on world class leadership. The remuneration of public service managers and executives should be subject to much greater transparency and scrutiny. Public service changes should not be imposed top down but co-designed with staff and citizens.

New private sector provision would be supported where state provision has repeatedly failed or is unable to meet needs and where partnerships between public and private can improve outcomes. But this has to be within a framework of public accountability and high ethical standards. It is one tool in the locker, not the answer in all times and places.

In the NHS and education, the Tories have focused on giving power to the providers of services. One Nation Labour will give more influence and control to patients and parents. In my view choice is neither a panacea nor a realistic option in many circumstances. But it is crucial to give people a personalised - not a “conveyor belt” - service, with greater control for individuals and families over decisions about their lives together with a greater stake in collective community provision.

It was a Labour Government that promoted personal care budgets, neighbourhood based budgets and a membership model for NHS foundation trusts. An increasing number of Labour councils are introducing new cooperative models of public service organisation. We will continue to be the public service pioneers and innovators. Whitehall must be reformed to remove the policy and financial silos which lead to poor procurement and undermine integrated frontline service delivery and place-based budgeting. More power and resources should be devolved to local councils and city regions in return for greater voluntary sector, community and business participation.

If we are to make inroads with those families who continue to present the most challenges to their communities we must change an approach which involves numerous agencies that fail collectively to achieve any real change. Instead, each family  should have one named lead professional who has control of a pooled budget and an agreed contract focused on opportunities and responsibilities. This would be both more efficient and more likely to reduce social exclusion on a long term basis.

Within a framework of clear national standards, our approach to service delivery will be to redistribute power from Westminster and Whitehall to local statutory and voluntary organisation, communities and citizens. Our aim must be to ensure that the vast majority who rely on the state for education, health and social care have access to the same quality and also the same level of control   as those who can afford to buy the best private provision.

As the failure of the coalition’s economic policies has demonstrated there will be no prospect of a fairer, more united country without dynamic businesses generating jobs and growth. That is why Chuka Umunna is working with business to identify how the state can develop an active industrial strategy, supporting UK plc to compete in the global market. This is something we came late to in government. It should have been an integral part of our policy from the beginning. Government must play a leading role in supporting viable businesses of all sizes to start, grow and scale up by ensuring Britain has the infrastructure, skills and capacity to innovate. We should not apologise for providing targeted support to sectors which give UK plc competitive advantage – new manufacturing and the green economy, for example. Nor should we be timid about the radical changes in skillset and mindset which will be required to create a new entrepeneurial Whitehall with the capacity to drive an active industrial strategy in partnership with business.

Most of all, as Ed Miliband has said, the economic model which is predicated on wealth and opportunity trickling down from a few at the top has been discredited. An active industrial strategy must ensure the economy delivers for the working people who help to create the wealth. Britain’s recovery will be built by the many not by relying on a few at the top.

A new state must also adopt a radically different way of interacting with citizens. “Real Time Democracy” requires new kinds of engagement, accountability and participation. The same level of effort made by parties to connect with the electorate during election campaigns should be devoted to engaging with citizens by a government throughout its term in office. Labour wants to consider a number of new ways of making this happen, harnessing the power of social media. In opposition, Labour’s Peoples’ Policy Forum and Your Britain website have already gone a long way in opening up the party’s policymaking process. Some potential ideas for an incoming Labour Government could include: opening up decision-making in a way that does not simply share the outcome with the electorate but includes the range of options under consideration; senior officials being expected to create advisory boards of frontline experts, including service providers and users; fewer Whitehall “consultations” and more citizen juries; public services having a duty to publish accounts and create systems of external scrutiny. The new state must have the explicit goal of improving public confidence and trust in the political process.

If we are to build an ambitious, fair and proud Britain we must reject those who want to pose a bogus choice between big and small state. The Tories are hell bent on undermining public confidence in the capability of government. By the time we left office it sometimes appeared that we believed the state alone could resolve our economic and social challenges. The truth is that building One Nation in the context of a shrinking interdependent world and where we are truly all in it together will require the best of an active state, strong families, ambitious individuals, dynamic wealth creators, a vibrant civil society and empowered communities. It is getting the support and incentives right to give people a real stake in our national renewal which will determine our nation’s future destiny. That is how Labour will rebuild Britain.

Ivan Lewis is the MP for Bury South

Photograph: Getty Images
ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories