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
Daily Mail
Show Hide image

Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle