Ambulances are seen at the Accident and Emergency department of St. Thomas' Hospital in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour's plan to "declutter" public services is part of true fiscal responsibility

Chris Leslie's pledge to avoid the wasteful short-termism of the coalition is a good place to start. But far tougher choices lie ahead.

After being near-silent on the issue of public service reform since 2010, Labour has recently had much more to say on the subject, with speeches from Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas promising radical devolution and a restructuring of services around users. In an age when there is less money around (NB: not "no money"), this approach is not just desirable but essential. As Cruddas, the party’s policy review co-ordinator, warned in his speech on "one nation statecraft" last June, "Labour will inherit a state that in many areas has reached the limit of its capacity to cut without transformational change to the system."  

Today, in his first major speech since becoming shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Chris Leslie has taken up the theme by promising to "declutter" services in order to improve both user outcomes and to deliver savings. In his address to the Social Market Foundation, he argued that it is those on the centre-left, as the champions of a social democratic state, who have a duty to prove that they are fiscally responsible. The belief that the public sector is invariably wasteful gives the right the licence they need to permanently roll back services. He said: 

It is a long-standing project of some on the right of politics to erode trust and confidence in taxpayer-funded service provision, so that we revert instead to a society where individuals insure against their own health, education or welfare. Implying that effective budget management is anathema to the public realm is a well-trodden path on the journey of those wishing to shrink the state.

For those of us who believe that we achieve more as a society by acting together in cooperation, pooling our resources and delivering services from which we all benefit, it is important that we act now to rebut the notion that it can’t be done efficiently or effectively.

And more than this, we have a duty to prove that the foundation of successful public service provision is the sound stewardship of public finances.

This is why the centre-left should embrace the goal of balancing the books and controlling national debt; because sustainability and living within our means is at the heart of good governance, prudent decision-making and the reciprocal social contract between individual and state.

To those on the right, spending cuts are part of the long march towards the demise of what they interpret as state interference.

For those of us on the centre-left, sustainable management of public finances is proof that taxpayers can have trust in the public realm.

Through their deeds, he went on to argue, the Tories have shown their lack of commitment to a well-managed and fiscally sustainable public sector. He cited the abolition of the successful Future Jobs Fund and its replacement with the ineffective Work Programme (as he noted, the number of young people on nationally-funded employment and skills programmes has fallen by 10 per cent since 2009-10 even though the number of young people out of work for more than a year has doubled), the top-down reorganisation of the NHS, which cost £3bn and saw 3,200 staff handed redundancy payments before being re-hired, the botched launch of Universal Credit, which led the DWP to write off £40.1m of assets developed for the programme and put a further £91m at risk (and which currently costs a remarkable £190,000 per claimant), the establishment of free schools in areas with surplus places, while shortages grow elsewhere, and the recent scrapping of the Enquiry Service, designed to create a single telephone point of contact to deal with multi-benefit enquiries, at a cost of £34m. "Reform is worse than pointless if it does not improve the experience of the user and ends up costing money rather than saving money", he rightly declared. 

By contrast, rather than mimicking George Osborne's short-term salami slicing, Labour would seek to achieve "real public service reform" by recognising the duty of government "to devolve with the user in mind, and to de-clutter." To this end, he announced that as part of its zero-based spending review (one that requires every item of spending to be approved, rather than merely changes to a pre-determined baseline) Labour is looking at:

  •  Creating leaner, more efficient commissioning arrangements for health and social care
  • Using the criminal justice estate more effectively, for instance by co-locating County Courts and Magistrates Courts on the same site. At the moment only 32 Magistrates Courts are currently co-located with County Courts;
  • Greater collaboration between local emergency services, citing the example of County Durham fire and rescue service working with the police to share buildings;
  • Options for changing police structures, including locally-negotiated mergers, and whether to axe elected police and crime commissioners which are more expensive than the police authorities they replaced, following the report by Lord Stevens;
  • Greater collaboration between local councils to pool staff and resources, citing the example of North East Derbyshire and Bolsover councils which expect to save £1.5 million a year from sharing a chief executive and senior managers, as well as other shared staff and services including street cleaning, recycling and ground maintenance. 

The $64,000 question, of course, is how much money all of this would actually save. Every government arrives in power promising "efficiency savings" but almost all fail to deliver the promised sums. The real fiscal challenge for Labour remains to explain how it would meet its pledges to achieve a current budget surplus and to reduce debt as a proportion of GDP by the end of the parliament (affirmed by Leslie today) beyond reducing waste and duplication. As the IFS has warned, £12bn of tax rises will be required if annual departmental spending cuts are to be maintained at their current pace. A mansion tax (which Labour would use to fund the reintroduction of the 10p tax rate) and the restoration of the 50p tax rate would not even come close to plugging the gap. One left-wing economist, speaking very much off-the-record, recently told me that the parties may need to discuss the openly possibility of raising the only taxes that reap reliably large revenues: the basic rate of income tax, National Insurance and VAT. But that is the kind of genuinely "tough choice" that all sides seem desperate to avoid before May 2015. 

Leslie's promise of "real public service reform" is a good place to start, but with Osborne forecast to leave a deficit of £96bn, a start is all it is. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.