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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If Corbyn becomes leader, what's left for the Greens?

The forward march of the Greens, halted? A Corbyn leadership will be a new challenge for the Green party, says Rupert Read.

The seemingly unstoppable rise of Jeremy Corbyn toward the leadership of Labour is an exciting and heartening event for anyone who wants to see a fairer Britain and a more meaningful political debate. That means: it is heartening not just for Labour-supporters. Most of us in the Green Party are delighted by this turns of events, too.

This article addresses, in this context, how exactly Greens (or at least: this Green, your humble author) relate to the rise of Corbyn.

Politics is usually thought of as, in essence, a ‘right’ vs. ‘left’ affair. What does this mean? Basically, it means capital vs. labour.

There are however three big things wrong with this idea:

  1. Capital vs. labour, right vs. left, is, to be sure, an important political spectrum. On that spectrum, Greens nowadays tend to see ourselves as on the left. Corporations and the rich have gobbled up far too much wealth; the scales need a serious re-balancing. BUT: this spectrum is only one political spectrum. There are others that are also of great significance (Here’s a well-known one.) An additional, neglected political spectrum that I’d particularly like to draw your attention to is: centralisation vs. localisation. On that spectrum, we Greens tend to find ourselves no more sympathetic to the ‘left’ than to the ‘right’.
  2. There is an even more fundamental problem with boiling politics down into a struggle of capital vs. labour. It leaves out something more basic, on which both of these ‘factors of production’ depend: land. The Earth. Ecology. That is ultimately why the ideology of choice for the Green Party is not socialism, nor conservatism, nor liberalism. It is ecologism. Only when ecology is placed front and centre is there a politics fit for the 21st century, the century in which the prime question becomes how we will reconcile ourselves to the planetary limits that as a species we are breaching.
  3. The struggle between right and left is a struggle over how much of the spoils of economic growth should accrue to capital and how much to labour. Seen from the Left, it is (to be blunt) the effort of labour to get itself a larger chunk of what capitalists will accumulate and hoard for themselves if given half a chance. Karl Polanyi, in his great work The Great Transformation, shows however that we cannot understand our world adequately, letalone build a better one, if we allow labour thus to be commodified. The pursuit of a higher price for one’s labour concedes that labour is a commodity. But what Polanyi argued so brilliantly is that labour, money and land are all of them fictitious commodities. They are not real commodities: for real commodities respond to the laws of supply and demand. Real commodities are arguably not too horribly deformed by being treated as commodities. Land, labour and money by contrast are fundamentally not things suitable for such commodification: they are life itself. ‘They’ are us.

Let me expand on this 3rd point, by going briefly through the cases of land, labour and money in policy-terms, from a Green point of view:

  1. The Green Party favours the introduction of a Land-Value Tax (LVT). LVT is designed to realise the truth that land is not a genuine commodity. LVT would deal with the absurd ‘propertarian’ culture of contemporary Britain — and our dangerous levels of financial speculation in land — by returning to the public the escalation of land-value that is not brought about by any action of the owner of that land, but rather by other changes in society, often due to public investment (e.g. by the opening of a new tube station).
  2. The Green Party advocates a Citizens Income(CI). Now, provided that CI is set at a sufficiently-decent level so that the poorest do not lose out - and (contrary to misinformed media reports during the last general election campaign) the Green Party would ensure that this is so - this revolutionary policy-instrument points the way toward a less overworked ‘leisure society’. It abolishes wage-slavery, as well as the poverty- and unemployment- traps. It provides a permanent safety net for all, including the “precariat”. While Labour pins its hopes on the “Living Wage”, a labourist idea that continues to treat labour as a commodity (and simply seeks for it a better price), the visionary Green solution that is CI points toward a future in which we are treated by the state and indeed by employers more as citizens than as labourers.
  3. The financial crisis of 2007 to the present day has brought rudely to public attention the absurdity of a monetary system that allows money to be created privately as debt, and that treats money as a commodity to be produced and traded like any other (and that is what the modern ‘financialisation’ that landed us in the crisis was: an attempt to make oodles of money simply off money, to treat money as itself the ultimate thing to buy and sell, to ‘make’). Money is necessary in a complex large-scale society: it is the means by which we conduct our economic affairs. Money is a “commons”: its creation should be for public benefit, both in terms of its volume and in terms of the profit (the “seignourage”) it yields. That is why Greens believe in Monetary Reform: the state (more accurately, the public, nationally and also locally) taking back (and taking away from the commercial banks) the power to create money as well as the profit from its creation.

 

When one understands these three points, one can understand how Greens tend to see the rise of Corbyn. Corbynmania represents a revolt against the machine-politics and hollowing-out of Labour, against the inauthenticity of what that Party has become. In that sense, it is hugely welcome. Like the “Green Surge”, it is a demonstration of the hunger at this time for truth, for a big change in politics-as-usual, for radical solutions to the problems that face us all. Furthermore, in terms of the conventional ‘left vs right’ political spectrum, most Greens welcome a turn to the Left, for the reasons I gave under, above. We too want to see a joined-up railway system back in public hands; an end to the cruel austerity cuts, a restoration of the kinds of rates of tax on the rich that we had in the 80s (if income tax at 60 per cent for those on the highest incomes was not too high for Thatcher, then for goodness sake it shouldn’t be too high for Britain today), and more besides.

 

BUT in terms of the other, neglected political spectrums (such as centralisation vs localisation); in terms of putting ecology front and centre; in terms of dropping the fantasy of endless economic growth and replacing it with the sanity of one-planet living…in all these terms, Corbyn is not Green. In his out-of-date espousal of economic growth of coal-mining when what we have to do with most fossil fuel is to #leaveitintheground, and simply in his labourism. He is Labour: and that’s just fine; indeed, that’s as it should be…

 

For it’s great to see the Labour Party apparently about to crown as its new leader someone who is actually Labour. Actually Left. It makes things in British politics rather clearer than they have been ever since the arrival of ‘New Labour’ on the scene. It also makes it simpler to see where the Green Party stands:

  1. We are broadly ‘left’ (and thus more sympathetic with Corbyn than with his lacklustre leadership rivals) BUT we are also determinedly and radically decentralist, in favour of a long-term project of economic and political delocalisation.
  2. We think it the merest sanity to take the deepest possible care of our one and only planetary home, the Earth, and we regard this requirement as more basic even than the ‘left vs right’ fight. There can be no social justice without a sound foundation to our collective life, a foundation in ecology.
  3. Given this, then continued economic growth at this time is simply irresponsible, and is neither desirable nor in any case necessary. Rather than trying to commodify ever more of our world - whether it be ecology, human activity or finance that is being commodified - we badly need to supersede the taking of land, labour and finance as commodities:
  1. LVT is a key instrument to this end, so far as land is concerned: it profoundly disincentivises the commodification of land.
  2. CI, unlike the Minimum Wage or even the Living Wage, fundamentally de-commodifies human ‘labour’.
  3. MR understands (and creates) money correctly as a commons, not as a commodity that private banks can create and do as they please with.

These three signature Green policies are key — in fact, absolutely central — examples of what our time needs. They are Green policies; not Labour policies, not even Corbyn policies.

 

In 1978, Eric Hobsbawm famously penned his prophetic pamphlet, “The forward march of Labour halted?” . Is the Green Party’s progress now in danger of being halted, ironically, by the seemingly-inevitable accession to the Labour leadership of a man who Hobsbawm would have been thrilled to see take the reins of that Party? If all that British politics were was a battle of ‘left vs right’, then perhaps we would be in danger of this. But I have set out here why politics, and the Green Party, are SO much more than that.

So long as we are and remain in this sense the Green Party — and now that (with the ‘Green Surge’) we are stronger and better-resourced than we have ever been, and are at long last starting to get some of the public- (including: media-) attention that we have so long deserved — I don’t see the (splendid, extraordinary) rise of Jeremy Corbyn stopping us.

With ecological crisis gradually pressing in upon us all ever-tighter, it is — both sad and happy to say — hard to see the forward march of the Green Party being halted.