Miliband offers a radical third way on public service reform

Rather than an approach defined by the centralised state or the untamed market, Miliband is committing to a progressive agenda defined by localism, transparency and accountability.

After addressing market reform in his speech on banking last month and party reform last week, Ed Miliband's energetic start to the year will continue when he shifts his focus to public service reform in the Hugo Young memorial lecture tonight (previewed by Rafael on Friday). His decision to do so is in part an acknowledgment that Labour has done too little to outline its own distinctive vision for schools, hospitals and local government, rather than merely criticising the coalition's approach. The aim of the speech will be to answer that charge and to present his proposed reforms as part of a consistent drive to increase transparency and accountability in all areas of public life. As he will say:

I get as many people coming to me frustrated by the unresponsive state as the untamed market. And the causes of the frustrations are often the same in the private and public sector: unaccountable power with the individual feeling left powerless to act. So just as it is One Nation Labour’s cause to tackle unaccountable power in the private sector, so too in the public sector.

Rather than an approach defined by the top-down state or by the unbound market, Miliband will offer what you could call a third way on public services.

The time demands a new culture in our public services. Not old-style, top-down central control, with users as passive recipients of services. Nor a market-based individualism which says the answer is to transplant the principles of the private sector lock, stock and barrel into the public sector. Instead, we need a new culture of people-powered public services. We should always be seeking to put more power in the hands of patients, parents and all the users of services. Giving them voice as well as choice.

As representative of this new approach, Labour is this morning emphasising its plans for education, which will see parents acquire the right to "call in" specialist teams to improve school standards when an institution is failing. Miliband will say:

Every user of a public service has something to contribute and the presumption should be that decisions should be made by users and public servants together. Having promised to share power, this government has actually centralised power in Whitehall and is attempting to run 1,000s of schools from there. That doesn’t work. And as a result some schools have been left to fail without intervention. Just last week we saw the Al-Madinah Free School in Derby close, because its failings were spotted far too late. We need greater local accountability for our schools. And in the coming months, David Blunkett will be making recommendations to us about how to do this.

As part of that plan, we must also empower parents. They should not have to wait for somebody in Whitehall to intervene if they have serious concerns about how their school is doing, whether it is a free school, academy or local authority school. But too often they do. In all schools, there should be a parental right to 'call in' intervention. This would happen when a significant number of parents come together and call for immediate action on standards.

More broadly, he will outline four principles for change: "information is power", "connecting people", "shared decision making" and "decisions closer to people". The policies that flow from these include a dramatic expansion of open data, with new powers for users of public services to track their case, and the opportunity for parents to access real-time information on their child's progress at school and for patients to access their health records; the introduction of a basic principle that that users of public services – such as a patient suffering a chronic condition or a parent of a special needs child - be put in touch with other people who share that service and are in a similar situation; and radical devolution to local authorities and city and country regions. 

It is the latter that is by far the most striking. All governments in recent history have been rhetorically committed to localism but none have delivered it in practice, with the result that the UK remains one of the most centralised states in Europe. Miliband, though, seems to really mean it when he promises a "radical reshaping" of services that breaks Whitehall's monopoly. When I asked one shadow cabinet member whether Labour would genuinely deliver on its localist promise, I was told: "follow the money". The party's local innovation taskforce is expected to to conclude that local authorities should be given the power to control three to five year budgets in areas including crime and justice, social services, the Work Programme, and social care - a huge change. 

The age of austerity, with Labour set to inherit a deficit that will still stand at £96bn, has made such reform not just desirable but essential. As Jon Cruddas, the party’s policy review co-ordinator, noted in his speech on "one nation statecraft" in 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." This means devolving power downwards from Whitehall and reorienting services such as the NHS around prevention rather than just cure. Andy Burnham’s proposal to integrate physical, mental and social care into a single budget and single service ("whole person care") is perhaps the best example of the kind of reform required. By allowing more patients to be treated outside wards and freeing up to 40 per cent of beds, an integrated service could save the NHS around £3.4bn a year. In speeches on Wednesday, Cruddas (speaking at the New Local Government Network conference) and shadow care minister Liz Kendall (speaking at IPPR) will both flesh out the theme of devolution. 

Miliband will say tonight:

Wherever possible, it is right to devolve power down. Because the centralized state cannot from Whitehall diagnose and solve every local problem. By hoarding power and decision-making at the centre, we end up with duplication and waste in public services - and fail to serve the people.

That is why the next Labour manifesto will commit to a radical reshaping of services  so that local services can come together and make the decisions that matter to their own communities.

Driving innovation by rethinking services on the basis of the places they serve not the silos people work in. Social care, crime and justice, and the how we engage with the small number of families that receive literally hundreds of interventions from public services but too often don’t get to the heart of the problems they face.

The other notable theme of the lecture will be a reaffirmation of Miliband's promise to lead a government committed to reducing inequality ("I deeply regret that inequality wasn't reduced under the last Labour government," he has said). In an echo of Barack Obama's recent speeches on the subject, he will say: 

Walt Whitman wrote that democracy was about people looking"carelessly in the faces of Presidents and Governors, as to say, Who are you?". In other words, whoever you are, wherever you come from, you are of equal worth to the most powerful. This is the foundation of my commitment to equality too.

For decades, inequality was off the political agenda. But there is growing recognition across every walk of life in Britain that large inequalities of income and wealth scar our society.

But in a important shift, Miliband will commit not just to reducing inequalities of income and opportunity but also to tackling those of "power". As he will say: "Everyone – not just a few at the top – should have the chance to shape their own lives." It is that progressive insight that lies behind a public service agenda that, for once, truly merits the epithet "radical". 

Ed Miliband delivering his speech on banking reform at the University of London last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Here’s everything I learned this weekend at LibDem conference

Fear and loathing in the Bournemouth International Centre.

I spent my weekend in Bournemouth. It’s a lovely place for a weekend away, with gorgeous sandy beaches, beautiful parks and unusually good weather for an English seaside resort – but I didn’t get to enjoy any of that because I spent the weekend shut in a conference centre with a bunch of Lib Dems. Here’s what I learned from the experience.

There are people who think that EU flag berets make a stylish addition to any head

Almost the first thing to catch my eye on entering the Bournemouth International Centre was a cluster of women with EU flags on their head.

I’m not entirely clear whether there were a lot of these guys, or a small group I just happened to notice a lot because an EU flag beret is the sort of thing you’ll almost certainly be able to spot across a crowded conference hall, but either way I kept seeing them all weekend.

Vexingly, they were always women of a certain age. Do young women not love the EU? Do they not make the hats in men’s sizes? What?

Anyway.  If you want to show your support for Britain’s membership of the European Union while looking a bit like one of the mushrooms from Super Mario Bros 3, now you know how. 

You can buy laminated pictures of Tim Farron for £4.25 a throw

Something I would like to know is who exactly the market is for this particular product.

Something I would not like to know is why this product is laminated.

Vince Cable wants to bring house prices down...

The reason I was at LibDem conference at all was because the Young Liberals had wanted someone who wasn’t a politician to join their panel about intergenerational inequality and, basically, shout at everyone about housing. This is how I spend most Saturday nights anyway, so I agreed.

The thing that stays with me about that discussion was something the new(ish) party leader Vince Cable said. I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of: We need to explain to homeowners that house prices have to fall.

At the time, I thought perhaps this was a comment tailored for a young and angry audience – but he said something similar when taking questions from the party at large the next day. He also said that the party needed to take on the NIMBYs that oppose house-building. 

All of which I’m quite in favour of, on the whole. Except...

... but his party night not let him

...at least some of those NIMBYs are members of his own party. One of them is the MP for Oxford West & Abingdon, Layla Moran, who was elected in June on a platform of protecting Oxford’s green belt from the housing development she says neighbouring Tory and Labour councils are threatening to build. 

During our panel debate, Moran explained that she favoured meeting Oxford’s housing need by building in neighbouring Bicester (not, as it happens, a part of her own constituency). She also argued that building on the green belt should be the “last resort”, although since the city already has the most expensive housing in Britain relative to wages it’s not clear to me what the last resort might look like if not this.

At any rate: LibDem policy is set by the members, not the leadership. And Moran will be far from the only LibDem politician who wants to protect their patch from development. For those who favour housebuilding, Cable’s support is A Good Thing – but that doesn’t mean his party will follow him on the issue. 

Political tribalism is personal

Why, I asked people in a panic whenever conversation palled, are you a LibDem? Sometimes, when people seemed particularly annoyed with the party around them, I’d instead ask: why are you still a LibDem?

One of the answers I was given stays with me, because I’d not considered it before. You might hate the leadership, the policies, the coalition. You might not know many LibDems back home. But twice a year you go off to a conference somewhere, and you spend four days with friends from all over the country who otherwise you would hardly ever see. 

Leaving the party doesn’t just mean cutting up a membership card: it means abandoning those friends. 

This, I suspect, goes some way to explain why, even when the party is very obviously in a hole, everyone in the Bournemouth International Centre this weekend was so bloody cheerful.

Shutting a couple of thousand strangers in a badly ventilated conference hall for several days is a great way to incubate all sorts of exciting diseases

I’m a man on the cusp of middle age and I’m sitting here with freshers’ flu and no free drinks parties, how the hell is this fair.

Just because you agree on Europe that doesn’t mean there’s no excuse for a fight

The Brexit debate on Sunday morning was, I was assured, going to be the fight of the conference. I’m a big fan of both pointless political rows and the European Union so I went along.

The funny thing, though, was it was a remarkably difficult fight to understand. Both sides wanted Britain to remain in the European Union, of course (they’re LibDems; they have hats). But one faction wanted to commit the party to an “exit from Brext” referendum on the final terms of Brexit, while the other just wanted to stuff the whole thing. Okay.

It further transpired that actually both sides would probably accept another referendum (either the first or the third, argued former MP Julian Huppert, depending on how you count, but definitely not the second). The argument was really about the meaning of that referendum: if that was lost, too, would the LibDems accept it and back Brexit? Well, obviously not, but in which case what was the point of supporting a referendum? Why not just be clear that you oppose the whole thing as a mess?

Moreover, LibDem policy is meant to represent what a LibDem government would do. In the event of a LibDem majority – pause here for hollow laughter – it’s probably safe to assume that the mood of the British public towards Europe will have changed so radically that we could cancel Brexit without bothering with another referendum. So is LibDem policy a guide to the policy of a majority LibDem government? Or is it a guide to what it would fight for without said government? And since nobody outside the party is likely to read the thing does it actually matter?

Just as I was getting my head around this, someone requested that conference suspend standing orders, the chair said that would be a vote on whether to have a debate about this request, someone else said that standing orders had already been suspended, everyone began muttering, and my nose began to bleed.

In the event, after a long and exhausting debate that left everyone in a terrible mood, the LibDems voted overwhelmingly to keep policy pretty much the same as it had been before. Which, ironically, is a good description of the party’s position on Brexit.

The LibDems love a good singsong

“Oh you have to go to Glee Club,” people kept telling me. “You’ve not seen LibDem conference until you’ve been to Glee Club.”

I promise that whatever you’re imagining right now, the reality is worse. 

It works like this. People rewrite the lyrics to popular songs to make them about British politics, and then a roomful of LibDems sing them like they’re hymns. Here’s a topical one about David Cameron and a pig, sung to the tune of English Country Garden:

Sadly I didn’t make it to glee club – I was back in London before the glittering night – but just so I didn’t feel left out a crowd of LibDems demonstrated the concept to me by singing several verses to the tune of American Pie outside a pub. And just for me. Lucky old me, eh!

Despite the lyric “Tony Blair should fuck off and die”, this, I’m told, actually dated to before Iraq, all the way back to talk of a Labour-LibDem pact in the mid-1990s, long before many of those singing were even involved in the party. The lyrics are printed in a book that expands every year, and you can buy your own copy. So it is that people can confidently sing along with satirical songs dating back to the 90s or beyond. Amazing scenes.

If you ever tweet anything nice about LibDem conference, they will start sending you membership forms

No.

Apart from anything else you people give me the flu.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.