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Labour's timid approach isn't working - it needs to think bigger

The 12 policies the party needs for a popular and a radical manifesto.

The 12 policies the party needs for a popular and a radical manifesto.
Ed Miliband speaking in the target seat of Thurrock last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Two years ago the Labour Party was a policy vacuum and it was hard to know what it thought about anything. Not any more. In recent months its policy pledges have come thick and fast. From freezing fuel prices to a new benefit for under-21s, no longer can critics claim that the party has nothing to say.

But still something is missing. The promises are reasonable enough on their own terms but they whole is less than the sum of the parts. Each announcement is finely calibrated to maximise "doorstep" appeal. But most of them seem to bounce off the public without registering at all. The reason is because Labour’s policy doesn’t fit into a wider story about what the party wants to do with power.

new Fabian report published today argues that Labour’s "doorstep" pledges won’t win a hearing unless the party explains how it will bring deep change to Britain’s economy, society and government. In other words, Labour needs to promise a five-year programme that will leave Britain a different, better country by 2020.

The report makes 12 recommendations which are large enough in scale to collectively set a new course. If implemented they would create a clear rupture with the policies and priorities of the coalition and prove that voting Labour makes a difference. For this isn’t something to smuggle past the electorate, hoping not to scare the horses. Labour has to "go big" because otherwise no one will make sense of how the small, short-term pledges all hang together.

Some of our ideas are already in the Labour Party’s bloodstream, but caught in internal battles between radicals and incrementalists. For example Andy Burnham, who addresses the Fabian summer conference today, has a bold plan to merge health and care services but it is being gradually diluted. The detail of boardroom reforms to give workers a voice are still far from clear. And Labour’s pledge to build 200,000 homes is not yet accompanied by the big new powers and financial freedoms councils will need to make it happen.

Other proposals in the report mark a departure, for example on inequality. Labour has to decide whether it has the steel to call for policies that would truly turn the tide on the rising poverty and inequality we can now expect for decades ahead.

Ed Miliband has promised to raise the minimum wage but after that it needs to be permanently indexed to average earnings and accompanied by a Living Wage for public service workers. Meanwhile, two other essential solutions are not even being considered. First, the party must extend the indexation of social security to earnings beyond pensioners to people who are disabled, in work or looking after under-5s. Otherwise poverty will rise remorselessly. Second, it must promise a five-year programme of radical tax reform, to raise revenue more fairly and end the corrupting incentives of today’s system.

Next, the party needs to show it means it when it says it wants to bring long-term responsibility to the economy and society. Reforming boardrooms will help a bit, but a faster solution would be to use the proceeds from selling the nationalised banks to establish a huge sovereign wealth fund to direct investment towards long-term priorities. Alongside this Labour needs to get serious about the environment again and our report proposes two solutions. First the next government should embed care for the local environment into our everyday lives by creating a national environment bank holiday. Second it should set a ten-year deadline for every home in the country to be energy efficient before it can be sold or let.

Finally, Labour needs to show it is ready to reset the clock on how public services are run. There needs to be a clear break from the control freakery and market mania of both new Labour and the coalition. So far, Labour's fightback against Lansley, Grayling and Gove has been so timid and incremental that even Westminster insiders struggle to explain the difference.

The hallmarks of Labour’s approach must be public spirit and democratic control. People should be able to control what happens to services they value, not just decide which one they will choose. And locally elected politicians should have power over all public services in their patch, something Labour is reluctant to accept when it comes to health and schools. Above all, Labour should row back on 20 years of the commercialisation of public service. The party should pledge that companies will no longer be allowed to run whole public services and say that non-profit and government bodies will be the default providers of most frontline services.

As the Labour Party’s policy forum prepares to meet in July to finalise its policy recommendations it should feel inspired to think big. Timid symbolic policies have not been working for the party of late, and there’s no reason to think that will change. By adopting the Fabian recommendations, or something like them, Labour will emerge with a popular and a radical manifesto, but one still bound by fiscal and economic reality. Labour can win the public’s imagination and trust with a truly transformative programme for power.