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5 September 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:14am

The challenge facing Labour

Don’t let the Tories win the argument on the management of public services.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

I’m afraid in my previous post I gestured rather airily in the direction of some “fundamental questions of political economy” that the candidates for the Labour leadership need to answer, without specifying what those questions might be. I don’t think I’d be able to better for clarity or precision Chris Dillow‘s account of the challenge facing Labour as it tries to determine what a post-New Labour version of social democracy might look like.

Dillow offers five reasons why New Labour’s conception of social democracy is dead. I’d like to draw your attention here to two of those reasons. First, he points out that Labour’s “promise of macroeconomic stability” was false (John Gray said something similar in the piece about Ralph Miliband that I discussed yesterday):

Macroeconomic stability was mere good luck which has passed, not something which it is in the power of governments to create.

The challenge for an intelligent left is to ask: how can we protect the worst-off from macroeconomic fluctuations, given that macro management is insufficient? This requires either more use of insurance markets, or a welfare state that puts a higher weight upon reducing risk than upon incentives.

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Gray, of course, was fairly pessimistic about the ability of a future Labour government to “protect the worst-off from macroeconomic fluctuations”. But he and Dillow agree that figuring whether and how it is possible to do this in the “globalised world” to which Tony Blair’s memoir is, in part, a deluded incantation is a task the centre left needs to take very seriously.

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Second, Dillow makes a point about managerialism and the public sector (something David Miliband and Jon Cruddas allude to in their Guardian piece that I also blogged about yesterday):

The inefficiencies in the public sector generated by top-down management might have been tolerable when no one worried about government borrowing. However, even though concern about the deficit is grotesquely overblown, this is not the world we’ll live in in the foreseeable future. Governments will have to pay more attention to value for money. This requires that public-sector workers be empowered, as they know best where inefficiencies really lie. But New Labour’s managerialism prevented it from seeing this.

The critique of managerialism is something that the left has allowed the Tories (for whom it goes proxy for an assault on the public sector tout court) to take ownership of and it’s time it wrested it back.