What does it mean to be a socialist in a shrinking state? The Labour Party comes a step closer to an answer today as Ed Miliband launches IPPR’s Condition of Britain report, but the key themes of a new approach are already clear. In fact, they are already being implemented up and down the country by local authorities. If you want to know what a Miliband government might look like, you should start by paying a visit to your local town hall.
Councils have a tendency to lead the pack when it comes to government innovation. They invented public education and sanitation in the 19th century, the national health service in the 20th and now they are on the cusp of pioneering a new approach to government and welfare. This rapidly accelerated process of change is being driven by gigantic budget cuts – many councils will halve in size over the course of the current decade against a backdrop of rising demand for their services, especially social care.
So far, most councils have focused on ruthless pruning of staff and some restriction of services. But over the next few years many will launch into a radical programme of change that will confound both small state conservatives and big state leftists by showing that we can still have active and effective government with much less money.
Neighbourhoods will be asked to help decide how to spend declining budgets for street cleaning, leisure and parks. Some leisure centres may be closed altogether and local people given subsidised gym memberships to their local Virgin Active. Face-to-face customer contact will disappear in some areas to be replaced with websites and carefully trained neighbours and shop workers.
The themes underpinning this change are precisely those that might inform a new settlement of the kind envisaged by Jon Cruddas. Councils are heavily shifting their services towards prevention rather than cure. Services are being reformed to keep old people living independently in their own homes rather than letting them languish in expensive and depressing care homes and hospitals. In some areas, councils will pay families and carers to build social support networks around young people with learning disabilities, reducing their lifetime cost to the public sector.
Councils are taking a much more active role in shaping the local economy to ensure that it creates fewer problems for the state to solve. This is partly about working together across conurbations such as Greater Manchester to identify growth industries and encourage the creation of middle income jobs. But it is also about interventions to give consumers better choices, ranging from bulk purchasing of energy and insurance to the creation of white good stores with cheap consumer credit and alternative payday lenders.
The public is also being asked to contribute more of its time to shaping and supporting public goods. In some areas they will be given control of parks and asked to maintain them. In others, they are already being asked to cook meals for neighbours and grit their own streets in the winter. The best metaphor I can find for this new model of government is the common; the idea that a place is a vital resource that business, households and government must all contribute to maintaining.
There is no doubt that what is emerging in town halls is embryonic, messy and imperfect. That is to be expected. Councils are being forced into a new paradigm of government at breakneck pace. They are held back by very deep budget cuts, which raise very serious questions about whether some councils can survive in their current reform. No amount of reform will allow us to run social care on thin air.
A Labour government in 2015 can fuel the local revolution by accepting recommendations from its policy commissions to devolve housing benefit, reduce limits of council borrowing, and by devolving big pooled budgets to fuel economic growth and closer working with the health service. We live in a time when the central progressive dilemma is how to decouple social progress from the act of spending public money. In local government we can see the future. In a few years, we will start to understand whether or not it works.