In the end, the last Labour government’s centralist model of public services exhausted itself, but it was probably the single most important driver of improved standards in vital areas such as education and health. The strategic cul-de-sac for Labour in opposition would be to retreat to a simple defence of the public sector. Instead, a new and distinctive account of reform is required.
My former colleague Patrick Diamond and ippr associate fellow Mike Kenny, have written this piece in today’s Guardian, on the occasion of a Political Quarterly conference on the lessons of the New Labour period. There is much in it with which I agree, notably that Labour suffered significant electoral damage at the last general election from stagnation in living standards and an inability to connect to deeper currents of political and community identity. Gavin Kelly and I have written a piece in this month’s Prospect magazine on similar themes.
Patrick and Mike are also undoubtedly right on their central argument that there is no future in British politics for Labour tribalism of the 20th century kind. All over Europe, mainstream social democratic parties are polling at around 25 per cent of the electorate, or worse. They are habituated to the politics of coalition and compromise.
A similar state of affairs prevails in the UK’s devolved administrations, where proportional electoral systems properly reflect popular political preferences. Whatever the fate of the Coalition government in Westminster – and nobody should be in any doubt about the significance and audacity of the political realignment it has effected – the politics of pluralism are here to stay. This is a development to be welcomed, not resisted, and whoever wins the leadership of the Labour Party will have to acknowledge the reality of this fundamental shift.
The fate of localism – or more properly, sub-national politics in England – is less clear cut. At the heart of the Coalition government’s agenda is a fundamental tension between devolving power to elected local authorities (the Liberal Democrat starting point) or to the little citizen platoons in our communities (the Conservative Big Society agenda). This tension is not irreconcilable but it is stark in some areas, such as free schools policy. Do you want local government to play any role in education or can it be left to a local quasi-market? Moreover, despite their enthusiasm for Tony Blair’s public service reform agenda, many Conservatives too often skip over the one thing that drove the greatest improvement in standards in education, health or policing: the ‘delivery state’ that directed, from the centre of government, the literacy hour or minimum hospital waiting times.
In the end, this centralist model exhausted itself, but it was probably the single most important driver of measured standards (if that is indeed how we should account for improvement) in our public services during the Blair-Brown era. In contrast, the Coalition has taken some almighty gambles on reform – GP commissioning in particular – that may not pay off. Combine that with cuts to spending, stagnant living standards and rising unemployment, and you have a perfect storm of discontent brewing. That is not an argument against reform: far from it. But if these trends coalesce, we can expect to see a sharper centralist edge to the Coalition’s public services strategy, if not a reinvention of New Labour statecraft.
The strategic cul-de-sac for Labour would be to retreat to the comfort zone of defending the public sector, rather than setting out a new and distinctive account of reform: which services to prioritise and which to cut, and how to renew public services in this new century. In the forthcoming conference edition of Fabian Review, Gavin and I set out our thoughts on this key task.