Labour and the State: Winning Power to Give it Away

When historians come to examine Labour’s last five years in opposition they will be kinder to Ed Miliband than you may suspect.

This is a leader who has steered his party away from its tendency after electoral defeat to indulge in factionalism, who has drawn the poison that infected the Blair-Brown years and, crucially, grasped that the post-crash era demanded a reaction that would not be satisfied by the continuity Blairism offered by his brother.

Although Ed Miliband appears to do almost anything he can to give the alternative impression, he’s actually quite good at politics.

He worked out what needed to be done to become leader (capitalise on your brother’s haughtiness and win over the unions) and did it. He has survived five years in opposition without a serious challenge to his leadership and he has now manoeuvred Labour into a position with a chance of forming the next government.

Critics will say a more charismatic leader with a more centre ground agenda would be marching towards victory at this moment but that fails to appreciate the very different demands created by multi-party politics in an era of dejection and disengagement.

Which brings me to where the historians could be less sympathetic. For all the progress made under Ed Miliband, the party struggled to re-craft its thinking on the role of the state. And you could argue that until the party was willing to examine fully its relationship with the state then it cannot be ready, either intellectually or honestly, to govern again.

Some argue that, while Miliband had forged his reputation by challenging vested interests such as Murdoch and the energy companies, he had shown a timidity when it came to taking on the unions and big government.

The obvious counter to this is the sins of the bankers and greedy energy suppliers were so egregious they had to take priority when it came to priming your armaments. Nor have the arguments of the private sector been advanced by the slip-shod service, paid for with taxpayers’ money, by companies such as G4S and Serco.

Somewhat lost in the Tory dash for privatisation is the failure to recognise the efficiency and professionalism of most of our public services.

Labour is right not to join an ideological drive towards contracting out if that results in workers being paid less money, placed on insecure contracts and end up relying on tax credits to top up their income.

the Tories have been more successful in setting the terms of the debate

Nor can it be said that the Conservatives adopted a position of clarity when it comes to the role of the state. Their twisted approach has resulted in a party which is happy to centralise power for political purposes while demonising those charged with delivering the services.

The absurdity of the Tory position is most acutely demonstrated by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles who preaches localism but has issued more centralising diktats than any of his Labour predecessors.

But the failures of the Conservatives should not be an excuse for Labour to not address these questions. The onus lies more heavily on the left precisely because the Tories, for all their own inconsistencies, have been more successful in setting the terms of the debate.

This is especially so with Free Schools, a policy was designed in good part to challenge Labour’s apparent comfort with big government.

In a digital age where people’s loyalties to institutions are weaker and users of public services are more pragmatic, it is all the more important that the bond between the state and the people it serves is strengthened.

And in this climate it is increasingly difficult to argue that a centralised model of provision is the best way forward, especially when the hangover of nationalisation has still not entirely cleared.

Jonathan Rutherford, who is writing Labour’s manifesto, and Jon Cruddas MP concluded in a recent pamphlet: “Historically, our instincts have been to centralise, conform and control.”

Michael Gove’s Free Schools were as much about political mischief making as they were about supposedly improving the quality of education. They were a way of weakening state control, undermining the unions and putting pressure on Labour to come up with an adequate response.

Labour has decided to let go. It is trying to win power to give it away

Leaving aside the practical flaws of the Free School model which wilfully ignores local demand while requiring a centralised system of inspection, their introduction offered Labour and the rest of the movement an opportunity to reconsider its approach to delivering public services.

A party which was built on local activism and has at its heart the importance of community could have embraced the ideas behind Free Schools to suggest an alternative model, rooted its history, which could have seen unions and other grassroots organisations set up the schools and infuse them with their own ethos and values.

In short, they would fulfil the needs of collaboration and contribution so central to Labour thinking. Although this debate has kept in the shadows of Labour policy, the party has started to grapple with similar thinking for the NHS.

George Osborne’s plan in conjunction with the local Labour Party decision to devolve to Manchester the right to run the NHS in its area is perhaps the momentous piece of policy making to have emerged in recent years.

Many in the shadow Cabinet needed persuading but the acceptance of the Manchester proposal marks a turning point for Labour, allowing the party to press ahead with its own plans for further devolution not just for the NHS but almost all government institutions.

In short, Labour has decided to let go. It is trying to win power to give it away. Yet it is a battle not yet won and it could be one of the first casualties if Labour wins power on May 8. The thinking is there. It now has to be matched by the political will.

Jason Beattie is the political editor of the Daily Mirror

More about the author

About the author

Jason Beattie is the political editor of the Daily Mirror. He has worked in Westminster for 15 years including spells on the Birmingham Post, Scotsman and the London Evening Standard. A hispanophile, he has also written for El Mundo and has a deep interest in Spanish and Catalan history, culture and food.

Follow Jason on Twitter.

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