A people-centred government in a time of austerity

September 29th, 2014

It is a truism of the party conference season that the most important announcements do not come from the conference floor. Take the start of Tory party conference with Mark Reckless announcing his move to join Nigel Farage and his merry band of UKIPers or Brooks Newmarket resigning after being caught in a tabloid sting.

Ed Miliband also omitted a passage on the deficit in his Labour conference speech. Yet, those who think Labour doesn’t have a plan for dealing with the deficit have not been listening carefully enough. Ed Balls has previously articulated the message that a Labour government will have to cut its cloth to suit straightened financial means. He has pointed to the rise in borrowing under George Osborne’s watch. The situation an incoming Labour government will inherit in 2015 will be much worse than the one Labour bequeathed Tories in 2010, three years after the start of the global economic crisis.

Some Labourites see the Ed Balls’ narrative on cuts as equivalent to what the Tories are proposing. They would be wrong. When it comes to matters about the state, we should not be sizeist. The Tories may be wedded to rolling back the state until it represents a small core of public services, but that doesn’t mean Labour should argue that bigger is always better. Under New Labour, the public sector needed and received the valuable investment that was so important after decades of underfunding under the Thatcher/Major administrations.

What is required of the public sector to perform for people now has changed. There needs to be a shift of focus to value for money and decentralisation of power. Policy enthusiasts have started using the term ‘muscular state’. To you and me that means a state that works hard for its money. It means having a wider conversation with the public about all our public services and not just the NHS. People rely on the state for more than healthcare but for schooling, for policing, housing, transport and a whole range of other services.

Being a proponent of public sector reform does not mean you want top down reorganisation or are wedded to cuts. Chris Leslie MP, Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, explained this well at a Fabian fringe at Labour Party Conference. He said that the difference between the Tories and Labour is that Labour isn’t committed to cuts for cuts sake. This isn’t to demean the difficult nature of the decisions a Labour government will be faced with in 2015. However a Labour government would approach those choices with a belief that the cuts should not fall on the shoulders of those least able to bear them.

More hearteningly still, Leslie talked about how Labour’s decisions about the public sector should incorporate a devolving of power and responsibility for spending into the hands of local people. This would allow for a level of creativity in provision of services that a monolithic central government could not manage. Bringing services to local people in their local area also helps to break down the starkly-felt divide between people and politicians. It allows people to have a say in what services they want and how they should be provided. It is a picture of a healthy state, even though still a powerful state, that is value for money and that works for the people who use it.

When voters are asked if they want a people-centred state or no state, most would want the former. Only Labour has the ability to deliver a state that puts people at the centre. That means empowering people to have choices about their own lives and how they are run in the spirit of co-operation and solidarity that are core Labour values. The idea needs to take root outside the fringe if it is to happen at all.