10 Feb 2014

Ed Miliband and the state

Public sector reform was identified with one central message in the Blair years – introducing competition into the public sector to improve services. It was a mantra Gordon Brown’s team attacked when their man was on his way to No. 10 but an approach they didn’t fully replace with a worked out alternative. And since Gordon Brown’s proteges, the two Eds, have been running the Labour party the void has remained at the heart of Labour public sector reform policy.

Tonight, in the Hugo Young lecture at the Guardian, Ed Miliband is trying to address that. His speech draws on a whole load of work by the IPPR and they’ll be publishing their latest report tomorrow. The argument is that the Blairite push for competition,  the big market approach,  continued by the coalition, has reached the end of its productive life … likewise the older bureaucratic “man in Whitehall knows best” approach it replaced. The huge pressures on modern budgets in areas like anti-social behaviour, chronic ill health, Neets etc require consistent inter-face with joined-up, local teams of staff working across the fields of public service.
Britain's Labour Party opposition leader Miliband delivers a speech at a university in central London

It’s fair to say their work is more ambitious than the illustrative policy nuggets out-lined by Ed Miliband in his speech tonight, when he points to parents’ rights to summon outsiders to sort out a school and better access to information. Vanguardists for what the IPPR calls “the relational state” (a term Ed Miliband doesn’t go near, mindful that it could be ammunition to enemies who paint him as geeky and attracted to abstractions) sense Ed Miliband is tip-toeing in their direction and moving in the right direction. Their biggest fear is that Ed Balls is still wanting to keep all options for the public sector close to his own chest, focusing on what his critics might call a “business as usual Treasury-led spending review, more salami-slicing.

The right in the Labour party will say it all fails the ruthlessness test that Ed Miliband still has to pass in the court of public opinion. What of real substance would he cut to make the sums add up? I’ve heard Blairites say this is the “take out a puppy and shoot it” test, though a young giraffe might be more topical. There are no adorable animals roughed up in what we know of the Ed Miliband speech so far. There’s no full-hearted embrace of the IPPR’s approach either but, as Rafael Behr writes in the New Statesman, there are strong indications of movement in that direction.

But after years of promised localism from opposition leaders, we know you have to be passionate and consistent to have a chance of wrestling budgets out of Whitehall’s grip. How committed is Ed Miliband to this approach? How committed is Ed Balls … if at all?

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