Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Debating points

Progress’ honorary president responds to your comments on his agenda for New Labour

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Many thanks to all of you for responding to the speech I made a week or so ago. I agreed with a lot of what people said. And disagreed with some of it too!

Perhaps the most important thing, though, is that a debate is underway about our future direction and policy. We need to have that debate if we are to renew ourselves. And you can’t have debate without ideas. These are mine. Others will have their’s. And I think we should continue to find ways, like the Progress website, of making it genuinely two-way.

On to the points you have made.

There was one big theme running through your comments. About whether power could be relocated in society and, if so, to what level. George makes this point in doubting whether people give up power willingly. As it happens I agree. My time as a minister taught me that organisations that have power tend to want to keep it. Indeed they tend to want more, not less of it! The trick is to make that difficult. And that is why we need institutional means of shifting power. I set out some proposals for doing that in my speech.

Luke takes issue with one of those proposals. The so-called “double devolution” idea. My starting point is that we have to resolve our ambivalence to local government. I believe we should give councils far greater freedom. However, I do not believe that devolution can stop at the town hall door. Different communities – even in the same area – can have different needs. And if we are to overcome the disengagement from local politics that is all too obvious we need to find new ways of empowering local people.

Sarah doubts whether people will get involved. But it is interesting to note, for example, that in some of the poorest parts of the country turnouts at elections for the local boards of New Deal for Communities projects have exceeded turnouts in the corresponding local council elections. That suggests people may have a closer affinity to their community than their council. So we need to find ways of giving shape to that that sense of local identification.

Both Luke and Sarah worry about such a process giving rise to some odd results. That’s the risk of democracy – at every level! I actually think that some of the public involvement in Foundation Hospital membership is very encouraging. I certainly prefer elections to appointments to what is, after all, a public service. It seems to me that if the public have the right to vote for people to oversee their local schools and leisure centres, they should have a similar right to vote for people who oversee their local hospitals and health services. Indeed, as you know, I would go far further on this to make both the local police and local PCTs far more directly accountable to the local communities they serve.

Where I think both Luke and Frances have an important point, however, is about the capacity people have to become involved. To be clear for me this is not a question of people’s ability. Some of the most able and inspiring people I have met are the local activists in residents and community organisations in the poorer parts of my Darlington constituency. But the democratisation I want to see won’t just happen. We have to help people learn how to oversee organisation and run things themselves. In other words we have to build people’s capacity. There are lots of good examples of being able to do that.

Terry sounds an important warning about the dangers of continual re-organisation. I agree. I don’t think we have always been as clear as we should have been about what we wanted from some of the structural changes we made. And I know there is a change-weariness in some public services. So there are lessons to learn. Equally the status quo wasn’t exactly delivering the goods was it? And I thought our job, as progressives, was to change things not keep them the same! But point taken.

Jel says we shouldn’t have all our eggs in the choice basket. I agree. Giving people choice in public services is one way – an important one in my view – to change the power relationships between providers and users. But of course you need other drivers to make improvements happen – like some national standards, diversity in provision, etc.

Then Mike and James raise important points about economic power. Mike says New Labour has been too soft on big business and James says that we need to learn some lessons from Sweden. Here I would commend my proposals on employee share ownership. Of course we could tax business more. But in a globalised world, where firms can source skills and materials from anywhere, that would have profound – and adverse – consequences for competitiveness and therefore, for jobs and prosperity. Far better in my view to let more workers more evenly share in prosperity. There is compelling evidence that employers where employees have a sense of ownership do better. We need to make this a real policy priority in the future.

And that brings me to James points on Sweden. Yes the Swedes seem to be healthier. And incidentally the evidence suggests they are happier (although maybe that will change now they have turfed out a progressive government in favour of a right-wing one!). So I want to see a more equal society. The issue is how we get there. And as I say in my speech it seems to me that the best way of doing that is by levelling up not down. That’s why I don’t favour making the scrapping of inheritance tax a priority (although I do think it needs to be reformed to ensure that hard work and effort are not penalised) but I do think further tax reforms to help people on lower incomes are needed. And, unlike Shula I think asset ownership is key to a more equal society. So James I think you are right about child trust funds.

Finally there were a few specific points people made.

Alan said I didn’t vote for an elected House of Lords. I didn’t – I’ve changed my mind. But we need to get function as well as form sorted. Anyway better the sinner that repenteth?

William asks about the Clinton welfare reforms. I wasn’t actually thinking about time-limiting. I was thinking we need to learn from their success when we still have over 40% of single parents without work.

Matthew asks about ID cards. I support them. Their primary purpose is to help tackle fraud and protect our borders. But they also have another benefit I think – which is to express our shared national identity. I suspect you disagree!

Jane says I didn’t mention trade unions. I didn’t but if you are interested in my views on the unions take a look at an article I co-authored recently.

Steve says I didn’t mention Iraq or Afghanistan. I didn’t. My speech was on domestic policy but I hope to do another on foreign policy in due course.

And Jack says in all of this discussion about the future we shouldn’t lose sight of what we have achieved in the past. I agree. I’m proud to have served in Tony Blair’s government and proud of the positive difference we’ve made to millions of people’s lives. But after ten years we’ve got to renew ourselves if we are to win that fourth term. I don’t think Britain deserves a Tory Government.

Thanks again. I enjoyed reading what you all had to say. Let the debate continue!

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Alan Milburn

is chair of the social mobility and child poverty commission and a former secretary of state for health

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