For Labour in power, fiscal prudence can be matched by constitutional abandon
If you were on the doorstep last month you will have met United Kingdom Independence party voters. Probably you met quite a few. The surge in support for UKIP at the county council elections, and in the opinion polls, has left the political class scratching its head. What has caused such an upswing in support for a party whose economic policies are lunacy, whose members are fruitcakes and clowns, and over which hangs the unpleasant whiff of racism?
The Conservatives have decided it was all about the European Union. Their backbenchers, with 7 May 2015 circled in red in their Spectator diaries, have decreed that the way to beat UKIP is to be every bit as tough on the EU as Nigel Farage is. That not only includes demands for an in-out referendum, but also public declarations that they would vote ‘No’. As Philip Hammond and Michael Gove quickly showed, the hysteria was not confined to the backbenches. Matthew Parris is right to say that, to understand the current mood of the Tories, one needs, not a psephologist, but a psychiatrist.
Was this really all about the EU? Britain’s relationship with the EU has not substantially altered since the 2000s, when pro-EU parties carried all before them. How many times does the EU actually come up on the doorstep? The UKIP surge is actually about something much deeper, with a slower burn, and so more radical solutions are required.
Scratch the surface of the UKIP voter and you soon discover that, for all the talk of Lithuanians or Romanians, underneath is a profound sense of powerlessness. People feel out of control over their lives. In a consumer age where we can choose all of the little things, from 12 types of muesli to the ringtone on our phone, we cannot choose the big things, like how and by whom we are governed. It has been building for decades, exacerbated by the professionalisation of politics, the expenses scandal, the rise of mighty corporations, super-unions, media conglomerations and supranational institutions and trading blocs.
In the 1990s Labour had a cogent answer to this nascent sense of impotence. It was expressed through a programme of political and constitutional reform, designed to build new democratic institutions and behaviours away from Westminster and Whitehall.
The 1997 New Labour manifesto declared ‘there is unquestionably a national crisis of confidence in our political system’. It proceeded to outline plans to reform both houses of parliament, get more women into public life, open up the quangos, introduce freedom of information, hold a referendum on electoral reform, devolve power to Scotland, Wales, London and the English regions, and promote new rights for citizens. In contrast, the manifesto stated ‘the Conservatives seem opposed to the very idea of democracy.’ Tony Blair’s introduction also contained the immortal phrase ‘New Labour is the political arm of none other than the British people as a whole.’
We know what happened next. Much done, much still (20 years later) to do. Reform of the Lords has stalled. English regional government was rejected. A referendum on electoral reform never happened under Labour. The quangos still rule. Local councils still lack real powers to shape their communities. Freedom of information is a godsend for journalists, but underused by citizens. Only the devolution settlement can be said to be a lasting success.
Labour needs to refocus on the redistribution of power. What is Labour’s constitutional reform offer to the voters? What plans does the party have to reform Westminster, the civil service, and town halls? How will Labour create popular control over the health service and schools?
Labour’s answer thus far is a ‘people’s politics inquiry’, which, whatever its outcome, you can guarantee will not have any impact on the consciousness of the people. The danger is that it will end up as a low-rent, pale imitation of the Power Inquiry established in 2004, or a device to dodge the difficult decisions around further devolution, votes at 16, new powers for councils, electoral reform and, of course, the House of Lords. Yet Labour will need compelling answers to all of these questions. It should make a virtue of impatience for reform, and cast the Tories as defenders of the failing status quo, just as in 1997. It should offer a genuine programme of decentralisation, not merely to appeal to disaffected Liberal Democrats, but because it is the right thing to do.
In 2015, as in 1997, there will be no extra money. Gordon Brown stuck to Ken Clarke’s spending plans for two years, just as Ed Balls will have to stick to George Osborne’s, probably for longer. Yet fiscal prudence can be matched by constitutional abandon. We should let rip with experiments in local ownership and control, starting with the big things like rail franchises as they come up, and the little things like leisure centres and parks. Votes at 16, an elected House of Lords, new tax-raising powers for councils, recall of elected politicians: these things should just be the start of Ed Miliband’s British spring.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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