Three principles for governing from the centre-left

This week’s report by the Local Government Innovation Taskforce, People-Powered Public Services, marks another important stage in Labour’s policy review. The report sets out in detail how a future Labour administration should go about the task of decentralising greater power to local neighbourhoods and communities, improving outcomes for the public while strengthening trust in government.

There have always been two diverging, even contested, strands in Labour’s thought concerning the distribution of power and the role of the state in British politics. The first tradition, encapsulated in the postwar Labour government, emphasises the role of a strong centralising state pulling levers in Whitehall to bring about social change through ‘mechanical’ reform. This tradition points to the National Health Service, a universal welfare state, and full employment as crowning achievements of centralised social democracy.

In contrast the second, alternative tradition is decentralist, devolutionist and ‘bottom up’, advancing the principle of subsidiarity where power is exercised as close as possible to citizens and localities through ‘moral’ reform. This orientation in early ethical socialism was influential in the work of leading figures like Keir Hardie, Richard Tawney and Harold Laski, but was swept aside by post-1945 collectivism and the dominance of Fabian ideas in the party.

Something of a caricature, this argument is nonetheless alive and well in contemporary Labour debates. The authors of The Purple Book (2011) argued that in the wake of the financial crisis the party had to rediscover the instinct to redistribute and decentralise power. Roy Hattersley and Kevin Hickson, editors of The Socialist Way (2013), adopted a contrary position insisting that ‘localism’ was a blind alley for the centre-left: social justice could only be mandated by a muscular central state.

The taskforce report cuts through this somewhat esoteric discussion, asking what in practice a Labour government would do to build a better Britain in an era of unprecedented fiscal constraint. This is a preoccupation of every social democratic party in western Europe given the long-term pain inflicted by the financial crisis and great recession.

Three principles are highlighted as a means of governing from the centre-left with less money around. First, ‘people power’: giving citizens more control over the delivery of public services and getting them to take responsibility for ensuring improvement alongside professionals. Then, ‘collaboration’: joining up and integrating services to drive cost efficiencies and improve outcomes. Finally, ‘prevention’: moving away from reactive approaches which compensate individuals and groups for disadvantage that has already been inflicted, emphasising tackling the underlying causes of inequality and disparities in life-chances. The report demonstrates how this approach would be applied across a host of priority areas for Labour: community safety, policing and criminal justice, social care, public health, early years and childcare, family intervention, and worklessness.

Intriguingly, People-Powered Public Services is one of the first reviews to explicitly address the challenge of English governance in the wake of devolution. While there has been much debate about the long-term consequences of Scottish and Welsh devolution in the light of September’s independence referendum, far less attention has been given to the governance vacuum in England. There are numerous English places and communities who feel equally remote from Whitehall and Westminster, an observation that Labour’s devolution settlement rather ignored. As this report compellingly argues, a ‘New English Deal’ for local government should be part of the answer. It recommends the allocation of, ‘multi-year funding settlements for the full parliament for all local services as part of the 2015 spending review. Additional savings achieved from redesigning services over the parliament should be retained locally and reinvested back in the community’.

These are duly radical proposals. If implemented alongside the other measures in the report such as further devolution of powers and funding to councils, they would in the long term have the potential to transform the relationship between Whitehall and local power centres in England – overturning three decades of excessive centralisation which has threatened to damage the relationship between government and citizens in the UK state beyond repair.

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Patrick Diamond is lecturer in public policy at Queen Mary, University of London and vice-chair of Policy Network. He is a former councillor in the London borough of Southwark

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