Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour’s unreconciled dilemma

As IPPR releases a raft of new reports on schools, housing and criminal justice reform, it is tempting to pursue business as usual and inspect its policy proposals.

Times are, however, different. The ever-perceptive Stephen Daisley last month commented that Progress, rather than leading the ‘counterrevolution … spends most of its time debating how to reform public services and extend free childcare.’

Guilty as charged. Since Progress’ Purple Book in 2011 (typical chapter title: ‘Putting families first: universal care from cradle to grave’), via the Purple Papers (chapter four: ‘Public services and political choices’), there has been an awful lot of prose devoted to this agenda. There we have it – ‘agenda’. A cold, managerial word, which I always joke I would like to ban but which I stumble into using anyway.

There is certainly poetry to be read in the motivations of those who enthuse about public service reform: that our public services are there to ensure everyone has the chance to succeed; that everyone has a shot at a second chance in life. No doubt much of the manner they have been talked about in has been dry and technocratic. But, with the exception of Labour councillors, in recent years the Labour party has appeared unenthusiastic about it.

The reasons for Labour’s paralysis on thinking hard about the public sector are many and varied. First up is the lack of space in the party to do so. Tony Blair started the conversation but public service reform became caught up in the leadership battles of the mid-2000s. Its legacy is so stunted that no leader since has opened up any real new fronts in health, education or jobs and welfare. It also unhelpfully centred around a fight between those satisfied with what a service was – is it an academy, is it a foundation trust – rather than what it might achieve. The day I hear Labour meetings ring to the sound of members lamenting that thousands of pupils still leave school each year with no qualifications, rather than that Labour set up 203 new schools in the form of sponsored academies, I know we will have regained a sense of mission.

Second is a confusion about what level many services should be delivered at. The devolutionist impulse behind The Purple Book, Jon Cruddas’ policy review and Liz Kendall’s leadership campaign last year is a difficult one to reconcile in the Labour psyche, partly because of habit but partly because it poses an existential question as to what UK Labour is for (before one even considers Scotland). If Labour is elected only to give power away, what is the point of MPs at Westminster? What monument could a Labour government show off as its achievement?

On occasion commentators lament there is no ‘Policy Exchange of the left’, in the way that that thinktank was once dubbed the ‘IPPR of the right’. But in its Condition of Britain report and raft of papers, IPPR has recently provided much for Labour politicians to at least chew over. But Condition of Britain was left on the shelf by Labour. In part this reflects Ed Miliband’s view that remedying Britain’s ills lies in fixing the economy, not hefting the load onto local services, an analysis which has validity. But in backing diversity and devolution Condition of Britain hit right up against Labour’s unreconciled dilemma.

Devolutionists in the party have fallen short partly because the case that ‘devolution means social justice’ is yet to be made. To the extent it has, it has been drafted as policy rather than displayed as mission. No stack of policy papers will be enough if a story about Labour and the country is not built. One story may be that New Labour came up against the limits of what can be achieved from the centre. Next Labour must push the frontiers further by really going local in order to nurture a country where people lead healthier, more educated, more secure, freer lives while in Westminster our leaders look up and outward to the world. Get tanked up on policy all we like – it is the thrill of a vision that will help Labour, and the country.

There may be an even tougher unreconciled dilemma which we will meet once we become a devolutionary party, once social injustices we abhor become up close and personal. The responsibility becomes ours. The fault no longer lies with some distant Sir Humphrey or Tory. It sits with us, and our neighbours in our communities. The glory of the national, campaign poetry dissolves once more into the grind of the local, problem-solving prose. To entrenched educational failings, to the unglamour of our care crisis, to the fact that our neighbours are human beings who do not always behave as we hope. Social justice can come from helping all to be able to stand on their own two feet, and a second chance if they fall. But can we ever be content as a party only to help people in the direction of utopia while knowing we will never get there?


Photo: Christiane Wilke

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Adam Harrison

is a councillor in the London borough of Camden


  • 1 + 1 = 2 and Local decision making = Postcode lottery. The latter is an equation which is unavoidable and will forever prevent any serious devolution of power.

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