Three pillars for a Labour majority

February 23, 2014 3 comments

Progress, the party-within-a-party/pressure group/think-tank ran a competition for a bursary at their policy weekend in March.  Good on them.  It was all about a 550 word essay on how to win a Labour majority.  I entered, because a) I wanted to go b) I’m too skint to pay.

I didn’t get a bursary because a) I’m not a Progress members (that wasn’t made clear at the time, but heh ho); b) my entry was deemed below the standard of other entries anyway.

Here it is, written as I thought a Progress person might write, but with stuff I could actually support.  Seems ok to me, but what do you think? Is it total bollox?

The three pillars of a Labour majority

Architectural outline

A Labour majority needs to be built on three pillars: policy, presentation, party. The pillars must be strong in themselves, but they also need to create a coherent whole. Great policy is no good if it isn’t presented to the electorate in a way that convinces. Presentation doesn’t work unless the party is effectively mustered, and the party cannot be effectively mustered to its presentation role unless it understands and ‘owns’ the local impacts of proposed policies.

But even strong pillars can fall. The outward lateral forces of any massive structure need a counterforce in the form of flying buttresses, and that may be the architectural function of Progress.


Over the last two years, Labour has established a clear policy line in two key areas: fiscal responsibility and the cost of living. Ed and the PLP team are starting to get through on the message that, far from talking about the cost of living crisis as a way to avoid having to talk about the economy, for most people the economy is the cost of living crisis.

We now need to develop a coherent menu of investments designed to improve public services and create long term savings, and to stimulate wage-led growth. The ground for this is being prepared by the Zero-based Review, which emphasises fiscal discipline around day-to-day spending in order to create room for investment.

We need to develop a set of punchy alternatives to Osborne’s cut-and-see- approach. Childcare investment is an obvious such area, and the work on growth via procurement processes is encouraging, but we will need more costed examples for the manifesto, such as a coherent early investment strategy (based both on Frontline and refocused Children’s Centres) which cuts a swathe through quasi-judicial spending on child protection whilst also stimulating local employment.

A wage-led, social investment-focused economy should be our main selling point. Even our legislative programme should be based around that e.g. adaptations to minimum wage legislation to give the OBR more influence over a less corporate-influenced Low Pay Commission.


We need to devolve our presentation, and trust our local parties to deliver the seats we need for victory. We can be confident that the vast majority of parties, after two decades in a ‘campaigning party’, know what they’re doing, and can do it better than a central body producing ‘on-message’ but necessarily inauthentic-looking literature for the doorstep, which by its nature creates inauthentic doorstep conversations.

This is not to downplay the importance of regional and national support, including from Progress’s own resources, but we need to develop systems which respond to local demands, not ones which provide targets, incentives and monitoring.


The Collins Review promises to be a landmark document for the labour movement. It will set out a coherent plan to incentivize many thousands of union members (and others) to go beyond their financial contribution to the party and become involved in a local labour movement which embraces CLP, trade union/trade council and community organising functions.

We will need to act quickly to ensure that this radical new approach (or arguably very old approach) is embedded quickly in local areas, so that come Autumn 2014 a host of new and newly energised supporters rally to the cause, now convinced that the party is serious about devolving power and resources to local level.

Beyond evidence: a road map for Labour’s immigration policy

February 20, 2014 4 comments


Drawing on insights from Hasina, a woman I knew in Bangladesh, Sally Copley (Labour PPC for Oxford West), cognitive linguist  George Lakoff, historian Tim Stanley, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and Peter Griffin from Family Guy, I try to map a route past Labour’s current immigration impasse and towards a ‘reframing’ of how Labour might present a new immigration narrative.

This route will largely depend, I suggest, on the capacity of the labour movement for subversion against the leadership, and the willingness of the leadership to tolerate such subversion.  As such, the development of an authentic left-wing framing of the immigration debate might act as a model for (anti-hegemomic) framing of other political ‘debates’ which are currently being lost to the right.

From a Chittagong slum to the House of Commons


Years ago, I was sitting in the clinic in a Chittagong slum, chatting after work hours with a mix of local residents and staff (there we are, that’s me in blue).

Most were Muslims, but a couple of the staff were Hindus.  We got to talking about Muslim-Hindi relations, and one contribution from a local mother, Hasina (pictured below) – her child was staying with us in the feeding centre and she was well known in the area as an organiser and agitator – has stuck with me:

We need the Hindus.  They are cleverer than us.  Sometimes we don’t like them, but we need them.

I was reminded of this last week when, down in London, I bobbed down to Westminster for Progress’s Q&A on Labour’s immigration stance in the context of winning the next general election.

At the top table were:

1) Jonathan Portes from NIESR, who gave us facts about immigration being good for the UK, before retreating (several times) behind his “I’m an economist, not a politician” banner. Jonathan was always going to do this, so it does make you wonder why he was a speaker at meeting on how to get the politics of immigration right.

2) Diane Abbott MP, who went over, in some places word for word, the Progress article magazine I’d read in the ten minutes I was waiting for it all to start.  Her message is simple: stop apologising for Labour’s immigration policy as it’ll make everyone thing the Tories/UKIP are right, and deal with the economic issues which feed popular anti-immigration sentiment instead.  She also said that people who claim that anti-immigration stances aren’t mostly about race are talking crap.

3) David Hanson, Shadow Immigration Minister, talked crap about how we should recognize that people around the country were “in shock” at the changes in their community, such as a traditional butcher’s now being a Polish foodstuff shop, and that the best way to deal with all this is to deal with the economic issues which feed popular anti-immigration sentiment.  David’s list of issues was a bit different from Diane Abbott’s, notably leaving out trade union freedom.  He also said that people who claim that anti-immigration stances are actually about race are talking crap.

4) Zoe Tyndall  from polling firm Britain Thinks, who – amongst the general platitudes –  told us one interesting thing: that the one thing her focus groups associate with Labour’s immigration policy is Gordon Brown’s calling Irene Duffy a bigot – the implication being that the real issue for voters is not so much whether immigration is a good or a bad thing, more that they dislike the idea of an elite telling them that there is correct line to take on it.

5) Someone else from a polling firm or think-tank who said nothing of interest and whose name I’ve forgotten.

The Q&A proceeded as you’d expect, and as many have proceeded previously.  The speakers entrenched themselves in their positions, and the central question of how a mainstream political party might facilitate a shift in public opinion on immigration, in order to get to a more sensible political and economic position of the type set out by Jonathan Portes, while still understanding, respecting and being seen to respect the right of the public to have an opinion which for the moment at least appears diametrically opposed to that sensible political and economic position (and without, therefore further entrenching a public view that a pro-immigration stance is only held by a metropolitan elite who don’t have to suffer the assumed/imagined* cultural and economic downsides of immigration).

The best attempt to address this central question came from Sally Copley, the Labour PPC for Oxford West & Abingdon, who asked – referencing her campaigning job with Oxfam GB – why we are unable to develop a pro-immigration narrative/story which can turn the tide of anti-immigration sentiment. What the right were very good at, she went on, was presenting/comstructing a “villain of the piece” around to which to establish a story of good and evil. why she asked, was the left not as good at it?  This was, as I’ll go on to set out, was more insightful than I initially credited it as being.

Diane Abbott’s half-attempt to answer this was slightly bizarre, and reflected a failure even to grasp what the question was about; she claimed, as far as I could tell, that the only way forward was us to tell a story that we thought was true, thus spectacularly both missing the point and accusing us all of not believing the benefits of immigration in the first place.

But at least she had a go. The other top table ones fell back into their own securities of needing to understand that people felt under threat (Hanson), that we needed to start where people were at (pollsters) or that such stuff really wasn’t anything to do with him (Portes).

Already feeling somewhat dispirited, I attempted to back up Sally’s point – rather inarticulately, because I tried overly to facilitate dialogue by drawing on previous conversation threads (including Diane Abbott’s) – by suggesting one particular narrative in which we both believe – given the evidence – and which “starts where people are”. This is in schools – very much part of the everyday life of millions of parents and grandparents – and the very real evidence (which I’ve covered here and here) that immigration is a direct causal factor in improvements in achievement for both immigrant and native-born children.

Jonathan nodded furiously as I said this, and noted that, strangely, this was a ‘story’ which was being told by the Daily Mail, but not by Labour. Diane Abbott then provided an answer, ostensibly to my question but with no obvious substantive connection to it – essentially she repeated a bit of her Progress article – before the Chair Polly Billington, the PPC for Thurrock, weighed in with her experiences of the huge improvements in academic achievement in her area which she suggested, agreeing with my line, were being driven by immigration (from West Africa in her case) but then proceeded to chide me gently for not realizing that in fact this was very bad news, because white working class children were being excluded in some way from the rapidity of these achievements, and this meant that immigration might in fact be a bad thing.

The meeting tied up, and we all went home – none the wiser about how we actually “win” on immigration in a way which differentiates us from the right. As it stands, the Labour party seems doomed to its cowardly position – as reflected here – of the need to take voters’ concerns seriously and even internalise these concerns so as to feel in tune with popular feeling, even while knowing that these concerns are the result of years of hegemomic practice in which the party itself has been complicity, for fear of being seen to disrespect voters, while the Abbottian left snipes from the sidelines but without a positive alternative, anti-hegemonic strategy.

How not to win on immigration

So what might that alternative strategy look like?

This is where my Hasina from Chittagong comes in. Labour, I suggest, could learn a lot from her.

Hasina didn’t like Hindus much, but really wanted them in her community because they benefited her; they were the ones who knew how to mix the rehydration solution best of all, who were literate, who could make your baby well.   It was therefore in her self-interest that she should sublimate her dislike of some cultural stuff Hindus do in favour of other practical stuff that Hindus do well.

My point at the House of Commons sought to reflect Hasina’s insight.  If only, I was trying to say, immigrants could be marketed in the same way in the same way of my aid agency had, albeit inadvertently, marketed our Hindu staff from across town, then we might get somewhere – if only, for example, we could develop a ‘story’ which persuaded people that it’s in their direct self-interest to have immigrants in their school, to the extent that people start to seek out high-immigration areas for their children’s education, in the believe that this would give them the best start in life.  Then, perhaps, we might start to get somewhere – starting with grudging respect for individuals exemplars of immigration, maybe, but moving on to an acceptance that immigration as a whole is to be welcomed.

But course it’s not as easy as that, and I was wrong to suggest that it might be (not that anyone was listening).  As George Lakoff has reiterated recently in his (very good) interview with Zoe Williams, it’s not all about self-interest:

Liberals try to argue against them [convervatives] using evidence; they are embarrassed by emotionality. They think that if you can just demonstrate to voters how their self-interest is served by a socially egalitarian position, that will work, and everyone will vote for them and the debate will be over. In fact, Lakoff asserts, voters don’t vote for bald self-interest; self-interest fails to ignite, it inspires nothing – progressives, of all people, ought to understand this.

In my own argument, I had forgotten that an argument in favour of immigration based on the self interest of native-born Brits, even though this might be a narrative step on from Jonathan Portes’ dry economic facts, still relies on people being open to evidence – local evidence that immigration causes better attainment for all children in their area, in this case.

In fact, there is little evidence that such a breakthrough might be achieved, at least in the short term. After all, even respected commentator Tim Stanley, in appealing for a “serious calm conversation about immigration” failed, within that very appeal, to notice the false assumption behind his acceptance that high number of pupils with first languages other than English “has to affect [negatively] the learning of other pupils”; as I’ve set out, the opposite is true.  If an intellectual calling from a debate unframed by initial prejudice uses the frame of initial prejudice as a way of providing what he thinks is balance, what chance do the rest of us stand?

From evidence to moral foundations

Lakoff has argued for years now that the left (‘liberals’ in his US terminology) have been losing ground to the right because they have lost the framing battle.  It is a convincing argument, rooted in his in his background as a cognitive linguist researching how our core cognitive functions are driven by an understanding of the world-as-metaphor – but while he is rightly critical of methods which smiply reinforce conservative messages by repeating them, in the belief that people will then see how absurd they are, he largely fails to come up with answers about how we might carry out this reframing more successfully.  This is, in part, because he has become focused on the strict father vs nurturing father metaphor which he suggests lies at the methaphoric heart of all political debate, embedded as it in Judeao-Christian culture.  This may be true as an analysis, but it difficult see how such linguistic embedding might be combatted.

More useful- at least heuristically – is the model of political framing set out by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt.  Haidt sets out five moral foundation ‘spectrums’, which he seeks to show are rooted in our evolution (and evidenced anthropologically), and which act as ‘triggers’ for our judgment on moral, and therefore (reflecting Lakoff) political issues.

These moral foundation spectrums are: 1) care/harm 2) fairness/cheating  3) liberty/oppression  4) authority/subversion  5) loyalty/betrayal 6) sanctity/degradation , and overt moral approval or disapproval of political actions and ideas is triggered by evolutionary impulses, which put us on guard against actions deemed to be at the negative end of the spectrum, and value those at the positive.   Haidt goes on to suggest that the left relies overly on just three  foundations in its political framing, giving the right an in-built advantage as they appeal to a population which pays unconscious heed to all six.

Haidt offers us a convincing story about why the right seem to find it easier to gain the upperhand in political argument, because they are able to rely on the moral triggers themselves developed in (literally) uncivilised times, when cooperation and equality of status were used as bargaining tools in the interests of self and clan, rather than as ends in themselves.   In these terms, Zoe Tyndall’s research finding that what really narks her focus groups about Labour’s immigration policy is not the policy itself, but its association with Gordon Brown disrespecting Irene Duffy.   Indeed, Haidt’s summary of the authority/subversion foundation might have been written to describe this reaction:

The authority/subversion foundation evolved in the adaptive challenge of forging relations that will benefit us within social hierarchies.  It makes us sensitive  to signs of rank or status , and to signs that other people  are (or are not) behaving properly given their position (p.154).

What Labour sought desperately to write off as a storm in a teacup (though Brown, to his credit, realised it was much bigger than that), the Right instinctively seized upon as a key part of its story about Labour as an oppressive force.  This brings me back to Hasina (pictured, below, with her children).


I have already set out her half-joking insight about the value of Hindus, and expressed it in terms of her and her family’s self-interest.  But there was more to it than that.  Hasina, as a woman who stood up for herself in a community rife with domestic violence, that what she was saying was gently subversive, not simply because it was brazen about ackowledging the ‘otherness’ in Hindus, but because it really wasn’t her place to saying such stuff, amidst an informal get together of staff (her social betters), and the strange but kindly foreigner to boot.   In so doing, her political incorrectness counted for a great deal more than the staff platitudes about us all working together as one.

In fact, Hasina reminds me a little – though not physically, of Peter Griffin, the creation of the 21st century’s most talented observer of modern American life, Seth McFarlane.  Here’s Peter (11 second clip), doing what he does best, valuing immigration and otherness by taking the piss out of authority in act an which also nods at self-interest.

How to win on immigration

So, having explored why the Right is winning on immigration, how does the left start to win?

If you follow the Haidt-Hasina-Griffin logic through, the obvious answer is that we must start to subvert.   If we take as a starting point the idea that Labour’s political hierarchy has, through its collective behaviour, triggered revulsion on the authority/subversion moral spectrum, then the only morally acceptable behaviour, in the eyes of the wider population, is for people within the same  labour movement to rebel against it.   In time, this might create the space for us to exploit other moral foundations such as  loyalty/betrayal, whereby an act in favour of immigration comes to be viewed as an act of loyalty to social class rather than an act of national betrayal, as it is currently framed (and as I’ve heard reflected on the #labourdoorstep).

To some extent, therefore, Diane Abbott is right to say that we must stand up against the current immigration narrative, though as a member of the Labour hierarchy tarred with the same brush as most MPs, she is the wrong person to lead on that.  Ultimately, Diane Abbott is no Hasina.   Or Peter Griffin.

In the current command and control structure of the Labour  party, such acts of welcome subversion are unlikely to happen on a meaningful scale, anf it looks like the Collins Review will fail to do what it might have done in opening up power beyond its current narrow confines.

This is a shame.  If the party’s “thinkers” had real gumption, they would realise that it stands to benefit, not just in terms of the opportunity to turn round the immigration debate, from opening itself up to legitimate contestation of its decision-making, and that what it preaches about the value of community organising might, instead of it being used to further depoliticize local parties, might instead be a key tool in the (re)legitimization of the party (and the leadership itself).

Even if the thinkers can’t grasp Lakoff and Haidt properly, they might at least see that the rise of UKIP is driven not just by anti-politics, but by a UKIP leadership which makes a virtue of the fact that its adherents are subversive even with the party (its attempts to control this will also hasten its decline).  Labour is made of more moral stuff than UKIP to start with, and the leadership should see the advantage in engaging with principled dissent.

In the end then, whether Labour gets it right on immigration, and all other social policy areas which it as ceded to the right because of its failure (inter alia) to read Lakoff properly, is likely to depend on the usual stuff – the capacity of the rank and file to wield influence within the party.

We’ve been here before, of course.

On Mark Harper’s breach of the Race Relations act 1976

February 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Tories and Labour alike are full of praise for the way in which now ex-Immigration Minister  Mark Harper has acted over his discovery that this cleaner does not have permanent leave to remain in the UK.

This seems odd, because if the news reports are accurate, Mark Harper has acted unlawfully.

Specifically, he would appear to be in breach of the Race Relations Act 1976 Part 2, sec 4 (2A) which states that:

It is unlawful for an employer, in relation to employment by him at an establishment in Great Britain, to subject to harassment a person whom he employs or who has applied to him for employment

This is made clear in the TUC’s 2010 guidance on immigration document checks:

Under the Race Relations Act (RRA) 1976 and its subsequent amendments it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against their employees or prospective employees on the grounds of race, colour, nationality (including citizenship), or ethnic or national origin. This applies to both public and private sector employers.

The TUC guidance goes on to review what documents can lawfully be reviewed by employers, and when they can be reviewed:

List A documents confirm that a person has the permanent right to stay and work in the UK. People holding List A documents need only be checked once, at the point of recruitment.

List B documents confirm that a person has the limited right to stay and work in the UK. People holding List B documents need to be re-checked every 12 months until they end their employment or are able to produce a List A document, in order for their employer to maintain a defence against being fined.

In Harper’s case, it seems clear that he thought his cleaner had permanent right to stay in the UK. In any event, he had no right to make repeated checks for any employee taken on before 29 Feb 2008, the date the new List A and B documentation rules came into force.  His cleaner was, according to press reports, employed before then. Had s/he been employed after that, then he would legally have had to do the checks year;y, which he didn’t do.

So having got it wrong (but not unlawfully so) in 2007, it looks like he has acted unlawfully both now, and possibly also in 2010 and 2012, when he says he also checked his cleaner’s immigration status.  He simply had no right to do so – losing papers does not count as a justification.

Funny that an Immigration Minister should be so ignorant of the law – but not so funny for his cleaner who now – because of this unlawful act by her employer – presumably now faces an uncertain future.


h/t Tim Flatman


Categories: General Politics

From member to supporter?

February 1, 2014 Leave a comment

I’ve not seen the NEC papers with the Collins Review recommendations, so can only go off the reports of people who probably haven’t either but do a good job at pretending they might have done.  The best summaries are, for obvious reasons, on the Labour blogs, Labourlist and Left Futures.  I’ll take those as reflecting reality for now.

Overall, it could be a good deal worse.  The upping of the percentage of PLP endorsements in order to stand in a Labour leadership election is frustrating, as it gives MPs a needless level of control over the shortlist and narrow the freedom of choice for the rest of us, but leadership elections only happen once a decade and the change is fairly unlikely to make a difference to the outcome of the next one at least, and the Labour party will be such a different beast in 15-20 years time that it’s not really worth being concerned about.

I can live with the London primary as an experiment, though it may make some vacuous celebrity more of a shoe-in, which is bad for politics in the long-term.  I’m still kind of Weberian.

But the main problem remains the fact that Labour party finances will plummet if we don’t sign up enough people as supporters, even though there’ll be a soft plummeting over the five year plan.  And we don’t sign up enough £3 supporters because there will no incentive for most to join the party/movement.  As it stands, theyy’ll pay £3 for the privilege of being an official party cheerleader, but have no actual power or sense of power because there will be no  additional resources available to their local party unit to either get stuff done locally, or put into a wider pot for actions over which they’ve had a genuine say.

I’ve been over this ground plenty, so no point repeating the practical proposals I’ve made to Ray Collins’ and his team.  I made these proposals in good faith on the basis that they would actually be read, and if there was disagreement with them I’d at least be told, in the Review report, what the reasons were.  It’s starting to look, from my brief conversations with NEC delegates, that that’s not going to happen.  I am keen for me to find otherwise.

This would be a betrayal of my trust in the party that it will do what it said it will do, and would make me weigh up the morality vs utility of my remaining as a member of the Labour party.  I am sanguine about the extent to which I might be missed as a member.

As an arch-loyalist, I would of course be a union opt-in supporter, so would leave without leaving, in the hope that over time being a supporter is actually the same anyway.

I will make these points on the conference floor on 1st March, if my waving hand is seen.

Categories: Labour Party News

So what if Tom Perkins is right?

January 26, 2014 4 comments

Billionaire venture capitalist Tom Perkins has suggests that “the progressive war on the American one percent” might be analogous to developments in “fascist Nazi Germany”*.   Anti-rich media reporting, he tells us, may be the precursor of something much worse, if only we could think things through like him:

 This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking.  Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent [sic] “progressive” radicalism unthinkable now?

Perkins has attracted ridicule but he may actually be right.  Historian Karl Dietrich Bracher seems to concur that something on the scale of Kristallnacht, and what followed, was so out of keeping with what had gone before as to be “unthinkable” until it came to pass.

Prior to Hitler’s emergence, outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence were rare in Germany, unlike eastern Europe.  Of course, anti-Semitic was ever present, waiting for fresh opportunities, particularly in times of poitical and economic crisis. It flared up with great intensity in 1873-1895, 1918-23, 1930-33, but its influence on political life and the terrible realization of its barbaric goals became possible after it had become part of an anti-democratic mass movement (p.66).

Bracher goes on to trace how and why this anti-democratic movement developed during the 1920s, and at the heart of his story is the way in which the “army and bureaucracy, middle class and business” (p.66) sided with the emerging forces of Nazism, enabling it ultimately to gain power via the democratic route,  for two main reasons: a dysfunctional democracy in the form of the Weimar republic, and the ‘Red spectre’ of Communist revolution (p.66). In the end, says Bracher,  the Germans got the Nazis because they thought the alternative might be worse:

The History of National Socialism is, in effect, the history of its fatal underestimation (p.69)

Fast forward to 2014 America** , and arguably it is this dynamic that Perkins has identified for us: a deep distrust of the political establishment, conflated with a growing fear of what “progressive” forces from the Left, such as Occupy, might mean for the status quo, leading to a growing hankering after a maverick figure of authority in whom we can all trust.

On this side of the Atlantic, UKIP is doing its best to provide that kind of “authority”, winning popularity via a leader who disrespects the fundamentals of democratic politics while making use of those same fundamentals to increase his coverage.  He can’t be any worse, we say, even though by normal standards of judgment, he very clearly is.

UKIP won’t itself last as a political force, but its methods, including a  very English form of völkish nationalism (unwittingly abetted by those who see the development of an English identity as a panacea) may well be taken up more talented and ruthless operatives.

Of course, on one narrow point Tom Perkins is wrong.  The victims of such a rise in nasty, anti-democratic forces will not be the likes of Perkins – he and his sort will be busy collaborating on the identification of who the victims should be, and making the most of the new opportunities afforded to them by the spirit of post-democracy.

But we should be grateful, at least, for this quick history lesson.


* I assume Perkins wants to distinguish ‘fascist Nazi Germany” for other types of Nazi Germany, though I’m not immediately aware of there having been any other types.

** Here I do Bracher a blatant disservice, as he is very clear that the rise of Nazism was a very German phenomenon, with a very specific set of drivers which do not lend themselves to explication of the rise of fascism in other countries.  Sorry, Karl Dietrich.

Categories: General Politics

Why the Left should be celebrating Ed Balls’ Fabian speech on ‘fiscal discipline’

January 25, 2014 4 comments

On hearing that Ed Balls was to use the Fabian conference to announce Labour’s commitment to a budget surplus, Hopi Sen tweets with mock insouciance

This is amusing, because his #intheblack labour side hasn’t won.  It’s lost, and my side has won.

As George Eaton has pointed out*

While Osborne’s promise applies to total government spending, Balls’s only applies to current spending (day-to-day spending on public services, for instance teachers’ salaries and hospital drugs). This leaves open the option of Labour borrowing to fund additional capital spending (investment in assets such as housing and roads).

This is not something In the Black Labour ever conceived of in their original short paper.

Where George continues to get it wrong is his assumption that additional borrowing will go towards capital spending only.  True, Balls focused on capital investment today, but the crucial (and largely ignored) Zero-based review makes it clear that there is an openness to non-capital social investment where additional funds are needed in the short terms to generate longer term savings to the public purse e.g. through investments in education and social justice-focused welfare provision.**

Ed Balls’ conversion (or re-conversion) to a reasonable sensible fiscal strategy in government should be a matter of celebration for the Left, much more than the politically attractive but much less meaningful 50% tax-rate (which should have been announced much later, giving top earners less time to shift there income around to avoid it).  It comes about not least because of the pressure by sections of the Left on Labour to do something seriously pro-growth AND pro-social justice, and marks quite a big shift in our direction.  If you look closely.***


* Fair play to George for finally waking up to this.  It’s possible, though I’m sure he’d deny it, that he realised what was going on when I took him to task on his failure to keep up to date.  His colleague Rafael Behr, whom I also found wanting, has conceded that I am right.

**This is easy enough to manage at a Treasury level – simply lower capital expenditure in Departmental budgets by shifting these costs into the new investment funds, thus allowing for increased investment-focused revenue in the Departmental budget.

*** To be fair to Hopi, he’s not alone.  All the press comment I’ve seen other tha George’s has seen Balls’ speech as a simple move towards fiscal disipline, ignoring the bit about this only being on current spending, and the room that this leaves.  This, for example, is quite wrong.

Baumol vs Milibandism: Can Labour’s public service reforms succeed?

January 21, 2014 2 comments

Like Rafael Behr in the New Statesman before him, Janan Ganesh in the FT (£), , thinks Ed Miliband is avoiding the public services reform elephant in the room:

If choice and competition are so desirable in the private sector, why is he [Miliband] averse to their presence in the public sector? Aside from foreign policy, there is no subject on which he has moved further from Mr Blair than public service reform…….

This is not merely an intellectual rumple to intrigue wonks and technocrats. It goes to the gut question of what kind of prime minister Mr Miliband wants to be. He says he will stand up against “vested interests”. How would he describe the teaching unions? He says he will take on producer lobbies. What is the British Medical Association if not that? He wants an annual competition audit with consumers on board. Why not put public services within its remit?

See what Janan’s doing there?  In his world, reform is the breaking of the unions and  privatization.

Meanwhile, away from FT towers, the Labour party is starting to engage in a root and branch review of public services.  As the phase 1 discussion document for the Zero-based Review sets out:

First, building on the ideas in this document each Labour shadow ministerial team will prepare a report on Public Service Reform and Re-Design setting out how we now  deliver better public services with less money, involving employees, charities, and the  voluntary sector in our deliberations, as well as business and public providers, employer groups and trade unions. We will publish a summary of these reports in the  spring (p.7).

Unlike Janan, Labour gets that public service reform is about more than the latest carve up.  As Rafael correctly said in his piece*:

The idea that services can be improved by outsourcing key functions to the likes of Serco, Capita and G4S has been pretty well discredited. Likewise, there is mixed evidence at best when it comes to the belief that public sector efficiency and quality are raised when service users (parents and patients) choose between competing providers (schools and hospitals) in quasi-markets.

Whether or not Janan Ganesh is a competent journalist need not detain us here.  The point is that Labour as a party is doing its best to grapple with how public services will need to develop when it comes into government, and the important question is whether it might succeed.

So will it?

Well, I like the determination to do so set out in the document**, and I like the way it effectively firms up the commitment to investment spending, where the benefits can be quantified, through its very commitment to restraining “day to day” spending, as that allows quite a lot of leeway once in government.  In addition, the timelines are canny, in that there’s a quiet recognition that little major investment will be possible in the first year of government anyway, as it takes time to get such stuff underway, thus allowing the full zero-based review to be completed when in government (and with the resources then to do so).

But will such a review  ultimately overcome the Baumol effect?  Will Britain’s public services be remodelled to such an extent that the lag in productivity growth in public services, as compared to other sectors can be ‘rectified’?

No, I think is the answer to that.  To this extent I agree with Rick, that something will have to give.  In the end, a person to help dress in a hospital is a person to help dress in a hospital, and someone who needs a job remains the same person who needs a job, and in the end ‘efficiencies’ end up as reduced quality.

Even so, I’m hopeful that the review will start to look beyond productivity gains, beyond the Baumolian inevitability, and address the other side of the public services equation: not the services bit, but the public bit. I’m hopeful that long-term investment in the broadening of the whole concept child welfare***, for example, will create less need for (the relatively) massive expenditure on statutory child protection services.

I’m hopeful not because I see many radical solutions emerging just yet but because, unlike blinkered journalists who can’t even be bothered to read Labour policy before pontificating about how crap we are at it, I can see that at least Labour under Miliband is trying to open up to radical reform of public services.

That’s reform – as in re-forming.

[Update 23/01/14 : this has become 1 of 2 pieces on Public Sector Reform Labour-style.  2 of 2 gets down to the nitty-gritty of what it needs to be if it's to overcome Baumol]

*My mini-beef with Rafael is not his analysis that public sector reform is something more than privatisation.  My mini-beef with him is that, because Miliband glazes over a bit when asked about public services, then Labour mustn’t be doing anything about it.  Yet the Zero-based review document I refer to above, in which the plan of attack is laid out (albeit badly), appeared before Rafael’s piece.

Likewise, it’s taken his colleague George Eaton a month to work out the distinction between day-to-day spending and investment spending (though he’s still too hooked on the capital/revenue split), basing his analysis on a speech by Balls, when in fact that distinction is set out clearly enough in the Zero-based review document (and was obvious enough to me five months ago that I spelled it out here).   The document is even signed of by Balls (and Miliband)

** Actually the document itself is startlingly badly written, with lots of repetition, and it’s not even properly proof-read.  It’s almost as though it was released without fanfare and in this uncooked state so that people would ignore it for now, but that it could be referred to later as proof of the long-term planning.  In which case, it’s worked.

*** I choose this example because grassroots-led radical change to child welfare action is what I’m working on at the moment, and I’m very excited about it.  More news soon.

Categories: Labour Party News

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