I have been a member of the Labour Party for most of my adult life. I have campaigned for Labour; stuffed envelopes, knocked doors, held placards and phone canvassed. I have friends who did so at this election and others who stood as candidates and promise to be wonderful MPs. I am loyal to Labour and opposed to the Conservatives. But at this election I was conflicted: I find our manifesto hard to support.
I am Labour because I believe in the universal pooling of risk: that the people of our country agree to support each other’s health, wealth and education. And I believe that from this shared platform our country can thrive.
The Conservatives threaten this. They believe that the burden of risk should fall on you and your family’s shoulders, leaving chance as a major determiner of your lot in life. They strip resources away from schools, hospitals and other institutions that guarantee our shared prosperity. Over the past seven years this has been done under the guise of ‘austerity’, but the cuts are rooted in ideology not economics. The Tories roll back the state in the name of personal freedom, but the effect is to leave people less free. The dementia tax strips wealth from people with poor health; grammar schools separate our children into sheep and goats. Unfairness is entrenched, with rich people shielded by their wealth and the rest surviving on what falls from the table or lucky breaks.
I was politicised in the mid-90s, when the Tories had ruled for more than fifteen years. Rising homelessness and hospital waiting times, prison riots and school funding crises – the characteristics of today’s politics were true then too. This is not a coincidence: these are symptoms of Conservative politics, and make it easy for many of us to vote against them.
But I also see threats in the Labour manifesto.
We argue that that too much power and privilege is concentrated in the hands of the few – multi-national companies and ultra-rich individuals – and we seek to change that. I agree wholeheartedly.
But our solution does not go far enough. Our manifesto simply proposes swapping out big business for big politics: nationalising and centralising so that power is still hoarded, just by a different set of people.
We propose bringing utilities, transport and postal services under state control. And we say this is for the good. But we forget these services suffered from chronic underinvestment, from all Governments, and that people couldn’t vote with their feet. We want to drive businesses out of health and local authority social care, even if they provide a great service. We want to bring free schools and academies back under local authority control, quashing diversity, taking away choice and stifling independence.
Of course, British people are angry at big business. But it is also true that people want business to flourish. Why? Because, we depend upon businesses to serve us, we work for them, we create them to give life to our ideas and talents. For every high profile business misdemeanour, people will have personal experience of local shop, chemist, employer, or yes, their privately owned GP-practice, where they have been treated with care, compassion and respect.
We can all point to inspirational teachers, brave police officers and lifesaving medics. But equally, people know about public sector failures. Mid-Staffordshire hospital; schools (both within and outside council control) excluding students to boost league table performance; local authorities gatekeeping to reduce housing applications; job centres driving people into poverty through poor administration; Rotherham and the Three Girls.
We know from our time in government that choice and competition, at NHS prices, drove up standards in the Health Service[i]. That opening the NHS to regulated private providers increased capacity and contributed to reduced waiting times[ii]. We know that centralised control helped poor services become effective, but we also know that giving autonomy to effective services creates excellence[iii].
In short, people understand that whether something is public or privately owned is no more a guarantor of quality and integrity than it is a guarantor of bureaucracy or corruption.
Yet our manifesto ignores what we have learned in favour of what we’d like to be true. It is predicated on a blind faith in the state, a mistrust of people and a prejudice against profit.
If enacted, our manifesto would contribute to the very problem it tries to resolve. It simply offers a new concentration of power in the shape of an enlarged, all-encompassing state, when we know that far-off bureaucracies leave people feeling alienated and powerless. Thatcher broke the bonds between people and place, allowing vast multi-national companies to undermine local businesses and communities. Distance has eroded trust in power to the point where people no longer believe decision-makers act in their interest[iv]. While living standards rise this can be tolerated, but when incomes stop rising, resentment kicks in and people want to take back control.
The Labour party needs to move on. We must not try to rebuild a machine we know to be broken. We must go much further; we must redistribute power from wherever it is hoarded to give people real power over their own lives.
At times we seem instinctively to know what to do. Shared parental leave, civil partnerships, devolution and personal disability budgets are all Labour policies which liberate us to be able to make genuinely important choices about our own lives. Policies that are embraced by the public and adopted by our opponents – and yet are firmly rooted in our traditions; Nye Bevan is reputed to have said, “the purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away.”
Power concentrations are at the root of many of our most pressing social, economic and political problems: workers incomes have stalled while CEO remuneration soars; ordinary people, particularly woman and minorities, are locked out of the high-earning professions[v]; Whitehall makes investment decisions favouring the south[vi]. Large companies have concentrated their control over markets such as banking, housing, groceries and utilities. And many use their power to dominate: to raise prices or squeeze producers, limit choice or choke supply, lower wages or prevent start-ups and small businesses from competing.[vii]
Redistributing power – whether from the state, big business or the ultra-rich – is the battleground of Labour’s origins. It is also the battle of today; and one which puts us firmly on the side of the underdog.
Redistributing power offers us a radical future as the liberating state; protecting personal freedom and securing diversity, choice, openness, innovation and competition. It gives Labour a platform not only to talk to people about public services, but also about their identity and their aspirations.
How? First we make sure risks are genuinely shouldered by the collective, not the individual. We need to replace our defunct welfare system with a universal basic income that guarantees people are free from poverty. And we need to look again at prescription, dental and other charges that undermine the principle that health services are free at the point of need.
Second, we must support people’s aspirations. People on low and middle incomes should keep more of the money they earn. Instead, tax should target individual and corporate concentrations of wealth and assets. Employees should be able to take shares in lieu of wages and we must make home ownership affordable. Labour should be the party on the side of small business. And, if our economy ever needs another shot in the arm, money should be put into peoples’ pockets rather boosting the reserves of big banks.[viii]
Third, we must make sure that essential services – housing, medical care, education, banking, utilities, transport and news – work for us. Not through public ownership, but by placing a duty on providers to act in the public interest, whether publicly or privately owned. Government must fight for us as citizens, consumers and producers by undoing Thatcher’s work; opening up monopolised markets to start-ups and smaller providers.
Finally, we must properly invest in public services, and at the same time make sure people have genuine control over their lives. Services should serve only one master – those people who use them. So we must be able to vote with our feet: we should decide how to use funds for our care; the kind of school that will suit our children; where to be treated when we’re sick; or what help we need to get back into work[ix]. People with disabilities should be able to transform their lives by taking their benefits as a lump sum rather than a monthly handout.
Where decisions, like investment and immigration, can’t be made by individuals, government must bring them as close to us as possible[x]. Local economies and cultures develop best from the ground up with the consent of the people who know them. People and places thrive where they are free to act on and gain from their initiative, knowing that they are supported by a fair state with effective institutions[xi]. It is choice, competition and diversity, underpinned by proper funding and regulation which minimises the risk and impact of failure, while guaranteeing the autonomy that fosters innovation and excellence.
I don’t write this because I believe it is an election-winning strategy. And I know our manifesto is both popular and talks to peoples’ concerns. But I don’t believe it can deliver on its promise.
Labour must face the world’s future with confidence, by trusting in people. We must not set up a planned and controlled system that gives a false impression of being able to hold back the tide. The job of government is to create a solid base which not only provides shelter but also empowers people and communities to adapt and create their own solutions; to make sure we can all participate in our own and our country’s future.
[i] See presentation by Professor Carol Propper, Imperial College London & University of Bristol, 2014 http://competitionpolicy.ac.uk/documents/8158338/8253850/Carol+Propper+-+CCP+Conference+2014.pdf/7ae37240-4600-4e18-a20d-bef298ee232a
[ii] Financial Times, How New Labour succeeded with NHS policy, 2010 https://www.ft.com/content/168e1278-2b24-11df-93d8-00144feabdc0?mhq5j=e2 (£)
[iii] See Michael Barber, 2008, Instruction to Deliver
[iv] See NatCen study into British Social Attitudes, 2016 http://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/media/38455/bsa30_politics_final.pdf
[v] See Sutton Trust research, 2016 https://www.suttontrust.com/newsarchive/private-school-is-still-surest-route-to-front-rank-of-professions/
[vi] For example, £250 per person transport investment in Yorkshire and Humber compared to £1,900 in London between 2016 – 2021 http://labourlist.org/2017/01/the-brexit-vote-was-a-call-for-devolution-not-increased-powers-for-the-pm-and-whitehall/
[vii] See Hillary Clinton op-ed, 2015, discussing impact of large corporations concentrating control over markets https://qz.com/529303/hillary-clinton-being-pro-business-doesnt-mean-hanging-consumers-out-to-dry/
[viii] See letter to The Guardian, in which senior economists argue that providing money directly to households would provide an effective boost to the economy https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/aug/03/a-post-brexit-economic-policy-reset-for-the-uk-is-essential?CMP=share_btn_fb
[ix] See Adam Lent, 2016, Small is powerful
[xi] See Acemoglu & Robinson, 2012, Why Nations Fail