The Labour leader wants to empower individuals but governments have promised this kind of shift for four decades, only to end up taking back power in order to get things done
When I heard that Ed Miliband was making a rare venture into the flood prone territory of public service reform my ears pricked up.
As with this winter’s breaches of dykes and sea walls, a Labour leader can easily be overwhelmed by angry Twitter types and trade union leaders if he disturbs the status quo by asking for more than extra cash for schools or hospitals.
‘A Labour leader can easily be overwhelmed by angry Twitter types and trade union leaders if he disturbs the status quo’
In any event there was no cause for undue alarm in the Miliband text. His staff are said to be puzzled by a lack of media attention to some of his pronouncements but some of them have deserve an underwhelmed response because they were timid and cautious at a time when the “sort of recovering” economy puts his hopes of Number 10 at risk.
You might have thought that the arrival of unabashed left winger Bill de Blasio as mayor of arch capitalist New York might have emboldened him.
So how did this week’s Hugo Young lecture measure up? More of the cautious same, I fear.
As you may or may not have read, the Labour leader rejected both the post-war model of “top down central control with users as passive recipients” and “market based individualism” in which we are all mere consumers of privately delivered services. If this sounds like Tony Blair’s middle way “triangulation” technique, that’s because it is.
‘Flood prevention is a perfect example of how locals usually know best, but don’t hold your breath. Localism costs money’
Miliband’s four pronged alternative is the empowerment of individuals and communities to sack head teachers or veto hospital reconfiguration.
Considering the rising concern worldwide about corrosive levels of economic and other inequalities as the catalyst for action (tackling inequality is the new centre ground of politics), Miliband wants parents and patients to have the right to access the mountains of information held on us all: the right to “track our case” like we do an Amazon order.
He also wants to expand the right to be put in touch with support networks − there are already lots of these Ed − that can provide help with a medical condition as part of the drive to self care.
Opening up discussion
Miliband wants the decision making structures opened up so that patient groups are always involved in, say, hospital or GP reconfiguration issues − something David Cameron promised in opposition but is now (says Miliband) poised to abandon completely.
There was nothing particularly specific in this lecture − no mention of ringfenced NHS budgets, only of unavoidable cuts − but he did mention that patient representatives should sit on clinical commissioning group boards and that council health and wellbeing boards − not CCGs or trusts − should be in charge of public consultation.
It’s hardly an election winning slogan and Miliband is in need of one. Nor does he spell out how empowering users must be at some cost to the power and working habits of producers, staff and their unions.
‘Miliband’s direction lacks the Blair flair that won three general elections’
It flows from all this that the Labour leader’s fourth point is the greater devolution of power from Whitehall to local authorities and other public bodies.
A host of Labour policy reviews are working on good ideas. Fine; but governments have promised such a shift for four decades, yet ended up taking back power in order to get things done.
Flood prevention is a perfect example of how locals usually know best, but don’t hold your breath. Localism costs money.
Besides, as we see “empowering” individuals and communities works well for those who are better off, this widens inequality. Drugs, booze, cigarettes and fatty food are the poor’s self medication.
Miliband is a thoughtful man, he reads books and likes ideas. He is less superficial than Tony Blair, though his direction of travel here is distinctly “Blairish”. What it lacks is that Blair flair that won three general elections.
Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian