Ed’s speech on public services – the difference I voted for

11th February, 2014 9:37 am

The 2010 Labour leadership election now feels like a long time ago.

But the choices we made as party members are being played out now in the way Ed Miliband is handling some of the key issues facing us.

Back in 2010 I probably surprised a lot of my friends and allies in the Party by campaigning for and advocating for Ed.

I’m proud of the stance I took then and reassured that on the big issues, Ed is making the choices I hoped he would.

Two of the key reasons I picked Ed were his attitude towards the unions and his attitude towards public service reform.

Last week, it was the relationship with the unions. A different leader might have pursued a more confrontational version of Party reform and ended up making trade unionists feel like outsiders in their own Party, thereby weakening the links that key Labour rooted in the everyday concerns of the workplace and ordinary working people. Ed avoided this and has backed a package of reforms that are radically democratising but maintain the fundamental principle of a collective voice for trade unionists in our structures.

This week, Ed has made a crucial speech on public services. Again a different leader would have made a very different speech.

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The very term “public service reform” had come to mean something far too narrow and specific by the end of the Blair era. A lot of Blair’s agenda on public services was excellent in that it focussed on raising standards. In Hackney where I am a councillor, my constituents in one of London’s most deprived wards benefitted from an already excellent hospital getting new powers as a Foundation Trust, and big improvements to school performance, not least through the closure of a failing secondary school and reopening it as a now thriving academy.

But the downside to public service reform in the Blair years was a somewhat naive assumption that the private sector always had something better to offer in terms of service delivery than the public sector, which often drove a presumption in favour of outsourcing. The private sector did and does have valuable expertise to offer in some areas. But those of us on the frontline in local government quickly discovered it doesn’t do everything better, and in fact outsourcing the wrong services or to the wrong contractor could have disastrous results.

An example in Hackney was the council’s crucial revenues and benefits function. The private sector contractor appointed in the late 1990s when the council was hung and Labour was in opposition was so incompetent that the council was unable to collect nearly 40% of the Council Tax it was owed, and people were driven into debt and the risk of losing their homes because processing Housing Benefit payments was subject to months of delays. The incoming Labour Council in 2001 brought the service back in house, and used public sector expertise from our colleagues at Camden Council to turn the service round and make it highly successful.

Outsourcing also brings a private sector culture and the profit motive into public services in ways that just jar with the ethos of public service, quite aside from contractors’ taking a profit, often by driving down staff terms and conditions in a way that contradicts all the wider objectives we have about combating poverty pay.

The other theme to Blairite public service reform was an emphasis on choice between different providers which could only be exercised by bringing something looking like a market into that service, so that money follows the “customer” to the popular schools or hospitals, and implicit in this is the idea that there will be a varying quality of provision (if every provider was as good as each other, why would there need to be choice?). I always felt this, as well as being an ideological concession to market forces, was based on a view of schools and hospitals as being something akin to supermarkets that you picked between, rather than universal services which sit at the heart of a community.

Ed’s speech moves the debate on decisively from that period.

He has not abandoned the idea that our public services need to be improved and reformed. This is not about going back to a centralised state telling people, “here’s your school, here’s your hospital, like it or lump it”.

But instead of a stale focus on choice, markets and private sector outsourcing, there is a new imaginative agenda about how the citizen who uses the services can be given more power to improve them.

It’s about saying: “don’t just get mad if you aren’t getting the schools or hospitals you deserve, you have the power to change them”.

In education, Ed talks about a new right for parents to get swift action on raising standards in schools.

As a parent, I welcome this. We had the hair-raising experience as parents of our older son starting primary school at a local school that had real problems. It has now overcome them thanks to federation with a stronger school with a very good head, but at the time, it would have been great to feel there was action we could take as parents that was about turning round the school that it made geographical sense for our child to go to, rather than the “choice” solution forced on many other parents with children in our son’s class, who gave up on the school and moved their children elsewhere.

The real-time access to information proposals in Ed’s speech are also great. My eight year old is not a reliable source of information about how his schooling is going, and waiting until an end of term report is too long when weeks can be critical in a child’s education.

In health, he talks about a real voice for patients and local people in changes to NHS services including hospital closures.

As Chair of my council’s Health Scrutiny Commission and someone who has had more than my fair share of time as a user of NHS services due to my brush with cancer, I welcome this. Currently we as councillors can refer reconfigurations to the Secretary of State. It is a lot more democratic if the people most affected, the patients, will get a say in looking at service changes from the start, and consultation will be run independently by local authorities and patient groups, not fixed by the same NHS managers who are actually promoting the changes.

When Ed says –

“The time demands a new culture in our public services. Not old-style, top-down central control, with users as passive recipients of services. Nor a market-based individualism which says the answer is to transplant the principles of the private sector lock, stock and barrel into the public sector. Instead, we need a new culture of people-powered public services. We should always be seeking to put more power in the hands of patients, parents and all the users of services. Giving them a voice as well as choice.” 

– he is articulating a vision for public services that is consistent with Labour’s deepest social democratic and co-operative values about empowering individuals to gain democratic control over their own lives.

This is not a speech everyone running for Leader in 2010 would have made. I’m glad I made the choice I did in 2010 and I’m pleased Labour did too. This is the policy agenda I voted for.

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  • Mukkinese

    Sounds good, but what makes this different from the Big Society BS that Cameron was peddling and promptly forgot when he moved into number 10?

    • Ash McGregor

      It’s massively different to the Big Society, which was about the state retreating from service provision and hoping civil society would fill in the gaps.

  • Steve38

    Mr Akehurst in this article faithfully follows Mr Miliband’s lead. And what both of them have in common is that they can put meaningless words together very well. There isn’t one concrete proposal of any sort in either this artilcle or Mr Miliband’s speech. Both of them could equally well have come from the mouth of a Tory or a LibDem politician. I despair if this is the best the Labour party has to offer.

    • Grytpype

      It’s a sign of the times. All parties just honk out a load of verbiage and hope people will be impressed. Add a few words like ‘crucial’, vital’, ‘important’ and some juvenile reference to ‘Britain being great again’ and Hey Presto! A ‘statesman-like’ speech with which the media can bore everyone rigid.

  • I read in 2days paper Mr Miliband want’s to be like Maggie. Would Labour ppl want to be reminded of her at all?

  • Lee Butcher

    Having now read Ed’s speech I can see at least one major flaw with his thinking. It is false to assume that local views on health (or any other) services are singular and settled, if only the professionals would recognise them and implement them. The truth is that there is competition between various types of patients and users over finite resources.

    Should Ed’s plans be introduced it is entirely likely that the newly empowered voice of patients will manifest itself in a chorus of contradictory requests that the local NHS cannot acquiesce to. At some point the professionals will have to pick (as they do now) who gets what and who goes without. That reality will not be changed by further localism but may make the system’s limitations more apparent to more people, potentially leading to greater dissatisfaction.

    Much of what we would discover via the public’s voice we know already. What constitutes good health care is not a mystery, the over-riding problem is finding sufficient resources and ensuring effective delivery if those resources are found (a big if that is unlikely to be met for many years). It is difficult to see how more cooks would improve this broth.

    It will also likely be the case that by introducing more and conflicting voices to the decision making process it will increase the complications in the system making it more difficult to arrive at decisions, impacting on long term budgeting decisions and introducing a system which may prove more costly to administrate and certainly prove politically difficult to manage.

    It is desirable to see public services become more responsive to the needs of the community, but it seems unlikely that making those voices central to public service decision making would deliver substantial improvements.

    In principle Ed was right and no doubt popular, but I fear the practicalities could overwhelm his ideas, thus making them unworkable.

    • treborc1

      Not forgetting of course most of what Mr Miliband is talking about is now an English only issue, since education health the NHS and many of the other areas are now devolved.

      But the fact is many of the people do not want a voice they want the schools to be good, they want decent education, decent hospitals, and decent care when needed.

      I’ve found over the years when we are told we will have a voice by governments, it normally means we end up talking to ourselves as politicians tend to be deaf.

      Not a single politician on the front benches of the New Labour lot heard our arguments about Iraq.

    • MrSauce

      One person’s ‘local decision-making’ is the next’s ‘postcode lottery’.

  • alexaas13

    Firstly a school is not turned around by rebadging it as an Academy that is naive nonsense. What happens is that there is new leadership and usually some staff the rest is superficial. I know becaue I’ve seen this in the chemical industry. Sometimes it takes just one leader to change the ethos of an organisation. Secondly while it may be a good idea t ofeed patiewnt views into a trust in the end again good leadership and sufficient money is essential. If we just get the tories spending plans that Trust CEOs cannot complain about on the pain of dismissal our hospitals will continue to go up and down. How? Well down by sacking staff because they are short of money then up when the government panics because people die due to lack of clinical staff!!

    • Luke Akehurst

      Hi

      just to clarify about the school in my ward – it was not a rebadging exercise. The only thing shared between the old Homerton School and the new City Academy is the location. The new school had a new building, 100% different staff and 100% different pupils, filling up gradually with an initial intake only of first years, quite aside from name, ethos, governing body, uniform, curriculum etc.

      • alexaas13

        Thanks Luke. In a way we are not disagreeing I think. By starting from scratch you are controlling from the ground up. My point about Academies is that simply changing the name is an irrelevance but the government talks as if making a school an Academy in name is sufficient. The so called “freedoms” are not really the point.

  • CamAnne

    What about the people who WORK in the public sector? Why do we always seem to be implying they aren’t doing a good enough job?

  • alexaas13

    Listening to the public is such a vague term. If you live in an atrea of elderly middle class people then elder care is important. If you live in an high HIV area then AIDs support is. How do you stop people in between the categories being catered for?
    Currently hospital boards have long term plans based on demand either by NICE, government or finance. Listening to loud individuals will not do. So how do we create broad enough care for everyone………pay for it through taxation and ring fence it.

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