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

Luke Akehurst

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.


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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