Why yesterday’s letter to the Guardian was a mistake

25th March, 2014 9:19 am

Well this is a tricky one. Some of my best friends in politics – including the editor of this blog – are amongst the signatories of the letter in yesterday’s Guardian, and I really don’t think much of it.

The intention is a good one, which is to stiffen Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas’ manifesto-writing resolve and nudge them towards a bolder policy approach.

I agree. We need to be bold in order to inspire people who didn’t turn out in 2010 to vote this time, and to keep radical ex-Lib Dem voters on side. The necessity of this was set out in detail by one of the signatories, Marcus Roberts, in his excellent pamphlet on the 40% strategy Labour needs. And we need bold policies not just to win but so we have a government that carries on inspiring people and delivering real change for them and deserves to be re-elected.

My issues with the letter are as follows:

First, the timing is crass and unhelpful. It would have been better to hold off until after the initial polling reaction to the budget had stabilised. As it is, the publication of such a letter the day after our lead drops to 1%, with accompanying front page coverage, makes it look like Labour is panicking and criticising the Leader. Given the Ed supporters among the writers, I know this was not the intention, but they should have waited until the polls had stopped jumping around.

Second, the letter is appallingly written. It reads like it was written by a committee of 19 people using track changes, from a draft produced in the style and language of Neal Lawson. Oh wait … it was. I really struggled to understand some of the wonk speak and abstract concepts. I have never met a voter who uses or would understand phrases like “the progressive community”, “holistic and long-term approach to governance”, “Co-production”, “capacity and platforms “, “fundamentally disrupt power relations and reframe the debate to make a good society “. Ed himself is sometimes guilty of using language that is too abstract and theoretical. People seeking to advise him could help by using something approximating to English as plainly spoken by ordinary voters.

Guardian_240314 1,056×1,662 pixels 2014-03-25 09-17-25 2014-03-25 09-17-28

Third, I am not happy that the letter attempts to rehabilitate Neal Lawson and his faction Compass as credible voices in Labour’s internal debates by sticking him at the top of the list of signatories (indicating Compass’ role in pulling the whole thing together).

Neal is a lovely guy who was very kind to me when I was a student activist in his previous organisation, the LCC (Labour Co-ordinating Committee).  I would be delighted if he earned his way back to credibility, but he needs to do two things first. First, Neal and Compass need to publicly apologise for their dreadful political error in promoting tactical voting for, and the will-o’-the-wisp of coalition with, the Lib Dems in the run up to the 2010 General Election. The Lib Dems turned out to be the closet Tories that wiser and blunter people in Labour always knew them to be, and Neal helped them get tactical votes that they then betrayed by going into the current coalition. Forgiveness for that requires contrition.

And Compass needs to make its mind up where it stands in relation to Labour. First it was a soft left faction in the Labour Party. Then it expanded its membership and remit to Greens and Lib Dems. Now it is trying to interfere in Labour internal politics again. If it wants to be part of Labour’s debates it can’t also be a Trojan horse into the Labour Party for our political enemies.

Fourth, the policy area that the letter focuses on is divisive and is somewhere on a spectrum between “highly technical so doesn’t resonate” and “profoundly unpopular” with voters.

The letter bangs on at length about getting ordinary people involved in running public services. Now there are some people who do want to help design their own social care package or run a Tenant Management Organisation. But as someone rightly noted on Twitter yesterday, “Folk just want things to work, they don’t want to actually run them”. Most people have to work long hours to make ends meet, they then often have caring responsibilities. The idea they are all chaffing at the bit to sit on committees running their local services is ludicrous. That’s what they elect councillors to do, and they can get rid of us if we don’t do it well.

The co-production agenda is fraught with political risk and could lead Ed into a stand-up fight with both the public sector unions (when public sector workers are a key group we have gained support in from the Lib Dems) and the local councillors who are the backbone of Labour’s election campaigning (it’s an agenda for taking away the little power we have). It is also fraught with the risk of “sectional capture” – wonk speak for pushy and articulate middle class people (the type who write letters to the Guardian) taking over local services and running them in their own narrow interests not those of more socially-excluded service users.

I know it is desperately old-fashioned but I want the Labour Party to capture political control of the machinery of government and use it to improve people’s lives, not tell people they need to build the “good society” (to use the letter’s annoying phrase) themselves.

I can, off the top of my head, think of a number of bold and potentially popular policies I’d like to see in the manifesto, none of which were really addressed in the letter:

  • A major programme of house-building to provide new homes for social rent and affordable sale. This would generate construction jobs, and tackle the biggest component in the cost of living crisis facing both low and middle wage earners, housing costs.
  • A national Living Wage and further changes to the tax system to ensure people who work are not in poverty and the state is not having to use welfare to subsidise poverty pay.
  • A proper strategy for growth in manufacturing industry so that the economic recovery is sustainable and based on exports. This needs to be synched with regional growth policies and to encompass traditional areas of strength like automotive, aerospace and pharmaceuticals, with new hi-tech and green industries as well. Given what’s just happened in Crimea means we need to beef up our armed forces, a bit of defence procurement Keynesianism wouldn’t go amiss either.
  • Bringing the railways back into public ownership as each franchise comes to an end.
  • Some serious investment in childcare so that parents can afford to work, and in higher education so that we have the skills and R&D base to be a competitive global economy. Both these areas of investment would pay for themselves by driving growth.

Let’s be bold but let’s bin the wonk speak and let’s not waste another period in government on a divisive debate about public service reform like we did in 2001.

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  • Duncan Hall

    I agree with 90-odd% of this, Luke. I can’t stand the way these things are written – it just becomes a big meaningless mush of nowt. What is needed is a set of practical policies and I actually think yours are a pretty good place to start. My only amendments would be, that I don’t think ANYBODY should be in poverty (I assume you share that view, and I take your general point); I’m all for the manufacturing strategy but I wouldn’t include re-militarization in it myself – I would much rather focus the investment on things that are generally useful and on preserving life rather than taking it (but we’ll never agree about that). But other than that – good stuff.
    The fact that people on the absolute opposite ends of our broad church could agree on such a programme does make me wonder why on earth we aren’t just going for it!

    • Luke Akehurst

      Yes I do agree re. no one should be in poverty. Reducing poverty is the basic yardstick I would measure any Labour government against.

      • MrSauce

        As long as ‘poverty’ has a relative measure, surely there will always be ‘poor’ people. The existence of Wayne Rooney puts almost all of us into the poorhouse.
        It is like the politician I heard recently saying that it is unacceptable that there are ‘below average’ schools.

        • Brumanuensis

          Relative poverty is really a measurement of inequality. The measurement is tied to median income, not average income.

          • Daniel Speight

            And more equality is the principle the party should hold onto. That to me was the most gratifying part of the letter, a public agreement for a more equal society. All the policies will flow from this if the belief in it is true.

            I suspect Luke, as usual, is fighting his own personal battles, but let’s use this agreement and even Luke’s policy ideas, to push for a braver stand by Ed Miliband and those around him.

            Luke there’s far more to Keynesianism growth than defence procurement. Why not push for more infrastructure investment. In fact wasn’t the party doing that last year. Who turned off that policy line. Is that Alexander in action?

  • Monkey_Bach

    One year from the election and nobody really knows what Labour is committed to do. Representatives fielded by the party to speak publicly contradict each other. For example quite recently on the Daily Politics I heard Stephen Timms say with my own ears that Labour’s only firm commitment to date was the Compulsory Job Guarantee and repeal of the Bedroom Tax. When questioned by Jo Coburn about other mooted things that Labour said it would do asked if things like building social housing might be abandoned if money was tight and Timms said that it might be and repeated that, to date, only the Compulsory Job Guarantee and repeal of the Bedroom Tax were certain to happen during the first term of a Labour government.

    We keep getting all these nods and winks and “aspirations” to do this, that and the other from Labour but bar a few firm undertakings don’t actually know for sure what Labour would actually do in office. Dithering like this so close to the next general election seems very unwise to me and hints as indecisiveness and a lack of direction from the leadership such as it is.

    Tomorrow Labour will be voting WITH the coalition to introduce a benefit cap which nobody has ever explained will work in practice especially in extremis. I have heard politicians of all persuasions asked the following question but not one single one give an answer: “If the welfare spending cap is reached and Parliament doesn’t vote to spend more money on social security what happens?” Despite this all the parties are gleefully steaming ahead obliviously into the unknown.

    Between them Miliband, Balls and Cruddas may yet snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.


    • Dez

      ‘One year from the election and nobody really knows what Labour is committed to do’

      Energy price freeze & ban Waitrose free coffee.

      • Monkey_Bach

        I’m afraid many people seem to think that Ed Miliband isn’t much of a statesman and more like a boy who grew up in a political family, who, for want of something better to do, ended up “playing at politics” professionally for a career. (Ed Miliband’s turn on ITV’s “The Agenda” last night did nothing to contradict this impression.) Even more men and women appear to have an irrational, visceral, personal dislike for Ed Balls, based more on the way he comes across when interviewed (and such like) than anything to do with own somewhat chequered past.

        As somebody who desperately wants the Conservative Party out of power forever, or at least as long as possible, the leadership of the Labour Party leaves much to be desired.

        It’s all pretty dismal really.


  • Claire Spencer

    I agree with most of this. While I’m sure the aims of the original letter were commendable (at least, in the main), I don’t think Ed lacks the high-level ideas, or boldness…and the letter seemed to infer otherwise, rather than saying he has our support in implementing bold, specific policies that represent his ideas.

    However, I don’t share your fear of co-production, which happens anyway if public services adapt to the needs of citizens, or when services and citizens work together to create positive outcomes.

    Think about areas of low crime, for example – low crime rates as an outcome are co-produced by police, other related agencies…and citizens not committing crimes. So while I agree that accountability to citizens and remaining relevant and useful to vulnerable citizens in particular should be features of all public services, I don’t think that precludes involvement of service users in their delivery, or means that we shouldn’t encourage it. It’s ultimately about leveraging in expertise in order to keep standards high – and there are a lot of ways of doing that.

    • Duncan Hall

      Trouble is, if citizens’ part in producing low crime rates is not committing crimes (which of course is true) to call this “co-production” is pretty meaningless. It implies a degree of power that it is not really offering. Of course, there are long-standing examples that might be more meaningful, such as school governing bodies. But if “service users” want to get involved in actually running a service the best way (if we had proper democratic and functioning local government) would be to stand as a councillor. That way it isn’t just time and inclination that gives them that bit of power but also a democratic mandate. And similarly, the community can remove that power if they feel that they are not exercising it in their interests or as they would wish. Otherwise the empowered citizens are a self-selected group of people with the time, resources and interest to do it (similar to many councillors of course) but crucially without any democratic mandate or any real accountability.

      • Claire Spencer

        It’s only meaningless if you didn’t want to learn from where it happens naturally (or seemingly naturally) in order to nurture it elsewhere. I think we obsess about the form of these things (we seem to fixate on services being the same everywhere rather than fixating on quality) and see monsters in the shadows rather than tackling the ones that are already there. There is nothing wrong with having involvement from a self-selected group as long as you understand the limitations and consequences of that involvement, and have their involvement linked to institutions which are open, transparent and accountable.

        • Duncan Hall

          I don’t really have a problem with trying to ensure services are the same everywhere (not “the same” as such, as local needs differ) – there shouldn’t be a postcode lottery where you get a better service if you happen to live somewhere where there are a lot of people privileged enough to volunteer. What you are perceiving as a focus on form is fundamentally not that; democracy is not just form. Free public services are the product of democracy, and a lack of democracy will be what eventually takes them away – what is already taking them away in many cases. It is not about form, it is about ensuring that a “service-user” who works full-time and looks after their kids has the same control over their service, its quality and its future – by casting their vote in the ballot box – as has a semi-retired, active volunteer who gets herself on all the committees.

  • swatnan

    Spoken like a true Hacneyed politician. Honestly, I think they need to get out a bit more into the country and discover what real people feeling the pinch really think, in the marginals. Travel really does broaden your horizons. A tour around the environs of Essex might be a start. We have a grand total of zero MPs and one eighth of a Euro MEP
    COMPASS and the FABIANS are to be congratulated on their letter to the Guardian.
    But I don’t agree with the personal attack on Neal Lawson even though Neal got it wrong on tactical voting. As I’ve said on another thread, stick to voting on your principles and you won’t go wrong.
    And I actually agree with all Luke’s bullet points which came off the top of his head; they make perfect sense, apart from ‘beefing up Defence because of Russia and Crimea etc’ is complete nonsense. Russia is not expansionist; it lost out in Afghanistan and won’t engage in any more foreign adventures; but it doesn’t want unstable Regimes and Dictatorships on in its doorstep thank you. It has enough problems within its own borders like Chechnya and the Islamists and tackling homophobia and Human Rights.

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas

      Did you fall asleep after Russia left Afghanistan, or merely choose to ignore its’ foreign adventures? Russia is as complicit as the West in foreign adventures as the West in the 90s and in the last decade. I even saw it myself when I worked in Serbia during the Yugoslav conflicts: there were Russians actively involved in advisory positions to Serb politicians, just as there were Islamists fighting with the Bosniaks, and western countries with the UN. Given the level of financial support to Serbia from Russia, I suspect my salary was paid from Moscow, although I was in effect paid in US Dollars as a condition of my service.

      While I do not say this of you, I have been depressed by the sudden onslaught of pro-Russians commenting on the Guardian about Ukraine. They all appear to be “useful idiots” in Lenin’s phrase, and many of them actually idiots. You should not become one yourself.

    • Doug Smith

      “it [Russia] lost out in Afghanistan”

      There is a concerning parallel. The West funded and trained the jihadist opponents of Russia in Afghanistan. These jihadists were the originators of the Taliban – a monster created with the help of the West and now opposed militarily by the West.

      Similarly the West, in opposition to Russia, has supported neo-Nazis in Ukraine in their fight to overthrow the elected government. There are now people who valorise Adolf Hitler in the Ukrainian government.

      There should be no surprise if we find that Western governments have again unleashed a beast that is impossible to tame.

  • EricBC

    I agree with most of the article.

    I would add that if there is to be a discussion about decentralisation or devolution then we should consider moving to a simple and coherent federal system in which all regions have the same powers, systems and status. Given Labour’s current thinking we would end up with different governmental systems for Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland, London, English conurbations and the remaining regions of England.

    • robertcp

      I am nor sure that we need a simple and coherent federal system. My preference is for there to be different systems in the nations and regions of the UK unless they all decide to have the same system.

  • Doug Smith

    “a bit of defence procurement Keynesianism wouldn’t go amiss either.”

    Best to keep the machinery of the war industry well-oiled. And if anyone objects let’s make the world a more dangerous place by instigating instability with disastrous and destabilising military interventions.

    • Geek McBean

      Indeed – military spending is notoriously expensive for the quantity of jobs and other social benefits produced. And I seem to recall those military inerventions were both politically and economically disastrous for a recent Labour government.

    • Yes there are theories about “Military Keynesianism” or the “Permanent Arms Economy” which seek to explain the growth and relative stability of capitalism in the post WW2 period. Proponents of those theories would argue that the instabilities arose after the end of the Cold War in the late 90’s.

      There is some truth in all that. IMO.

      • Doug Smith

        Best to think of war as the continuation of business by other means.

        Indeed, particularly in the U.S., ex-military top brass are elevated to the boardrooms of defence industry on the retirement from service. And even our own well-connected former Royal Navy chief Admiral Sir Jonathon Band now works for Lockheed Martin and is busily talking up the necessity of purchasing the F35 white elephant jet.

        So it’s no surprise when, in order to justify further expenditure, the war industry lobbyists call for military intervention – U.S. Senators who backed military intervention in Syria recieved 83% more defence lobby money than those who voted against. And so we move from the “Permanent Arms Economy” to the Permanent War Economy. And this, characterised by imperial overstretch, as has been pointed out by U.S. academic Chalmers Johnson (see his book Sorrows of Empire), is not compatible with a democratic polity.

  • Theo Blackwell

    I agree the letter was too heavily laced with jargon and with much of your response to it but your statement “I want the Labour Party to capture political control of the machinery of government and use it to improve people’s lives, not tell people they need to build the “good society” (to use the letter’s annoying phrase) themselves” misses the point that pulling levers in Whitehall doesn’t have the quite the impact it once did on social policy because of globalisation, greater corporate concentrations of power and the digital revolution.

    Technology, through better data and new digital technologies, has the power to transform the relationship between Whitehall and Town hall and citizen just as it enables more personalised and responsive services elsewhere in peoples’ lives on a daily basis. As Ed recognised in his Hugo Young lecture, decentralisation away from Whitehall is now a real possibility. The authors of the letter are on to something – but by using language more commonly employed a decade ago would have done better to frame their arguments in the light of these fundamental changes.

  • Tokyo Nambu

    “Bringing the railways back into public ownership”

    Why? That’s a purely ideological position. The capital required to do it (and it would require money, because it would involve funding rolling stock purchase out of the PSBR) would be far better used on housing, education and other growth promoting projects.

    No-one serious is proposing we should renationalise telecommunications, to cite the big ideological battle of the 1980s (a monopoly state-owned ISP? what could possibly go wrong?) so why are the railways any different? It wouldn’t generate any additional growth, it would be hard pushed to generate additional ridership (which is massively, massively up from 1994) and it wouldn’t generate modal shift. At best it would deliver to voters some fiddling around with fare structures, which could be achieved much more easily by effective regulation and the DfT not being supine in the face of producer interests when awarding franchises (or concessions, as is happening now). The voters it would appeal to already vote Labour, and to everyone else (ie, the voters actually needing to be convinced) it would be at best “meh”.

    Building houses and building schools is the main task; the housing market is completely failed and there was be a catastrophic shortage of secondary school places in a few years’ time. Getting bogged down in the governance and ownership of capital-intensive public utilities that are basically working is a distraction (the meme that the railways “don’t work” is ideological: rising ridership and freight tonne-miles shows that).

    • {Bringing the railways back into public ownership is} a purely ideological position. The capital required to do it (and it would require money, because it would involve funding rolling stock purchase out of the PSBR) would be far better used on housing, education and other growth promoting projects.

      You don’t understand how these things work.

      Renationalising the railways costs nothing. This must be true when you think about it. Otherwise, how possibly could they have been nationalised in the first place, by the Attlee government, immediately after WW2 when the country was said to be virtually bankrupt?

      It works in the same way as QE. Before the repurchase of railway shares, or govt securities from the banks in the case of QE, there are two zeros on either side of the balance sheet.

      After the repurchase, the assets of the shares or securities, on one side of the balance sheet exactly equal the liabilities , created any payments, on the other. So the balance sheet still balances. You can’t do this, and I can’t do this but Government is an issuer of its own currency, and it is really no problem at all.

      Conversely, it must be true that if nationalisations cost nothing, then privatisations don’t actually raise any extra usable money either. And they don’t. The recent sale of the Post Office didn’t raise a single extra spendable penny!

      • Tokyo Nambu

        “Otherwise, how possibly could they have been nationalised in the first place, by the Attlee government, immediately after WW2 when the country was said to be virtually bankrupt?”

        It’s not the cost of the act of transferring ownership: it’s even easier in the current situation, as the franchises don’t own very much and if they simply took their ball home you could still operate railways. Shareholders in the Big Four received the value of their shares in 1947 in BTC stock, which paid a guaranteed 3% (at the time, a king’s ransom); to renationalise today by simply taking franchises in house as they expire would not involve paying a return to current franchise holders.

        The point is that the cost of investing in nationalised railways falls straight back onto the PSBR. What killed the railways in the 1960s was that the investment under the modernisation plan in the 1950s was (a) insufficient and (b) shockingly badly directed. The railways had cost little to acquire (not nothing, as the 3% was charged straight to the BTC, but little) but government simply couldn’t afford the investment that was required. The modernisation plan was for £1.2bn 1955 pounds, say £40bn today, and was both inadequate and incompetent.

        Much of what Beeching did can be argued with, but the basic problem — that the country just couldn’t afford the investment required to sustain the network at its then size — is unarguable. Successive governments were not willing to use the PSBR to invest in the railways, and such investment as they did permit came with massive strings (for example, preventing the closure of unused goods yards, forbidding the re-organisation of wagon-load freight) that large parts of the money was simply wasted. The axe, when it came, was sharper and heavier than it needed to be because of the refusal to face facts over the preceding seven years.

        The same happened in the seventies and eighties: the investment plans were cut to match PSBR targets, and the investment was hedged around with political constraints. The result was a rise in short-term spending and a drop in long-term investment, which we’re still living with (the poor quality electrification of the ECML, for example). The railways as they stand are certainly not perfect, but the idea that returning to the structures of the 1980 — politically driven investment turned on and off like a tap — is not supported by evidence.

        • treborc1

          That of course is your view, I think returning them to the 1980’s and fund them correctly this time would be a massive benefit..

          • I’d agree except that the phrase ” returning them to the 1980’s ” isn’t quite right. We’re moving on into the 21st century and we’ve learned from past mistakes made when the railways were both publicly and privately owned!

        • Tokyo,

          It looks like we are in general agreement on the cost of the 1947 transfer. On the question of 3% interest, which may have been a little over generous at the time. I’m not sure. I’d have to look into that. I would expect the Labour Party to have erred on the side of being slightly over generous to avoid accusations of Communism and confiscating private assets without providing adequate compensation.

          You then move on to a more familiar argument that “the cost of investing in nationalised railways falls straight back onto the PSBR.” and ” the basic problem — that the country just couldn’t afford the investment required to sustain the network at its then size — is unarguable.”

          Not unarguable at all. What you are saying is that if the private sector raise money in the financial markets and then spend it into the economy it somehow has a different and much more beneficial effect than if the government does the same.

          The PSBR , Public Sector Borrowing Requirement, is actually the difference between government taxation revenues and spending. It has been renamed the ‘public sector net cash requirement’ but is usually just referred to as the budget deficit.

          Governments do have an advantage over the private sector in that, as issuers of their own currency, their borrowing costs are lower. In fact, their borrowing costs are whatever they choose them to be as they and they alone set the base interest rates in the economy. Naturally the private banks and other big financial institutions would prefer that they provide the finance for railway investment. They only get chance to take their cut when it is the private sector doing that.

          “Governments can’t afford” is a neoliberal misconception. As Keynes pointed out anything that can be done can be afforded. Whether it should be done is another question. If Governments spend too much money then inflation is the net result as they try to make use of resources which just aren’t there. Its no different with Private sector spending. Every time a bank creates a loan it creates money just as the Government creates money. That’s no more and no less inflationary.

          The big problem in relying on banks and financial institution to provide loans and working capital for industry is that they’ll only do it when it suits them. If it does suit them, they lend out too much creating an inflationary boom. When they get scared that the loans are getting too risky they’ll suddenly stop and the words “credit” and “crunch” start to be heard an awful lot!

          There has to be a better way. And there is!

        • styopa

          Not that I want to stop anyone from pursuing this interesting discussion about the financial cost of nationalisation, but it is slightly irrelevant to today’s railways. The railway itself is already in de facto public ownership through Network Rail, the attempt at an alternative model in the form of Railtrack Plc having spectacularly collapsed over a decade ago. As someone has already pointed out, the franchisees don’t own anything, so there is really nothing (except ideology) to stop the Government’s own highly successful Directly Operated Railways from taking over each franchise as it falls vacant, just as it did with East Coast. As for the rolling stock companies, they are basically financing vehicles for the banks (including some which are currently in public ownership, but that’s another story). Future governments can decide for themselves how they want to finance future rolling stock purchases.

          • Alan Ji

            Leasing of trains was advocated by one of John Prescott’s policy working parties in the 1990s

    • Brumanuensis

      Leaving aside the fact BT is being lavishly subsidised by the tax-payer, our railways are already effectively nationalised. Network Rail is a publicly-owned company and numerous operators are state-owned – East Coast and Chiltern spring to mind. Network Rail already have an implicit subsidy in place, in that they charge below-market rates for leasing the track. And of course the infrastructure work they do is largely publicly-funded. At this point, why bother re-franchising, especially when the Treasury can borrow for investment at much cheaper rates than the TOCs? And why not just run the service, instead of having to continually issue regulations to nominally private companies? A final point is that ridership had already levelled off before nationalisation and declined for the first 5-6 years after privatisation. Shifts in transport patterns owe more to fuel costs than ownership. Although the near quadrupling of the direct public subsidy for the railways, post-1994, might have something to do with it.

      Also, between 60 and 70% of the public support renationalisation, according to opinion polls. It’s hardly a niche position.

  • Dan

    This article makes more sense than virtually any I’ve read from any Labour supporter in recent months. I’m sure Jon Cruddas is a lovely guy, but his idea for public service reform would in my view be an utter carcrash if implemented. It’s not even that it’s too rightwing or too Tory, it’s just that it’s plain stupid. Public services are not run on abstract academic theories, human behaviour and how the average person uses a public service just does not comply with it. And frankly, the idea that some politicians who have little experience in the real world would know how to run the health service or a transport system better than professionals who’ve dedicated their careers to running them, is insulting and deluded, frankly. These “reforms” would at best waste a lot of money on pointless bureaucratic reshuffles, and yet change absolutely nothing because the services will eventually slide back to running the way they did before when the politicians eventually realise there was actually a REASON they were running like that; and at worst, they will unintentionally lead to public services collapsing into utter chaos.

    What we need is not abstract academic wonk theories, but concrete proposals that address the real issues, like Luke’s very good list. But the one problem is that Labour’s stupid pledge to meet Tory spending plans, which a Labour donor (and a businessman at that!) has criticised today: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-26729259 There is no getting around the fact that anything a Labour government should be doing is going to cost money, so the leadership are just going to have to bite the bullet and make the argument that the deficit doesn’t matter, and grin and bear the jeers from the media and the Tories. They need to accept the fight for “economic credibility” was lost a long time ago, so the best thing they can do is atleast try and maximise their “heart in the right place” advantage; right now, with Ed Balls’s constant rambling on about zero-based spending reviews and refusal to spend on anything, they’re doing absolutely nothing to achieve credibility while also rapidly losing their reputation for caring about society. As far as people are concerned, Labour right now are just a mess with no definition or purpose at all.

  • DanFilson

    I cannot take seriously any group of people who urge for “Accountability of all powerful institutions, whether the state or market (my italics), to all stakeholders.” It’s a basic reality that you cannot make the market accountable to all stakeholders – you can only hope it responds to, or anticipates, what the stakeholders might want and be willing to pay for). So we’re into urging the market to get more responsive? I suggest they stand on a sea shore at low tide and urge the waves to go back. A hot air letter of little moment. People should think twice before signing round-robins; most are bland to the point of worthlessness or plain daft.

  • Neuron Therapy

    Luke’s right, the letter was badly timed and badly written. But it has started up a good discussion and flagged up some mistakes, so let’s hope it has a positive impact in the long run. European elections are a couple of months away and I have no idea what sort of a manifesto Labour has for that, if any. Apart from wanting to stay in. the EU and improve it somehow!

  • Charlie_Mansell

    1. I think the localisation that could be developed is to follow the Scottish devo-max approach and give Local Authorities more influence over welfare services that build on City Deals in this field. We could have the Employment Service equivalent of Health and Well-being boards to more locally tailor effective welfare provision within national standards. Again following Scotland Devo-max, other low-cost localisations might be to allow localised decisions through referendums on increasing Council tax bands and if there is local demand choosing a local council voting system (subject to it having to be in place for 2 or 3 local elections and from a short list of choice options: FPTP, AMS, STV that are regular UK systems nowadays). This would be no different from any elected Mayor request. Other simple localisations could be beefing up the existing Community Rights http://mycommunityrights.org.uk/ and more support to encourage urban parishing, like the succesful new one in Queen’s Park http://lovequeenspark.co.uk/about/community-council/

    2. Once the current reputational damage has cooled down a bit, a Co-operative Council’s agenda could cover the co-production issues in a more sensible way. http://www.coopinnovation.co.uk/ This can unite those with liberal-minded cosmopolitan views with those who seek safety and security and do just want things to be run well

    3. What I also want to know is whether Compass will now give a cast iron undertaking NOT to be issuing any press releases in the spring of 2015 suggesting tactical voting in just the top 50 Lib Dem seats. Let’s hope they have learned the lessons of 2010

    • robertcp

      Points one and two are sensible but I disagree with point 3. You are effectively saying that you want more Tory MPs. Tactcal voting stopped the Tories getting a majority in 2010 and I hope that it continues in 2015.

      • Charlie_Mansell

        ….”stopped the Tories getting a majority”…but enabled them to implement large chunks of their manifesto!. The amount of qualitative difference is really pretty small. Are you Liberal Democrat or Labour in terms of political preference and do you live in a seat where this is an issue? If so which one?

        • robertcp

          I live in a Labour seat where the Tories are in second place (Tooting). The leaflets that I delivered in 2010 called on Lib Dems and Greens to vote tactically for the Labour candidate. It worked if you look at the voting figures. I would have voted Lib Dem if Labour had no chance and would do so again in 2015. My hope is that a Labour-led government will be possible in 2015 if Labour does not get a majority.
          Regarding my political allegiance, I am the sort of left-wing liberal that switched to the Labour Party sometime before the late 1950s. People like me were tempted by the SDP and horrified by New Labour but I have stuck with Labour for some reason.

  • David Pavett

    I am in general agreement with Luke Akehurst’s criticism of the Lawson letter but I could have done without the sectarian stuff about all Lib Dems being closet Tories and “contrition” being required for past mistakes from Compass. The latter is a particularly bizarre demand given the enormous wrongs of past Labour policies for which “contrition” can hardly be said to have been shown.

    But aside from this sort of annoying political bluster it is the analysis of the letter that matters most and I agree with virtually of of LA’s points.

    One can only wonder who Lawson and his co-signatories thought they were addressing other than policy wonks and think-tank activists. The language is as, LA says, ridiculous. I suppose we have to allow “good society” since it is now a verbal tic for compass like “hard working families” for Labour and Tory politicians.

    I am not at all clear why a think tank which opens its membership to broader circles than Labour members and its supports should not, for that reason, be thought to be unable to make worthwhile comments on Labour policy. This, and the “Trojan horse” talk seems like more sectarianism to me. What matters is not that Compass has not made its mind up where it stands w.r.t. Labour but that the quality of its analysis is all-too-often alarmingly weak. We should not demand “Are you with us or against us?” but “Will your analyses and proposals stand up to scrutiny”.

    Yes, the stuff about the age of doing things for (to) people being over and now, allegedly, everyone wants to organise services themselves is rank nonsense. It can only have been claimed by people who have, temporarily at least, lost any sense of touch with the lives of the great majority.

    My favourite bit of nonsense from the so-called five principles in the letter is principle 3. “Prevention of the causes of our social, environmental, physical and mental health problems, which requires a holistic and long-term approach to governance.”

    Genetic malfunctions and old age are both causes of our physical and mental health problems. So it would seem that Neal Lawson et all have a plan to prevent both. Intriguing.

    I would certainly vote for Luck Akehurst’s specific programme points against the Lawson five “principles”.

    • robertcp

      I agree with your first paragraph and Luke’s views on wonk speak and publici sector reform.

  • Bob Nicholson

    Despite being an occasional Guardian letter-writer, and therefore a ‘type’, I agree with your blog. I support all of your policy propositions and share your dismay at the language used in the letter. I’ve been chair of a local regeneration committee supported by the now defunct (thanks, Hazel Blears) local authority. There was no democracy involved and only a few active members. We need clarity of the proposed structures that will deliver e.g. what is the structure for local education delivery going to be? Away the wonkish words.

  • giselle97

    Thank you for writing this Luke. You’ve taken a lot of statements I would have liked to make. Good!

  • giselle97

    And surprise, surprise – that awful, blithering pretend Labour Politician – Simon Danczuk – wasn’t a signatory to the letter. Surely as he gets off on “bashing” Ed Miliband frequently in the Guardian he will be utterly disappointed not to have been asked to co-sign!

    • robertcp

      Danczuk talks right-wing nonsense rather than left-wing wonk speak.


    Labour should be bold and play safe. The stakes are too high to gamble with the future of the working people. Should Labour win the next election left wing activists will remain in opposition anyway.

  • Martinay

    Yes, Luke, your five pledges are great and could deliver a transformational manifesto in 2015.

    But, our narrative needs to be more than a list of policies if it is to be intelligible and bold. There also needs to be a rationale for these bold policies.

    That rationale can be summed up by saying our country is suffering a systems failure, a blue screen crash. It needs a re-boot with today’s programmes and apps.

    The failure is not of our society, of our country but of markets. One after another they have failed: the financial market, the housing market, the energy market, the manufacturing sector has failed to deliver for decades. Only this month it was the annuities market: it fails to deliver what it’s meant to deliver – a pension you can live on.

    It’s plain for all to see. Everyone, working or unemployed or self-employed, business owner or staff can see this is the case. We have to fix these markets and make them work for all of us. But all the Tories want to do is to rig the markets in favour of making a quick buck and hope tomorrow never comes.

    Labour in 2015 won’t be able to spend more. But it can re-boot Britain as One Nation. Because nothing less than a re-boot can solve the problems that have been piling up since the 1960s. Labour delivered new technology in the ’60s, promoted greater equality in the 70s and rebuilt public services in the noughties. Now it will deliver root and branch reform of our democracy and our industries.

  • Ronny jones

    Well said Luke

  • Dan

    This article makes more sense than any I’ve read on Labourlist in months. I’m sure Jon Cruddas is a lovely guy, but I cringe everytime I read about his “proposals”. It’s not even that it’s a rightwing or Tory agenda, it’s just that it’s plain stupid. Public services run according to human behaviour (which is by its nature unpredictable), not by some abstract academic theories like these politicians seem to think. And it’s frankly insulting for politicians who’ve had little real-world experience to claim they know more about how to run the health service or the transport system than professionals who’ve dedicated their entire careers to it. Cruddas’s plans would at best lead to a waste of huge amounts of money on a pointless bureaucratic reshuffle, yet change nothing in the long term because the services will eventually go back to running the way they were before when the politicians realise there was a REASON they were running like that; or at worst, they’ll lead to public services descending into utter chaos.

  • Dan

    This article makes more sense than any I’ve read on Labourlist in months. I’m sure Jon Cruddas is a lovely guy, but I cringe everytime I read about his “proposals”. It’s not even that it’s a rightwing or Tory agenda, it’s just that it’s plain stupid. Public services run according to human behaviour (which is by its nature unpredictable), not by some abstract academic theories like these politicians seem to think. And it’s frankly insulting for politicians who’ve had little real-world experience to claim they know more about how to run the health service or the transport system than professionals who’ve dedicated their entire careers to it. Cruddas’s plans would at best lead to a waste of huge amounts of money on a pointless bureaucratic reshuffle, yet change nothing in the long term because the services will eventually go back to running the way they were before when the politicians realise there was a REASON they were running like that; or at worst, they’ll lead to public services descending into utter chaos

  • Matthew Blott

    I only made it about half way, it just reads like partisan swill.

  • Cole

    Oh great. The usual tribal rubbish about Compass.

    • reformist lickspittle

      They spent far too much time blethering about how nice and progressive the LibDems were – as opposed, of course, to tribalist reactionary Labour.

      Is the backlash all that surprising?

  • robertcp

    Luke spoiled a very good article with silly comments on tactical voting. It stopped the Tories getting a majority in 2010 and almost certainly helped Labour defend many seats. I hope that tactical voting continues in 2015 because it helps Labour apart from in seats where Labour has no chance of winning. Voters are not total idiots!

    • Luke Akehurst

      I am in favour of supporters of other parties being urged to tactically vote Labour. But not the other way round.

  • Dan

    The letter was badly judged. I’m afraid the people who wrote the letter didn’t understand the implications and how it would play with the media and our political opponents or, they did, and they really don’t care. Either way they should spend a little more time canvassing for elections on May 22 and a little less time in their bedrooms writing this rubbish imagining they are in an episode of House of Cards.

  • Tubby_Isaacs

    Well said, Luke.
    People on think tanks always think people need to be more “bold”. Though the fact is they probably can’t even agree among themselves what they mean.

  • Ray Jones

    I have a very different views to Luke in most things but he is correct on compass and there constantly changing agenda .i can remember them in Yorkshire giving a very different vision of what they were all about .I find it strange to say the least they are not going to hold a conference with the right wing progress group

  • reformist lickspittle

    Which isn’t such a bad starting point, tbf……

  • Phil

    Is Luke Akehurst the Roy Hattersley of our age? Just thinking of the way that Roy moved from the Right to the Left of the party without actually changing any of his own positions – he just stood still while the Blair takeover stampeded the party to the Right. Now Luke seems to be sticking to his right-Labour guns while the Fabians and the Lawsonites thunder off into the distance in pursuit of ‘localism’ and ‘co-production’. And good for him, frankly.

    As for the substance of the think-tanks’ proposals, there are two answers. First, what substance? The main thing that meets the eye if you read that letter is a lot of jargon, none of which will inspire or motivate or even attract votes anywhere near as effectively as Luke’s boring old specifics. Second, what substance there is is toxic. The Big Society seemed like a ridiculous idea when the Tories briefly advocated it before the last election; we know now that it wasn’t a ridiculous idea, just a very bad one – ideological cover for the dismantling of public services. If you’ll pardon the quote, I never thought we’d see the grotesque chaos of Labour intellectuals – *Labour* intellectuals – advocating policies which would require a frontal attack on public sector trade unions. Leave that to the Greens!

    • Daniel Speight

      Is Luke Akehurst the Roy Hattersley of our age? Just thinking of the way
      that Roy moved from the Right to the Left of the party without actually
      changing any of his own positions – he just stood still while the Blair
      takeover stampeded the party to the Right.

      The interesting thing would be is just how far right of Hattersley is Luke now. I would suspect a country mile;-)

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  • David Chernaik

    Hi Luke,

    I completely agree. Very well put. One other thing I would see in the Labour plan is a commitment to having solar panels on every suitable roof in the country. I have worked out a significant tweak to the current funding set-up that could make this work. happy to discuss…

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