What kind of Prime Minister does Ed Miliband want to be? Amidst the long speeches and quickly changing slogans there’s one thing about Ed Miliband’s politics which stands out. He wants to be an institutional reformer. Ed Miliband is strongest when he challenges the way powerful institutions are managed, from the banks to the energy companies, to newspapers to parliament. From the cost of living crisis to disconnection with politics, the problem England faces is that too few people exercise too much authority without enough challenge. If he gets to Number 10, changing that should be Ed’s legacy. A clear story about how he’ll do that would help him get to Downing Street.
Labour’s problem though is a refusal to focus on a single story about how we will act in power. Our politicians’ instincts are to try to win elections with pithy catchphrases but we end up sounding vague and evasive. As Marcus Roberts argued in his Fabian pamphlet on UKIP last week, we’re still stuck in the old New Labour world of sloganeering. Voters’ responses are dismissive: ‘one nation’, great, but what does that mean in practice? ‘change’ – but what about the things I love and want to keep?; ‘same old Tories’ – but I voted for them in 1983 and 2010; ‘cost of living’ – that’s the question, but what’s the answer?
Slogans allow us to be seen as everything to everyone – and at the moment that’s a bad thing, as business thinks we’re anti-business and the left imagines we are too cosy with capitalists. Jon Cruddas’s policy review has a clear narrative about decentralisation and local collaboration, but policy announcements coming from the leader and shadow cabinet don’t always connect. It seems we want both to centralise and devolve, tax, cut, and spend, regulate and set free, give power over different issues to different institutions. Our real policy proposals seem an incoherent rag-bag, with no over-arching narrative.
In the place of slogans, we need to tell a sharp, clear story about action. If we talk about an issue, we need to know what we’re going to do about it. We need a consistent method which is informed by our values. The Conservatives had privatisation, top-down control and hard financial accounting. We will rebuild institutions so decisions are made locally, so ordinary people have the capacity to challenge how they work, from the bottom up, creating common purpose rather than conflict out of crisis. We’ll do that by building a coalition of local business, charities, public services and unions, all simmering with resentment about the power of big firms and organisations.
To focus our minds, let’s concentrate on what a Labour government would do in its first 100 days. I’d focus on three areas, where we can make big changes quickly. After three and a half months, England needs to feel different. Power and energy need to be in places where they are not now.
Step one: break up the banks. We own half of them already, so should put them to good use. We need to split retail from finance, dividing the financial institutions we use every day into institutions whose capital and lending comes from the region they are part of. Half the trouble we’ve been in these last few years has been caused by the dominance of the kind of foreign-owned financial institutions Nigel Farage used to work for. Wouldn’t that stifle innovation and investment? No, of course not. The industrial revolution was financed by private finance and local banks, not the City of London. Britain’s industrial decline coincided with the political dominance of finance. The City would squeal and Boris would back them, but we would – or should – have the rest of the country on our side.
We begin though, not with bureaucrats concocting schemes behind closed doors, but civil servants traipsing the nation talking to small businesses about their financial needs, shaping our plans and building support for change. A month into the new government, we announce our plans, with Ed and Chuka surrounded by powerful backers from business and unions.
Step two: solve the housing crisis, not just by freeing up local authorities to borrow and build, but planning a nationwide network of new garden cities and community housing trusts. We need a big number – a million, two million homes to be built; central coordination in a big democratic conversation, but a process built by local energy, power and initiative. There needs to be investment, from a new community housing bank, which would borrow from savers and the long term capital market. The important thing is that the land of each is held in trust for the community of the place they are built; it can’t be bought and sold for a profit. Our housing crisis is a consequence of the mad politics of land values, and we need to take speculation out of the equation. It happens in the same way as breaking up the banks, civil servants travelling the country, working with local councils to find institutions able to manage and build.
Step three: hand power and money to direct public services back to local authorities. Central government needs to provide an incentive – more powers for example – for authorities to team up to create combined regional authorities if they wish, but “regionalisation” should be governed by local democratic choice. A Labour government needs to quickly decide on ways to improve the accountability of local councils to people outside election time: having decision-making challenge scrutinised in public assemblies is one option. But even as they stand, councils are in a much better place than Whitehall to direct the health service, the work programme, training and business support, the probation service and lots more. It’s a simple question. Who do you think’s best to help you into work, a scheme designed by a Whitehall bureaucrat, or local businesswoman? Who knows best about the health needs of the community, local people or the man in the minsitry of Health writing central targets? The answers aren’t hard.
We might disagree about which priorities we pick – but the important thing is they are radical and clear, are limited in number but change the way England works. With a clear plan about redistributing power in our first hundred days we’ll quickly energise partners and activists, finding new allies who’ll work to elect a Labour government that will work with them. We won’t get anywhere with vague slogans, or mealy-mouthed promises about tax. Labour won’t fix Britain by tinkering with fiscal policy. It has a chance of winning the next election with a bold and confident, clear and practical story about reforming institutions which don’t work.