Ed Miliband has given a speech in praise of public service reform. It was intended to provide some rebalancing of the Labour Party message. There has been some disquiet among Blairites that Mr Miliband constantly attacks business yet is uncritical of the public sector. It is an important challenge for Labour as their instinctive answer to any deficiencies in public services – to increase spending – is not credible for two reasons. First of all, the previous Labour Government vastly increased public spending with scant evidence that it was effective. Second, increased public spending will not be an option.
Emran Mian, writing on Comment yesterday, wrote about the constraints that exist from The Treasury on the Cabinet Office, regarding any reforms that would increase, rather than decrease, spending.
Mr Miliband said he wished to set out what his “mission would be if I was Prime Minister” to provide “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 we can simply transplant the principles of the private sector lock, stock and barrel into the public sector.
The time in which we live and the challenges we face demand that we should always be seeking instead to put more power in the hands of patients, parents and all the users of services. Unaccountable concentrations of power wherever we find them don’t serve the public interest and need to be held to account.
But this is about much more than the individual acting simply as a consumer.
It is about voice as well as choice.
“Voice” means retreating back into the mush of “community engagement” with “key stakeholders.” Supposing doctors felt that a General Hospital should be closed, or changed into a specialist hospital, as this would allow more lives to be saved for the same money. Naturally there would be local opposition. Mr Miliband’s answer:
Ensure that patients are involved right at the outset: understanding why change might be needed, what the options are and making sure everyone round the table knows what patients care about.
No change could be proposed by a Clinical Commissioning Group without patient representatives being involved in drawing up the plan.
Then when change is proposed, it should be an independent body, such as the Health and Wellbeing Board, that is charged with consulting with the local community.
Does anyone seriously believe that fiddling around with the process would avoid the controversy of facing up to tough decisions? Who would choose the patients? Would they be elected? Just how many of them are suppose to fit round the table? Mr Miliband talked a lot about “equality” but presumably only an elite of stakeholder aristocrats would make it to the table. What if these “patients representatives” were unconvinced. Would they have a veto, even if the clinicians were convinced the changes would save lives?
Labour would have more credibility on “people power” agenda if they had not opposed the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners or the requirement for referenda to be held for Council Tax increases above a modest level.
When it comes to schools Mr Miliband is in a particular muddle. He said:
This government has actually centralised power in Whitehall.
Attempting to run thousands of schools from there.
That doesn’t work.
And as a result some schools have been left to fail.
Just last week we saw the Al-Madinah School in Derby close, because its failings were spotted far too late.
Clearly, we need greater local accountability for our schools.
If he believes free schools and academies are “run” from Whitehall and “need greater accountability” then it would logically follow that he would municipalise these schools – put them under the control of local authorities. That does not seem to be what he proposes. The truth is that power has been decentralised with schools having far more independence. What is Mr Miliband evidence for saying it “doesn’t work.” The one free school he mentioned opened in 2012. Previously schools were left to fail for decades.
Mr Miliband went on to say:
In all schools, there should be a “parent call-in”, where a significant number of parents can come together and call for immediate action on standards.
This power exists in parts of the United States.
And I have tasked David Blunkett with saying how that can happen here too.
This seems to be a reference to the “parent trigger” mechanism championed by Parent Revolution. It is a way of forcing failing schools to become Charter Schools. Yet Charter Schools operate like academies or free schools – just the type that a moment earlier Mr Miliband had been fretting about lacking “local accountability” and being “run” from Whitehall. The free market Heartland Institute are also very much involved in this. The “parent trigger” legislation they back includes a voucher option.
Is this really what Mr Miliband advocates? His speech both demands an end to the Gove Revolution – and for it go much further.