Classic Ed Miliband. First he waxes enthusiastic about a policy area, in this case localism, at the very start of his leadership: “we need more decisions to be made locally,” is how he put it in his first conference speech as Labour leader. Then he says nothing else about it for a while.
And then he figures he’d better criticise what the horrible old Tories are doing. So he does, before falling silent again.
Not a whisper.
But, dammit, a Labour leader’s got to say something! So, naturally, he announces a taskforce to look into the, etc, etc. That’ll do it.
Until: BANG! In February this year, after making a New Year’s resolution to actually have some policies, Miliband gave a speech to establish what he would do to decentralise power away from himself. Sounds good, doesn’t it? And, in truth, it kinda did. Many of the Labour leader’s words could have been spoken by a Conservative minister. He talked of the “unresponsive state”, of doing “more for less”, and of “alternative providers, including private, third sector or mutuals”. That last quote almost echoes David Cameron, who once said that “it shouldn’t matter if providers are from the state, private, or voluntary sector – as long as they offer a great service.”
And then Miliband followed that speech with another speech, delivered only a couple of days ago, that made further promises to do with localism. A Labour Government, he said, would ordain nine ministers to look out for certain regions and to devolve power towards them. These regional ministers would supervise the transfer of £20 billion to special, local budgets over five years.
You might say that this is headline-seeking puffery – but Labour’s localism is actually, and atypically, more solid than that. There are three other recent documents that are worth looking at, in this regard. One is Jon Cruddas’s speech to the New Local Government Network. Another is this collection of essays on the titular theme of Labour and Localism, with a foreword by Hilary Benn. And the last is the first report, The case for change, from that taskforce I mentioned above. From these, certain themes emerge, including: i) an eagerness to hand budgeting responsibilities to local authorities, not least to save money; ii) devolution as a means of restoring people’s faith in politics; and iii) an emphasis on Englishness, exemplified by Benn’s phrase “the New English Deal”.
So far, in what I’ve described, there’s little cause for alarm. In fact, there could even be some stuff to welcome. But this series of blog-posts, we shouldn’t forget, is called “Pinning Down Miliband” – and pins aren’t kind. Here are half-a-dozen brief points against Labour’s localism:
1) Show me the money! As you’d expect, there’s a lot of emphasis on the £-signs in Labour’s plan. Miliband, in his most recent speech, chided George Osborne for only handing over £2 billion a year, or £10 billion across five years, to the budgets and prerogatives of certain regions. This, he suggested, paled beside the prescriptions contained in Michael Heseltine’s report No Stone Unturned, which mooted a possible £49 billion across five years. “The best report this government has produced has been the one that they have most ignored,” is how the Labour leader put it. But how much is his own party pledging? £4 billion a year, or £209 billion across five. If Miliband is going to use Hezza as a measure, he might want to try matching up.
2) But will that money be spent wisely? Or, as Hopi Sen put it in an excellent post, referring to local organisations: “but what if they’re crap?” This isn’t just about Labour (and other) councils wasting money, although it’s partially about that. It’s also about the possibility – nay, certainty – that some local authorities will outperform others. Miliband claims that his localism flows from his commitment to equality, yet localism entails inequality. Either the Labour leader is cool with that. Or he’d better think hard about how underperforming councils and other local bodies will be held accountable and then either be forced to improve or be replaced. There’s little evidence, so far, that he’s given this much consideration, beyond measures to allow parents to gang up on rubbish headteachers.
3) Copy cats. You know how I said that much of Miliband’s Hugo Young lecture could have been delivered by a Conservative minister? I didn’t just mean the rhetoric. The way that Miliband & Co. talk about pooled “community budgets” – frequently and admiringly – you’d guess that they had introduced them themselves. In his speech, Cruddas referred to recent Ernst & Young research which suggested that these budgets could yield “savings of between £9.4 billion and £20.6 billion”. Labour’s taskforce report noted how successful the pilot schemes have been. But who instigated those pilot schemes, and is looking to extend the use of community budgets? Yep, the current Government.
4) De-decentralisation. And how are we meant to resolve Miliband’s passion for decentralisation with his, erm, indifference about decentralisation? He may talk the talk, but his party has also resisted such people-powers as elected police commissioners and referenda for council tax increases. Okay, I’ll admit: Labour doesn’t need to agree with all of the Government’s localism agenda for their own. I was bring a bit flip with that question above. But there are, nonetheless, some distinct contradictions in the Labour leader’s position. As Harry Phibbs explained on this site in February, “His speech both demands an end to the Gove Revolution – and for it go much further.”
5) Power not quite to the people. A large part of the difference between Miliband and the Government is philosophical. Where Conservatives – including David Cameron and his Big Society – tend to talk about the individuals that make up society, Labour are often more comfortable talking about the societies within society. This was apparent when folk such as David Miliband and James Purnell tried to construct a response to the Big Society. As I noted at Coffee House at the time, this featured “an emphasis on communities rather than individuals, on membership rather than freedom”. And who was helping them with this work? Jon Cruddas, who’s now in charge of Labour’s policy review.
6) Unfinished policy. Yep, a lot of Labour’s policy is still to be confirmed. That taskforce report was only a preliminary effort, to be followed by more as the election approaches. And so, until then, we’re left with shadow ministers insisting that council tax needs reforming, but not quite being able to say how. Admittedly, there are signs that Miliband & Co. are taking this seriously, among them the various submissions that they’ve accepted from local organisations. But there’s always the possibility that gaps could remain. So often in the past, Oppositions have found rich rhetoric in localism, but struggled for the boring details that make it happen in Government.
Which is a fine point to finish on, for it demonstrates another point: that even the more thought-out elements of Miliband’s plan still require more thought. As always with the Labour leader, question marks abound.