Some of the coverage of the recent letter from think tanks and others to Ed Miliband has been typically opportunistic press nonsense.
I’m not sure that the timing of the letter was superb, and the technocratic language feels like hitting yourself with a frying pan. That said, the letter made good constructive proposals, and the general feeling that we should be saying more, and that it should be bold in content.
But there is one very obvious person that it was at least an oblique attack on. Gordon Brown.
Gordon Brown is a figure who evokes mixed feelings within the Labour Party, and whose legacy is not even considered, bearing in mind the groaning weight of Tony Blair.
Blairites hate him. And a lot of the reason for that, given his behaviour as Chancellor, is understandable. At the same time though, what else would they expect from someone who from was immediately positioned as a leader in waiting.
The left of the party feels a lot more mixed. Many from the soft left in particular were seduced by Gordon as Chancellor, always happy to play to the Polly Toynbee gallery as that slightly-more-left-wing alternative to Blair. Whilst I knew Brown as leader would never be all I wanted, I can’t claim to have been immune to this. It’s what happens when you haven’t had a look in when it comes to policy or personnel for over a decade.
For the whole of the left, the enormity of his moves after tha banking crisis, his initial opposition to all cuts, and his moves to make sure that some of the burden fell upon the richest meant that he still gets a much kinder view . He wasn’t posh, and had been a genuine socialist long before he was elected to Parliament. Less uncomfrotable with attacking the left as a tactic to shore up his support, he was always seen as ‘one of us’ in a way that Blair was not.
The problem is, that has made him harder to encapsulate and deal with in legacy terms, and is has made it difficult to come to conclusions on his supporters. His lack of definition has made it difficult to tell who those people even are, and the bitterness of the split with Blair combined with election defeat in 2010 has made it very difficult to have a debate about style.
That needs to be done. Gordon Brown was not left wing. But he was a centralist.
The standard Gordon Brown response to a problem of public policy was to promise to ban it – carbon emissions are an example of this – but this is nothing more than a glorified target.
The best policies Brownism has brought us were forced on it. But the default mode was ‘centralist and banal’, as was the style. And the style, at least, survives.
Brown’s policies promised were leftward facing but timid as hell and usually boring. You could tell that the inspiration was heavily filtered through the civil service, to the point that it did not relflect real life. Pet Asbos. The ‘right to request’ flexible working (as if there is not right to have a conversation with your bos already).
Gordon, I love and miss you, but I would rather be rid of this.
What about Ed?
One of the areas where Labour needs to do better at the moment is that we seem to rely on announcing the same thing over and over again. The opposition discipline of not forcing your hand does encourage this – but by the same token, we need some equivalents to ideas like ‘sharing the proceeds of growth’.
Part of the issue is that some of the manifesto process seems tied into the same logic, when actually, as the letter writers state, we should be putting out a load of stuff that is eye grabbing and able to inspire.
What kind of Labour government are we proposing?
I’m a decentralist sort of socialist and I’m keen on seeing this approach taken. More can be done by local councils, and in the economy by trade unions. The NGO and charity sector can be used to save money in the public sector (as one small example, we could save vast amounts of money to the NHS by imrpoving care for Schizophrenia, as outlined by expert charities in the area).
But there is one key point missing from the letter and what Miliband has generated so far, which I think illuminates the key to making the next Labour government (and our offer before it) really radical.
We’ve talked about what Miliband should be offering on htee public sector, but little about what a decentralising approach would look like in the private sector and the ‘real economy’.
Firstly, in the state, how does this match up with things like transport infrastructure and health? What will be done about the aging population or the mounting political injustices experienced by young people? And do we need to seriously refinance local government, perhaps introducing a needs-based model of taxation to fund it? How about returning local control over local schools and health provision?
Secondly, if we’re talking about decentralist socialism, how about freeing up trade unions and putting in place national protocals to help them engage in bargaining with private sector bosses? A great way to redistribute wealth and power if you’re not relying on Government departments.
How about looking at some ways in which government can assist them in recruiting?
What about education for low-paid workers and people in depressed areas of the country? Active citizenship in schools?
For some reason, we only seem to be talking about what happens in the state, rather than the world outside it. The letter is a good start, but without covering half of the economy it cannot fully grasp just how transformative our offer to the public can and will need to be.
Let’s talk about transforming the world of work. Let’s talk about how our population is changing and the new pressures it is subject to. Let’s talk about rebuilding the movement that Labour sits on top of. About control, and ownership. About the rewards we get for being productive, and how the private sector treats us both at work and as consumers. Let’s talk about how we want the place to look by 2050, not just how we dampen cuts now.
In policy terms, all of the challenges above require us to substantially grow the offer – not to shrink it. And to get noticed against a Government with this many friends in the media, we have to.