Ed Miliband’s “People Powered Public Services”: some interesting ideas lurk beyond the bland

by Stephen Tall on February 12, 2014

I read Ed Miliband’s Hugo Young lecture on the train home last night to save you the trouble. No need to thank me. Actually there are some good parts to it, which I’ll come onto. And if you want to share my pleasure the full text is available here.

However, I’d suggest skipping the first 1,685 words which can be summarised as, “Life can be unfair. I, Ed Miliband, have noticed this and so have lots of other people, like Obama and the Pope.” Along the way he name-checks Margaret Thatcher (a conviction politician, y’see… except for all the times when she was a pragmatic compromiser) and Benjamin ‘One Nation’ Disraeli. Then, mindful that praising two Tories could upset the left, Ed invokes New York’s new socialist-lite mayor, Democrat Bill de Blasio. Ed encapsulates his own philosophy of equality in the clunking line: “It means seeking to walk in the shoes of others, not looking over their shoulder to someone more powerful.” He’s right of course, and arguably the government should have powers to compulsorily purchase others’ shoes if they won’t let them be walked in.

Cheap gags to one side, much of the speech on what was termed “people powered public services” is underwhelming. It’s not that I disagree with it, but much of it could have been spoken by David Cameron or Nick Clegg. Actually, scratch that. They’d have looked at the script and said that all sounds a bit bland and low-key for us, best let Frances Maude deliver it instead.

Here are the first three principles that Ed Miliband said “should guide us in tackling inequalities of power and improving public services”. Policy Principle 1: “That people get access to the information unless there is a very good reason for them not to.” Agreed. Here’s Policy Principle 2: “no user of public services should be left as an isolated individual, but should be able to link up with others.” Agreed. Though as Dan Hodges caustically observed:

[Miliband will] announce that when you’ve taken a peek at your medical records he’ll put you in touch with other people who have the same condition. “Blimey, apparently I’ve got gout.” “Gout? How do you know?” “Just looked at my medical records. Ed Miliband let me.” “Bloody hell. What are you going to do?” “I’m going to ask Ed Miliband to put me in touch with someone else who has gout”. “Makes sense. He’s a great reformer that Ed Miliband guy.”

Moving on, here’s Policy Principle 3: “every user of a public service has something to contribute and the presumption should be that decisions should be made by users and public servants together, and not public servants on their own.” Well, again, agreed… though it’s interesting Ed Miliband couched this principle in terms of the debate about closing hospitals when recommended by a Clinical Commissioning Group as the best way of improving healthcare provision for patients. Does Ed think they’re wrong? Probably not. “[I’m] not saying change will never happen,” cautions Ed. “But [I am] saying no change will happen without people having their say.” That should do the trick. After all, no-one minds their local hospital closing as long as they’ve filled in a consultation questionnaire, do they?

But I promised you there were some good things in the speech that go beyond the beige. There are two I’d pick out.

First, he highlights Richard Sennett’s spiky phrase – “the ‘compassion that wounds’ – well-intentioned, properly motivated, but nevertheless disempowering” – to describe the “old model of delivery… between the ‘professionals’ of the welfare state and those who lived there”. For a Labour leader to acknowledge that top-down intervention, however kindly meant, can have a negative effect on people is as surprising as it is welcome.

Secondly, and more importantly, is Policy Principle 4: “it is right to devolve power down not just to the user but to the local level because the centralized state cannot diagnose and solve every local problem from Whitehall.” Of course we’ve heard this kind of talk before… from Tony Blair, from Gordon Brown, from David Cameron. Always when in Opposition; less often in Government; and hardly ever more than just talk.

But maybe, just maybe, this time it’s different. Miliband references a number of forthcoming Labour public policy reviews, and spoke of how devolution of power would inform Labour’s thinking in them. To be honest, he doesn’t need to look much beyond Michael Heseltine’s No stone unturned report which the Coalition is half-heartedly implementing.

Of course, not all Lib Dems will welcome these proposals for devolution – Labour will almost certainly return to the idea of powerful city mayors, pointing to London and Bristol as success stories. As Jeremy Cliffe points out in The Economist:

Championing city regions would also fit neatly with Mr Miliband’s public-sector principles. The Labour leader talks of a new layer of oversight between a mighty Whitehall and individual users. Where should this new layer sit? Local authorities are too small—and not always very accountable—but experience in London, Germany and the US shows that powerful mayors tend to be more visible and accountable than most other forms of regional government. That suggests that services like education, health, taxes and welfare should be devolved to their level. Mayors also comply with the Milibandite credo by linking users to producers; a “third way” between top-down and bottom-up services.

If we take Miliband at his word, then, devolution may well be coming if Labour wins the next election. But it’s unlikely to be a simple case of transferring powers from Whitehall to existing local authorities. That poses a challenge to Lib Dems who – as I’ve observed before – have a tendency to be starry-eyed about the transformative powers of devolving to town halls.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.