Ed Miliband’s public services plan is just Big Society all over again

The Big Society is back. Listening to Ed Miliband deliver his Hugo Young lecture at the Guardian last week, I was reminded of David Cameron launching the ill-starred Big Society manifesto at Coin Street community centre early in 2010.

There was the same set of ideals: people power, devolution, localism. The same excoriation of the overbearing state and the alienating market. The same righteous indignation at a system designed to denude the poorest and shut out the community groups and charities that could make a difference, that give people a stake and a sense of solidarity.

For Cameron, this was the future once. That this vision has been only rarely evoked in government is no great slight on the prime minister. The mechanics of government and opposition are entirely opposed. But where Cameron got it mostly right and Miliband is lagging behind is in the depth of their vision relative to what came before.

This is not a question or commentary on the depth of both men’s personal convictions, on their understanding of the policy issues, on their suitability to be prime minister or their parties’ suitability to hold the reins of power. It is a question of political leadership.

The key to the success of an opposition’s vision is whether that vision can be couched in a language that is radically different to what has come before. Opposition is not about complex delivery plans; it is not about covering every corner of government. Rather, it is about conveying and encapsulating hope, the promise of something different. Political language, whether from left or right, must by definition be radical and progressive if it is to succeed.

On this score, Miliband needs to sharpen up. He needs to understand that leader of the opposition Miliband cannot simply pick up where leader of the opposition Cameron left off.

That Hugo Young lecture – and what it said about reform – is a case in point. Miliband said there needs to be change right across our public services. Much was made of his announcement on headteachers that had been trailed beforehand.

Yet look behind the headlines, at the details, and you find that he had little that was radical to say about the areas that the coalition has been slower to reform. There was nothing about health other than the most rudimentary items. He mentioned the cost savings that could come from community care – a much-vaunted example was investing in towel rails before an accident rather than expensive treatments after. This is, of course, a welcome, if William-Hague-commonsense-revolution, sort of message. Yet, with more than half of all foundation trusts facing bankruptcy, this is precisely where a more radical analysis was needed.

We have an ageing population, a creaking infrastructure and significant vested interests among the professions. The popular narrative – purveyed by the outraged, defiant, nouveau-Peckham youth vote – resists change. Meanwhile, around a third of elderly people occupying a hospital bed do so for no good reason and 40% of elder care A&E admissions result in no treatment. More than 40% of our population with long-term conditions account for 70% of the entire NHS budget. The system is on the brink and will not be fixed by towel rails, whether sourced in the community or elsewhere.

More widely, there were obvious areas where Miliband could take the initiative, but again something holds him back. In the course of this parliament, the government has attempted to diversify who delivers our public services across a number of different areas, from health to welfare, Olympic security to courts. A handful of large private companies have mobilised quickly to take on contracts. They are slick and organised and seldom give quarter to alternative providers. And so in several “diversity deserts” across our country, public sector monopolies have been replaced by little more than private sector oligopolies.

At ACEVO, in a recent letter to Miliband, we called for “citizens’ rights” to choice and voice in public services to be entrenched in legislation, in statements of practice like the NHS constitution, and be given teeth. Such rights are already part of the government’s rhetoric but after a promising start they have fallen by the wayside. Miliband appears to agree; he spoke about citizens’ rights to choice and voice. Labour‘s Jon Cruddas, in his speech to the New Local Government Network the next day, used the same rhetoric. But on the question of legislation, on giving them teeth there was – alas – little to get our teeth into.

Miliband differs from Cameron in one crucial way: he has been in government. The latter when leader of the opposition had not. I wonder if Miliband has been so brutalised by the experience that he has partly lost his ability to think with a blank canvas. He has been smart and decisive when criticising monopoly markets in energy, in banking. Ironic then that he appears to tolerate with such complacency monopolies and oligopolies in our public services, on which so many of us depend.

Perhaps it is pure timidity; he fears that breaking the public sector monopoly will not deliver the goods we as a public hold so dear. Perhaps, given his experiences, he doesn’t think real reform is possible. Neither the coalition nor the Blair or Brown governments got it right. But then, these feelings would be neither hopeful nor radical so won’t get him where he wants to go.

In 2010, Cameron did a pretty good job of giving us something new, something the Tories had never said before. Miliband might well be thinking radical thoughts, and concocting new visions for a new sort of Labour, but for now they remain unsaid. They might be trapped in the developmental hell of a shadow civil service, entirely imaginary. They might simply be a narrative short of a manifesto.

One thing is certain: if Miliband is serious about reform and therefore serious about winning, this flirtation with post-Big Society radicalism will be but one small first step in a far wider series of deliberations.


Originally published on Guardian online on Wednesday 19 February here

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