Tuesday, 27 September 2011

What is Labour for?

Life on the benches of Her Majesty's opposition is tough. Hardly anybody wants to hear what you say and even fewer people care. The fall from grace for Labour was particularly hard. Under Gordon Brown, the party achieved the second worst result in a general election in its history. 
As the Labour conference is coming to a close in Liverpool, the party had to answer above all one question: what does the party stand for? What is Labour for? 
The instant answer is the easy one: to hold the government to account, to scrutinize ministers and to offer an alternative to the government's agenda. However, at the heart of the struggle for influence in the public's psyche always stands another quest: to define the public debate, to shape the way in which we think about the challenges ahead for society. 
It is this grander project that Labour has to find answers to over the next couple of years. The way back into power will only be possible if it can persuade the British people that its vision of British society contains the right answers to the difficulties of a modern state with a market economy that is operating on a global scale. 
There are two main challenges to defining such a viable vision. The first is that Britain is placed in a difficult spot with a diminishing manufacturing sector, an overgrown banking sector that has failed to invest in technology and the things that create jobs outside the City. Returns for investments in stocks and shares were a manifold of what investment in manufacturing or engineering promised. A skewed education and skills sector has failed to create strong links with industry, producing fewer and fewer apprenticeships and training places. 
The second big challenge is political in nature. While individual lives are lived in villages and cities, in concrete environments and people demand ever more control over their lives, the mechanisms to drive change and impose order on society have become more and more centralised over the last decades. The best example is the NHS. This great national institution is riddled with contradictions: devolution of the NHS into the four components of the home nations England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; a drive towards 'eliminating post-code lottery' and health inequalities exist simultaneously with an emphasis on individualisation and the need for personalised health services. 
The previous Labour government relied on one dominant mechanism to drive change: central government and targets. It attempted to micro-manage public services but, reluctantly, also created some limited elements of local control, such as local regeneration partnerships. It didnt work. While it frustrated communities that they didn't get sufficient control over important decisions, central government also never managed to ensure that public services improved in line with the enormous amount of extra expenditure they received. 
So the lesson is simple: the state cannot drive change in public services in the way it used to. Once this is clear, the magnitude of the challenge for the Labour Party is revealed. Who or what is to change society for the better? Local communities will want to have more choice, more say and more decision making powers; industries will be more global and public services under the control of central government will become less and less responsive to targets. The old certainty of change driven by central government is gone. Increasing expenditures does not guarantee that lives are improved on a local level. Labour has to formulate a convincing answer to this if it wants to shape the discussions on the future of British society. If it does not, Her Majesty's opposition will consist of the same party for a long time to come. 

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