Conferences are supposed to highlight the differences between parties. Members and MPs are paraded before the media to denounce their rivals and rally the troops in anticipation of the next round of political combat in the Commons.
However, the bombastic rants of shadow cabinet ministers (think Ed Balls and his criticism of “Butch Cameron and the flat-line kid”) tells us less about the differences between the two main parties than the more subtle ways Labour MPs respond to issues on which there is broad agreement on across the political spectrum. It is by listening out for those key phrases spoken at Fringe events that are repeated again and again that the humble party supporter can understand where his/her politicians will draw the battle lines against the opposition.
At this year’s Fabian Fringe, the emphasis has been on building a more intelligent, more flexible, and more responsive state. The need to “innovate” has been stressed at various events, as has the need to accept and adapt to a post-financial crisis landscape where old ideas and values no longer have the same relevance. In particular, we have witnessed at this conference a de-emphasising of redistributive measures and the role of central government in securing economic fairness in favour of ‘higher level’ mechanisms of achieving more equality, and local or regional means of stimulating change.
There is overlap here with the Conservatives’ rhetoric on the ‘Big Society’, where the powers and responsibilities of providing state welfare and services are devolved to voluntary organisations, civic society, and local government. Is Labour seeking to adopt the ‘Big Society’ from David Cameron in the same way that Ed Miliband adopted ‘One Nation’ from Benjamin Disraeli?
‘NO’ is the resounding response. While both parties are emphasising the importance of localism, participatory democracy, and regionally-tailored services, only Labour is making the connection between these three objectives and central government’s role in making it happen. On the evidence of this year’s conference, Labour is aware that divorcing issues of regional investment, regional pay, and regional welfare from regional democracy and regional funding is a recipe for disaster.
Helen Goodman, writing in The Shape of Things to Come: Labour’s New Thinking, explains that for a more decentralised state to work for the people, Labour must build regional responses on the basis of trust, rather than control:
“The localism agenda of this government purports to give more local accountability, but the various arms of policy are pulling in too many opposing directions for this to work. Labour needs to develop its own collective approach, building on local democratic institutions and expanding and strengthening accountability. Even on a practical level, extracting maximum efficiency from funds will mean trusting local politicians to know their own areas and deliver on priorities in the most efficient way possible.”
However, the party can go further than this. Instead of relying on local representatives to deliver what is needed, Labour could embrace participatory budgeting and champion micro referendums on issues of community spending to ensure that council decisions are fully democratic and placed in the hands of those most affected.
A Labour government would also have to ensure that regions had access to an adequate supply of funding. To this end, it would be prudent to stop talking of a ‘British Investment Bank’ now and start talking about the need for ‘Regional Investment Banks’ instead.
The party could also revive the idea of regional parliaments, buried in the first term of New Labour. These don’t have to consist of expensive ‘white elephant’ legislative buildings or the creation of an extra layer of bureaucracy. Instead, they should be hotbeds of creative thinking on local government, given real powers by Westminster but then left alone to come up with imaginative solutions to their own geographical areas of responsibility.
The truth is that some councils are more innovative and willing to try new things than others. It is up to the state to promote best practice and provide the funds and expertise to ensure each locality is properly equipped to tailor the solutions right for them. The above are just a few ideas on how to achieve this.
Perhaps if some of them are taken on board, we can replace Cameron’s bankrupt ‘Big Society’ with a Britain where communities are fair, free, and properly funded.
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians Blog