Just be yourself, David

Poverty of ambition does not quite come any more impoverished than the leadership campaign of David Miliband. He has argued that Labour must not veer to the left, adopting a core vote strategy or attempting to woo disaffected Lib Dems. Instead it must stay in the Blairite centre-ground, and concentrate on tempting back the voters that have deserted Labour in favour of the Conservatives.

In order to achieve this, he says, Labour needs to remain committed to, among other things, public service reform. This, apparently, is the great clarion call of Middle England. Of course, when he says ‘public service reform’, we know what he really means. It is New Labour code for privatisation, ruling out income tax increases, and workfarism.

Yet there is an extremely flawed, and dangerous, logic at the heart of D.Miliband’s strategy here. The logic is that this agenda must be good, because the middle-class support it, and Labour needs middle-class voters to win elections. The electoral math is debatable, and in any case pointless under the current electoral system. Most importantly, his argument is barely more than crude pandering dressed up as intellectualism and courage.

Is the ‘public service reform’ agenda inherently a good idea, or is it only a good idea because of the social stratum that supports it? If D.Miliband thinks it is such a good idea, he should be lecturing his comrades, and his brother, on its soundness as a set of policy prescriptions, rather than psephology. Or does he think the working-class is too thick to ‘get it’? Can you only appeal to the ‘core vote’ with ‘well-meaning’-but-‘naive’ policies?

This, essentially, is D.Miliband’s pitch: “I have worked out what the right thing to do is. Traditional Labour voters haven’t worked this out yet, but they’ll probably vote for us anyway. Middle England agrees with me, not because of principle, but because they have economic interests which broadly align with the outcomes my policy agenda will produce. You must understand, comrades, that I don’t instinctively favour the interests of the middle-class, but it just so happens that the exact same policies that they support for selfish reasons are the policies I support for moral reasons. And even more remarkably, the selfishness of the middle-class voters could get us re-elected!”

It is as implausible as it is disheartening. David Miliband would make a good Prime Minister. I have no quarrel with him as a politician, a wonk, a leader. But his strategy stinks, and he’s letting it get in the way of proper work on policy. There’s no point getting into Blair-bashing all over again, but he needs to understand that the New Labour playbook is defunct. If I were advising him, I’d tell him to just go out there and be himself. Tell us what he really believes: I doubt there’s anything really gruesome. And if some journalist or strategist asks you to say something about left vs right, Blair vs Brown, ‘core vote’ vs centre-ground, tell them to grow up.

Whose big society is it anyway?

Now that the Coalition, led by human wrecking ball in chief Eric Pickles, has finished tearing down the last vestiges of regional government by removing the regional government offices they’re turning their attention to what will take their place.

And guess what folks; it’s that panacea for all society’s ills, the “Big Society”…. again.

Eric’s Department of Communities and Local Government has published it’s very own structural reform plan; the document that sets out the department’s new rasion d’etre; “Making localism and the big society part of everyday life.”

So it seems when Eric isn’t stomping around in his hard hat demolishing Quangos, he’s going to be using that hammer to hammer out the gospel of the big society. In recognition of this Eric has been made joint chair of the government’s big society ministerial committee, taking his place alongside Francis Maude, after all its going to take a big man to build the big society.

The structural reform plan sets out a series of reforms to deliver localism agenda and support the big society, with a big focus on getting rid of those horrible rules and regulations that force local authorities to fill out forms about how many people they employ to fill out the forms they have to fill out to satisfy the latest government directive about form filling. Instead local councils, and communities, that’s us by the way, will be liberated from this paper based oppression and allowed to rule ourselves using common sense.

This involves increasing local council’s independence by cutting the inspection and guidance regime including the Comprehensive Area Assessment and devolving greater control over local spending by phasing out ring fencing for high performing councils. There are also plans for 12 directly elected city mayors, proposals to give local residents the power to institute referendum on any local issues and extremely vague pledges to let local community groups take over the running of local public services.

This big society check list is not a coherent vision or set of policies, it is a pick mix of familiar sound bites and easy sentiments; anti-state, anti-bureaucracy and greater efficiency all timeless aspirations for every incumbent government, including the previous administration.

And from these meagre acorns will the tree of the big society grow? Well no because that’s not how grass roots work. While volunteers and charities can do fantastic work they can’t do it for free and are often dependent on contracts to deliver services or local authority grants for their premises, their part time staff, to pay the bills. The Coalition knows this, but the big society is not about expanding the New Labour formula of increasing government funding to the voluntary sector to deliver public services. Instead there will be the double impact of spending cuts as council services get cut, followed by the disappearance of charities that support people who relied on that state support.

 It’s all part of how the coalition envisages the big society, it’s not about altering models of state support, it’s about self reliance of groups that are independent and self financing, untainted by financial reliance on the state. Think of the big society as a village fete, locally organised by those with requisite social capital to do a bit of fund raising and a bit of do gooding, all under the patronage of the great and the good of the shire.

This is most clearly articulated in their plans for a mini army of 5000 self sustaining community organisers, who will train local people to… errm probably clean up parks and that, but hopefully they won’t get around to organising their communities to protest against cuts to huge job losses and closure of vital services.

In practice the big society is an idea that can only be defined negatively, and the only thing Coalition Minister’s seem to agree on is that it’s not the state. So to make room for the big society the state must be rolled back, and this has major implications for the state at the local level where the big society must be seen in the context of huge, and if the Conservatives get their way, permanent, public spending that will decimate local council services.

To ensure the big society is effective window dressing for compassionate conservatism it has to be everything to all people everywhere. This pandering is perfectly captured by David Cameroon every time he opens his mouth on the subject, like in Liverpool recently where he offered this precise definition.

“You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society.”

Well you probably shouldn’t Dave, because it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. “Give me big society or give death” or “big society, equality and fraternity.” I don’t think so.

Select committees good; government policy not so good

Although my last job as a basement-dwelling, dog-walking, democratic-process-subverting cog in a corrupt machine was truly hateful, on the rare occasions I was let out of the office I had the pleasure of attending quite a few sessions of the various Select Committees for science, health and education. This was by far the best part of my job, because select committes are a genuinely inspiring feature of British politics.
 
Select Committees do their work in the way that I think most people hope all work is done in Parliament: a group of intelligent and interested MPs sit down with the leading experts in the field, listen to what they have to say on a particular subject, discuss with them their areas of disagreement and debate, read and question the evidence from all sides on an issue, and then do it again and again until the ways in which Government policy needs to evolove become clear. They then produce a report which discusses this whole process in an open and transparent way, and make non-partisan recommendations for the way forward. It is a beautiful, obvious and, above all, sensible way of creating policy, according to the evidence and opinions of those who will be most affected by policy decisions. 
 
Take homeopathy. Before the election, the Science and Technology Committee – chaired by the sadly departed Phil Willis (a Lib Dem) and a mix of members of the other major parties – took evidence and published a report on the efficacy of homeopathy. After following the process above, the Committee made its recommendations:

 

The Science and Technology Committee concludes that the NHS should cease funding homeopathy. It also concludes that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) should not allow homeopathic product labels to make medical claims without evidence of efficacy. As they are not medicines, homeopathic products should no longer be licensed by the MHRA.

 

The Committee carried out an evidence check to test if the Government’s policies on homeopathy were based on sound evidence. The Committee found a mismatch between the evidence and policy. While the Government acknowledges there is no evidence that homeopathy works beyond the placebo effect (where a patient gets better because of their belief in the treatment), it does not intend to change or review its policies on NHS funding of homeopathy.

 
Beautiful. Clean, crisp, evidence-based policy recommendations, made by a Committee which despite having several Labour MPs contributing to the report – in the run-up to an election where they might well lose their seats – does not shy away from making robust criticism of Government policy where it is patent nonsense.
 
David Treddinick MP (he of astrology software expenses claims) promptly launched an Early Day Motion (basically, a Motion registering an objection to something Government is doing or not doing) attacking the Committee for various things, including taking evidence “from known critics of homeopathy” such as Bad Science’s Ben Goldacre – as if the only criterion for valid evidence would be that it comes from people who had never before criticised homeopathy! As far as I know, Paris Hilton has not publicly criticised homeopathy – no doubt she will not be overlooked next time evidence on its efficacy is required.

So, Select Committees are brilliant and Tredinnick is a bit of a loon: so far so good. Presumably, then, the Government will stop funding homeopathy? After all, the Committee is unequivocal in suggesting that the evidence supports this course of action, and David Cameron declared only two weeks ago that “I believe in evidence-based policy.” The perfect opportunity, one would think, to follow evidence-based policy and make savings at the same time.
 
The Government’s response to the SciTech Committee’s report was released a few days ago. Overall, it dismisses most of the original report’s recommendations – which were, let me stress, evidence-based – and says it will continue funding homeopathy. The most astonishing single sentence in an astonishing document is this: “There naturally will be an assumption that if the NHS is offering homeopathic treatments then they will be efficacious, whereas the overriding reason for NHS provision is that homeopathy is available to provide patient choice.”
 
The Conservative’s belief in evidence-based policy proves to be a fiction: ‘personal choice’ takes its place as the holy grail, just as it has in education policies such as free schools and the Academies Bill. This is where Select Committees run out of puff: while they are a fantastic idea, they are also totally toothless, with absolutely no ability to compel Government to take their recommendations seriously. Still, at least there is a silver lining to this depressing fact. The newest member of the Health Select Committee? Mr David Tredinnick MP.

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