British Labour contemplating a radical change agenda?

Of Irish Labour can offer a cautionary tale to its British cousins it is, that whatever you do do not land yourself in government without a credible plan of action in a time of internationally imposed austerity. Perhaps looking for strategic gains in tackling some of the long term damage of the Thatcher era might be start.

Though as John Harris note, it won’t be pretty. He charts a new tough line of thinking emerging from within Labour is well worth shunning the feverish village gossip on European referendums.

There is no reason to believe the Labour leadership will buy it, but it does contain more open space than that currently on offer. And it identifies some key structural problems that will need to be fixed over the long term. Not least a sort of reverse evacuation of political power to London, away from local authorities.

The red meat (pun intended) is being provided by John Cruddas, who according to Harris:

…is urging a “radical reconfiguration” of the state and public sector, and he is not joking. He talks about everything from the burden of epidemic mental illness on the prison system to the urgent need to finally tilt the NHS towards prevention rather than cure – and, in order to meet the aforementioned fiscal demands, insists that changes will have to happen fast.

As he has lately been pointing out, if four out of five jobs are brokered with no involvement from local job centres, what does that say about the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), a swollen and increasingly hateful institution that lately spawned the failed £5bn work programme? There should be cheers for this, and also the idea that Trident replacement – a cool £130bn over 30 years – is an absurd non-starter.

For every £19 of public money spent on housing benefit (total annual cost: £17bn), only £1 goes on the building of homes, and the bill continues to balloon; by much the same token, should we spend so much money on child benefit (about £12bn annually), or shift the focus to dependable childcare? Millions could be saved by timetabling a reduction of working tax credits, and cutting down the state’s grotesque subsiding of big companies’ wage bills.

Were Whitehall to call in and finally audit the huge private-sector contracts that now blanket the entire state, the savings could be towering (the total cost of the ruinous private finance initiative will top £300bn by 2049-50 – not an easy policy matter, though buyouts would suit the basic retrenchment-over-the-long-term agenda).

If there are any lessons to be learned from the crash (and I suspect there are plenty), it is that there has been a massive market failure in housing, and in the way the state supports its citizens to become more economically active.

Although Labour’s opportunity may lie, to some extent, within the intellectual timidity of the coalition’s economic policy, it cannot, Harris argues ignore the fact that British public opinion are generally buying the line that Brown was profligate as a Chancellor.

Hacking back Whitehall bureaucracy, is the gold standard in government reform that most governments in recent times have promised but have not yet achieved. Words of warning from Yes Minister back in 1980:

Hacker: TWENTY THREE THOUSAND! In the department of administrative affairs, twenty three thousand adminstrators just to administer the other administrators! We need to do a time-and-motion study, see who we can get rid of.
Sir Humphrey: Ah, well, we did one of those last year.
Hacker: And what were the results?
Sir Humphrey: It turned out that we needed another five hundred people.

Harris concludes:

It requires painstaking work – and on that score, efforts are under way. Aside from the policy review, the Compass thinktank is preparing a high-profile intervention that will make the case for an deficit-driven stimulus alongside “eye-wateringly tight” fiscal rules and an audit of government waste. There are signs – particularly within work on social care – that at least some Labour people are grappling with the huge rethink required. If it materialises, it will be big news; if it doesn’t, the party may have no one but itself to blame for its problems – whether it wins the next election or not.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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