Ed Miliband is delivering the Hugo Young lecture tonight, and will focus on ‘people-powered public services’. All the briefing so far sets it out to be one of those ‘intellectual underpinnings’ speeches, rather than something that sets the world on fire (although Miliband does, to his credit, have a habit of pulling impressive speeches out of the bag when we’re not expecting it, or boring us all to tears when we’ve been told to expect something major). The central premise of it is set out in his Guardian article (and for more background, do read Rafael Behr’s piece on this): it’s about people having more power over their lives. He writes:
‘Indeed, it is about much more than the individual acting as a consumer. We will put more power in the hands of patients, parents and all the users of services.’
This initially sounds like Miliband’s One Nation Labour having a late-stage epiphany about the importance of protecting the consumer against the vested interests of producers. The most notable Tory ministers who have done this are Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt. But Miliband isn’t proposing the same sort of thing, naturally. Neither is he trying to create a more localist version of localism than the current government has engineered, which is what many oppositions try to promise and then forget once they’re in government.
From conversations that I’ve had with Labour thinkers, and from Miliband’s article today, it’s clear that what he really means is a strong central state that sets standards for local authorities (not local communities, which is an important distinction and one he makes in the piece by saying the party will ‘drive power closer to people’ rather than to people themselves) to work to as they wish. This is different to devolving power and decision-making. He writes:
‘Finally, we should devolve power down not just to the user but also to the local level, because the national government’s task is to set clear national standards for what people can expect, not to diagnose and solve every local problem from Whitehall. And if we are to succeed in devolving power to users, it is much easier to do it from a local level. In every service, from health to policing to education, and by devolving budgets more widely, we are determined to drive power closer to people.’
It is unfair to say that the thinking in this speech is just tokenistic: the party is trying to work out how it can offer voters a way of feeling more powerful without them then complaining about the postcode lotteries that result from giving away too much power. And that thinking can be seen across its public services briefs. The education element of this speech, which will include a power for parents to call in specialist teams to improve failing schools and sack headteachers, suggests a recognition at the top of the party that while failing free schools such as Al-Madinah are closed swiftly, local authority-run ones can muddle on for a lot longer.
But there is no sense in anything Miliband has written or said so far that he wants to give people more choice over their public services: they will have a greater say in the way they are delivered, but not greater choice between schools, for instance. So the ‘relational state’, as the think tank architects of this speech would call it, still sounds quite paternal: it listens to what its citizens say about what they want, but still makes the big decisions for them.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.