Why Ed Balls’ speech at Thompson Reuters (and the follow-up media interviews) left more than a few people unconvinced
The Shadow Chancellor made a speech that touched on a couple of policy areas which inevitably made the politics’ headlines. Well…for Whitehall and finance-watchers perhaps. For everyone else it broadly felt like more of the same. The text of the full speech is here.
The big problem Ed Balls – and any Labour politician faces, is what happened during their time in office. It was only three years ago that they lost the general election that no one won, and many of the senior figures on Labour’s front bench were senior members of Brown’s rudderless final months in office. Miliband, Balls, Cooper, Burnham – as a quarter they were all at the top. But given both Blair and Brown’s way of running their administrations, all policy initiative was removed – little of substance being possible without the consent of one or the other until 2007, and then from 2007 ditto without Brown’s agreement at a time of high ministerial turnover.
The past three years haven’t been easy for Labour by any means. It’s not just a case of being in opposition and watching the Coalition doing what they are doing, but trying to work out what Labour ‘is’ in a post Blair-Brown era. For 15 years following Blair succeeding John Smith as Labour leader, much of the policy initiative came from the small groups around both politicians – a system that crystalised in Whitehall when Labour came to power in 1997. In the mid-1990s a ruthlessly efficient system of media management supported this operation – one that blew the Conservative party of the 1990s out of the water.
Systems and processes being made obsolete
This is what all major political parties face: their existing systems of policy-making and media management being made obsolete. It’s not just about the Twitterers and Facebookers of the world – that’s just a small part. Things that were easier to ignore in 2001 – such as low voter turnout – are harder to ignore today. In 2001, Labour didn’t have the long record in office. They do now. Information that was once the preserve of experts and large institutions are now available to more people far more efficiently than those inside said institutions because restrictions on workplace computer networks means that those in the traditional office workplace may not have as much access to information as those outside of it.
The speed at which things become obsolete – policies rather than technologies
This was one of the points Ed Balls returned to over and over again. He could say what he’d do today, but not what he’d do in 2015 because he doesn’t know what the world will be like then. In one sense it’s a fair point. I have no real idea of where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing in 2015 because of a number of things, not least health. But then if Ed Balls is saying he can’t announce policy for 2015, it means the existing policy-making cycles are too inflexible. It also means that existing policies from any political party need to have some sort of flexibility built in to account for a rapidly changing world.
How big is Ed Ball’s political worldview?
It was something I touched on in my blogpost about the Young Europeans’ Movement. Over what timeframe is Ed Balls looking at? On what global scale is Ed Balls looking at. And also within what political and economic framework has he chosen to sit within? I’m particularly interested in the third of these – the framework. This is reflected by his comments about means testing winter fuel payments made to pensioners. The reason why is this:
If you are the opposition’s shadow finance minister and are making a big policy speech, you don’t want the headlines to be dominated by a policy that is relatively minor. In the grand scheme of things – irrespective of its merit or otherwise, restricting winter fuel payments made to wealthy pensioners isn’t going to affect that many people. We might be an ageing population proportionally, but the policy itself isn’t one that will cause many people sleepless nights, nor is it something that is going to make huge dents in the deficit.
What would have been better?
The speech didn’t given me an impression of of his understanding of where the country and the world is in a wider historical context. By that I mean understanding the crisis of institutions (political, economic, cultural, religious, social, educational etc) on one side, along with the impact of information and communications technologies on the other.
The part of his speech that’s worth looking at is the bit where he talks about the important questions for Labour’s 2015 manifesto -> “Which will mean asking important questions for our manifesto”
The mistake? The sentences he uses start with fairly reasonable preambles before asking the wrong sorts of questions. For example [preamble in bold, policy question unbold]:
With family budgets under such pressure and living standards falling, surely it makes sense to introduce a mansion tax on properties worth over £2m to pay for a lower 10p starting rate of tax?
For something like this, far better to look at the bigger picture of why costs of living are rising and standards of loving are falling. Policy-wise, a mansion tax and a 10p starting rate of income tax can be made, but in a much more suitable context. Trying to link costs of living with a mansion tax is a bit like David Cameron trying to link the latest lobbying scandal with reform of trade union funding of the Labour Party.
A better context on a mansion tax would have been something housing and transport-related, or economy related. What is it about very high house prices in places like Central London that is having a knock on impact on housing, transport and the economy not just in other parts of London, but across the South East of England and the rest of the country too? What is it that a mansion tax would achieve? A revenue raiser or would it dampen the price rises at the top end of the market? How would that link into other policies and/or help solve other problems?
Doesn’t the ‘root and branch spending review’ sound like a good idea?
Again, how has he framed it? Is it purely in a financial/public spending context, or does it account for structural changes that need to be made to institutions? For example, what would be the impact on people’s health if a future Labour government got a serious grip on housing policy? Say for example transferring ownership of houses owned by slum landlords to more responsible housing associations or to local councils, and giving the latter the resources to renovate or demolish and rebuild housing. What would the payoffs be on health? Ditto with increasing funding available for the provision of healthier school dinners for children and recreational facilities too. On school dinners, that would involve taking on food multinationals and massive outsourcing firms. Lots of this comes back to the points Big Issue Founder John Bird made in Cambridge.
21st Century Public Services
Eugh! What a horrible cliche! That phrase makes me think of ministers outsourcing everything to highly paid consultants working for large wealthy multinational firms running an operation staffed by armies of poorly trained, poorly paid temps on extremely poor and unstable working conditions with high staff turnover.
Strangely enough, it is the least glamorous part of politics – the nuts and bolts of public administration – that need understanding and improving before even looking at how you are going to deliver your policies and achieve whatever it is you want to achieve. One of the things Labour didn’t demonstrate in office (as reflected by regular organisational restructures and ministerial reshuffles) was a sound understanding of public administration. Yet the failure to understand this – and how large organisations function can be the breaking of what can seem like a very simple and straight forward policy.
Labour’s policy lead on all things public administration at present is Jon Trickett MP. Will he be able to raise the profile and importance of sound public administration within Labour policy circles? Will he be able to persuade Labour to improve its policy making models in a world where parties can communicate with (and listen to) greater numbers of people more easily, and have access far greater amounts of information (particularly in the world of big data) far more quickly than in times gone by? If so, what will the impact be on the policies Labour eventually come up with for its next general election manifesto.