An Unnecessary Role

embracing false choices

Labour gets a dose of white hot sensibleness

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The ‘In the black Labour’ authors are already the Smiths of the the post-Blairite sensible-hack-Labour centre-centre-left. In bedrooms across the land, weedy youth with posters of Matthew Taylor on their wall think “at last, someone else feels the way I do.” In the same vein, former party staffer Steve van Riel is liberated from saying nothing to saying all the sensible things he’s been saving up after the last few years of holding ‘the line’. Even Ed Balls this morning manages to write an opinion piece for the Times that doesn’t suggest the nation’s problems can be solved by a banker’s bonus tax (a lefty trope skewered by Sadie Smith here).

I’ll be writing a bit more about all this dangerously subversive stuff about balancing budgets and doing things that are popular soon. But it’s worth saying now that ‘In the black Labour’, and the calm and constructive debate it has triggered, could be a very important step for the Labour Party. Interventions like this put the party back on the path to reassuring the ordinary working voter that Labour is, to coin a phrase, ‘on their side’. That we offer practical solutions to the competing crises they see in their lives, and that we respond directly to their concerns.

In some ways, though, getting the debate back on that territory is the easy bit. The real difficulty is in identifying what policies can accompany the ‘In the black…’ fiscal rules to promote the innovation, efficiency and reform required meet them, whilst still pursuing a social democratic mission. In contrast to the salami-slicing policies of the present Government, ITBL* suggests a ‘zero budgeting’ approach, fundamentally questioning each element of spending – an ambitious approach that, although the authors don’t say so directly, would mean taking significant decisions about what it is the business of government to be doing.

This is the right place for Labour to be. In his Purple Book essay, Douglas Alexander said the 2010 election was not about the role of the state, an abstract debate ordinary voters rarely engage with. Instead, it became a ‘referendum on the public sector’. Labour was seen as the party of an often wasteful, frequently bureaucrat state sector. One of the Tories minor ideological strengths is their general suspicion of vested public sector interests. I am not suggesting Labour treats the public sector with the contempt many Tories often reserve for it. But we do need to be far more willing to question the necessity of certain Government functions and not retreat to the easy assumption that because money is being spent on something then it is essentially A Good Thing.

But as I said, saying all that is the easy bit. Picking those things we no longer want to do, or those things that can be reformed to make them dramatically cheaper is where the challenge starts.

*Guys, would it have killed you to think of a snappier title?

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Written by samelliot

December 6, 2011 at 9:02 am

Posted in Finance, Labour

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