This year’s Labour Party conference has been dominated by what might be called a “cash and grab” policy for public services.
Numerous frontbenchers have clearly been well primed to highlight a two-pronged approach: promise large sums of extra cash for every public service while committing to grab any outsourced contract and bring it back into state control. It was a theme elevated to its greatest height by the shadow chancellor. In his conference speech, John McDonnell promised an immediate end to the squeeze on public finances while also bringing every PFI contract back in-house and renationalising rail, water and energy firms as well as the Royal Mail.
This renaissance of the post-war mixed economy is combined with an appropriately 1960s obsession with state-led industrial modernisation and public sector innovation. McDonnell envisioned a Labour government investing, stimulating and paving the way for the “huge changes underway in our society and economy” that he characterises as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. Andrew Gwynne, the shadow communities secretary, was keen in his speech to highlight the innovation that now characterises the way local government operates and promised to empower councils to go further with radical transformation.
But therein lies the paradox at the heart of Labour’s plan. Speak to any public service leader with a strong transformational vision and they will tell you partnership with private and voluntary sector is at the heart of what they are trying to do. This is genuinely nothing to do with the way ‘neo-liberalism’ has supposedly gained an ideological hegemony in the upper echelons of the public sector. It is precisely because of the radical shifts in society and economy that John McDonnell correctly highlights. Our world is vastly more complex, diverse and fragmented than that of the post-war era. Our population is far less deferential and far more self-expressive and demanding than the generation that rebuilt Europe after 1945.
Delivering services and generating positive change under these conditions requires a combination of highly technical specialisms. It needs constant innovation and responsiveness. And, maybe most importantly, it requires participation by a wide variety of different organisations from different parts of society to secure the support and involvement of a diverse, fragmented and non-deferential population. The notion that all this expertise, innovative insight and popular allegiance can be delivered by one organisation in the form of the central and local state is a heroic one to say the least.
Of course, it is right to question the value for money of various partnerships while also lamenting the fact some have reduced public sector capacity but if this were to turn into a mantra that sees everything in-house as inherently good and any external partnership as bad then public services will suffer.
If Labour were instead to look for a more nuanced approach to partnership working that accords with its passionate hope for a more egalitarian society it could do no worse than look to local government itself. Increasingly councils seek partnerships with commercial firms that aim to deliver ‘social value’ as well as value for money. The most innovative are forging alliances with the voluntary sector that are not just about contracting-out crisis services but also about delivering real social change to attack the root causes of crisis. There is also a huge shift towards a focus on working with the private sector to deliver skills, investment and jobs in local areas but with a keen eye on ‘inclusive growth’ so that the most deprived and marginalised parts of the country benefit.
It is these trends that need support and the investment that Labour’s leadership are promising for the public sector. It is these trends that offer a way to combine dynamic public services fit for the complexities of the 21st century with a vision of a fairer world.
Adam Lent, director, New Local Government Network