When the Tories are dismantling so much of Labour’s legacy we must question — how did we make it so easy to do so?
The roll-out of Sure Start Children’s Centres ranks not only as one of the shining highlights of the New Labour era but one of Labour’s finest acheivements in Government ever.
Yet when David Cameron came to power in May 2010 on a mission to strip back public expenditure, indeed focusing the bulk of the resultant cuts on local authorities, one of the outcomes was the closure of more than 800 of these centres. A tragedy for the families that used these services and the staff that worked in them, a societal disaster because all the evidence shows investment in child well-being in the early years results in better outcomes in terms of educational attainment and better public health and, being mercenary about it, a cynical move for public expenditure as the short-term gains are wiped out in the long-run by the increased costs of dealing with the fall-out of not making the aforementioned investments in this crucial stage of children’s lives.
All that Labour, the wider left and parents groups etc. could do was protest as these centres shut their doors and watch one of Labour’s great legacies be torn apart. “That’s why its so important to win elections” a great many in my party will say and they’re absolutely right that being in power is the best way to ensure the great projects, investments and schemes we devise stay in place and are funded appropriately but ultimately Britain tends to lob out its governing party at some point (unlike in post-apartheid South Africa, or despite relatively recent surprises, in Mexico or Japan where despite democracy being well-observed the ruling party has rarely changed). So bearing in mind this harsh reality we have to question is it possible to protect our legacy when we’re in power so as to ensure it can’t be easily un-done when we’re not?
Constrast the Sure Start situation (and many other Labour policies undone or messed up by the Coalition) with how hard it would be to repeal the ‘greatest hits’ of the Conservative Party. It is probably desirable to renationalise the water industry, its certainly desirable to renationalise the railways and I have long argued we should renationalise BT Openreach (the telephone and broadband network that broadband suppliers piggyback off of to provide you and I our monthly dosage of gigabyte usage) yet it is a HUGE political, financial and legal undertaking to nationalise a company like BT Openreach let alone an industry like water (rail is easier due to the franchise model), far more difficult than it was to nationalise in the wake of war in 1945 — partly because many of the soon-to-be-nationalised industries had been working in a coordinated way to serve the public good during wartime anyway and secondly because the ownership of companies was far less fragmented and certainly less global than today. This is a classic example of the Tories undertaking a policy decision that is hugely difficult to unpick whereas cutting Sure Start Centres is a terrible decision but one easily made with the flick of the Chancellor’s red pen. 800 centres gone in 5 years.
Another example is the Right to Buy. I personally agree with the Labour MP (and currently a Shadow Cabinet member with two jobs) Paul Flynn who I was lucky to have as my MP during my university days in Newport who points out that Right to Buy (the principle, not the brand) was being done pre-Thatcher by Labour councils like Newport who understood that if you want to really put Labour’s mantra of ‘power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many not just the few’ into practice then you have to support efforts to help people own their own home rather than accepting as given that there must be one group of owners and another swathe of society perputually renting. So in my view Labour should be pro-’Right to Buy’ in principle but Thatcher’s motives were far more cynical; beyond the policy’s vote-winning potential she envisioned a world where councils played no role in the housing market so she ring-fenced the cash raised from the sales to ensure it couldn’t be used to build a new generation of council housing creating a social housing shortage that persists to this day. Labour could (and should) have completely flipped the ring fence on Right to Buy revenues to instead ensure they had to be spent on building a new generation of social homes but even then it would have been late in the game. Ultimately the deficit in social housing stock caused by Thatcher’s version of Right to Buy can now only be fixed by a Government bold enough to commit to a huge programme of public borrowing to finance an even bolder programme of social home development.
Two examples of totemic Tory legacies that were left hugely difficult to unpick.
Stella Creasy the Labour MP for Walthamstow has suggested that the best way to ensure any future nationalisation is locked in is to not look back to the statist model of the past but instead develop nationalised companies or part-nationalised stakes into a co-operative model of ownership. By making all workers or all users or even all citizens an owner it puts the decision to sell off the company into the hands of private (often foreign) investors into the hands of the public not the government of the day. I’m pleased that Jeremy Corbyn has paid at least lip-service to this very way of working in some of the debates this time and in the last leadership contest too.
Going back to Sure Start for a moment, there are so many areas of public policy where we could save taxpayers money in the long-run if we borrowed to invest in radically improving our ‘early interventions’. Another excellent Labour MP, Graham Allen, actually did a report for the Coalition on this where he highlighted the vast number of areas where the government can save money on the NHS (if healthy eating and excercise is encouraged far more vehemently), save money on adult basic skills courses (if we get people at least the minimum C in English and Maths before they leave school), save money on policing, the courts and prison (if we can cut offending in the first place through investment in early years and family interventions). Yet in a period of austerity major public borrowing has been off the cards as a policy option (until Corbyn and Smith — and even Tory Stephen Crabb — started talking up multi-billion pound borrowing programmes recently). One idea that has gained credence is asking private investors to stump up the cash for social interventions and then if the investment delivers the expected improved results then the investor gets the savings that accrued to the government but carries the risk of losing their cash if the intervention fails.
The risk element of Social Impact Bonds is positive in theory because private investors bare the cost if it doesn’t pan out as it should but in truth if these investors are parting with their cash its because they’ve seen the evidence, they’ve seen the Randomised Control Trials or the examples from the abroad and they know they’re in for a healthy return. In a sense this is good, we hardly want to turn vulnerable people’s lives into a Vegas slot machine for banking’s gamblers but it does mean, almost like PFI, that Government is giving money to private investors for something they could have done themselves.
We know the risks though of this strategy though. These early interventions require permanent investment to ensure their benefits continue to be reaped for forever and a day yet such benefits are more often than not very long-term (investment in maternal health may see its biggest savings 18–25 years down the line if not longer). So how to stop a future Tory government ripping up the funding for an early intervention like Sure Start (or the Child Trust Fund) before its impact can truly be felt?
My idea is use public borrowing to not just capitalise a British Development Bank as many propose to invest in infrastructure but also to capitalise a separate Early Intervention Bank (with a co-operative structure to stop it being sold off) which would then buy up Social Impact Bonds and any financial benefit reaped from their success would then not be wasted on tax cuts for the rich or big corporations nor go to private investors but instead be continually reinvested in a new wave of early interventions to target the ever shifting problems of British society forever more.
It’s not just important to protect the legacy of Labour achievements because of all the good it will do to help those that these investments (like Sure Start) are targeted at but because it means that future Labour governments don’t have to spend so much time re-inventing the wheel and un-doing the damage of a Conservative government but can instead build on the foundations left intact (or as close to it) from our last time in office and crack on with developing and implementing the policies that will become our next radical legacy. If the Tories can do it we can too and for sake of those we exist to fight for, we must.