Steve’s book review: The Socialist Way

 In Speeches

This article was first published in Progress magazine, June 2013:

It is good to see another collection of essays contributing to the debate about Labour’s renewal. The themes Roy Hattersley sets up in his introduction – a principled and values-driven Labour party, eschewing electoral opportunism and challenging austerity – are carried throughout the rest of the book by a long list of contributors.

Andy Burnham’s chapter explains his vision of ‘whole person care’. He aims to hand power to patients, keep people healthier and living independently for longer, within a context of robust national standards. He argues against the ‘dangers of monopolistic or unresponsive providers. Even if the NHS are coordinating all care, it is essential that people are able to choose other providers.’ This is a fine example of the kind of people-powered cooperative politics being advocated by Jon Cruddas’ policy review and councils including those in Labour’s Cooperative Councils Network.

Elsewhere, though, the books exhibits a rather different bias towards centralisation and the big state. There is a growing divide in British politics between centralisers and localisers – those who believe power and control should be exercised by a few at the centre, and those who believe power should be distributed throughout society. Many contributors to this volume are convinced centralisers.

David Walker’s chapter, ‘In Praise of Centralism’, typifies this thinking. It attacks localism by running through a list of central government activities that no one would want to localise anyway, such as anti-discrimination regulation, the tax inspectorate, or the regressive notion of spending tax only in the area where it is raised. He misses the point that localism is about empowering people so their own experience can help shape better services, rather than an approach to be applied indiscriminately to everything government does. Personalised care budgets, tenant-led housing estates, and community-led youth services operate very successfully right across the country and it is hard to understand why Walker thinks these people’s limited power over their own lives needs to be reined in.

Simon Slater’s chapter on local government also disappoints. He opposes localism on the bleakly obvious grounds that ‘residents’ associations do not have the power to regulate the banking sector’, and his call for national government to automatically increase council tax every year reads like a plea to spare councillors like him from having to take decisions their voters will not like. There is an intelligent case to be made for reforming local government finance, but whatever the model surely it is inherently more democratic for councillors to take decisions and then argue for them rather than bat them off to national politicians.

The Fabians’ general secretary, Andrew Harrop, explains the need to advance ‘seemingly anti-statist ends purposefully with the tools of government’ that require ‘central agency on a grand scale’. This is not rolling back the state, it is changing the role of the state to make it work more effectively for the people it exists to serve. Hattersley wants Labour to rediscover ‘the vision thing’. Reshaping the state, and redefining people’s relationship with it, will be critical to getting that right.