Corbyn: the problem not the cure

It’s the school holiday so this blog takes a break from education matters. Instead the Labour leadership election is the focus. It’s a blog about the poverty of the intellectual debate that besets this contest.

On one side of we have Jeremy Corybn articulating a view of socialism and equality and a statist view of life that he has been consistent in advocating since he and I were colleagues in the National Union of Public Employees over 30 years ago.

Opposing him are Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. The first two have found themselves tacking towards Corbyn’s position (on welfare, for example), giving repeated mea culpas for being part of the Blair years (in which they were active movers and shakers) and arguing that Labour is not electable with Corbyn as leader.

Liz Kendal also makes the unelectability point but has also been trying articulate an alternative vision but has not yet found the voice or language to do this.

Labour cannot win with Corbyn – that’s true but in a way that is beside the point. We have to take on his arguments particularly on a key issue in the Corbyn campaign – the role of markets in our society. David Ward, the General Secretary of the Communications Workers Union, spelt it out in his an interview with the Today programme on 31st July. In disgracefully suggesting that Blairism was ‘a virus’ within the Labour Party he said that market liberalisation had been a disaster for working people like him. It’s that sort of prejudice and superficial analysis that is fuelling much of the Corbyn surge.

It’s a reaction to the inequities and excesses of the banks and corporatism of much of economic life. There are too many estates and communities that have been left behind and groups workers who have been exploited or cast aside

But the answer is not to in effect reinstate the old Clause 4 and pretend that state control is the answer to everything. We need a new strategy for a new time.

First, let’s recognise that market liberalisation has been far from a universally bad phenomenon.

Liberalising markets opened up telecoms and ended the three-month waits for a phone line and paved the way for internet access – remember those times?

Embracing liberalisation was what saved the British car industry: re-creating jobs for hundreds of thousands of UK employees.

Market liberalisation of the media has opened up a host of TV channels and a rich stream of opportunities for creative talent.

Liberalisation helped to generate the growth and the wealth that Blair used to invest and reform public services.

Liberalisation of the health service under Blair and the introduction of external providers of cataract and orthopaedic surgery was one of the reasons we were able to cut NHS waiting times so dramatically – an advance that is being undermined by the Tories.

Liberalising social care has given thousands of elderly and disabled people the power to control their own care budgets.

Liberalising education funding has empowered headteachers to lead and run their schools, appoint the staff and better meet the needs of their pupils.

Yes, of course there are problems with markets. But we need intelligence not slogans in addressing those problems

Sometimes the answer to the abuse of market power is more not less competition. For example, one of the things wrong with the energy market has been the domination by the big six energy giants – which is now being challenged by new players in the market. Labour should be arguing for stronger action against virtual monopolies and cartels. – a case the Tories have reluctantly been forced to concede.

Sometimes it is producers that need protecting – whether they are milk framers who need a fair price from the supermarkets or workers that are suffering from effects of casualisation of labour.

And sometimes tougher more forensic regulation is needed, as the banking and finance sectors show.

But for Labour to try to turn its back on markets is not only naive but a dereliction of duty. It fails the people who need a government that will help them achieve their aspirations and be on their side when market forces fail.

Along with bold policies that enable markets to deliver a better deal for more people Labour needs fresh thinking in other areas. The quality of the leadership debate has been sterile and dire. The best ideas will come from Labour on the ground engaging with the key challenges that society faces.

Labour should use the opportunity of directly elected mayors for our great city regions to renew our infrastructure, develop with employers, schools, colleges and universities the skills pathways that meets the needs of their local economies. And they can experiment with new ways of managing health and social care budgets in an integrated way. Out of this experience will emerge fresh thinking grounded in the knowledge of what works.

In education Labour should colonise academy trusts and chains as an opportunity to develop an approach to schooling that is about more than delivering an exam production line – as the former Blair adviser, Peter Hyman, is doing at School 21.

Labour Party councilors and directors of housing associations should be coming up with the ideas for radically reforming the planning and finance systems to boost the supply of affordable homes.

Those committed to the NHS should not just be rehearsing the mantra about preserving a NHS ‘free at the point of use’ but working with GP practices and Clinical Commissioning Groups to address the rising tide of demand for healthcare. Every time I go to my GP practice – which is well run and organised – it is heaving. How could we better empower groups of patients with diabetes to be more responsible for their own care? How can we combine regulation., lifestyle and ‘nudge’ policies to tackle our obesity epidemic? How can we better support the carers of dementia sufferers?

The leadership candidates should be building on the thinking of MPs like Graham Allen and Frank Field on early intervention and the experience of the troubled families initiative to develop ideas for scaling up action in some of our most deprived communities.

Thinking on these issues would help guide work on a tax and benefit framework that would balance providing incentives to work with a safety net for those that can’t.

But as far as I can see none of this is being debated. Is it too late to change the discourse of this election? I don’t know but as Liz Kendal has been arguing, we have to try.

Robert Hill was an adviser and political secretary to Tony Blair from 1997 to 2002 and subsequently advised Charles Clarke from 2002 to 2005.

PS And for those who seriously think that Blairism is a virus see below 10 things that every Labour Party member should still shout about what the Blair government achieved.

10 key achievements of the Blair government

  1. Restoring elected government to Greater London and devolving government to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
  1. Cutting NHS waiting times from 18 months to 18 weeks and the rate of deaths from cancer and heart disease
  1. Improved rates of literacy and numeracy and using academies to target educational improvement in deprived areas
  1. The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland
  1. Free entry to national museums
  1. The introduction of the Minimum Wage and giving all workers the right to 24 days paid holiday
  1. Introduction of paternity leave for fathers, Sure Start centres to support families and free early education for all three and four-year olds
  1. Scrapping Section 28 and introducing civil partnerships
  1. Doubling the overseas aid budget
  1. Leading the fight against ethnic cleaning in Kosovo and helping to end the civil war in Sierra Leone
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