By Emma Burnell / @EmmaBurnell_
We need to talk about the state.
Not just about cuts, not just about public services, not just about taxes and “red tape”, not just about welfare and workfare. Because all of those arguments are at their heart just symptoms of the fact that we aren’t having the deeper discussion needed about the state. About what the state should be, how it should be set up, what size it should be, what it should and shouldn’t do, what it can and can’t deliver, what it is and isn’t responsible for.
For years, the state and those who believe in it as an instrument for good have been in retreat. Labour until recently gave up on fighting the privatisation of utilities such as water, electricity and gas as well as services such as rail transport and telecoms. The Conservatives of course drove this. Following their success (political, at least) in doing so, they then went further in their attacks on the role of the state in our lives. State agencies were hived off into quangos, attacked constantly by the right wing press and under the coalition many were closed or defunded. Delivery of hundreds of public services were outsourced to private sector contractors. Some good, some bad, some indifferent, but none directly accountable to the public.
Over the years of the coalition, money to local government and housing associations was cut drastically. The housing budget was cut by 63% in 2011 and local governments have suffered drastic reductions in their budgets. For years, people have been struggling to do more with less. Not because they wanted to do less, but because they were forced to deliver less state. Cheaper materials must be bought for housing estate updates in order to keep the lights on in the children’s centre. Choices must be made not by those with the purse strings, but those who have to take the public brunt of that much smaller purse.
As anger over the appalling tragedy at Grenfell Tower continues into a desperate search for answers and someone to blame, we need to make sure we are asking the right questions, and find the right culprits. Because it will be very easy to find the middle folk. Those making the decisions about what materials to buy. Those setting out procurement processes that prioritise cost over rigour. If any inquest or inquiry finds these decisions led to this tragedy they will have questions to answer.
But we all have questions to answer. We have all played a role in this failure. Every time we failed to challenge the concept of “health and safety gone mad” we played a role in the weakening of our regulations. Every time we allowed “the state” to be used as a symbol for all that is wrong with our country, we played a role in removing safety nets from the people who need them. If we allow this just to be blamed on the middle and miss the chance to look at the political decisions that led to the implementation of budget cuts, we will fail to challenge the culture at the heart of this tragedy – the diminishing of the role and importance of the state in our lives, and the impact that has had on those with the least private means.
Labour have now the moment and the momentum to make a positive case for a better state. Having run well on a manifesto that had more explicit promises on increases in state power in utilities, housing and education. We are having a better and more honest debate than we have had in many years now about the role of the state and that is right and good.
But we need to also think about what that state looks like not just from Whitehall but from Grenfell too. Because the harsh truth is that when you are at the sharp end, the state often feels more like an oppressor than a benefactor, more obstacle than enabler. So Labour need to think clearly about how to make the state work at every level. How can we create a state that gives us national protections delivered by local innovators? How can we balance local solutions with the need to ensure national outcomes? How can we create a state that feels responsive to individuals while delivering on collective promises? How can the state use data to design services that suit modern times without compromising the privacy of the people it supports?
These aren’t questions for a manifesto. The promises in there are the sweetshop not the factory. But Labour are close to government and so that kind of heavy lifting is necessary to ensure we are able to deliver on the promises that have proved so popular.
Jeremy Corbyn has led the country into a brand new conversation about what we want our government to be and to do. The tragedy of Grenfell has done the same. For good or for bad, this is the conversation we need to have urgently now. And for the first time in a long time, Labour are not afraid to do so.
Now is the time to set out a new philosophy of state. One fit for the world of the internet where transparency and immediacy are expected as norm that weren’t the case when the State was expanded with such magnificent consequences in 1945. If we can do that, we can start to understand what a truly social democratic 21st century could deliver.