This month IPPR published its Condition of Britain report, a spiritual successor to the 1994 Commission on Social Justice that laid the groundwork for the previous Labour government.
Condition of Britain focuses on how Labour can bring about social renewal in leaner times and empower individuals and communities, rather than relying solely on monolithic state interventions or untrammelled market forces. Ultimately, this is the only way Labour will re-establish public faith in the social democratic welfare state, so IPPR’s contribution is welcome.
The authors outline three main philosophical “pillars of a stronger society”; spreading power and responsibility (rebalancing the economy and embracing localism, effectively), establishing a contributory link in society (to renew support for the ailing welfare state) and strengthening shared social institutions (by making sure that these institutions are rooted in communities and drive social action).
While the party is perhaps still struggling to get the full message across to the wider public, many of us within the Labour movement will be able to identify these as the basic principles of the One Nation project. This is where Condition of Britain shines – its concrete policy proposals offer us the chance to flesh out abstract themes into relevant policies for the future, that elusive ‘doorstep offer’.
The report authors describe their work as “deliberately ambitious”, speaking to the desire of many in the party for a bold offer and radical vision as we draw ever-closer to the next election. However, in line with the approach being laid out by Ed Balls and his shadow Treasury team, it also promises to be “realistic about austerity”, aiming to match proposals for fresh social interventions with suggestions for how these would be costed.
For example, an allowance to make work pay for second earners would be funded by a slight increase in the tapering-off of Universal Credit, while expansion of the National Citizen Service would be paid for by curbs on cash benefits for families with older children. Some of these decisions will clearly not be easy for the party, but they would show that Labour is serious about making a difference while governing responsibly.
Responses to the report from leading progressive thinkers have been cautious, but largely positive. The RSA’s Matthew Taylor called the report’s publication “a big day for British social democracy”, noting that its detailed recommendations will shift Labour towards using measured interventions and empowered communities to tackle inequality from the ground up – the “pre-distribution” Ed Miliband has spoken of (or a “hand-up, not a hand-out”, as Blair put it). Patrick Wintour of the Guardian similarly wondered whether even a few years ago a Labour think-tank would have stated that “reliance on cash transfers…has the effect of leaving people dependent on the spending preferences of the government of the day”.
However, Taylor also asked whether the centre-left’s newfound passion for decentralisation will “survive the temptation of Labour having central power”, a nod to the longstanding pattern of oppositions promising big devolutions, but falling prey to inertia once they control the gears of government. IPPR’s report is a useful roadmap, but it is true that the temptation to deviate from it in power will have to be resisted if Labour is to faithfully deliver the One Nation vision it represents.
Additionally, not every policy from the report will make it into Labour’s 2015 manifesto. Patrick Diamond noted IPPR’s suggestion that under-4s childcare be funded from restrictions on pension tax relief and child benefit and by scrapping the Tory marriage allowance (a policy that could be countered with IPPR’s superior proposal for free marriage counselling, in any case). But the party may instead stick with its plan to fund early childcare from a bank levy, it has been reported. Further, while some of its policy proposals are doorstep-ready, others are more long-termist in their ultimate value to Labour.
Overall, Condition of Britain summarises well Labour’s vision for a reformed state and a renewed Britain, and provides a good set of ideas for how to put it into practice. We would do well to take its core recommendations to heart.
Elliot Bidgood is a volunteer researcher at LFIG