Sunday, February 27, 2011

Well Said Ed

Ed Miliband recently said the most sensible thing I think I have heard from him since becoming Labour leader. He was making the point that as a nation we have to innovate and grow our way out of the schtuck we are in - and this means some leadership from the state.

While I am loyal to the Coalition and, broadly, blame Labour for losing control of public spending after 2005 and failing to reform the public sector, I think that this narrative only takes us so far as a country.

Yes, Labour did pass up a historic opportunity to renew our infrastructure, to renew our economy and tackle our deepest social problems, but they also did some good too. The country has felt some benefit from that increased public spending and Labour's commitment to the poorest children was impressive, albeit partly maladministered.

It is important that the Coalition, in its attempt to move away from statism, fails to grasp that the state's unique role is to set the right long-term goals for the country - and invest accordingly.

What does this mean in practice? In a word infrastructure. Both physical and human. On the physical side, we need universal fibre optic broadband. Everyone needs to be online by 2020 because not to be is to be at a profound disadvantage, even now. We need massive investment in both rail and electrical points for new petrol-free cars. Finally, we need the infrastructure to unleash a massive new wave of entrepreneurship that will, over time, absorb people who need jobs.

Which brings us onto the human infrastructure. We under-invest as a nation in our people. I agree with the educationalist Sir Ken Robinson that people's talents are very different and that investment for each child over ten needs to be focused on building on that child's capabilities and talents, not on churning out five good GCSEs'.

The academically brightest from all classes need to be nurtured, separately if necessary. Other childen need all the help possible from a young age to develop their talents. To push academia on all children is as silly as it would be to try to make all adults enjoy a physics tutorial. I personally am in awe of the skills of many of the people I know who I may have done better than at school but who knock the spots of me as electricians, mechanics and so on. Jobs these people have talent for. Eton helps it's kids to find their talent early. Why then can't this be case for all children?

Then there's welfare. Like anyone who has spent a career working with the least advantaged I am concerned about the fate of the most vulnerable. We can judge our society by the way we treat the most vulnerable and I am currently worried about the way some groups are being hit by reforms. But I think it is of equal importance that reform on the scale that is being attempted isn't derailed because of the problems it will cause to particular groups, so long as we can address these as we go along. Britain has massive numbers of people who don't do any paid work. We have to get this sorted out and I only believe, having seen many attempts fail, that we have to ensure that nobody receives any out of work benefit without having to do some work, even a few hours a week. And not after six months - immediately. We have to become a nation of grafters if we're ever to be competitive - and as psychologically healthy as we should be.

Finally our Universities. We have some of the finest in the world here. Many are now international brands. opening branches overseas. However only a few UK universities successfully leverage the research and development that takes place in them. We need to become like the Americans whose universities fuel their exceptional levels of innovation and industrial performance. There, academics are often entrepreneurs, or working closely with them and the venture capital industry. We need to emulate this here.

What's the role of the state in all of this? Potentially massive. Not as a deliverer of all the said infrastructure, far from it. But providing the strategic leadership, creating the environment and, yes, providing the long-term capital that makes it possible for others to invest.

Personally, I would rather see a centrist government leading all of this. I think that the next Labour Government will default too quickly to top-down statism, rather than an enabling approach, particularly if it is still as dependent as it is now on the trade unions. But, for me, the Coalition, needs to show this long-term vision now. The narrative so far has all been about deficit-reduction and the Big Society. We need a much more powerful narrative about the destination and the things we have to do as a nation to get there.


David Floyd said...

Craig, although you probably shouldn't mention this to colleagues in the Lib Dems, this post suggests you may be one of the last Blairite true believers.

On welfare, I'm all in favour of people not being left to do nothing - I don't think many people actually get a lot out of being long-term unemployed.

The problem is when the only alternative on offer (so far) seems to be forcing people to do unproductive work that they don't want to do.

Has anyone in government considered bringing unemployed people into the discussion about what support might actively help them to find employment?

Craig Dearden-Phillips said...

The only problem Blair has was that he was probably in the wrong party for getting a Blairite programme through. The Coalition in truth is doing much of what Blair says he wishes he has done. So in that sense I am definitely a True Believer. It's true that there are few of these in the Labour Party - or indeed that there were ever more than a minority. But there are many now in the Cabinet! See ya soon.