Monday, 31 October 2011

Decentralisation, pluralism and people power: who could possibly disagree?

Labour’s long tradition of participation, self-government and moral reform is being re-claimed by voices from all sides of the party. Decentralisation, pluralism and people power: who could possibly disagree? It’s one thing, after all, that members of Progress, Compass and Blue Labour all sign up to, in their different ways.
But politics is about trade-offs and priorities. Yes, Labour should adopt a ‘presumption of decentralisation’, but there are clear restrictions on how, and how far, this should be pushed. This is both because there are difficult tensions within the left-decentralist agenda, and also because decentralisation risks becoming a distraction from the huge national ambitions we need to embrace.
Our politics of the state must first be about the big, long-term challenges which only collective action on a national scale can resolve: growth and productivity; demographic change; carbon reduction; housing supply - and, for us on the left, a fairer labour market for the middle and bottom, reduced health inequalities and closing the gap in life chances. Labour’s years in office show what the state can achieve, and not just through tax-and-spend; for example long-term, sustainable frameworks for pensions provision and carbon reduction.
Britain’s public finance settlement remains overwhelmingly an issue for the central state too. To win again we need to provide cast-iron reassurances against spending profligacy, overseen by the Office of Budget Responsibility. This could take the form of a promise on the deficit, perhaps animated by a pledge that during economic recovery, taxation and spending would only rise in line with growth.
Creating this ‘cover’ with respect to the overall size of the state, would provide Labour, if we win, with the opportunity to radically restructure how public money is raised and spent. This could include greater devolution of public service spending, and perhaps the introduction of more local taxation. But most of the task is for the national state. Labour should re-write the tax-code to make it pro-green, pro-work, pro-asset stability, long-termist and progressive. We should also see what scope there is to integrate tax and welfare, to bind everyone into a common, more universal and contribution-based system. Nor should we any longer tolerate social security being a cause of widening inequality, but instead index state credits to earnings; an example of a small change from the centre which over decades will transform life chances.
So the decentralist agenda will need to jostle with an inevitable and desirable programme of central action. But there is also intense competition within the decentralist camp itself, with many visions and versions of the new empowering state. Decentralisation may be a guiding principle, but it is also a toolkit, and there are different objectives and consequences implicit in the tools we choose. Some decentralist solutions seek to disempower and by-pass local democracy, while others aim to strengthen it. Giving cash to service users and big payment-by-results contracts are both pluralist innovations, but their consequences are totally different. At every turn we must ask what means and ends we are pursuing and how they may rub-up against each other: personal control and responsibility? stronger democracy? professional autonomy? savings, efficiency and competitive innovation? enduring public institutions? community and civic life? and of course, better service outcomes?
Finally decentralisers on the left must be extremely wary that they are not widening, rather than narrowing, inequalities of power. There is always the risk that those with the nous and sharp elbows will act in ways that benefit themselves rather than the community at large. There is a fine line, for example, between creating aspirational inner-city schools that bind professional parents into comprehensive education and Michael Gove’s vision of free schools which seem to be all about giving privileged parents the ability to opt-out. The left’s version of power-to-the people must be about levelling-up, for those without control over their lives, not just giving more to those who do.
A version of this article appears in November’s Progress magazine

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Free Schools for Social Justice: Opportunities for Twigg

A guest post by @eylanezekiel from @ON_School provides us with an insight into how the Education policy review debate is perceived from outside the Westminster bubble. The argument is that the debate about free schools provides a real opportunity for Labour to demonstrate a positive alternative.

For those of us outside the Westminster Village, and working around public services, we can see that change is needed. Those of us working in Education understand that Schools are an organ of community and recognise that we are connected to all aspects of the world that the families around us live in, and create.

The Tories defined the recent debate in the late 80s, and seem to have done so again, for the next cycle in policy in education. There are many fears about the future these changes will bring. The belief in free market forces, in public services, has opened the doors to poor outcomes for all communities in England.

In the Purple Book, Stephen Twigg talks the language of decentralisation and empowering local communities. If Labour is actually to own this space instead of talking about it in seminar rooms, it needs to better engage with the programme of reforms being undertaken by the Coalition Government.

In education, there is the perfect opportunity to do so. By engaging in the policy debate and pointing out how Labour values of equality, fairness and social justice can enhance them, Labour will actually be doing the job of offering an optimistic vision of the future. This is what states like Singapore are doing. They have watched our experiments in ‘Raising Standards’ through national strategies closely and learned that this is not the flag to gather round. After all, who would lower standards? In Singapore, they are moving away from a results-oriented culture, to practices that are more "holistic and balanced” - not because it is politically easy - but because it produces better outcomes for their children and their society.

At the moment the coalition are decentralising for the sake of it, more than likely so the market can come in. If Labour can engage to show how empowered communities can come in, it’ll be a long way to making that optimistic offer.

The debate must change. It is time for us to accept that we need to rethink of how we fund, organise and educate our kids. There are some key challenges, both national and local:

  • Build new governance and accountability arrangements for schools
  • Ensure that schools have the right to create a local curriculum
  • Build tools for mapping students' and schools' wider education ecology
  • Reconnect education with housing, economic, transport and environmental policies
  • Assess for competency not certification
  • Rethink Child Protection Policy
  • Rethink teacher education and build a programme of public engagement with education
  • Build school-university collaboration to democratize research
  • Develop and ethical code for the educational use of digital and bio-technologies
Prof. K Facer - Learning Futures - 2010

The Free School policy is a badly formed plan for change - however, it did create some exciting possibilities. We believe it is possible to answers some of these challenges in the city of Oxford - by building Oxford New School - or ONSchool.

ONSchool is an attempt to hijack this Tory policy, and put this movement of social entrepreneurship, back towards the principles of a healthy and fair society.

We have placed social justice and community values at the core of a Free School Proposal.

We have proposed a school that is governed through Cooperative Values, accountable, reflexive and transparent in its administration, innovative in the use of curriculum and technology, and in Collaboration with local schools and the Local Authority.

However, ONSchool is one proposal in a national policy picture that is bleak and uncertain. In order to succeed and thrive, ONSchool needs to be part of a wider debate that is able to offer a challenge to the domination of Academy Chain sponsors.

We need to be innovative and fast. Otherwise, the legal frameworks will be in place to make change impossible for another 15 years (see Sweden).

There must be other, fairer ways to do this. We are trying to do this in Oxford - but we need help - as the tide towards a more divisive education system working against us.

We need a clear, bold, innovative policy from Labour, and fast!

You can read more about Oxford New School here:

Friday, 14 October 2011

Two tribes: Labour must reach out to the Lib Dems

Looking back on the second conference season of the coalition era, it's clear that the ‘two tribes' of centre left politics are in very different places on the prospect of working together. The overwhelming feeling at the Liberal Democrat conference was that the party stood ready to cooperate with Labour again any time the electoral maths permit. Meanwhile Labour is at a cross-road and divided on how it should approach the Liberal Democrats.

The party needs to reach out the hand of friendship by recognising that the coalition is a tragedy of electoral maths, rather than a betrayal of principle. The alternative will be significant Conservative gains in the south and the spurning of swathes of recent Liberal Democrat converts who could be persuaded to give Labour another chance.

At the first of a pair of conference meetings hosted by the Fabian Society and Centre Forum, Liberal Democrat delegates were overwhelming positive about working with Labour, despite feeling bruised by the rough-and-tumble of Labour's opposition tactics. Norman Lamb, Nick Clegg's key parliamentary aide, went as far as to call for ‘civilised dialogue' with Labour well in advance of a general election.

By contrast, a week later in Liverpool, there was deep division within the Labour ranks on how, or indeed whether, to engage with the Liberal Democrats. The immediate, visceral anger at the Lib Dems for getting into bed with the Tories may be starting to fade, but Labour remains sharply divided along more historic lines. Pluralists, those open to broad alliances of left and centrist political voices, are pitted against tribalists, who view Labour as the only legitimate vehicle for progressive politics and see Lib Dems, Greens and Nationalists as just competitors to crush.

Labour's tribalists risk making a huge mistake of electoral strategy. Election battles between Liberal Democrats and Labour are often bitter and brutal (with sins on both sides) but they cast too long a shadow over Labour's thinking, considering how infrequent they are. In almost every English constituency the battle at the next election will be between the Conservatives and either Labour or the Lib Dems. For both parties to prosper they need to return to the days of an informal anti-Conservative alliance.

The starting point is for Labour to recognise that in the minds of voters, the two parties are at least partly substitutable. Historically this has played to Labour's advantage with each party ‘lending' voters to the other to win marginal seats. These patterns of support go part of the way to explaining why, at the last election, Labour would have needed only a 3% lead over the Tories to win a majority, while the Tories' needed 11%, according to UK Polling Report. The changes to constituency boundaries narrow this gap, but only a little.

Take the Lib Dem marginals first. For decades, many instinctive Labour supporters have voted for the Liberal Democrats where they are the main contender. If this support were to unwind the Lib Dems could face electoral catastrophe, perhaps returning to a rump of 20 MPs. So far this does not appear to be happening. According to the Tories own polling, Lib Dem support is holding up a little better in Tory-Lib Dem marginals than it is elsewhere. A quarter of Labour sympathisers in these seats say they would vote Lib Dem, despite everything that has happened. It is hugely in Labour's interests to maintain this position. In the event of another hung parliament, whether the Lib Dems or the Tories take twenty odd seats in southern England could be decisive in determining who will govern.

Voters who backed the Lib Dems last time are also crucial in the far more numerous Labour-Conservative battlegrounds. Although pundits like to talk about ‘swing' voters, who switch straight between red and blue, Labour's fortunes are just as dependent on how many people vote for the Lib Dems and other minor parties. Nationwide, over the last two general elections more of Labour's lost votes went to the Liberal Democrats than to the Conservatives. That pattern may be beginning to play-out in reverse, with the polling in the Labour-Tory marginals suggesting that Labour is regaining a little more support from people who voted Lib Dem than Tory last time.

Labour's polling lead is soft, however. Hanging on to these disaffected Lib Dems will be crucial for Labour in the bumpy three-and-a-half years to the next election. Labour faces a choice about how to shore up this new found support. It can continue to present Nick Clegg as a latter-day Ramsay Macdonald, guilty of selling out the centre left and his own convictions. But this message of scorn and disparagement implies his voters were foolish and gullible in 2010. Is that really what Labour wants to say to them?

An appeal on these lines of course greatly diminishes the chance of Labour supporters lending their votes to Lib Dems in the south in 2015. But it is also very high-risk in the Labour-Tory marginals, given the likelihood that the raw wounds of the coalitions' first year will heal. Labour activists may see Liberal Democrat actions in government as betrayal and hypocricy, but who is to say the public will in three years time? Far safer, surely, to woo the Lib Dem vote? Labour should represent the coalition as a tragedy of electoral maths for both the tribes of the centre left.

Reaching out a hand of friendship is more likely to win back Labour's post-Iraq diaspora, rather than maligning the electoral choices voters made to punish Labour in power.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Colour Purple

by @natandoron

Last night, in a packed room in Portcullis House, a large number of the Centre-Left commentariat assembled to discuss the Purple Book. The Book, launched this month was billed in the right-wing press as a coup against the EdM leadership, an attack on the Labour left from within and the platform from which feuds would flow.

The event discussion was in reality, much like the Purple Book itself: Sensible, largely consensus-based and filled with healthy discussion and reflection on Labour’s record as well sketching out the challenges ahead. No attacks on Ed Miliband. Just an agreement of the need for the Labour Party to have a grown-up conversation on the role of the state. A conservation that needs to be won from the left to prevent the Tea-Party tendencies of the Conservatives setting the agenda.

Former Blair speechwriter Phil Collins attempted to inject some controversy into the evening by calling the Purple Book ‘an affront’ to all that Labour has done in power. Douglas Alexander dismissed this by calling Collins ‘a pyromaniac in a field of straw men’. The Shadow Foreign Secretary, along with Shadow of Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (plus head of Policy Review) Liam Byrne, then began to caution against big state politics for the sake of it, whilst also emphasising the need not to play too much into the politics of the right in abandoning the need for a strong state in certain situations. Nuanced and pragmatic was the nature of the game. The unkind would say dull, but myself a proud policy wonk, it was an engaging and substantive discussion.

Central to that discussion was Fabian Society general secretary Andrew Harrop giving a pragmatic and cautious endorsement to much of the Purple Book narrative whilst introducing some important caveats. Harrop highlighted the rich history of Fabian engagement with localist traditions through the work of G.D.H Cole amongst others whilst also emphasising the importance of an active state in retaining a sense of national vision in macro-policy making areas. Examples of such areas are to be found in climate change mitigation/adaptation and industrial activism. An active state is key to success here. Harrop emphasised that the Purple Book offers a ‘flexible toolkit’ but should not become a new dogma.

If this is how the Labour Party does infighting, the Conservative Party could certainly learn a thing or three. This time last year, Labour think-tank events were characterised by the licking of wounds and facing the hard truth that the public had stopped listening. Heartening now is that the conversations are bolder, more innovative and beginning to engage with what an optimistic policy offer to the British public in 2015 could look like (Purple Book examinations of cooperative and mutuals business models are a case in point here).

With Ed Miliband setting out some key directions of travel such as building a better capitalism, fiscal responsibility and a new, contributory politics of welfare - the conversations in the Labour Party are starting to resemble the kind of heavy lifting needed to rebuild confidence after such a shattering election defeat. A key question raised by all the panelists was what social democracy looks like without any money around. This is one of the harder intellectual challenges facing the left.

There are of course criticisms to be made of the Purple Book (a faliure to engage with class or a definition of aspiration that is too focused on the individual among them) but the reality is that this is an exciting contribution to an important conversation within the Labour Party.

Also, whilst all this is important internally, the public remain largely turned off by these debates. Focus groups commissioned by Lord Ashcroft last year showed that most participants didn’t know what reducing the size of the state actually meant. Some assumed it was getting rid of Cornwall.

Finally, there is a need for all those on the left to close the gap between the controversial noises that followed the release of the book and the balanced discussion that actually characterises it. The former risks overshadowing the latter. There is nothing helpful in caricaturing different views held by differing positions within the Labour intellectual spectrum. The Fabian Society houses no Stalinist authoritarian voices and on the evidence of the Purple Book, there is nothing of the small state-in-principle, free-market extremism which sits so comfortably on the Conservative Party benches. This means the sensibilist voices out there have to get a bit more aggressive about being sensible.

On the evidence of last night though, and contrary to the media coverage, the state doesn’t stand any chance of being to the Labour Party what the EU is to the Tories. Ed Miliband will be relieved. Referendum on the EU anyone?

Natan Doron is a Senior Researcher at the Fabian Society

End of a Faustian Bargain

A guest post by Guy Standing, a Professor of Economic Security at the University of Bath, and author of The Precariat – The New Dangerous Class (Bloomsbury).

Now that the party conference season is over, Labour must reach out to the class-in-the-making that successive governments have done so much to construct, the precariat. It consists of a vast and growing number of people without occupational identities, in chronic insecurity, in and out of jobs, anxious, alienated, anomic and increasingly very angry.

The Fabian Society should be a forum for identifying the frustrations and aspirations of the emerging precariat, and not be befuddled by public relations talk of a ‘squeezed middle’ or some lingering image of the proletariat.

The precariat is not an underclass, and commentators do a disservice by presenting the problem in that way. The precariat was wanted by the global market system, and is not peripheral, consisting of drug addicts, petty criminals, dysfunctional families and so on. If the establishment succeeds in presenting the problem as a bunch of social misfits, ‘feral’ or otherwise, it will get away with a concoction of charitable pity for the ‘deserving poor’ combined with workfare and prisonfare for those labelled as ‘mindless’ and ‘undeserving’. Only if the challenge is recognised as generic to a large and growing stratum of society will progressive policies stand a chance.

We are witnessing the end game of a Faustian bargain made by the Conservatives and New Labour in their long periods in office. Workfare and prisonfare were the long-term price.

The Faustian bargain was simple. When globalisation was accepted, centre-right and centre-left parties, not just in Britain but across Europe, North America and Japan, accepted a certain logic. Liberalising meant that labour supply to the global market economies trebled, with more than a billion new workers prepared to work for a fiftieth of what workers in the rich countries had come to accept. Convergence was bound to mean declines in wages and enterprise benefits in the latter and for productive jobs to shift to where labour costs were lowest.

With labour costs put back into international trade and investment, mainstream parties opted for a policy euphemistically called ‘labour market flexibility’. This meant making the lower end of labour markets, and increasingly up into the middle, more insecure in many respects. No government did more to achieve this than New Labour, which set out to make the British labour market more flexible than the rest of Europe, in order to boost ‘jobs’ and draw investment from elsewhere. The great early Fabians, Tawney, Shaw and the Webbs, would have been shocked and scornful.

But as governments pursued flexibility, there was a prospect of sharp falls in wages and a whittling away at elements of hard-won social income. A rapid decline in living standards was politically and socially unsustainable. So, a Faustian bargain took shape. While the precariat grew and had its social income chipped away, tax credits and cheap credit bolstered living standards in the short-term, allowing an orgy of consumption and rising indebtedness. It was a reckless postponement of adjustment at a time when more redistributive measures could have been taken.

With a flexible labour market, social insurance was unsustainable. So, a wholesale shift to means-testing and behaviour-testing took place, premised on the polemic that scarce public resources had to be targeted on the deserving poor. This flaunted Richard Titmus’ famous aphorism: Benefits that are only for the poor are invariably poor benefits.

As the Faustian bargain played itself out, poverty traps and what I have called precarity traps spread, reflecting the fact that more complex tests for entitlement created a long dreary process for the poor and precarious as they sought to obtain benefits. New Labour failed to overcome these trends with its tax credits; it was like Canute trying to hold back the waves of downward pressure in the labour market. Real poverty traps and precarity traps worsened under its watch. In the end, there was no positive incentive for many in the precariat to take available jobs.

The Faustian bargain imploded in 2008, since when austerity measures have further stripped away elements of social income, as well as chipping away at ‘the commons’, and making millions of people more fearful of falling into the precariat. The precarity trap has been intensifying, epitomised by recent reports of claimants being sent to food charities while they wait for their benefit claims to be considered. If you were a claimant and if you managed, after weeks of trying, to obtain entitlement to a modest benefit, would you rush to take a minimum wage temporary job, where you would be facing what is an effective rate of tax of 80% in lost benefits and the prospect of being out of a job within weeks and thus have to start trying to obtain benefits all over again?

While poverty traps and precarity traps grew, the predictable legacy of the Faustian bargain was a trend to workfare and prisonfare, driving more people to take insecure low-paying, career-less jobs because there is no positive incentive to take them. Now, government threatens more people with benefit cuts, spells of graffiti cleaning and criminalisation. They chip away at entitlements – the ‘disabled’ (pseudo-tested by Atos and declared ‘fit to work’), working mothers (shamelessly called non-working, and therefore implicitly ‘idle’), youths (idle by definition, of course), oldagers (pensions postponed and declining), migrants, and so on. Inequalities continue to mount.

The Faustian bargain is dead. But our politicians refuse to acknowledge their folly. They must wake up to the reality that continuing with its model is socially dangerous, inequitable and a recipe for social discord on a scale much greater than we saw in August. They must seek another road, one that makes the reduction of inequalities and insecurities the central guideline to their politics. So far, none of the flood of coloured books and factional tracts has tried to do so. Illiberalism will not do.

The left must relearn two lessons. Great progressive movements emerge from identifying the insecurities, anger and aspirations of the emerging mass class. And the forward march occurs only through the collective action of that class. Noisily, in the squares of dozens of European and other cities, a movement is taking shape. All of us who believe in the great values that underpinned the Fabian Society should be taking part.

To hear Guy Standing talk more in-depth about his work, you can catch him presenting The Precariat at the following venues in the UK over the coming months:

October 12: London School of Economics, 1245-1400
October 19: University of Leeds, 1600-1800
October 20: University of Bristol, 1500-1700
October 21-24: University of Cardiff, 1500-1700
October 25: University of Greenwich, 1700-1900
October 26: University of Brighton, 1230-1400
October 27: St.Anne’s College, Oxford, 1230-1400
November 1: Child Poverty Action Group conference, London, 0930-1400
November 21: Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, 1100
November 21: University of Glasgow, 1530
November 22: Glasgow, Centre for Population Health, at 1630
November 23-24: University of Cambridge
November 29: Royal Holloway College, University of London.
November 30: Cambridge Fabian Society, Dinner talk
January 16: Bath, Royal Literary and Scientific Institution
January 17: Trades Union Congress, London, at 1230.
January 19: Manchester, Manchester Industrial Relations Association
February 15: University of Southampton, ‘Marshall Lecture’
March 3: Bath Literary Festival
March 7: Hertford University – evening debate.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Say my name, Dave

by @natandoron 

It already seems like a long time since Ed Miliband’s 2011 conference speech. That’s a good thing. As dust settles and the media reaction fades into memory, we are left with the actual content and what it means for the party’s direction of travel over the coming months. David Cameron didn’t mention Ed Miliband once by name in his speech yesterday. Next year, things could be very different.

In a recent collection of essays looking back at New Labour, Peter Kellner asks a really important question about the future of social democracy in the UK. Is the post-New Labour phase of social democracy going to be a purely defensive position that clings to all achievements in government? Or is it to be a project that sets out the framework for a new model of doing centre-left politics? In Ed Miliband, the party has elected someone who has opted for the latter. It is in this context that we should consider his conference 2011 speech.

Ed Miliband used his speech to assert that Labour needs to set its stall in a way that is radically different. The Thatcherite consensus of the New Labour period that was built on a sort of benevolent neoliberalism is now territory that Ed says, can no longer be occupied. What Ed Miliband is trying here is something radically ambitious. Like most things today, it has to be viewed through the prism of the deficit. And despite what some on the right (within and without the Labour party) say, the deficit, as high as it is now, is due to the global financial crisis.

There was a period during the worst early and shocking moments of the global financial crisis where commentators were saying that it was time to ask the big questions. The questions about how we let banks gamble with our savings, how we let them create financial products so linked to toxic debt which caused the whole system to unravel. Well those questions are now being asked by a leader of one of the major parties. This is at the crux of Ed’s point about how we can’t treat all business the same.

If Labour can get this right, it will deserve to be back in Government. If it doesn't, it doesn't. That is because voters so sick of Labour in 2010 won’t see anything different enough to vote for. Yes, Gordon Brown was unpopular in May 2010, but polling done by Stan Greenberg for RSA showed that Tony Blair was even more unpopular. Booing him at conference is another matter entirely, but the point still holds - New Labour was for 1997. And whilst understanding that Tony Blair was popular in 2005 and remains so with an important part of the electorate needs to be taken on board, 2015 will require Labour to be different and a lot bolder then it has been in recent years.

And I say 'Labour' because this is the important part. Yes, leadership matters. But what matters just as much is what Labour does as a party. Of course Ed Miliband represents at the national level, and there should be  criticism to ensure delivery and messaging is coherent. But the party has to start making the case for this bold new cooperative capitalism that Ed is starting to sketch out. This will of course need policies in time to help construct argument around. But right now it’s about asking the right questions and showing that Labour has the right values to allow it answer those big questions. If it is done with with passion, unity and clarity - it’ll be a big part of making that offer to the electorate. And conference season 2012 won’t be one in which David Cameron can ignore Ed or the thousands of Labour party activists working to make this a one term Tory-led government.

Natan Doron is a Senior Research at the Fabian Society

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Building a society that is ready for anything

Our now traditional Fabian Dragons' Den was a great success at this year's Labour Party Conference with a parallel session taking place on Radio4 as we conducted our live event in Liverpool Town Hall. In the end Daniel Elton, of the website LeftFootForward, walked away with the prize for best idea with his pitch to break-up the big six energy companies.

Before the event we asked for entries from Fabian members for their one idea to win the next election. We recieved over 0ne hundred submissions, the quality was extremely high and Manchester Fabian William Cook put forward his idea on start-up capital for new businesses to the panel and came a very respectable second place.

We recieved a few ideas which, had we the time, we'd have definitely put to our panel. Below is one such idea from David Robinson.

Building a society that is ready for anything

Nef and Catch 22 have shown that every £1 spent on work with young people facing ‘complex’ problems could save £5.65. Youth unemployment currently costs £8bn a year, and youth crime £1bn. Similarly KPMG have calculated that the failure to learn how to read in primary school has a lifetime cost to the state of between £45,000 and £55,000 per child. A reading recovery programme costs £2,600, has a 79% success rate and yields a return of between £11 and £17 for every pound invested.

Where ever you look the story is the same. Youth unemployment, debt, anti social behaviour, bullying, underachievement at school particularly in the basic skills, family breakdown, drug abuse, homelessness, violence in the home or on the streets, cost more, if tackled later. And that’s at best. Sometimes later is too late for any intervention to ever be totally successful.

The next Labour government should commit to building a society that prevents problems from occurring rather than, as now, one that copes with the consequences. I picture a cliff with a “ready for anything society” at the top. Its people are ready and able to learn at primary school, to thrive in secondary, job-ready as young adults, primed to be good parents when the time comes and, because we all experience difficulties at some point in our lives, ready and able also to manage adversity - to cope with losing a job or a relationship, to rebuild after illness or bereavement, to adapt to change. Such a society is characterised by "Enabling services" and by clear rules that build capability, equip us to flourish, protect us from harm and prepare us for change.

Even here things will sometimes go wrong. “Prompt interventions” at the cliff edge pick up the first signs of difficulty and respond to them targeting services at individuals, families, communities with identified problems which, if not forestalled, could lead to more serious difficulties. An open-access play scheme, a learning support group or detached youth work in communities where many young people are on the streets might be examples of such a “prompt intervention”

Further down the cliff face the service becomes more targeted at those with more developed problems and prompt intervention gets closer to an "Acute service". Eventually it is primarily focused on “Containment ” - warehousing problems that we haven't resolved and people that we aren’t helping

CLG officials have been required by the coalition government to ask of every initiative "how does this promote localism?" and "how does this give power to citizens?" Suppose policy makers under the next government in every department and in every delivery agency locally and nationally were expected instead to ask of every service, "Is this in good time?" And, if not "how might we next engage one step sooner?”

A swift and radical switch of resources from acute provision to enabling services and preventative action is impractical but a steady, incremental migration could be achieved with Early Action Transition Plans.

The last Labour government’s stepped approach to the reduction of carbon emissions with Low Carbon Transition Plans is not dissimilar. Absolute proportions will vary from service to service but if the aspiration is to gradually shift the balance, government departments and local authorities might be required to publish Early Action Transition Plans with Early Action Milestones visibly charting progress on Early Action Scorecards. . For example, “We spend 5% of our budget on prevention and early action. We aim to increase that proportion by 5% each year for the next three years.”

Commissioners, charitable trusts, the Big Lottery, the new Big Society Bank could be encouraged to follow incentivising and sustaining the transition in the third sector with similar milestones and, of course, if we expect open and ambitious milestones from the funders we should expect them also of the funded – the organisations delivering the services from community groups to council departments: Government leadership on publicising and promoting this good practice would frame it as the expected behaviour of a progressive, forward thinking organisation.

A stitch in time is common sense but it isn’t common practise. It is socially intelligent and financially smart. It should be the organising philosophy for public services under the next Labour government.

David Robinson is a member of The Fabian Society