I bet Ed Miliband thought he was being original when he came up with his wheeze of starting with a blank sheet of paper and crowdsourcing all of Labour’s new policies. Not so! Islington Labour pioneered this stupid tactic with their ‘Fairness Commission’. The Commission has now produced its report, as advertised in the Guardian and online.
I’m not sure what I think about this method of producing policy. One one hand, surely it’s a political party’s job to come up with a manifesto and put it before the public. I can’t help but feel that Labour unexpectedly snuck into power in Islington on the back of a national election campaign, and then had to ask other people what they should be doing. Basically, it’s a bit like Labour spent £13,990 of public money (plus the extensive amount of work presumably done by the council’s scrutiny and press officers) to crowdsource a manifesto that they really ought to have written before the election. There’s also a whole weird appendix to the Commission’s report dedicated to the positive press coverage it got, demonstrating that it was also a massive publicity stunt to be judged in terms of column inches as much as anything else.
On the other hand, it is good for civil society groups and the wider public sector to get involved in the policy-making process, and Commissions are a good way of doing this. The Fairness Commission took inspiration from a similar Commission on Young People and Safety, chaired by Cllr Greg Foxsmith back in Islington’s Liberal days. Because of the input of the CPS, Youth Offending Service, police, and charities and civil society groups, it produced some genuinely good responses to the problem of Islington teenagers constantly stabbing each other to death in the streets.
But the Young People and Safety Commission had a clear aim, and a clear frame of reference. The Fairness Commission had no particular goal. Fairness. It’s a word that focus-groups well, but/because no-one knows what it means. It’s not like asking the community and experts a question – ‘what can we do about youth gangs?’ – and getting some informed answers. It’s just saying, ‘so, guys, what do we think would be nice?’
And lo, the Commission just ended up producing some ideas about what would be nice.
I was actually expecting something pretty radical to come out of this process. Labour councillors in Islington are unabashedly socialist, unreformed loony-lefties. I was expecting a report that looked like it came from bloodthirsty communards.
They even got academic huckster Richard Pickett to chair it, and he was ostensibly intent on applying his (demonstrably wrong, obviously) idea of the Spirit Level, which is to say communism. They talked– and the report’s preface goes on and on about– their desire “to close the gap between Islington’s rich and poor.”
“The campaign against excessive inequalities in income is the next major task in front of us. What is at stake is nothing less than the emancipation of a very large part of the population. And Islington is leading the way.”
Adam Bell has written a great post in which he calls it The Wishful Thinking Commission.
Asking local businesses to voluntarily pay more to their staff certainly falls into the wishful thinking category. Even publishing pay differentials is wishful thinking, for all the difference it would make. What scientific purpose does it serve to know that big local employer Arsenal FC has a pay differential of at least 475:1?
Other bits are just bizarrely ineffectual and ill-considered, like banishing payday loan companies from the borough. Indebtedness is one of the worst causes- and features- of poverty, as an actually-good report on Islington from the charity Cripplegate reveals. But if you get rid of regulated debt companies, people will turn to loan sharks. It’s really not the supplier that’s the problem here. And in any case, people from Islington could just nip to the Money Shop in Dalston. Or phone one of the companies off the telly.
Apart from the wishful thinking and the crappy, we’re just left with a list of nice things.
Identifying unused grassy areas on estates that can be perked up. That’s nice. The last Lib Dem administration already negotiated a contract bringing standards of estate green space management up to park standards, but I’m sure there’s more that can be done
Safer streets. That’s nice. I’m pretty sure someone already thought of that, though. Do we need this insight from a £14,000 Commission?
Apprenticeships! I don’t think I’ve ever seen an attempt to end poverty that doesn’t have this as its main plank of tackling youth joblessness. It’s nice, but only ever going to be a tiny sticking plaster on this massive issue.
… but is this what the Spirit Level was calling for? Is this the best that the land’s most bloodthirsty communards can muster? Is this closing the gap between the rich and poor in any meaningfully radical sense? Does this even come under the watery abstract concept of “fairness”?
No. These are nice things. Good things. Motherhood AND apple pie. The things that every political party has in every manifesto.
It doesn’t begin to say how they are going to bake or give birth to it, but it is the Labour party, who were always better at theory than execution.
There is one thing covered in the report that is a serious Fairness issue: a huge problem of overcrowded housing combined with massive underoccupation in council housing.
The report reveals the shocking fact that “tenancy audits of large council homes suggest as many as 40 per cent of them are now under-occupied as family members have moved on since the tenancies were granted.”
The Fairness Commission suggests a poster campaign and easing the bureaucracy, which is fine, if unambitious. Do they really think that this will clear out the 40% of houses that ought to be going to the people in desperate need? That this will really address the horrors of inner-London overcrowding?
You know, it would be good to get this problem sorted out. The Coalition Government is moving to clear high-earners out of social housing they don’t need, and have fixed tenancies to prevent underoccupation.
What do you think, Ed Miliband?
“Social housing should not be immune to reform, but we are opposed to the government’s plans on tenancy reform.”
Essentially, there are a lot of people sitting on subsidised housing who don’t need it. Or, in this case, don’t need as much of it. Stopping this is going to effect a lot of people who are enjoying large houses on the cheap. It’s a lot of voters to alienate, even if there are desperately overcrowded families living next door. Ed Miliband won’t do anything about this problem. Simon Hughes has spoken for the Lib Dems that we won’t do anything about it. Islington Labour and Prof. Pickett won’t do anything about it.
Maybe the Tories, precisely because they don’t rely on those votes anyway, can do something about this real fairness issue.
Meanwhile, Labour are left tinkering, and pleading with business, and offering pointless merit badges to do things that don’t actually make any difference anyway.