Devolving power and fighting for equality

Devolving power to local government, to self defined groups of people and to individuals does not disempower local government. We need a bold manifesto that demonstrates that we trust the British people if we are to win the election, and we need to understand that changing how power works is the only way to make lasting progress on fighting inequality.

Equalities campaigners, feminists and anti racists have always understood this. If you want to deal with inequality, you need to give the power to make change to the people at the sharp end.

This is not an approach that will mean the dismantling of the whole of the public sector as we know it. The interim report of Labour’s Local Government Innovation Taskforce recognises the difference between transactional services that deal with volumes of similar cases and cases of multiple and complex needs, where a more relational approach is needed. The work programme is the well used example of a standardised set of national contracts that has failed in tackling complex barriers to work. Children’s centres are an example of a national programme, with national funding and objectives, where the children’s centres in Tower Hamlets with the best outcomes are the ones where parent and the local voluntary sector had the greatest involvement.

In his article yesterday Luke called on us not to spend another period in divisive debate about public sector reform. No doubt Ed Miliband will do all he can to listen and bring people with him, but no change is not an option. A future Labour government will not be able to stop or reverse all of the cuts we are now facing. Either we slice away at social care, the NHS, police services until they collapse, or we do things differently. Demographic change means that what we need from social care and the NHS is different – more older people, mainly baby boomers with high expectations of quality of life and autonomy.

It is not just that change is needed because the world around us is transforming –change is needed because what we have now is often not good enough. As Alison McGovern has set out, too often people lose dignity, rather than gaining it, when they encounter the state. If simple, transactional services are all you need – a standard operation, the ability to renew your parking permit – coming to meetings may seem like a waste of time. If you are long term unemployed, have complex health conditions, are the parent of a child with significant educational needs, live in poor quality, overcrowded social housing, you will already spend a lot of your time in contact with various parts of the national and local state, and the way you are treated will leave with less and less dignity and power over your own future. There are many examples of voluntary sector organisations that start from a belief in the agency of people and communities to transform – our task is to entrench this approach in core service delivery.

The way services work can entrench existing social inequalities.

Whilst the centralised welfare state was essential to the progress women have made since 1945, the way it functions reinforces gendered family roles. Localised, plural service provision driven by those using it could change that.

Back to work support run by and for users, including women, could see skills training routinely run with childcare on site, or social services that integrate respect for the voice and contribution of carers of vulnerable or disabled people with support for carers to work.

I loved my pledge cards, but a 1997 election “retail offer” is not enough to tackle the challenges we are facing, or to cut through the lack of trust people have in politics. We can and must do better.