Yesterday’s speech by Labour’s Shadow Immigration Minister, Chris Bryant, was a masterclass in how Blair style spinning can miscarry. Briefing the newspapers in advance of the speech, a technique developed to try to secure more and better coverage, is often a double edged sword. Yesterday it was a spectacular boomerang which came back to damage its sender.
Over the week-end we were told that Labour would launch an attack on companies that used recently arrived migrant labour in place of local talent to drive down wages and worsen employment conditions. By Monday morning, still before the speech, the author was telling us that he no intention of fingering named companies for bad labour practices, and went out of his way to praise Tesco as a good employer. We were all left wondering who he has in mind to prove his case, and why he cannot cite individual examples of the bad practice he condemns.
We were also left wondering why Mr Bryant wished to make this point, when his party had been so keen on giving our borders over to the EU and allowing in many more people over a prolonged period, people who of course wanted and needed jobs. Is Labour going to follow this up with apologising for giving away so much power to the EU over migration and recommending we re-establish our own policy and controls? I doubt it. Surely Mr Bryant must understand that under the EU rules Labour signed up to, any UK company has to treat fairly any job application by someone from another EU country?
Many others have written extensively about the sloppiness and mismanagement of this incident. I want to use it to illustrate something else. Mr Miliband’s Labour is very unlike Mr Blair’s Labour in opposition. Mr Blair went out of his way to woo the private sector. He saw a Labour government has to get on with big business, and needs to reassure voters with a different view of free enterprise from that of the left wing core of the Labour movement. Mr Milband’s Labour party delights rather in finding more and more ways to attack large companies, often in preference to attacking the Coalition government.
The best example of this is Labour’s one senior figure who has civil servants reporting to her and a serious role in influencing the public sector. Mrs Hodge, as Chairman of the PAC, works with the National Audit Office and is meant to be the prod, spur and auditor of the public sctor. Her main aim should be to expose waste and worse in public sector bodies, and draw attention to places where goverment fails to deliver value for money or good results. Instead Mrs Hodge spends much of her time trying to find ways to expose all the things about large private sector companies which the Miliband tendency do not like.
I have no time for businesses which rip off the public, damage competition, or otherwise act against the public good. Parliament has a role to set out a fair framework of law for the private sector, enforce competitive markets and to supervise the enforcement of that law. Mrs Hodge has enjoyed bringing the four large accountancy firms, Starbucks, Google, Amazon, BT and others before her committee. She seems more interested in putting private sector companies on the spot than in pursuing waste, fraud and bad spending within the £700 billion spend of the public sector.
Labour front benchers are also often happier exposing alleged or actual bad practices of private sector companies than saying how they would curb excess public spending, raise efficiency and quality in the public sector, and reform badly performing public services. They are quick to criticise pay day loan companies, private sector health providers, private sector landlords and private sector utilities. They have been less noisy about hospitals that have high death rates, schools that fail to educate children to a decent standard, Councils which charge too much and tax too much, or social workers who have not been able to save children at risk.
Where private sector companies are letting people down or doing the wrong thing of course government and the law enforcement system has a role to play. Of course government and Parliament should deal with abuse. For Labour it seems like a default position to avoid talking about any possible imperfections in the large public sector. It is in the provision of public services where government and opposition have most influence and should have most responsibility. Labour’s wish to talk more about bad things in the private sector, and to ignore deep problems in the public, is so unlike the Blair winning formula.
To govern the country a party needs to show balance and judgement. A party also needs to understand that it can and should amend and or enforce the law where the private sector errs, but where the public sector errs it is uniquely responsible and has a wide range of powers to sort it out.