Mary Riddell for The Telegraph: “The next political revolution begins with a plate of stew. The dish in question is cooked by Oruj Defoite, a north London accountant, and delivered to Munna Sen, who is 82 and lives alone. The two women belong to the Casserole Club, an online organisation that connects people who like to cook with those who need a hot meal.
Over time, the erstwhile strangers have become close. Oruj, who has two young daughters, includes Munna in family outings and welcomes the company of an older friend. Across London, other such alliances are springing up. Sid Baverstock, a former railwayman of 88, regards his lunches as a treat: for frailer pensioners, they are a lifeline.
The Casserole Club, an alternative to council meals-on-wheels services, now operates in three London boroughs and has around 2,600 carefully vetted cooks, who volunteer online to make an extra portion of food for an elderly neighbour. Developed by an organisation called FutureGov, it is also a template for what may prove to be the greatest power shift in modern British politics.
Next week the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think tank will publish its report on the “relational state”. It argues that both bureaucracy (the Labour model) and the market (the Tory alternative) have failed to deal with complex social problems, ranging from chronic disease to long-term unemployment, or to harness digital advances and citizens’ help. The answer, in the IPPR’s analysis, is to devolve money and power from central government to local authorities, who would get five-year budgets to spend as they chose on services. Secretaries of state would have backstop powers to deal with failure, but otherwise local councils and institutions would be the nation’s nerve centres. To say that tumbleweed would blow through Treasury corridors and that Whitehall would become a giant leisure complex would be to exaggerate, but not by much.
Independent though it is, the IPPR report is far from a straw in the post-recession wind. On the day of its launch (by the influential shadow care minister Liz Kendall), Ed Miliband’s chief policy reviewer, Jon Cruddas, will give a landmark speech to the Local Government Network. He is expected to say that Labour’s purpose in getting power would be to give that power away. He will make clear that he is talking about something more radical than mere localism – and that his mission should be the key element of Labour’s manifesto.
That Mr Miliband is said to warm to this vision is no surprise. Not only does it cohere with his hymns to the “good society”, its plans – which include engaging union members as agents of change – also offer a more appealing story than allegations of vote-rigging and a cover-up in the Falkirk by-election.
Even so, with Labour unease mounting over whether its chances of election victory will be snuffed out by the economic revival, it is unclear whether the Cruddas plan will be Labour’s salvation, or the cause for greater schism.
The “relational state”, a term suggestive of the herbal teabag end of social policy, might better be labelled the human state. Its proponents foresee a public realm rescued from big business and bureaucracy and serving people’s desire for a familiar carer, midwife or doctor rather than a casual stranger. Where David Cameron’s inchoate Big Society relied on volunteers becoming the scullions of the state (at the very time that their funding was being removed), the Labour variant would, in theory at least, be planned with rigour. The IPPR, for example, prescribes league tables and scrutiny to drive up standards and to ensure a coherent web of provision, rather than a hotchpotch of individual initiatives.
This big idea might be headed directly for the dustbin of romantic dreams, but for a collision of civic virtue and national penury. Between 1948 and 2009, the British welfare state mushroomed by an average of 4.5 per cent a year in real terms. At that point, it struck even the most diehard expansionist that the game was up. Since then, libraries, Sure Start centres and police officers have been dispatched to the social scrapyard, while elderly people have been neglected at home or warehoused at vast expense in hospitals.
The prospect of more swingeing cuts has not persuaded critics to fall in behind Mr Cruddas, who is said to be braced for battle over the cheaper, more streamlined state that he envisages. And while he has not specified those colleagues whom he is said to regard as wishing to “shrink the offer”, or try simply to edge over the electoral line, it is not hard to guess where opposition may lie.
Ed Balls might understandably baulk at being the first chancellor to ditch a traditional spending review in favour of parcelling out the public service budget to the big Labour cities, let alone to a ragbag of smaller local authorities. Some of those involved in planning the election campaign are also said to be lukewarm, if not downright hostile. Last week a Tory MP queried the visa status of Arnie Graf, Mr Miliband’s American community organiser, and demanded clarification from border officials. Though no evidence has been produced, the rumour in Labour circles is that the charge against the admirable Mr Graf, a champion of a more inclusive state, may have emanated from ill-wishers on his own side.
Whether or not that suspicion is correct, Mr Graf is aware of the enemies within. As he told me recently, in an interview for the Fabian Review, highly placed people in Labour issued warnings, which he ignored, to “be careful” and to “concentrate on local things, such as dog-fouling and potholes. Don’t go after the market sector… stay away from those kinds of issues.”
Cruddasites hope to disarm their nameless foes with one simple argument. They could talk about a return to the res publica, in which atomised Britain moves from being a lonely crowd to a band of citizens, but why waste their breath? Better to point out that, with departmental cuts of up to seven per cent a year looming over the next parliament, public services are heading over a cliff.
An improved deal might instead, as the IPPR argues, be provided much more cheaply. Health and social care, could for example, be merged at local level, so easing pressure on the NHS. Neighbourhood justice panels would, in another example, deal with petty criminals and so bypass costly court cases.
If Labour does win, and if control and money stay locked in the Whitehall tabernacle, then Mr Miliband would surely preside over a declining Britain. Streets would be squalid, bins unemptied, estates crime-scarred and public spaces derelict. Hospitals would risk bankruptcy, schools would founder, and Labour’s spell of power would be classified as a Hobbesian interlude; nasty, short and brutish.
Reformers hope that Mr Balls, seeing the road to dystopia before him, will be the gatekeeper to civic revival rather than the barrier.
Labour may argue itself to a standstill over whether Mr Cruddas’s new-look Britain is a mirage or a reality, but no risk would be greater than watching the welfare state crumble to ashes. In the post-2015 wasteland, his New Jerusalem looks like the only haven in sight.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/labour/10617233/Does-Labour-have-the-appetite-to-support-the-Casserole-Club.html)