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Labour’s public service reforms must pass the social justice test

The realisation of social justice is one of the overarching goals of the labour movement. Some have perhaps taken their commitment to a little too far (who can forget David Miliband’s famous proclamation that ‘social justice gets me up in...


The realisation of social justice is one of the overarching goals of the labour movement. Some have perhaps taken their commitment to a little too far (who can forget David Miliband’s famous proclamation that ‘social justice gets me up in the morning’?) but it remains a guiding principle for all progressives who desire a more equitable distribution of wealth, jobs, and opportunities among different social classes.

Last week, Ed Miliband added another resource to this list: power. In his speech on public service reform, he made the case for a more balanced distribution of power between Whitehall, local government, service providers, and service users, in what was arguably the most radical statement of intent by Labour since the 2010 election.

Many commentators leapt on this speech as evidence that Labour wants to devolve power and put individuals and local institutions in charge of their own needs, in a new formulation of ‘the third way’ between market and central government provision. But what many missed – and what Miliband needs to explain in greater detail – is how this new wave of public service reform will further the cause of social justice.

The concept of social justice rests on the moral assumption that resources and opportunities should be divided not on the basis of deserts, or chance, but in such a way that everyone in society is equipped with what is necessary to fulfil their potential. As the political philosopher John Rawls said, “a just society’s rules tend to work to the maximum advantage of the least well off classes”. In order to prove that their programme of public service reform passes the social justice test, Labour must demonstrate that devolving power and responsibility will work to the benefit of the most deprived.

Miliband should be applauded for investing the kind of trust in individuals to reform their own services that David Cameron shies away from. But it is not enough to simply fling open the doors of public services and invite people in; government also has to be active in engaging the least well off on their role in such a system.

This is necessary because the section of the population most likely to rely on public services is the same section least likely to be involved in decision making processes around their structure. Research by the University of Glasgow shows that working class people are less likely to join formal organised groups like parent-teacher associations or parish councils, are less likely to have the type of networks that enable them to access information on how their service providers operates, and are less likely to complain about a given standard of service than their middle class neighbours.

This disparity manifests itself in a middle class bias in service provision. The research report notes that ‘middle class service users tend to have the kinds of “cultural capital” (education, networks, skills and resources) which are useful in [the] practical sense for negotiating with service providers.’ Essentially, the well-off tend to get a better deal on public services. The report concludes that ‘there is a clear need for middle class advantage to be afforded more prominence as a policy problem’.

Fortunately, there are signs that Ed Miliband grasps this. His speech referenced the fact that the quality of individual’s social networks ‘can make all the difference to the success of the service’. Finding ways to link service users from poor backgrounds together so they can act collectively would help negate middle class advantage and ensure Labour’s public service reforms pass the social justice test.

In other areas, Labour has its work cut out to explain how its reforms will work to the maximum advantage of the least well off. Miliband spoke about people becoming the owners of their own health records, and even of their own health budgets. But information is worthless if you don’t know what to do with it, can’t make sense of it, or don’t have any friends to help you work it out. Similarly, the use of apps to help individuals track their public service cases is an excellent innovation, but does not guarantee that everyone has access to such technology, or that people will lobby their service providers to improve standards as a result.

Social justice can only be attained if the least well-off have the right opportunities and the capability to take advantage of those opportunities. Labour is heading down the right road, but the party must not be afraid of actively encouraging the most deprived to engage with the opportunities of public service reform. Otherwise public services will be hijacked by the more affluent to serve their own ends, and Rawl’s vision of a just society will slip over the horizon.

The Young Fabians invite you to join their event, ‘Is Social Jutice A Mirage?’ with Katy Clark MP, Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute, and Emran Mian of the Social Market Foundation. Monday 24, 6:30pm, Committee Room 20, Palace of Westminster. More information can be found here.

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