When you’re not in government, it’s very easy to argue that there should be ‘power to the people’. But what does it actually mean?

No leader of the opposition can resist the offer to give more power to the voters

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In many ways Ed Miliband has dared to challenge orthodoxies as a leader but in one respect he has followed the political fashion. Miliband declared recently that he had become a passionate convert to giving power to the people. Every leader of the opposition is in favour of giving power to the people. Indeed, Miliband joked that all leaders declare their faith in such empowerment – and then change their minds when they are elected. He insisted he would not change his own mind, but thankfully he will.

The familiar proclamations are not followed through when those making them end up in government, because they are all but vacuous. This pattern has not stopped left-of-centre think tanks from urging Miliband to be “bolder”, calling on him to empower people. In the topsy-turvy world of Labour party politics, their urging is seen as a rebuke to Miliband, and indeed it is partly meant to be, even though he has advocated precisely what they are calling for.

What has happened, as so often in politics, is that several disparate events have merged to fuel a sense of slight crisis in the Labour Party, following weeks of apparent turmoil in the Tory party.

The letter from the think tanks was written before this weekend’s polls showing the Conservatives running more or less neck and neck with Labour. But the timing of its publication means that it is seen as a response to the mild Tory surge. For the episode to acquire a credible dynamic, the signatories to the letter are portrayed – and partly see themselves – as both challenging Miliband’s complacency and buttressing his radicalism. In fact the signatories and Miliband are in agreement. But they are both wrong, at least as far as it is possible to discern what they mean in their support for the devolution of power.

The letter states that “the days of politicians doing things to people are over”. What does that mean precisely? Doing what? In some important ways the state does not do enough, such as facilitating the provision of elderly care or investing adequately in healthcare.

The signatories add that the state must give away power “where possible directly to the people”. What powers are these? What will be the mediating agencies between state and people? If Labour were to be elected, a huge amount of effort would be wasted finding ways of devolving power to the people when much bigger questions need urgently addressing – how to make the state more efficient; how to raise the money for investment; what local government is for.

The pensions minister, Steve Webb, says that if people want to blow their pension pot on a sports car, that is up to them. In the future precisely the same arguments might well be applied to health and education. When the relationships between the state and citizen, between personal and public responsibility, are so fragile, there is a need for a much more forensic debate about where power lies. Instead we are told vaguely across the political spectrum that people must have the power.

There is a reason why David Cameron’s Big Society did not materialise. No one knew quite how to implement the proposals. In opposition they had not answered the awkward questions about accountability, or about the level of commitment required from busy or indifferent people who are suddenly “empowered”, or about the mediating agencies from state to people.

I have argued for more power to be given to local government – one mediating agency that is elected and already exists. But it will not happen. Instead we have the worst of both worlds, where oppositions affect support for local democracy and then never deliver – partly on the solid grounds that they are far too busy trying, often fruitlessly, to make central government work for them. A more realistic focus would be to explore how smaller councils with limited powers could be more nimble-footed given that even schools are now accountable to central government.

But no leader of the opposition can resist the offer to give more power to voters. The intoxicating pledge comes with no spending implications – and no one wins an election suggesting that they are opposed to giving more power to voters.

Meanwhile George Osborne, a smart politician who has never fully understood the expedient characteristics of Miliband and Ed Balls, must have hoped that the Labour leadership would oppose his benefits cap and his proposals for pensions. Miliband/Balls have fought many “tax and spend” elections and know where the traps lie. They will support both with qualifications, the sensible pre-election position. Osborne will not have the space to fight a 1980s or 1992-style “tax and spend” election.

Miliband’s Budget response was poor, not even effective as political knockabout. Such failings are significant, not least when they give his critics space to argue – wrongly – that he has nothing to say about the economy. But it is more important for  a leader of the opposition not to fall into fatal traps. He has avoided falling into Osborne’s latest ones, even if, on power to the people, he follows a much trodden trail that will lead nowhere.

Twitter:  @steverichards14

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