Guest post by Graeme Cook.
The debate about choice and power at the launch of Open Left could be another that is significant for the future of the Left.
Over the past few years the issue of choice - particularly in public services - has been a polarising one within the British Left. This is partly because it has been seen as emblematic of a wider set of political goals and methods. Are you for individuals or the collective? Are you for markets or the state? Are you for solidarity or atomisation? We covered all this ground at the launch event this week.
Elements of these distinctions are real and meaningful. But in truth, some is more rhetoric than reality. As I was listening to the discussion, it struck me that in thinking about choice as being fundamentally about power, and in broadening our understanding of how this power is distributed and exercised, there is a different way of approaching this debate.
What’s interesting is that having your voice heard and having agency over your life are notions of power which most people in the Left would endorse in the context of, say, the political process or the workplace. We want radical democratic reform precisely to give voters greater power over political decision making. We value trade unions because we want workers to have power in the workplace. So, is it possible to think of power in public services in a similar way?
First, we'd have to think about the impact of one person exercising their power on other people, because public services are one of the domains where we come together and care about more than just ourselves. Second, we'd need to take seriously the way power is distributed and, specifically, how to design policies which increase the power of the powerless (not amplify power inequalities). Third, we'd have to broaden out from just individual power to think about how people acting together could exercise their collective power. And fourth, we'd need to develop a set of principles to judge where power should reside within particular services and how people should be able to deploy it.
The next question, of course, is what does this mean for policy. I don't claim that these are all new thoughts and there are already some examples of these ideas in our public services. But this is an issue which Open Left wants to explore, test out and work through as part of renewing the thinking and ideas of the Left.
Graeme Cook is the head of the Open Left project at Demos.