Monday, 30 May 2011

Honeymoon reading for Ed Miliband

Even readers of Next Left will hope Ed Miliband won't be indulging his interest in political philosophy on his honeymoon. But if he does want a fix, I have a comment piece in today’s Guardian, weighing in to the current debate bubbling away within Labour over the role of the state.

This is in many ways a strange debate: after all, who actually gets up in the morning and thinks ‘What’s my view of the role of the state today?’ But underlying it are some big political differences about the direction Labour should take, so it’s important to resolve these debates on progressive terms.

My target in the piece is some of the noisy anti-statism we’ve been hearing in some sections of the Party of late, with a growing number of voices seeming to argue that Labour should be defining itself in opposition to the state. Of course Labour must not be monolithically statist; no-one advocates that. But a knee-jerk anti-statism would be equally dangerous, and bears little resemblance to how most voters think.

My piece warns that the rhetoric of empowerment is being used lazily to advocate a range of decentralising or individualising agendas (localism, mutualism, choice-and-diversity, etc.) in such a way that these have almost become an end in themselves:

Labour should handle empowerment rhetoric with care. Lest we forget, 'redistributing power' was also how old Labour used to justify its obsession with nationalisation. The last thing Labour needs in the 21st century is for another lot of means to get confused with ends.

Yes, empowerment must be a central objective for Labour, but it doesn’t follow that it's like giving out sweets, and if the central state has more then citizens must have less. So rather than assuming people will feel empowered by decentralisation, we should scrutinise these agendas closely to see if they actually do empower.

I also argue that if you don’t get popular state collectivism, you’re going to get your politics badly wrong:

In the coalition's botched attempt to sell our forests, it was fascinating how much the public loathed the suggestion – put forward as the acceptable face of privatisation – that communities could club together and buy bits of forest for themselves. They felt they owned them already – yes, that "big government" owning forests, meant them.

Politicians as different as Nye Bevan, Bill Clinton, Enoch Powell and even Ronald ‘government-is-the-problem’ Reagan all grasped how people can feel a sense of agency through large-scale collectivism – and harnessed it to supreme effect in their politics. But some in today’s Labour Party don’t get this.

Of course, there are massive challenges for social democrats in rethinking the role of the state – not least how we fund the increase in services needed in an ageing society, and how we balance the role of government-as-provider against other important roles: government-as-guarantor and government-as-enabler.

But my argument is that while Labour’s rethinking of the state will need to be well out of the Fabian comfort zone, it needs to be out of the New Labour comfort zone too.


optimismsaturation said...

What a dreary non-debate.

Precisely how much responsibility should the political class hand down to the plebs in the name of 'empowerment'?

The only thing missing in your politics is, er, the people. There's absolutely no role here for an active citizenry that might actually want to dictate what power it does and does not want, rather than meekly accept a bit of state-regulated 'mutualism'.

'Empowerment'! Poisonous jargon. What kind of 'empowerment' is it if you need it handed down to you from above?

How patronizing to have the political class deign to pass on responsibility for the local library and tell us how 'empowered' we should be, with a little pat on the head!

Us peasants should be so grateful!

Carl Roper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carl Roper said...

This debate is in danger of starting from the wrong place. We should be speaking about what the state (or government) provides; the public structures that we all rely on to go about our lives. Once these public structures are established in peoples minds then we are on better terrain for a discussion about the role of the state.

Research in the US by the Demos Center for Public Works found (not surprisingly) that when asked about the value of government opinions ranged from ambivalence, cynicism to outright hostility. On the other hand, public structures were valued by most respondents regardless of how they identified themselves politically.

donpaskini said...

Hi Tim,

Excellent piece. Worth also noting research by Lord Ashcroft. He did focus groups and asked people what they thought about the aim of "cutting the state" - they had no idea what this meant and thought it might be something to do with getting rid of Cornwall.

Robert said...

I watched Panorma last night, interesting that nobody stated it was due to new labours care in the community.

Sad to see so much in the world going wrong for the disabled and the sick, heil......

Newmania said...

I cannot see the purpose of New labour at all if it is not in favour of more state and higher taxes.
A general wish for things to be nicer is shared by everyone