Friday, 27 May 2011

How to defend the (relational) state

Labour needs to change how it thinks about the state in order to defend it, argues Jon Wilson in this guest post continuing Next Left's recent discussion of Blue Labour, Fabianism and the state.


Most people love the state.

Or at least, people love the institutions which Labour activists and policy-wonks use that name to describe. In fact though, we're more likely to talk about our local school, hospital, library, university, forest, BBC radio station or childcare centre. The affection we feel is for institutions that are entangled in our lives in a practical, real way. Most importantly it's about our personal relationship to people we clumsily call public servants - the fantastic midwife who delivered our baby, the brilliant paramedic who sewed our knee back up, the great teacher or fantastic broadcaster.

Labour must always be the party which organises to protect public institutions against their erosion by the forces of the free-market. That's why we need to attack coalition plans to introduce greater marketisation of public services hard. But at the moment, every time that attack turns simply into a defence of the state, we lose the argument. Everyone understands how schools, hospitals, children's centresmake a real difference to our lives. But unless you're a Labour activist or political philosopher, it's hard to see 'the state' as anything other than a clunking monolithic which takes our money but doesn't do give us much in return.

Amidst its great achievements, the biggest tragedy for the last Labour government was the fact people thought we'd stopped caring. Every Labour politician understands why - we were too cold, too technocratic, too managerial. Too often we governed through interventions dreamed up in Whitehall after statistical analysis, without thinking through how they'd look after being bounced down through layers of bureaucracy. We spoke the language of the Treasury not the people. Tax credits are the perfect example - great in theory, they really helped a lot of people, but have you tried to fill in the form? Public sector reform often simply increased the pressure on public servants without improving the quality of their 'output'. As we know from successive social service scandals, crises created an expansion in formal compliance procedures at the cost of the common sense needed to protect vulnerable members of the community.

The story I'm telling is not a new one. Virtually every shadow cabinet member has made criticisms of this kind. The point now is to ask how criticism forces us to rethink Labour's attitude to government.

What Labour lost, I think, was a sense of why we believe in 'the state' to start with. As Labour activists, we believe in the virtue of common endeavour. We think markets are good at many things - but we also believe the power of collective action is often needed to civilise them and protect the power people have to live and lead lives that have meaning. Labour is about a solidarity or I nothing. As Tim Horton suggests in a recent nextleft post [link] ‘the state can be a powerful platform of reciprocity and solidarity’. But to exist, solidarity needs to be felt in our real lives – you can’t have solidarity with someone else and not know it. The trouble is, too often, the state is perceived as a distant power that doesn’t help us lead better lives together.

A lot of debate on the left about the place of the state in Labour thinking doesn’t help here. Arguing – as Tim Horton seemed to in his recent discussion of Blue Labour - about the virtues of centralism or localism, or state-run against mutual forms of organisation makes us forget that what matters is the way people relate to public institutions rather than their formal structure. There are plenty of highly bureaucratic mutuals; just as there are parts of central government provision which are wonderfully responsive to local society.

The core insight of the political philosophy which Maurice Glasman terms ‘blue labour’ is that the relationships we have with each other shapes everything we do; and that Labour politics is about bringing people from different backgrounds, with different interests together, to build relations so they can protect their livelihoods and flourish. A state obsessed by statistical outcomes and performance management targets treats people as bodies or economic units - above all as asocial individuals not people who have a common life together. The argument now shouldn’t be whether the state is a good thing, or even where formal power should lie. Instead it is how we can create a state which is capable of relating far better with ordinary people’s common lives.

This must be the new agenda for Labour public sector reform. It needs some difficult thinking about how public institutions are organised, and how they can expand the scope for real local participation in their management. More importantly, it will involve a long-term change so that the culture of public institutions is relational and respectful not managerial. Why not start by insisting that every public manager has to have at least two long, open-ended one-on-one conversations with patients or service ‘users’ each week about their lives, to get things started?

Democracy must involve more than a local service provider being accountable to a civil servant who is told what to do by a minister – it means treating the public as neither statistics nor patients but as people with stories that need to be recognised and citizens who should have a say in management. The best answer to a postcode lottery is not for Whitehall mandarins to continually increase the details of their instructions to local providers – the most centralised system is incapable of eliminating local variations. Instead, it is to ensure ‘users’ are organised to effectively demand that their local hospital offers the services they are entitled to as citizens. Running through everything a future Labour government does with the public service should be the question: how does this make it easier for people to get together, to develop the social relationships which best allow us to thrive, to create a common life?

David Cameron’s ‘big society’ is based on the liberal idea that people’s capacity for self-government is best exercised outside politics, beyond the state. We need to prove him wrong, by creating a Labour approach to the public sector which makes sure the ‘state’ is interwoven into the fabric of every local society.

Guest post from Jon Wilson, who is a lecturer at King's College London. He is a contributor to the new e-book 'The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox' (PDF)

1 comment:

Timothy said...

"Insisting that every public manager has to have at least two long, open-ended one-on-one conversations with patients or service ‘users’ each week about their lives" has a familiar ring to it. It's, er, what sucessful private sector organisations do all the time: try to understand what motivates the customer. Until Labour understands that the state's direct employment of staff is not a pre-condition for the creation of effective, sensitive and adapatable public services (and is often an impediment), Labour will struggle to convince.