Tuesday 16 August 2011

The state after the riots

The political battle over last week’s riots began in earnest yesterday, with both David Cameron and Ed Miliband beginning to stake out distinctive territory. The key front is over how to frame the causes and consequences of the riots. Already the contours are taking shape around different conceptions of ‘responsibility’: for Cameron, responsibility is personal and “pure and simple”; for Miliband it's a more nuanced concept, involving wider societal considerations and obligations.

But there is another key political divide, and it’s one that adds a very live dimension to the themes discussed in the recently published summer issue of the Fabian Review. ‘The State Under Attack’ is the theme of the magazine – looking at how Labour’s relationship with the state has been painted by both internal and external critics as the root cause of the party’s political woes. Different authors investigate the charge that Labour was ‘too statist’ when in power, accepting where it’s fair, knocking down the caricatures, and stressing where there is positive role for government.

The prime minister sought to cast the state as the bogeyman in his response to the riots yesterday: “Some of the worst aspects of human nature tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivised – by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally de-moralised”. Under fire are state welfare, burdensome ‘elf n’ safety’ regulations, and the EU prescribing a monolithic conception of human rights.

But as Gaby Hinsliff pointed out in the Observer at the weekend, it was the strident small staters who were first to call for the army to be mobilized - a massive extension of the state's reach - and Cameron returned from holiday to grab hold of whichever of Whitehall’s levers were nearest to hand. As Hinsliff wrote:

”He threatened to evict looters from their council homes, injunct gang members, restrict access to social media ... Suddenly a decentralising prime minister was pushing at the boundaries of executive power.”

What this goes to show is that even the fiercest critics of the state see it playing some role, and so we need to get over the current 'state good or bad' debate. Our polling in the magazine – recently reported in the Independent – showed that even most Conservative voters don’t want the government’s cuts to be permanent: they positively value public services and do not share their party leadership’s Thatcherite vision of a small state. So the important thing for Labour – both in its response to recent events and in its ongoing policy rethink – is to recognise that the debate it should be having is about the appropriate level of the state; where it got that balance wrong; and, crucially, how to go with the grain of the wide public support for lots of things that the state does for us that we would struggle to do ourselves.

1 comment:

Robert said...

Interesting new labour ideal