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.