Home > General Politics, Labour Party News > Beyond Letwinism and Toynbeeism: the return of the guild

Beyond Letwinism and Toynbeeism: the return of the guild

Oliver Letwin, who is firmly in the neo-High Tory authoritarian tradition, knows what the public sector needs:

You can’t have room for innovation and the pressure for excellence without having some real discipline and some fear on the part of the providers that things may go wrong if they don’t live up to the aims that society as a whole is demanding of them.

But is this really so different from the New Labour managerial tradition advocated in this week’s Observer editorial on how to make sure public sector workers do not live up to society’s legitimate demands?

Almost certainly, the faults in these homes are not exclusive to Castlebeck. If standards of care in England are to rise to a premium standard, then the CQC requires a radical overhaul. At present, it is underfunded, understaffed – even if its current high level of vacancies are filled – and its inspections are neither frequent enough nor sufficiently detailed.

Polly Toynbee, too, thinks the principal answer to poor public service lies in more effective regulation from above, although she recognises that this isn’t the only problem.

Anger at abuse at Winterbourne View hospital landed harder on the regulator, Care Quality Commission, than on Castlebeck, the company that took £3,500 a week for hiring cheap thugs as carers. The CQC confessed that ignoring a whistleblower was unforgivable – but the regulator should long ago have blown the whistle on itself and warned its task was impossible on its current resources.

Ultimately, I would argue that Letwin’s High Toryism and Toynbee’s Elite Managerialism are different only in degree.

Socialists, on the other hand, need to argue and organise for a different approach to public service quality – an approach that starts with the people who deliver those public services.

For socialists, workers claiming control of the quality of public services – in a manner integral to the defence of their terms and conditions – should lie at the heart of the labour movement’s agenda. 

I am drawn towards the good bits of some of the Blue Labour thinking around this, and especially the reminders from some of Blue Labour’s better advocates, of what the pre-welfare state guild traditions have to offer as historic example.

We could do worse than take GDH Cole’s advice:

It is upon the Trade Unions that the brunt of the struggle will fall.  It is upon our success in laying the foundations of the Guilds even under capitalism that the chances of Guild Socialism really depend, and the problem of the transition to Guild Socialism is therefore primary a problem of trade union development (my emphasis).

In 21st century practice, I suggest that this means three things for labour movement activists:

1) Acknowledging that, while it’s perfectly legitimate to defend the public sector as best we can from Tory attack, this doesn’t mean what the public sector provides is perfect, and that we also have a responsibility to ensure that the kind of abuse seen at Winterbourne View ceases; arguments about the ‘logic of capital’, and the consequent alienation of workers, are strong and valid, but they must be countered by equally strong and valid displays of solidarity, public service ethos and ‘professional pride’, including in those areas of service that are not considered ‘professional’ under that very logic of capital.

2) Seeking to persuade the ‘powers that be’ in the labour movement (the party and the unions) to develop clear strategies for the development of self-regulating codes of conduct (the NUJ’s code is a good example), which in time become more effective as a guarantee against inadequate public service than anything the state can impose.

3) Taking concrete steps at local levels towards the establishment or revitalisation of Trades Councils, which task themselves not just with the business of co-ordinating resistance and mitigating the worst effects of the current assault by the ruling class, but also with the creation of new class-conscious agreements between service provider and service user.   In other words, labour activists should be seeking to develop, for a new age, the civic guilds envisaged by GDH Cole 90 years ago:

The [Trades] council would exist to make articulate the civic point of view, the vital spiritual and physical demands of the people, and to coordinate with the various guilds which would have entrusted to them the task of supplying these demands.

Further reading:  

1) Tendance Coatsey on Guild Socialism and Blue Labour (and links)

2) Marc Stears Guild socialism and ideological diversity on the British left, 1914–1926 (you’ll need a subscription to get this article but ask me or Marc nicely and we might send you a pdf).

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  1. August 2, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    Why guilds rather than Workers’ Cooperatives?

  2. paulinlancs
    August 2, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    Simon @1: I’m certainly not against worker co-ops for public service delivery if they are properly funded (indeed we’re looking at moving our local social enterprise to co-op status at the moment, but I’m focusing her on the ‘ethos’ of the guild as a body responsible for maintenance of standards and respect for the user (with the necessary confrontation with capital/state that this brings), rather than the organisational model. I’m simply using the term ‘guild’ as shorthand/labour tradition reference for a localised trade union movement which does more than defend/promote the material conditions of its current members.

    In the (extreme) Winterbourne case, the abuse came primarily because of capitalist exploitation, but was not countered by any kind of labour movement public service ethos which said ‘this cannot happen’ (care workers are of course signficantly ununionised, but it might have happened anyway).

  1. February 8, 2013 at 11:47 am
  2. February 14, 2013 at 4:17 pm
  3. November 17, 2013 at 11:47 am

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