Archive for the ‘General Politics’ Category

Coasting schools and the new authoritarianism

June 5, 2015 2 comments

There’s something deeply disturbing about section 1 of the new Education & Adoption Bill, according to which the Secretary of State will get to turn a maintained school into an academy if she considers it to be “coasting”.

What’s disturbing is not that this is really just a quick way to turn schools into academies, even though there’s no evidence that this is a good way to improve schools. That just evidence-free policy of the type we’ve come to expect.

It’s not that there is no inkling as to what “coasting” might actually mean and how it might be measured.  That’s now just standard centralisation and of decision-making as developed under Gove (though with the twist that it will be the new Regional Schools Commissioner expected to do the centre’s dirty work).

It’s not even that there is really just no evidence that piling more and more inspectorial pressure on school can squeeze out anything further in the way of improvement.

What’s really disturbing is the subtle shift, from a focus not doing well enough to a focus on schools not giving a sufficient external display of effort.

This, it seems to me, may reflect a move beyond the managerialism of New Labour and its continuation into early New Conservatism, in which outcomes mattered and how you achieved them didn’t, towards a more authoritarian style, in which outcomes matter less than the level of grovelling to those higher up the food chain.

With Ofsted – in the vanguard of this new authoritarianism within education – it’s been there for a while;  I remember, the last time I was subjected to Ofsted, being asked to provide an example of where governors had overturned an executive decision, as though a display of hierarchical power was a good thing in itself, and conversely governance by consensus and dialogue must be weak in some way.

Now that display of compliance is being written into law, though, perhaps we should really start to worry about the state of our democracy.




Harris, Habermas & Hirst on the way forward for the social democratic left

John Harris’ piece on the scale of the crisis facing social democratic parties like Labour is not bad at all.  It’s the first journalistic piece post-election that I have seen which moves beyond whiny plaints about the need for Labour to reconnect, and at least hints what we might actually start to do:

Campaigning for child benefit, for example, began in 1917, thanks to Eleanor Rathbone, an independent MP from Liverpool. A semi-independent offshoot of the board of education began lobbying for the raising of the school leaving age to 15 in 1926.Meanwhile, John Maynard Keynes was blazing a trail away from austerity, and there was a cacophony about a whole range of other subjects, from nutrition to new towns.

I can just about imagine some latter day version of all this – it might encompass everything from Mumsnet through Britain’s churches, what remains of progressive academia, and out into single-issue campaigns that can these days acquire momentum at speed. It would also push the centre-left’s lamentably economistic agenda into places in which it is too uncomfortable: loneliness, family breakdown, an obvious crisis in masculinity, the return of hunger to our towns and cities, and more. The trouble is, I cannot imagine most of the Labour elite having either the wit or humility to get involved.

Well yes, the whiny tone returns in the last sentence, but the idea that we might be the agents of our own change – and that the Labour party is not the only vehicle for progress – is a step forward.

It reminds me, in fact, of the concluding chapter of Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (pdf) which, though now more than 50 years old, remains probably the greatest analysis of emerging crisis of social democracy.  Habermas’ key focus in the chapter is on the degradation of the public sphere from its high point in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and what this has done to the electoral process:

Ideally the [the nineteenth century] vote was only the concluding act of a continuous controversy carried out publicly between argument and counterargument (p.212)…….

As a rule [come the twentieth century], precisely those who are most decisively predisposed to avoid a public opinion formed by discussion are the ones most likely to be influenced in their views – but this time by the staged or manipulatively manufactured public sphere of the election campaign (p.214)

That’s UKIP, that is, benefiting from the collapse of public debate, and the rise of political messaging.

But like John, Juergen sees the solution in the recreation of a modern public sphere, operating beyond the boundaries of those institutions, like Labour, currently trapped by the need to kowtow to a public opinion manufactured for the electoral cycle, in a closed loop.  The way forward says Habermas is that:

Under the condition of the large, democratic social welfare state, the communicative interconnectedness of  a public can be brought about only in this way: through a critical publicity brought to life within intraorganisational public spheres, the completely short-circuited circulation of quasi-public opinion must be linked to the informal domain of the hitherto nonpublic opinions (p.249-250).

I’d go further than John, and argue that a ‘Habermasian’ public sphere comprising a better educated public creating their own areas of argument, can be most effectively recreated in 21st century modernity by the deliberate, indeed provocative, formation of associational institutions which challenge assumptions about the state’s right to impose itself “via an essentially plebiscitarian legitimation for….legislative actions against independent associations in civil society” (Paul Hirst, The Pluralist Theory of the State p.19).  Such institutions, the genesis and function of which I outline here, are preferable to Mumsnet et. al in that they combine public discourse with active challenge to the status quo.

John doesn’t get as far as he might, and he does fall back into the post-election “someone else’s fault” default whine. Nevertheless, it’s good to see at least one member of the leftie commentariat getting beyond the blandness of who we need as next Labour leader.

How to win elections: mark II

The most obvious way (though arguably not the best way) to win power in a liberal democracy is to win elections. Nationally, Labour have not been doing very well at that of late. So as I appear to be quite good at it, I thought I’d offer a few tips.

The bare facts in support of my credibility:

1) On Thursday I won a council seat from a Conservative in a leafy farming area of Lancashire and became the first ever Labour councillor for the ward, again.  I say again because I won it for the first time in 2007, before standing down in 2011 for family and work reasons, at which point the Tories regained the seat by 40 votes from a last-minute Labour candidate that no-one knew and was not local (I won’t cover the personal details that made this late candidature occur).

2) On Thursday, I won the seat on an election expense in the order of £15, this being five reams of A4 paper from ASDA and an ink cartridge.  I kept cost down by printing on ‘fast normal’ setting.  I canvassed no houses and did not go out on my ward on election day, as I has no canvass data.  I leafleted around 90% of the houses, though work meant I didn’t get to quite a few of them until the day before the election.

Now, I’m a scruffy, paunchy middle-aged bloke with quite bad teeth.   Earlier half-hearted attempts to climb up the political hierarchy by becoming, in turn, an MEP and a PCC, failed dismally at longlisting stage because, although my CV is ok, I’m fairly inarticulate and just don’t ‘present’ well.

So that’s not what won the seat.

What won the seat, people have told me in the last couple of days, is something close to what Nora demands:

The people of this country don’t demand politicians who agree with every last part off their world view. The vast majority of people don’t demand ideological purity of the left/right/liberal/conservative/secular/religious/and-so-on variety – what they want is something far more achievable, far more reasonable: respect. Not of the ‘when I see a white van’ variety, but a genuine respect that is borne of familiarity, understanding and yes, even affection, for the way they live their lives.

It’s a bit more than that though.  I won because I help organise stuff that needs doing, but without wearing a shiny “Look at me, I’m Labour and I’m a caring community organiser” badge on.  I don’t think there’s any point in the last 10 years that, when turning up to get stuff done, I’ve mentioned my Labourness.  But in the end, when I shoved my badly printed leaflet through people’s letterbox, enough people thought something like: “Ah yes, Paul.  The one with the bike.  I don’t give a monkey’s about politics, but he’s ok.”

This, it seems to me, is pretty well the opposite of most orchestrated Labour campaigning.  In all such campaigns that I’ve seen, the subject matter is almost an irrelevance.  The real purpose is Voter ID, mixed with a false-looking effort to show how much Labour cares about “hardworking families”.

People aren’t stupid.  They get what you’re after, and if it’s you’re just after their vote, it may well make it less likely that you’ll get it, not more.

So my bit of advice, as a winner?   All politics is local, even at constituency scale.  Just do stuff.  Throw away the Labour stickers.  Stick the Voter ID sheets in the shredder.  Come election time, if people know what you’ve been up to, they’ll vote for you.  If not, they won’t.

Here’s my election leaflet.  It’s 8 pages of text, saying what I’d done and what I’ll try and organise now.  People tell me they actually sat down and read it.


From a politics of consumption to a politics of production

May 7, 2015 5 comments

On twitter, TV journalist Laura Kuenssberg has some advice for all parties on what they need to do during the next parliament:

More importantly HUGE Qs for all established parties after vote – they all need new ways of getting people to listen, or indeed listening

I don’t care about other mainstream parties, but when it comes to Labour I think this advice is quite wrong.

A politics based on ever better communication expertise is a politics of oblivion for Labour, at least in the long term.   It is a politics of concession:  we hear that people want to be tougher on “benefit cheats”, so that is what we seek to give, and seek to tell the voters we are giving.  It is a self-reinforcing drift away from socialist values, a drift in which those most distanced or alienated from the benefits of capitalism get to suffer more, in order to soothe the furrowed brows of those who think they belong.  It is also a politics of diminishing returns, in which voters become ever harder to satisfy.

We don’t need a retail politics, in which the ever diminishing number of consumers is always right.  We need a producer politics, in which the product can be sold badly but – because it’s the best product available – still sells in big numbers.

A politics of production is also a politics of organisation.  First and foremost, this means the producers of public services coming together – in a thing called the labour movement – and organising themselves to create better products.    In a managerial system, there will be attempts to put a stop to this, because it offends managerial culture, and narrow interest, to suggest that the producers know a better way of doing things.

So a key facet of a new politics of  production will be the organisation of quality assurance and continuous improvement processes (inclusive of service-user co-production) will be the establishment/rejuvenation of institutions like Trade Unions Councils and Foundation Trusts, which develop a legitimacy first parallel to managerial systems (e.g. Ofsted, CQC) and then exceeding them.

This is THE big challenge for the left in the next couple of years, without which there will be little substantive progress. It is a challenge to which a post-election left, reunited in a post-asuterity surge, can embrace, because it already has many of the organisational elements in place – they’ve just been pointed in at each other, not out at the real world. I have written about this already.

Next, the challenge will be to expand on the concept of what a public service is, and to organise these institution of parallel legitimacy out towards them.  We will need to organise out beyond the confines of traditional public services, and into those services which are there to serve the public – transport, then retail, then – of course – banking.

If the Labour party does not accustom itself to a new politics of organisation and production – with all its messiness, conflict, and localism – then it is on a slippery slope with the other parties.  If it does – if it is able to let go of its centralising, managerial tendencies and embrace its part within the labour movement – then it can go forward with confidence.

This post largely defines the post-managerial mission (or is it vision?) for the Though Cowards Flinch blog in the next couple of years.  The outcome of the election will change the scale of the challenge, but it will not change its nature.

Contributions around how we organise for production and co-production of public services, in their ever widening sense, are welcome.   Contact me at @bickerrecord if you have something useful to say.



The coming unintended consequence of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011

April 30, 2015 2 comments

With Labour a) likely to be in a better position than the Tories to form a government after May 7th; and b) ruling out any kind of binding deal with the SNP or the Libdems, and insteaf looking to govern on an informal supply & confidence basis, the very real prospect of extreme constitutional silliness hoves into view.

This is nothing to do with who gets first dibs on trying to form a government, on which we can be pretty clear, or on Scottish Independence.  It is to do with the unintended consequences of the hurriedly pass Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, and specifically Section 2 of the Act, which covers the two ways early elections can come about.

The first way is simple enough.  A two thirds majority votes for an early election, and it happens.

The second way is this (simplifying the order of the paras. slightly for ease of reading):

An early parliamentary general election is also to take place if—

(a) the House of Commons passes a motion in the form: That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.

(b) the period of 14 days after the day on which that motion is passed ends without the House passing a motion in the form: That this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.

It doesn’t take a parliamentary rocket scientist to foresee what will happen.   The SNP, under pressure to get deals done and be shown to be delivering for Scotland, can hold Labour’s feet in the fire by agreeing with the Tories that the motion at a) should be proposed to the House, and then watching the 14 days tick away.  We move quickly into a world of brinkmanship, with Labour and the SNP (or alternatively the LibDems) trying not to be the one to blink first.

Is past-midnight poker the best model for government?  I suspect not.  As and when this starts to happen, remember who brought us the Fixed Term Parliament Act in the first place.

Categories: General Politics, Law

Instituting the democratic reconnection

April 30, 2015 Leave a comment

Ed Miliband has been trying to reconnect with the portion of the British public which does not think that the current democratic institutions  are legitimate.  He may or may get credit, in for the form of votes for Labour candidates, for (as Phil says) “tentatively stepping beyond the remit of representative politics”, but I suspect an in interview with Russell Brand is not going to achieve any substantial, longer term change in how people view the legitimacy or otherwise of the overall body politic.

So what might restore trust in our democratic institutions?  And, as importantly, how might such restoration of trust benefit Labour, the party which exists to further the interests of the working class? [1]

This recent paper from Carolina Johnson provides, based on analysis of individual-level data from the UK Citizenship survey, suggests that the best approach may be to get people participating, not in the electoral process – which is where Miliband’s argument with Russell Brand gets to – but in any form of “collective activity directly producing or determining public services and political outcomes in their communities” (her shorthand for this is “civic participation” [2]).   Her central finding is that:

People who report greater participation in any of a range of local public decision-making activities report a greater sense of influence in government decision-making and allocate stronger importance to the values of democratic process. This relationship is independent of whether respondents are satisfied with local
government outcomes and of traditional predictors of efficacy such as education, race and class.

Of course, civic participation and the valuing of democratic processes is likely to be a two-way, or self-reinforcing mechanism, and the author acknowledges that the strong correlation she finds is not direct evidence of causation.   Nevertheless, the finding that “the change in predicted attitudes for a 1-unit increase in civic participation, whether at low or moderate levels, is statistically equivalent regardless of contextual demographics (education level, participation in non-civic activity) does suggest that there is something about civic participation specifically which enhances people’s legitimation of broader democratic processes.

Personally, I think there’s a lot of cause-effect going on.   Having spent more years than I care to remember at the heart of one form of ‘civic participation’ or another – community agitation and organising for “public services and political outcomes” in the parts of life political parties don’t (currently) reach is what I do – it seems fairly obvious that when people organise stuff together, the mish-mash of learning and confidence (aka “social capital”) that this, allied to a realisation that just standing and shouting at people who are organising themselves is a) not as much fun; b) not as effective,  feeds into a wider grasp of and interest in democratic processes.  The other word for this is ’empowerment’ [3].

It’s not just me, though.  In the mid-2000s at least, some key actors in New Labour/Milibandism understood all this stuff, and seemed committed to it.  Stella Creasy, for example, got the dangers of sham public engagement (pdf):

There is a danger in the current vogue for public engagement that confusion over methods and motivations on the part of both the public and politicians could quickly corrode the willingness of all to participate, much to the detriment of our democracy and society.

Done well, public participation can not only enrich our democracy by helping strengthen accountability for decision making, it can also encourage and empower our citizens to work with the state and each other to meet the challenges of our time. (p.2)

So why are Labour not now reaping the benefits of being seen, by the hitherto disaffected, as a more legitimate part of the overall body politic than the Tories, or UKIP or the SNP?  If New Labour got it in 2007, where did it all go wrong?   Why does a Labour PPC in this election still feel bound to lament thus?

You see, it’s our fault.  The reason Ukip are here and doing so well is because of the political elite and the powers that be ignoring the mostly working-class communities who in their droves are saying they will vote for a party that for all intend [sic] and purposes is a parody of itself.

The answer to these two questions are, I think, also twofold.  First, the reason the SNP and UKIP currently have the advantage when it comes to looking like a party intent on re-legitimizing democracy is less that they are actively enabling it, and more that the people now attracted to them feel as though they are engaged in a useful form of civic participation.   To a great extent, this is an internet/social media phenomenon – the rise of the Cybernat and the UKIP troll is a feature of the current surge – and it will wane in time, with further deleterious consequences for democratic legitimacy. [4]

Second, and returning to Labour’s role in the creation of the democratic deficit in the first place, the insights and efforts at encouraging civic participation in the mid-2000s were so suffocated by New Labour’s enduring managerial operational code that they simply never stood chance.  Ironically, for example, the words from Stella Creasy above are from a pamphlet written by experts and MPs, with a foreword from Secretary of State for Communities Hazel  Blears which celebrates of the passing of the enormous Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act (2007).  This Act gave, amongst other things, detailed direction on how and when the public needed to be engaged in the state’s public policy planning, and was therefore the opposite of what was needed to facilitate genuine civic participation.

But if Labour is willing to learn from last time round, there is still a chance that it can be part of the solution to the democratic deficit, by fostering – or in some cases simply by not getting in the way of – new approaches to civic participation.

I have written before about how such civic renewal might come about. In particular, I’ve written about how the initial impetus might come from a new organising coalition of like-minded Labour party members, trade unionists and people emerging, battered & bruised but better organisationally skilled for all that, from what I’ve called broadly the anti-austerity movement.   As a new focus for organisational efforts in a somewhat more conducive fiscal environment, this informal coalition will be well placed both to populate existing institutions of local civic participation and to build on labour movement traditions in the forging of new ones.

In terms of existing institutions, I’m thinking of Foundation Trust memberships, Healthwatches,  school bodies, town and parish councils and more.  In terms of new ones, I’m thinking particularly of the potential to rejuvenate Trades Union Councils, with additional service user engagement, very much in the model set out in 2007 by Dave Prentis (p. 113, pdf), when Unison was more outlooking than it is now.   But with both existing and new the focus should, I suggest, be on the development of robust democratic processes which, over time, come to have a local legitimacy parallel and then exceeding the managerial institutions developed imposed during the Thatcher/Labour years.

Just as one example of what I mean by parallel legitimacy, the local ‘Trades Council’ could challenge the legitimacy of a school Ofsted inspection which seeks to place a school in special measures (and that often means the forced exit of the headteacher), in favour of a locally agreed action plan for school improvement, including better resourcing and an agreed plan for community input and involvement.  As another example, the same Trades Council may decide that it wants to call in the council Chief Executive to respond to findings it has generated from its own investigation that child protection processes are not sufficiently strength- and community-based enough, because of enduring de-professionalisation of the workforce.  The Chief Executive will, as local legitimacy grows, know that s/he should pay as much attention to this call to account as s/he would to a centrally generated one.

Such developments will, of necessity, be locally driven – indeed it is up to organisers and activists in localities to determine what is local.  This builds on existing traditions of local organisation, and all the Labour part needs to do is to not get in the way, though celebrating this new brand of bottom- up civic participation will not go amiss.  Labour will benefit politically by osmosis, as people come to see that the party is onside, but no longer seeking to dominate and stifle.   National assemblies, we might then expect to see, will become less rally and preach-to-the-converted, more sharing of good practice.

Of course, such new/remodelled institutions of civic participation will not, initially at least, engage those most disaffected, and here, there may be a more pro-active role for a Labour-led government, if it able to throw off its managerialist shackles.  Another example: Sure Start’s original mission under New Labour mark-1997 was to empower low-income parents via a process of civic participation, and there are some great examples of this having happened.  Sadly, much of this early institutional progress was swept away from 2001 onwards, as the Sure Start programme strove for a universality of service which was never needed at the expense of a community development approach that was.

Labour’s job should now be to a) accept that it got it wrong from 2001; b) reinvest in such models, particularly through the re-professionalization of social work (aka putting the social back in social work) [5] [6]

If Labour is to get serious about reconnecting with the disconnected working class, it needs to get beyond Youtube as the communication method, think through what institutions help people connect to democracy, and allow the space for these institutions to develop.  Ed Miliband’s at least showing willing, but he needs help from the rest of us.


[1] What I mean by this is that may be counter-productive to the interests of the working class if a surge in trust in democratic institutions is of benefit only to the traditional parties of capitalism.

[2] Its worth being clear on what she does and doesn’t include within the definition of civic participation:

‘Civic participation’ thus excludes a number of actions commonly considered part of political participation more broadly: electoral activity such as voting and partisan campaigning
and lobbying of officials or politicians, as well as voluntary non-political social activity such as organizing or joining bowling clubs, volunteering with under-privileged
youth, writing a letter to the editor, or choosing to buy fair trade products. Activities that would be considered civic participation include attending an open public meeting on a
local development plan, becoming a member of a neighborhood association, serving as a member of a school’s board of governors, participating in local government consultation or focus groups, or participating in a survey about potential policies.

[3] The same processes are at work when it comes to working effectively with disaffected learners.  There’s plenty of evidence (pdf) from what’s become known as ‘character and resilience-building programmes that the best way to re-engage young people in education is through a process of participation and empowerment similar which enables them to relegitimate the role of learning (and within that teachers and school institutions).

[4] I accept the SNP surge may last longer than UKIP’s because it is more grounded in genuine civic participation activities.

[5] Again, it’s handy to look back at the Dave Prentis model of this (p.115, pdf):

Some of the most exciting innovations on this front are being led by public servants who work with users at greatest risk of exclusion or marginalisation.

For example:
— Social workers developing new citizen-based approaches to supporting vulnerable clients through a focus on self-help, campaigning and community action
— Modern mental health nursing, which is built on “therapeutic alliances” in which those suffering from mental health problems take a proactive role in finding their own route to recovery
— Carers developing new models of social care that place user participation at the centre of professional practice

[6] Compare also the Lankelly Chase Foundation’s new programme of support for workers working on the frontline with the most disadvataged. This programme, although it comes from a different tradition of social action, ends up sounding very similar in its aspiration to the Dave Prentis call for frontline staff expertise to be taken seriously as a route to genuine civic engagement:

Those working at the frontline with some of the most vulnerable people in the country are often under-heard, under-resourced and over-stretched. They can see the ways in which with the system that they are working in needs to change so it can work better for those it’s trying to serve, but rarely have the time or the space to really think about – and champion – alternative approaches and solutions.

As a response to this, LankellyChase, in association with The Point People, have developed the Systems Changers programme – the first of its kind in the UK. Systems Changers will serve as a way to amplify the insight of frontline workers supporting those facing severe and multiple disadvantage, and will be an investment in these workers, enabling them to develop their voice, their collective knowledge and their influence on a wider system.




The Drucker prophecy

April 28, 2015 Leave a comment

HM Drucker’s  (1979) in his Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party:

Since Labour’s ethos emanates from a specific past one may ask what the implications of this task are for the future…….Labour cannot be simpliciter a party of the future.  Such a possibility may be available to a radical social democratic party.  It is not possible for the historic Labour party.  The attempt by Crosland in his The Future of Socialism (happy title) (1956) to condemn Labour’s tendency to cling to the principles of its past is futile.  Any attempt to redefine goals for future action must always be seen to be strictly consonant with the past.

A second implication is that Labour’s support can be eroded by a general change of consciousness.  If the ties of class-consciousness are weakened, then Labour is threatened.  If Labour comes to be seen as an increasingly middle-class organisation, it could lose its support even if its supporters remained class-conscious. ….Class consciousness, as a historical fact, is obviously endangered by changes external to it.    Gaitskell saw prosperity as one such threat. Nationalism is another – one whose power is more real in the 1970s than would have been foreseen in the late 1950s.  As Scottish and Welsh working people have come to identify themselves as Scots or Welshmen first and workers second, Labour loses their support to nationalist parties.  As this happens, one witnesses an exchange of one past for another as the new choice comes to appear more vivid. If in future elections Labour loses parliamentary seats as a result. it will be paying a high price for the loss of class-identity (p.39, my emphasis).


So strong are the old assumptions that the import of the weakening of the two-party system have only just begun to sink home.  The belief that Britain is inevitably a two-party country is deep-seated, and there is a strong inclination to treat any deviation as either or minor or temporary. This inclination  still predominates in the Labour Party.  These attitudes would be shattered, however. if future Labour leaders were forced to negotiate a formal coalition with the leaders of other parties….

The collective popularity of the Liberals, Scottish and Welsh Nationalist, the Irish parties and the National Front is considerable and will not disappear…..

We may, I think, further speculate that in the emerging multi-party world each party will need a strong core of support most of all – not a majority or a near majority of voters.  And at the same time it will have less need for its doctrinaires and policy-writers, for in a multi-party world the manifestos of the parties will be but bargaining-counters which will be traded for Cabinet seats by the party leaders after each election. This, at the same time as Labour’s doctrines are reveled as threadbare, those ho write them are losing their usefulness in the party. Labour, with its solid support in the trade union movement and its ideology securely founded on the ethos of trade unions, ought to be able to play the new multi-party game to advantage (p.119-120).


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