A couple of days go I suggested that rather than clamour for legislation to ban zero hour contracts, which I suggested might have unintended negative consequences, the left might better come to the aid of exploited workers by organising:
In the end, Labour might be better off doing the hard yards on the re-unionisation of the labour force – something I’ve argued may be a positive outcome from Miliband’s recent forays, whether or not it’s intended – rather than the easy but narrow legislative victories still redolent of New Labour’s approach to state management**.
Because I brought to bear my own experience as a zero hour contract employer*, I received the fully anticipated colourful abuse, principally from people who had only read as far as Tom Watson’s kind retweet.
So it’s with a certain degree of satisfaction that I see UNITE apparently in full agreement with my position. In the press release accompanying research conducted on their behalf into the rise in zero hour contracts, UNITE make no call for legislation to outlaw zero hour contracts. Instead, they call for a sensible package of measures. Of these, the most important of these (since many of the other protections would follow fro m it is:
A restoration of sector level collective bargaining to stop the ‘race to the bottom’ in ‘vulnerable’ sectors including social care, hospitality, retail, food and logistics.
This is precisely what the unions, and Labour, should be campaigning for/putting in the manifesto. From effective collective bargaining** follows the potential (though according to Chris only the potential) for wage-led growth as well as direct job security. And of course wage growth creates its own job security over time, irrespective on contractual niceties.
None of this, I repeat for the hard of thinking, is to defend the abuse of zero hour contracts. It is simply to suggest that the UNITE leadership has its collective head screwed on, and that the actually understand something about employment. It’s a shame some in the party are currently keen to suggest otherwise.
* Social enterprise, I’m totally unpaid, sick and holiday pay in contracts, blah blah, I point out for those doubting my ethics/parentage, though that really wasn’t the point of the initial post.
**In the public sector, or private-contracted-by-public sector, this often works best by a two stage process of union to employer pressure, then employers pressuring the government for more resources. I was involved n the detail as a union steward in the 1980s.
There are some painfully stupid comment pieces this evening on the most recent development in the Falkirk saga, namely the reinstatement in the party of two party members following internal investigation. Those piece can broadly be put into groups:
a) I told you Unite had done nothing wrong, and now Ed Miliband must apologise t Unite/Tom Watson (Labour left and the non-Labour left);
b) I told you Ed Miliband was weak, and his backing down like this proves it (Blairite rump and the Tory-lite press);
There’s is, though, a common theme running through the two seemingly opposing viewpoints: what I’ll call the leadership fetish. That’s the strange idea that Ed Miliband was always omiscient and calculating about what had been going on in a local party unit 450 miles from London, and that he’s therefore either guilty of cynical manipulation as a means to “get” the unions, or of bottling his attempt to “get” them.
Of course, anyone with any iota of sense, not to mention understanding of the dynamics of small local parties (where personal and clan loyalties often take precedence over/fuse with political stance) will know that it won’t have been like that all. Instead, it’ll have been the usual mix of half-truths, back of the envelope strategic calculations, botched press release, currying favour for reasons quite separate to the matter in hand, and general incompetence and knackeredness.
But what really interests me, and actually perturbs me a little, is the idea implicit in both sides’ versions, that omniscient Ed should have taken a view on whether or not to order an investigation on the basis of his prior judgment of the likely outcome.
This comes across most clear in the weak Miliband version of events e.g. from Michael Crick:
Good timing by Labour on Falkirk – 5pm on Friday while pol journalists at G20. No doubt they hope we’ll ignore their extraordinary climbdown
In what way, I wondered as I read this, could an investigation followed by an exoneration, be considered a “climbdown”.
More importantly, are Crick and others like him therefore implying that the only way Miliband can prove he is a strong leader is for him to ensure that whenever there’s an internal investigation, the accused should be found guilty?
For myself, I’d leave a party like Crick’s ideal party like a shot, because the quid pro quo for accepting party the principle of party discipline is that the party, at least in principle, should it exert it fairly and without predetermination. That is, a party seeking to display strength by way of show trials Is not my kind of party.
As it is, I’m staying in Labour. HQ has handled Falkirk pretty poorly – that’s fairly clear – but I prefer a party that can make itself look a bit stupid from time to time than one that resorts to the methods of Stalin to enforce unity. But this little incident is a reminder that dictatorial methods are not simply delivered by dictators on a helpless public; an atomised public and its fetish-worshipping media can be just a little bit too inviting of those methods.
I employ 8 people on zero hours contracts, and I’m reasonably proud of that fact. Thus, when well-intentioned, influential leftie types like Tom Watson start the rallying call for the total outlawing of what I’ve been doing for about 8 years now, effectively branding my an exploitative bastard, I feel compelled to speak out in my defence.
A little background: I run***, with two fellow Directors though I make a lot of the running, a small social enterprise in the childcare and parenting support field – that is, to the outside it looks like a bog-standard but small nursery/after school club, but what happens in it is more than that because we have a social enterprise mission blah blah.
A few years ago, when I did employee contracts, like most small employers I didn’t reinvent the wheel, but used a template provided by the Pre-School Learning Alliance, effectively our trade body. This was a zero hours template.
And those contracts have worked just fine ever since. As a social enterprise taking on the challenge of addressing “market failure” i.e. providing services at much lower economies of scale than the commercial ‘big boys’ would even consider, we’ve had to shift work patterns over time as demand for our services has changed – to do otherwise would have made us financially unviable. Doing this with zero hour contract has meant that we’ve not needed to engage in formal consultation processes. But it’s also meant that our staff have been able to change their hours to suit their own life and work duties easily and flexibly. It doesn’t always happen entirely smoothly, but there’s goodwill on both sides, and it’s happened in a way which has cut down significantly on cumbersome management processes which actually get in the way of iterations and knock-ons (to other people’s hours) needed to find answers.
My point, though, is wider than one of self-justification for a contract-style now officially reviled by the left. Indeed, in order to avoid any future suspicions about our motives, I’m looking at updating contracts to the “permanent-variable” kind, but this won’t have any effect on the way we actually run things. The wider point is about tools in the right and wrong hands, and the tendency to focus on the tools, not the hands wielding them, in a way which does a disservice in the long run to those the left is supposed to be serving. It’s also, ultimately, about the ineffectiveness of state power when it comes to tackling capital-labour relations.
Take the exploitative bastards down at Sports Direct or McDonalds, for example. Introduce a zero hour contract ban, and before that ban is even through, their human resource people will have found a way round it. This might be the introduction of the one hour contract, alongside an enhanced mechanism for weeding out the ones who won’t comply. It might be something else more creative. But I’m afraid it’s fanciful to think that legislation of the type envisaged will lead to an overall increase in wage packets, even though the use of the zero hour contract has been a handy way to decrease them). But at the same time such legislation would potentially harm a non-profit business like mine, or put paid to some ‘sweat equity’ style businesses in which people without the wherewithal to take actual equity in a small panel beating start-up, for example, are happy to work for their mate Dave on the basis of a zero hours contract alongside some other work, in a way where both parties gain in what is, in human but not contractual terms, a joint enterprise. (Of course this can go wrong – read Roddy Doyle on burger vans for that – but that’s another matter.)
More fundamentally, this focus by the left on its use of legislation, when it happens to be in power, to bring about good things for the workers, can be an active though unconscious hindrance to the “real” job on the left of combatting the power of capital through the more effective tool at our disposal – solidarity (whether that’s in the form of latent/actual labour withdrawal or via co-ops/social enterprise). While it’s an unpopular idea, I still think* it’s reasonable to see the 1998 National Minimum Wage (NMW) as having been detrimental to workers in the long run, though its short term benefits were clear; witness the way in which the NMW has become the standard, not the minimum, in much low paid work.
In the end, Labour might be better off doing the hard yards on the re-unionisation of the labour force – something I’ve argued may be a positive outcome from Miliband’s recent forays, whether or not it’s intended – rather than the easy but narrow legislative victories still redolent of New Labour’s approach to state management**.
* I accept that I’ve never got round to researching the empirical evidence for the counter-factual assertions I made about this in my (correctly contested) 2009 post.
** See also, if you can be arsed, this post of mine at Labourlist on Labour’s currently theory-only aspiration to facilitate “a relational state”, also drawing on my micro-experience.
*** [update note] As I’m receiving a fair bit of personal abuse on twitter for this post, I’ll add that I and the other two directors are entirely unpaid, s set in out in our company constitution as Co Ltd by Guarantee without Shares. I didn’t put it in before as it’s not relevant to issue at hand.
As I’ve noted, no one at all in the mainstream media or blog commentariat , left or right, seems to have any idea what Labour’s emerging economic policy actually is. This is largely, I suspect, because there are two types of media commentator or blogger – those who do specific policy, and those who do politics. The fact that Labour’s economics lies somewhere in between makes it very tricky for them. Even academics seem to struggle with this level of complexity. This is, perhaps, unsurprising, because I’m not sure even those who are actively in charge of developing Labour’s overall programme properly understand what’s going on. And that includes Miliband.*
So as I try to keep up both with Labour policy development and with how it presents it politicially, I’ll try to help, putting it as simply as I can.
1. The Labour hierarchy accept that they cannot argue for additional spending on an overtly Keynesian basis, even though some of them (especially Balls, I suspect) would like to. They accept that they cannot simply talk about spending our way to recovery, because they then become too easy ”same old Labour” target.
2. Around eighteen months ago, the emergence of seemingly respectable body of thought, principally in the form of In the Black Labour, seemed to offer the Labour leadership a way forward. Although it was was painfully thin on detail about how social justice and fiscal conservatism might actually be melded in practice, it sounded good in theory, and the leadership stated to talk up ‘hard choices’ and the like. Austerity-lite was born.
3. But as the more serous work about what social policy under Labour might actually look like, it quickly became clear that a fiscal conservatism in which every investment had to be matched by a saving somewhere else simply didn’t wash. The pretty obvious reality – that it costs money to improve things – started to hit home. so, for example, IPPR’s report on childcare started out as an attempt to work out how European levels and standard of childcare could be delivered by juggling current budgets, and ended up acknowledging that an additional investment of £5-7bn per year will be needed.
6. Thus started the shift from an exercise in balanced budgeting - essentially the same as the Conservatives’ process bar the odd redistribution tweak – to the emergence of investment-based budgeting, In which deficit spending (though it must never be called that) is justified on policy initiatives as long as there is evidence of payback in the longer term; capital projects are still preferred, because they are easier to sell as investments, but revenue is ok if it can be justified in these terms. So, for example, Twigg is now all for a big school refurbishment programme when Labour come to power, but there are also hints of additional revenue spending.
7. By early 2015, this budgeting exercise will be done, department by department. Spending promises will be made in ye olde Labour style, but always with the evidence rebuttal ready to hand when the Tories demand to know how we’ll pay for it. “Because it will save us money on such in such in so and so many years, will be the ready-to-roll answer.”
Am I happy with this approach? No, not excactly., but not principally because it fails to confront the Tories and the media on the one basic economic falsehood – that there’s a danger of bankruptcy if we spend too much. That argument was lost by Labour – largely because it didn’t turn yup for the fight – some time ago, and winning the rematch would be much harder.
I’m not even that concerned by the lack of space within this piece-by-policy-pieced budgeting process to address simple economic facts around the need to drive up wages as a key to cementing recovery, and that the way to push that through fastest is via the public and third sector initially – there is still time for that to be resolved (at least in the second year of government).
What concerns me more are the unintended consequences of a budgeting process which takes, as its principal criterion for whether something is funded, the question of whether it will produce a saving to the public purse in the long run. For here lie the seeds of a rampant managerialism which will put even New Labour’s target mania in the shade**. Here, whole groups of people – the unemployed, teenagers, the elderly, those who live in Dpncaster, those who don’t have a train station – are defined by the extent to which they are a burden on the state, rather than on what obligations the state has to them. And when you’re defined by the state’s experts as part of the problem, it’s not likely to end well.**
There are big problems with Labour’s economic policy, but lack of it isn’t one of them. And it’s still better than the Tories’.
* Sunny’s re-headlining of my earlier piece for cross-posting was misleading in this respect. I did not suggest that Miliband had a completely thought through plan; I was merely saying that he has managied the messy process fairly adeptly so far.
** Behind this unintended managerialism lies Labour’s greatest organisational failure; the failure to grasp the importance of policy implementation over and above policy making, and to recognise that what is implemented is always and necessarily at variance with policy as set from above. I explored this at length some years ago, In a well-received essay. And behind this failure, of course, lies the control of policymaking power by a narrow section of the party which has no understanding of the real dynamcis of labour – a problem for which the only real solution is the radical democratisation of the labour movement, which the leadership can either assist, or be subjected to. Their choice.
*** You could be forgiven for forgetting, in this brave new world, that Amartya Sen and his focus on capabilities was all the rage just three years ago.
Jim Pickard, Chief Political Correspondent at the FT has an inadvertently [see update] interesting and amusing article up, in which he seeks to endorse the commentariat view that Ed Miliband is in crisis of leadership time:
Ed Miliband’s attempt to revive his flatlining poll position with a “cost of living” relaunch on Wednesday was overshadowed by a protester armed with a handful of eggs – and voters who endorsed recent criticism of his leadership.
Jim bases this ‘overshadowed’ analysis on selected comments from three people at Miliband’s walkabout (Jim calls them an ‘ad hoc focus group’, presumably as some kind of office bet about how far he can stretch the concept of research methodology). Two of the respondents say they’d like to hear more concrete policy from Labour.
For Jim, that’s bad news for Miliband, and handily confirms the commentariat view that Miliband is in trouble.
For me, it’s good news.
It suggests* Labour’s strategy to open up the pre-conference media space is working pretty well.
Ask yourself: would these two people have asked for more clarity on Labour’s policies before the Andy Burnham interview and the ensuing media reaction – a reaction that includes Jim ad-hocking his focus group to explore just this issue? Probably not. Last week they might, if you believe the media narrative, not even have known who Miliband was. Now they’re keen to hear what he has to say. As I said the other day,
Labour have simply reached for the old political play book: demand an answer on something that’s well within your power to deliver, get the media and the public to echo that demand, and then deliver on it, making clear that you’re responding to the call of the public. I was told that on my first day as leader of my local Labour group by the ex-leader (I was never any good at it, mind).
None of this changes the researched-to-death-but-ignored-by-the-commentariat fact that few people will actually remember any detail of the policy proposals the same commentariat demanded on their behalf, but it does allow Miliband’s team more airtime than they would have got otherwise.
* Of course we don’t know how Jim elicited these comments. If his questioning was open (e.g. “What do you think of Ed Miliband”) and two of the three responded about the need for concrete policy, that would suggest a more direct impact on their openness to Miliband’s coming messages. If It was closed (e.g. Do you think Miliband needs to offer more concrete policies?”), that would suggest any such openness is still being heavily mediated by the media at a secondary level.
[Update: Jim's been in touch to say he used the phrase 'ad hoc focus group' "somewhat ironically", so I am happy to withdraw my suggestion that the piece is "inadvertently" amusing. He meant to amuse me.
In a long piece, John Harris informs us that it’s all going wrong for Labour:
Labour is belatedly trying to make the running on the crisis in people’s living standards. Policy-wise, there has been talk of building new houses, putting young unemployed people back to work, coming down hard on profiteering energy firms, and more. The problem is that all this has not yet cohered into a consistent and primary-coloured message that can cut through such clunky Labour promises as “a recovery made by the many” (whatever that is).
Elsewhere, Mark Ferguson complains that activists are being “sent onto the doorstep” without a clear message. (No-one sends me. I go of my own accord.)
All this and more fits neatly with the rightwing media’s seizure of the Burnham interview to portray Labour, and Miliband’s leadership, in crisis.
And it’s all utter tosh.
It’s perfectly logical to see the Burnham interview, not as an attack on Miliband, but as a carefully placed contribution, in collaboration with the leader’s office, aimed at clearing out some media space for the upcoming conference season, so that Miliband gets more of a hearing for the more concrete policy announcements around childcare, payday lending and the NHS that he will almost certainly make. Burnham makes the point that we need to firm up the policy offer. Miliband says that’s absolutely right, and does just that – the oldest win-win trick in politics.
More importantly though, the criticism of Labour’s failure to adopt many concrete proposals ignores, in its desperation to find fault with Miliband’s leadership, that coming out with concrete policy proposals 20 months before the election is not a very good way to win that election. That’s because the majority of voters, either because of memory decay or interference, simply don’t remember what those proposals were, even over the space of a few weeks,
While Miliband may be right to throw in a few firmed up proposals at conference just to prove that he can, it makes little sense to be offering up a firm programme for government. Much better to focus, albeit against a hostile media so with limited success, on the broad message – that the economic recovery may be underway, but not in a way from that most people will benefit from.
But what Miliband’s detractors also miss – either wilfully or stupidly – is the process he and his team are actually engaged in, which will pay dividends when the time comes to set out the policy ideas.
Here’s what this process boils down to:
1. Acknowledge that overall spending must be affordable in 2015 in order to give off the economic competence vibe;
2. But also stress that proper recovery requires investment;
3. Start with a focus on investment in physical infrastructure, which even the Tories now accept is needed;
4. Over time, subtly change the way the term infrastructure is defined, so that it becomes inclusive of ‘social infrastructure’ such as childcare (here’s Lucy Powell doing just that)
5. Develop careful cost-benefit analyses to work out what social infrastructure investments have an overall positive effect e.g. what £5-7bn per year on childcare will actually do to the economy;
All this is happening steadily, behind the scenes. As the months go by, it will be less and less behind the scenes. At the right time, it will all emerge as a carefully costed plan.
Now, of course I disagree with the overall strategy, which I would describe as In the Black Labour with Brains; I would much rather have seen an earlier, more explicit rejection of this need for overall fiscal balance, because even in the medium term fiscal balance in a properly functioning economy is simply not needed. But that required a political momentum the left as a whole lost in the 2010-11 period, and it’s silly to blame Miliband’s leadership for that.
And I also think the managerialist culture inherent in such IPPR-style cost-benefit approaches to the resolution of ‘social problems’ creates dangerous perversities, but that’s for another blogpost (see Stumbling and Mumbling for sense on this overlooked but important issue in socialist politics).
But within the parameters set both by the Labour leadership and the left as a whole,, Miliband’s getting his strategy, and his timing, spot on. It’s just a shame that John Harris and the others are so focused on Miliband’s leadership messaging and leadership qualities – largely an irrelevance at this stage - that they’ve not actually noticed the work that’s been going on.
A couple of weeks ago Ed Miliband gave what was branded a watershed speech, in which he sought use the Falkirk selection hoo-hah to kick-start a whole new approach to party-union relations, and ultimately to redevelop Labour as a mass membership party.
Why such an approach needed to be kick-started by events in a single parliamentary selection contest, rather than as part of the year long Refounding Labour process, which was all about redefining how Labour is run, need not detain us here. I’m happy to take Ed at face value, and to accept Ed’s explicit invitation to current members to give him ideas on how precisely he should go from principle to practice. I do so in the context of Ashcroft’s new polling of Unite members, which suggest that 12% of members would join the party if they were offered that ‘opt-in’ choice today.
So I’ve written to him. Here is what I said.
Thank you for the opportunity to have my say on a “better way of doing politics”, which is to be found here on the Labour party website, though I would note that it is not as easy to find on the site as it might be. Much of what I have to say to you actually builds on an earlier lengthy submission to the Refounding Labour process (see Section 5 in particular). My submission was ignored at the time, but it would seem that in the last week you have sought to push the party towards a position where my practical recommendations on steps to bring the party closer to ordinary people, and within them union members, might receive a better hearing. I am grateful for your having done that, and I hope my recommendations now enable you to build the case for the necessary rule changes over the next two Labour conferences.
My submission here focuses solely on your proposals around the financial relationship between the party, the affiliated unions and their members. While I have views on your proposals for primaries, I will set these out in a different submission.
Many commentators have noted that your proposals for an ‘opt-in’ system to replace the current ‘opt-out’ one (other than in Unison) is a high risk strategy, in that while it could recreate a genuine mass membership party, it could also lead to a large percentage of union members choosing not to opt in, leading to millions of pounds lost revenue for the party. Then, goes the argument, the party might be forced to go cap in hand to businesses (notwithstanding your proposals for a funding cap, about which there has been significant scepticism).
In addition, as Mark Ferguson at Labourlist has rightly pointed out, if all the party does is switch from an opt-out to an opt-in system, then we are indeed likely to lose millions. Today, Ashcroft publishes a snapshot poll of Unite members which appears to back this up – as it stands, and in the absence of any further ‘offer’ from Labour, only 12% of Unite members want to opt in.
There are two reasons for this current low potential take-up of the opt-in option.
First, there is the unpalatable but nonetheless true fact that a significant percentage of union members actively dislike the Labour party, and see no connection between their union membership and support for the party. There is strong argument that such a dislocation has been caused, at least in part, by the unions’ strategy of depoliticisation over the last 30 years, during which time the emphasis in everyday union activity has drifted from the role of representation to service provision (though of course unions have always “provided for” their members to a certain extent. While I hope the current process of drawing union members back within the political sphere will repoliticise workers in favour of Labour’s electoral position in the longer term, there is clearly a risk to the party’s finances in the meantime.
Second, even amongst those affiliate union members who are Labour supporters and voters, there is Olson’s ”collective action” problem i.e. the danger that, even people who support, or at least feel a bond to, the Labour party, will feel that the costs, both in terms of money and “hassle” of joining the Labour party outweigh the ’private member’ benefits of joining.
Towards the solution
Of course, Olson only considered two “solutions” to the collective action problem as applied, say, to membership of a a political party. First, there was compulsory membership – what we effectively have at the moment with the opt-out process, and therefore redundant as a possible solution here.
The second solution comes, according to Olson, when there is a substantial enough ‘byproduct’ , available only to members, alongside the public good that the existence of the political party brings to everyone, regardless of their membership. Olson’s formulation has been refined over the years, notably in the context of trade unions by Alison L Wood, who argues that we should
incorporate sociological factors into the traditional utility-maximising model, in…..a “social custom” theory of large union membership”.
Wood’s argument (and algebraic model) is essentially that the local reputational benefits of adhering to ‘social custom’ of union membership are often as important or more important than outcomes like improved wages, terms and conditions.
If we accept this “refined Olson” theory as a reasonable model, the question then arises of how we best promote Labour party membership as a, necessarily, new, social custom for union members, such that over time the new form of ‘opt-in’ membership becomes accepted, even automatic practice. That is, what ‘byproduct’ of the common good brought to everyone by the Labour party is available only to members, and how can we best sell this member-only benefit, such that union members choose both to join and stay in the party?
To start to answer this key question, it is useful to look back, to the late 1970s/early 1980s, the last time the Labour party seriously tried to address the twin issues of a) the loss of the ‘traditional’ support base and membership; b) the seemingly irrevocable shift in control over the party from representatives of the working class to a professionalised, middle-class political elite. It is useful to do this, I contend, because while the analysis of the problem was often acute. the supposed solutions were not successful in the longer term, though arguably they were in the short term. This time around, under your reflective leadership, it is possible to get both problem analysis and solution correct.
There isn’t room here for a full literature review around how Labour analysed and reacted in the late 1970s/early 1980s to the changing nature of its membership base/membership in the context of the decline of heavy industry etc. (though I’ll happily provide you with one if you want to explore further). Instead, I’ll focus on the contemporary analysis of Paul Whiteley, the doyen (still going strong) of empirical studies of party membership, not least as his analysis tends to reflect (as well as promote) the consensus of period, namely that the Labour party was in a state of terminal decline.
Here is Whiteley in The Decline of Labour’s Local Labour Party Membership and Electoral Base, 1945-79 (in The Politics of the Labour Party (1982), Ed. Kavanagh D), using both Olson’s collective action theory and Hirschmann’s (1970) contemporaneous ‘Exit, Voice, Loyalty’ model to get the nub of the problem facing (then as now) the Labour party:
We might crudely summarise the situation in Labour party grass-roots parties in response to the failures of Labour in office as follows: ‘nearly everyone voices, but whilst the middle class remains loyal, the working class exits’. Clearly the Olson paradox tends to make instrumental members more likely to leave than expressive members, regardless of performance, simply because because they are pursuing collective goals. But when this inherent vulnerability to defection is coupled with a wide-ranging failure of performance it becomes critical. Other factors related to the class mix within local parties may also be influential in producing a working class defection. Hindess shows that for middle-class activists the language of politics and the attitude towards issues are very different from those of the working class…[M]iddle class activists tend to discuss politics in terms of general principles, whereas working class activists see things in terms of specific events which affect the life of the individual (p.122-3, my hyperlink).
It is this kind of analysis, crudely normative though it now appears, which provided at least some of the rationale for the rise of the New Urban Left in the early 1980s, as activists strove to provide ‘instrumental’ reasons for party membership by opening local parties out to identity politics, and to a wider range of people than the (supposedly) fast disappearing traditional working class. In some ways, this was a successful development, as people who would never previously have conceived of Labour party involvement were drawn in by the promise, and often real delivery, of political respect and clout.
But it came at a cost that we still feel today, as party-union links at a local level withered away, and at a wider level there was a failure to reconceptualise the labour movement for the post-industrial landscape, leading to major de-unionisation across vaster swathes of the service economy, which in turn allowed the Right to portray unions as relics of a past age. In short, the response of the 1980s to the perceived membership crisis was successful in the short term because it focused on the local and the instrumental, but a disaster in the longer term because it allowed the growing division between grassroots Labour parties and local unions set-up to grow to the point where they no longer saw each other as part of the same labour movement institution. Given this, it is no surprise that Labour clubs all over the country, where they still exist, are now often nothing more than pubs with snooker tables and tattier chairs than you’d get away with elsewhere.
This time around, of course, we’re not trying to retain union-based membership, but to create it anew. But the basic tenet of what we should have learned from the 1980s still applies – keeping it local and instrumental, rather than abstract and expressive, will help us recruit the working class members from affiliated unions. Conversely, failure to provide a tangible local offer, through which newly recruited members can develop a real ‘social custom’ of long term membership will lead inexorably to the kind of member and financial haemorrhage Ashcroft’s poll is currently predicting.
So how does Labour go about creating this ‘local, instrumental offer’ to union members?
To answer that, let’s take a short diversion into ‘localism’ (aka ‘decentralisation’) research literature. Localism has become, in recent years, the policy item no self-respecting party can afford to be without, and it can come as a surprise to people that it’s not very new - decision-making at the lowest possible got written into the US constitution well before the right to carry a gun. But for all its popularity and longevity, there’s actually relatively little research about whether it actually delivers on its core promise of the virtuous circle of local engagement-local accountability-effective delivery- increased local engagement, and whether the benefits accrued through localism actually outweigh those potentially or actually foregone (standardisation, economy of scale etc..).
Nevertheless, recent research does give us at least some insight into which aspects of ‘localisation’ lead to improved perceptions of accountability (and thus, by extension, to public engagement). Escobar-Lemmon and Ross (2013) , researching into active departmental decentralisation in Columbia, find that, perhaps counter-intuitively, administrative and fiscal decentralisation have a greater positive impact on perceptions of accountability than political decentralisation (though the choice of proxy indicator for political decentralisation does look rather forced).
Closer to home, we are at least starting to get some recognition that ‘proper’ local accountability requires not just the occasional election, but greater day to day, administrative involvement, with academics now even highlighting the emerging thinking in the Labour party about the ‘relational state’ (Cooke and Muir, 2012), whereby the type and quality of everyday contact with public servants is as important as the formal public service ‘transaction’, as a coherent means to achieve this.
But while this kind of thinking about public service delivery is welcome (though not easy to implement until the labour movement regains its focus on quality), it has not yet transferred across into thinking about the way the party itself might work. Within the party, ordinary members are still expected to be the relatively passive recipients of often frankly patronising messaging from those in leadership positions, especially MPs, and the chance for members, especially working class members, to achieve the local ‘instrumental’ goals with which they may have joined the party (see above) is extremely limited.
If we are to recruit and retain more union members than the Ashcroft polling is suggesting we will, this has to change. The offer to working class union members needs to be one which offers the genuine prospect of productive, instrumental involvement in the Labour party, in a way which allows them first to express pride in what they and the party have achieved locally, and second to develop the social bond with other members so that the ‘loyalty’ aspect of the Exit, Voice, Loyalty model kicks in (when times get hard, electorally, economically or both). This requires a radical decentralisation of the way the finances of the party are organised and controlled - remember from above that is fiscal and administrative decentralisation which potentially has the greatest impact on perceptions of accountability.
Recommendations My principal practical recommendations are therefore as follows:
1) All membership payments from both existing and new members should be paid directly into local party accounts, with Constituency Labour Parties becoming an entirely autonomous accounting unit,
2) All or almost all Short Money (currently £6.5m per year), or its equivalent when Labour is in government. should be paid into a single pot then distributed to local parties on a pro-rata basis according to membership numbers.
3) Sitting MPs and MEPs should be required, or strongly encouraged if coercion is not legally possible, to put their MP salary (possibly excluding a living wage amount) into the same pot for distribution on the same basis.
4) All other donations coming into the party (including from unions), where they are not specifically ring-fenced by the donor (e.g as with Progress now) should be paid into the same central pot for distribution on the same basis. This is, our course, in keeping with the proposal for a donation cap that you have already made.
5) MP, PPCs and MEPs should be asked to submit a yearly (or rolling three year) budgeted business plan, setting out what the outcomes they seek to achieve and the resources needed to achieve it. This should be submitted alongside/in collaboration with local Campaign Forum budgets and business plans. It will be for the CLP, acting effectively now as a board to a resourced local voluntary organisation/development trust, to approve business plans and allocate finances.
6) Similarly, Regional offices and the NEC should submit plans to CLPs in the event that they feel they need resources over and above any topslice, setting out in particular how their activities will assist local CLPs in their function.
7) MPs, MEPs and PPCs should be encouraged to unionise themselves, either as a collective bargaining unit within an existing union or as a newly esatablished independent union, so that they can make representation to their employers on their terms and conditions as they see fit, and just like any other union member.
8) In terms of timetable, this process should be ready to roll after the 2014 conference (the last of its centrally funded type) when the necessary Labour rule book changes have been made, such that when union members get their first opt-in/opt-out letter, they get an invitation in the same envelope to review a draft of business plans and attend local meetings aimed at setting those local ‘instrumentl ‘ priorities.
Of course, such a radical reversal of the financial and power flows within will create early teething problems, especially in regards to the competence of some CLPs to move from being little more than campaign fodder to running small-to-medium voluntary organisations. Early, top sliced central support may be warranted in some cases to ensure the transition. But the benefits, in terms of involving members from the start in meaningful, relational action, so that the ‘social bond’ required for long term party loyalty and genuine mass membership are fostered, are clear.
It would of course be naïve to think that this can be achieved without a struggle, and without real leadership from yourself. More than anything, this route (and it is the only viable route) to mass membership requires a massive culture change, away from the fetishisation of the MP, and towards a position in which the MP/PPC is seen as the capable functionary of the local party. Clearly, the vested interests of those MPs who like their almost god-like status – and you know that there are many – will ensure that there is an effective campaign against the grassroots taking back financial and administrative power, fought principally on the basis that such a move away from the cosy professionalization of the party is just too risky.
Leading that change will therefore take real guts from yourself, because – unlike with the current party-union squabbles – some of those closest to you may really want to stab you in the back. I have great hopes that you will be up to that task, because it will be the smoothest and most effective way to achieve the committed mass membership party you want.
But even if you are not up to it – or rather if the institutional forces you come up against are just too strong – you will almost certainly see the process coming towards you anyway, as unions start to disaffiliate nationally but reaffiliate, albeit messily, at local levels. There is, of course, no guarantee that the Labour party will survive that process. Better for all of us that you seize the day now, rather than have to go with the flow later on.
I wish you all the best at this time of important change for the party.
Though Cowards Flinch is springing back into life, just like I said it definitely wouldn’t, with some instant reaction on Ed Miliband’s pre-announcement on the funding link between Labour and the affiliated unions.
I’ll leave aside for now the legitimacy of a Labour leader announcing such sweeping changes, so soon after the completion of the Refounding Labour process that many members took a sincere part in, and apparently with no consultation with anyone other than his inner circle. I’ll also leave aside the stuff about primaries, and focus instead on the plan to move from an ‘opt-out’ to an ‘opt-in’ funding mechanism for all affiliated unions, in the hope that a new raft of engaged individual members will make sensible decisions at local party level, and counterbalance the perceived nuttiness of their union leaders.
If that’s the extent of it, it won’t work. The idea that a sufficient number of union members will actively part with a part of their weekly cash in support of a party many or most perceive to be made up of Westminster village tossers is just pie-in the-sky. No matter that, objectively speaking, it is in their interests to maintain a robust Labour party – it takes a lot more than that to resolve the free rider problem. Then, as Mark at Labourlist rightly suggests, very low opt-in numbers will threaten the very notion of union affiliation.
The ONLY way the opt-in will work is if it accompanied by a radical restructuring to local party level of the way it spends its money, such that local members get a real say, and therefore a real reason for local, solidaristic opt-in. I’ve described this process already in my own (utterly ignored) Refounding Labour submission (section 5), and in my submission to the party treasurer candidates. Essentially, it involves dividing up and/or retaining all party income at CLP level, and using a bottom up process to decide how it is spent.
Thus, if an MP wants to fund an office, s/he will need to submit a business plan setting out what they’ll spend and why, and then be accountable to the party for that spend. Effectively, the MP/PPS becomes a CEO of a medium-sized local charity, and the CLP appoints a broad (its executive) to oversee the MP or PPS (and MEP).
I repeat: this is the only way that Ed Miliband’s current proposals will work. He’s done the easy bit, challenging the affiliated unions to accept the virtues of opt-in engagement. The question is: does he have the guts to take on the PLP’s power base in the interest of real party democracy and growth.
The NHS is dying, pretty well exactly as I said it would some two years ago now:
Some scandals may emerge in time over ‘backhanders’ paid by the private hospitals to the private commissioners, and in some circumstances it will turn out that the people doing the commissioning are simply commissioning themselves in another name – the whole inefficiency of which the provider-purchaser split was supposed to stop – but it will all be a bit esoteric and complicated for people to understand, and there won’t be much of a fuss.
In fairly short order, we may get these new commissioners creating two tiers of provision from within GP surgeries, with one level of care for those not paying, and those who just happen to have signed the relevant insurance policy forms, which just happen to be in the GP surgery.
Insurance-based healthcare, and the exclusions that this brings, will come not through a government announcement, but by the surgery backdoor……
The consortia [now called CCGs] will end up being led by two or three ‘movers and shakers’ in each area, whose job will be simply to negotiate a decent deal for their colleagues and let the private commissioners get on with the rest. There will be no revolt in primary care, and in secondary care no-one will actually notice till it’s too late.
Two years on, it’s being more widely recognised that, as of 1st April, the NHS privatisation will being quietly but in earnest, as the section 75 regulations kick into gear, Clinical Commissioning Groups with often overwhelming direct financial interests in private providers put services out to the market, public provision withers on the vine or simply goes bust, and private insurance arrangements start to become the norm, initially for (the more profitable) elective healthcare, and then for the rest. As Lucy Reynolds from the London School for Hygiene & Tropical Medicine rightly notes, what comes next in this wildly ‘imperfect’ market is market abuse and health cost inflation. This inflation around the ‘cherry-picked’ services, Lucy might also have noted, will lead to the stripping of resources from the less profitable services – no health budget ring-fencing will protect that.
So what is to be done? By 2015, if and when Labour regains power, the promise of a repeal of the Health & Social Care Act (and the accompanying Section 75 regulations) may be a welcome statement of principle, but it will not significantly change the way in which services have already been privatised, seemingly irrevocably. In many cases, there simply won’t be the public services to transfer them back to, and the incoming government is likely to consider the full-scale implementation of NHS II a little too much of a fiscal challenge, even if the recreation of the cumbersome institutions of 1948 were desirable.*
What Labour can do, though – and needs to start thinking through now – is to tackle the local institutional architecture, in a way which creates the platform both for the establishment of local democratic control of both the type and quality of provision. If it gets this right, this might actually lead, in the medium term, to a better health service than we currently enjoy - as I’ve noted before, it does not become Labour to gloss over the very clear health and social care failings caused by the managerialist ideology that has held sway for the last thirty years.
More specifically in terms of local institutions, the Labour government-in-waiting should first consider retaining the Clinical Commissioning Groups. but diluting the power of GP practices within them by making theirs a minority voting position, through the introduction of members of Foundation Trust governing councils (increasingly focused on quality standards if the Francis Inquiry recommendations are carried through) along with elected councillor representation in keeping with Councils’ new public health function. The immediate impact of this is likely to be presumption against private sector provision where other options still exist (they won’t in many places).
Second, the Labour government in waiting should commit to ensuring that these new-style CCGs adhere both to the letter and spirit of the Public Service (Social Value) Act 2012 under which all CCGs (and the NHS Commissioning Board), have a duty to consider:
(a) how what is proposed to be procured might improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of the relevant area, and
(b) how, in conducting the process of procurement, it might act with a view to securing that improvement.
(Oddly, this is Tory legislation, aimed primarily at breaking the perceived monopoly power of local authorities, but can be used to the same effect against private sector dominance in healthcare provision. That will really piss off the Tories….)
These two relatively simply steps will set the direction of travel back against wholesale privatisation, although of course attempts to terminate contracts are likely to result in lengthy and quite likely unsuccessful legal battles, so early progress is likely to be quite slow.
Nevertheless, institutional change at local level by government, especially if accompanied by moves within the Labour party and the broader movement to re-energise Trade Councils, in a move away from the vapid Tory ‘consumer localism’ and towards a quality-oriented ’worker localism’**, could provide early impetus for the creation of a properly socialist health and social care system – a system fit for the 21st century (whether or not this is tax-based or progressive social insurance based doesn’t really matter as long as it provides for equitable provision) , with private operators increasingly steadily cleared out in favour not just of direct NHS Trust delivery, but also a new surge of worker co-operatives (although charities and social enterprises may also play a valid part).
* It is always worth remembering, in the context of the fetishisation of the 1948-style NHS, that until very late in the day a radically different – and I would argue preferable – NHS structure was being argued for. This was a much more decentralised and locally accountable system, rather than the monolith we grew to love despite it tendencies to managerialism (and I would argue that this is why service standards have declined in the NHS faster than in local authorities, say). See Rudolf Klein’s seminal The Politics of the NHS for more (the later edition is called The New Politics of the NHS but the early chapters are the same).
** This is not to argue for the introduction/retention of localised terms and conditions. Trade unions should of course be encouraged to negotiate at national level, and a properly brave/strategic Labour government would use the need to ‘renationalise’ the NHS, and to invest quality in the hands of its staff (as opposed to its bosses) as a rationale for the relatively painless (in terms of reactionary public opinion) repeal of restrictive trade union legislation. Frankly, I’m not holding my breath on this one.
Miliband has, I’m afraid, got his reaction all wrong.
Had anyone from Labour HQ actually bothered to read the single piece of research behind the proposals, they’d have realised that it simply doesn’t say what everyone, in all parties, wanted it to say. As I have set out in detail, the research doesn’t prove that minimum unit pricing will reduce binge drinking, and it acknowledges that very clearly in the main report:
The elasticity matrices [the method used in the research] on their own are not sufficient to reveal the likely behaviour of the population to price changes, since these also depend on the preferences for beverage, drinking location and price point that the different sub-groups exhibit. However they do form a useful starting point for analysis, and can be compared with existing results from the literature. (p. 50)
This acknowledgment, and the other deep flaws in the research, will be set out in consultation responses (including the one I submitted), and the Tories will simply point to those responses to explain their u-turn. It doesn’t matter that the Tories’ real motivation for dumping the pricing proposal has nothing to do with the evidence, but is driven by a mix of electoral calculation and fear of taking on the Right of the part. By May, the narrative already being set out by David Davis - that the research doesn’t stack up – will have been firmly established.
Thus, by effectively coming out in support of minimum unit pricing, Labour is getting itself on entirely the wrong side of the debate. In a month or two, when the final government response to the consultation is published, Labour (and the SNP as a side effect) will be painted as the illiberal nasties who do don’t give a hoot about evidence but just want to punish the poor, while the Tories will have positioned themselves as the reasonable party, who consulted on the idea, listened to public opinion, and then took a mature, evidenced-based decision not to proceed.
In short, Labour is going to cop it on this one. Miliband may have had some fun today at PMQs, but the Tories will have the last laugh, as Labour is tarred with the very ‘authoritarian’ brush Miliband had worked so hard to avoid. The key lesson is that when Labour priorities media management over actual policy import, it does so at its peril. It should already know this, from the time it abandoned sound immigration policy in order to look tough, but maybe this time around it’ll learn…….