Archive for the ‘Local Democracy’ Category

Outsourcing reality (part II): the response

August 25, 2015 Leave a comment

In part I, looked at one particular example of how local authority outsourcing has come under such pressure – both financial and managerial – that contracts are now simply undeliverable; there has developed, I contended, a distance between what ‘exists’ in contractual form and what happens in real life.

The ‘unreal’ contracts of this type tend to concentrated on delivery of support services to the most disadvantaged.  The main reason for this is that those who receive (or don’t actually receive) these kind of services are less open to scrutiny and challenge than more universal services.  If a contract for bin collection is let and bins only get collected on paper, not from houses, there’s a pretty good chance that service users will make the local authority aware, and that subsequently performance will be questioned in overview & scrutiny by councillors.  If (to use another real world example) vulnerable carers of vulnerable people get a 3 minute phone assessment of their needs, thereby assumed to be insignificant (and cost-free), rather than the full in-person assessment they should have got and which should have resulted in a full support package, then it is unlikely that this will be picked up as part of a systematic but always inevitable non-delivery/gaming of the contract. The carers’ forum, established within the contract to make sure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen, is easy enough to skew, so that all that comes to it is a story of delivery success.

What, though, can be done about all this?  How can we put the reality back in outsourcing, given continued and ever increasing pressure on public expenditure? How, in particular, can we ensure that the most vulnerable service users are not exploited in this way?  This post seeks to explore some responses to this challenge, as well as seeking to locate these practical responses within a coherent framework for wider activism and empowerment.  As this is a Labour party supporting blog, it also sets out these ideas in the context of the Labour party and movement’s current process of ‘renewal’ (if its current internal debate can be termed such).

Here’s the kind of response I’d like to see.

I’d like to see groups of public service workers coming together, ideally though not necessarily (see below) using the existing institutional legitimacy of local Trades Councils, to develop and implement a programme of scrutiny of outsourcing arrangements, existing and proposed.   This Trades Council committee, strengthened but not dependent on service user input, should make it its principal job to assess the viability of contracts in terms of finances, likely quality of delivery and appropriateness of monitoring systems.

They should award themselves the authority – and that is the crucial concept to which I’ll return – to call before them commissioning managers, service directors/heads of department and where necessary Chief Executives to explain their decision making around how outsourcing contracts have been developed, and where necessary to justify their real world ‘deliverability’.  In the end, the committee should take a view on whether or not the contract as set out by local authorities (and over time the NHS, as ‘devo max’ starts to be implemented) is acceptable to the Trades Council.

Of course, the key questions now arise of  a) Why on earth local authority officers would subject themselves to such a process? b) Why would anyone in a position of local authority power take any notice of a decision by a Trades Council?

The short answer is that, initially at least, they may not. They may even laugh at the prospect.  I’ll come on to how this might be changed, but first I want to look in somewhat wider terms at what an attempt to set up this alternative decision-making process, under the aegis of the Trades Council infrastructure (where it still exists) is really all about.  Doing so – in the context of how power does and might work – may help in turn to determine what initial actions are appropriate in getting this kind of stuff off the ground.

We’re talking here about the establishment of a political institution which doesn’t have the sanction of the state and which, more importantly, contests the authority of the central state – via its sanctioned local decision-making process – to make decisions about how public money is best spent.   As such, we’re talking  about the kid of associative democracy championed by pre-war English pluralist socialists GDH Cole and JN Figgis, and later championed, in the context of the authoritarian bent of the Thatcherite state, by Paul Hirst (pdf) before his untimely death.  In this vision of how society organises itself, the state has no a greater a priori legitimacy than any other form of social organisation, and by extension whenever the state seeks to impose itself as sole legitimate authority, it is open to valid challenge from any other grouping of people which chooses to assert its own legitimacy in deciding, say, how resources are allocated.  Such groupings might include the church (whose legitimacy as an association on a level footing with the state is at the heart of theologian JN Figgis’ work), but also those whose particular function and expertise brings them together as a group – namely the professions (in their widest sense) and the unions [1].

In practice such a political standpoint could translate, in the circumstances we’re dealing with, into the following kind of assertion: “we are a properly constituted body of public service professionals and we have as much if not greater right to oversee and scrutinise the local authority’s commissioning of services in this area, and it is our view that the service as currently commissioned cannot be delivered effectively/safely.”

From this starting point, establishing the right to be taken seriously by the local authority’s decision makers is a matter of establishing legitimacy with a range of ‘players’ [2], both within and beyond the local authority.  Clearly the use of the Trades Council institutional status may count for something, and it may be surprising what a forma letterhead and a ‘proper’ approach to the local authority can achieve, but there are a number of other ways, including through the Labour party structure (especially via councillors open to trade union persuasion [3]), through the voluntary, faith & community sector (VCFS) infrastructure and through local higher education links.  If that sounds improbable, then it might be worth reflecting on the effectiveness of the 1971 Scottish TUC inquiry into the Tory government’s attempts to annihilate shipbuilding on the Upper Clyde, the success of which was all built on establishing the external legitimacy of the inquiry.

The key thing to note about all these examples of how local workers and service users might establish associative legitimacy on a par with that of the (local) state is, of course, that they are just examples.  Every local area will have different circumstances, and different opportunities for building alliances focused on the establishment of ‘parallel legitimacy’.  While I favour the Trades Council as the existing organisational form which might take a lead on such ‘parallel’ institutional development, not least as engagement in this relatively narrow area of public procurement might act as a bridgehead to wider re-orientation of the trade union movement  [4], it may not be the most suitable one in many areas, especially those where Trades Councils simply no longer exist or where  they have been adjusted to other purposes over the years which just aren;t amenable to this new area of activity [5].

In terms of which professional groups might play a key part in this kind of calculated associative democracy initiative, where the focus is largely on defence of quality services for/with the most vulnerable, there is no better candidate than that of social work.  The social work profession is currently in a time of crisis [6], with its professional standards outsourced to a management consultancy firm, the College of Social Work (established in 2009 to develop professionalisation) forced to close in September, and a whole new training regime being swiftly imposed through the Frontline programme [6], with the intention that future social workers will wield a limited range of intervention tool to ‘sort out’ troubled families.  The old concepts of social justice, and the need to see struggling families in context, are being brushed away as an irrelevance to the immediacies of modern social work, and the proponents of those old concepts as academics interested only in preserving their comfortably ‘ivory towers’ existence

In the face of this onslaught, social justice-oriented social workers face a choice: fight a no doubt heroic but almost certainly losing battle on the current accreditation and training terrain, or beat a deliberate retreat and take up the campaign for social justice social work on different terrain.   The organic emergence of the Social Workers Assembly from the wreckage of the College of Social Work, with its intent to challenge the state’s intervention in their professional standards, could turn out to be a leading example, at national level, of the kind of parallel legitimacy organisation I advocate, but it is likely only to be able to do this by developing its legitimacy at local levels first; working with other parts of the labour movement, and with campaigning organisations like the Family Rights Group [7] in areas where it holds expertise, and in a way which demonstrates that it is able to (re)-establish social work as a profession which, like medicine, can and should be both self-governing.

In the end, whatever groups of public service workers, trade unionists come together around te establishment iof a new decision-making institution of the type proposed, I think there should be two wider aspiration, beyond establishing initial legitimacy.

First, as noted, it should be seen as a bridgehead to greater union/professional engagement in service design, in a way which takes the labour movement beyond the current narrow focus on terms and conditions, and (back) towards the ideal of trade unions as safeguarders and promoters of quality service provision in its own right (and with an ever expanding conception of what a public service is).  I have written more about this here and here.  In ideological terms this might be described as unions taking a Tawney turn, in their active attempt to take from the forces of managerialism the right to direct resources towards the best possible social function.

Second, and closely related to this, should be a conscious attempt to help public servants re-orientate their own working lives, so that – in the terms Michael Lipsky used and which the PCS used to seek to practice – they become advocates for those service users, rather than more or less alienated from those their profession used to serve.

Of course, none of this insitutional legitimacy, and the acceptance of a trade council’s right to veto or adjust an outsourcing contract, creates more money for councils to do tender properly.  Tha’s the brutal reality of a Tory government. What it does do, though, is highlight the way in which many councils are having to/choosing to squeeze contracts focused on services to the most vulnerable, less than other areas of expenditure, precisely because the poor and vulnerable have had, to date, less capacity to resist (and because they vote less).   This in turn creates some space for trades councils etc to push local authorities towards more innovative social financing arrangements of the type advocated here, and in many other thinktank forums, but so far massively underdeveloped because of a political risk aversion to the kind of complexity that such ‘downstream savings’ require (see my post here for more on this).

Finally, where does the Labour party – in its current soul searching/holding out for a hero mode – fit with all this.  In terms of the leadership debate, Jeremy Corbyn has not yet engaged with this area at all – hence the lingering doubts about whether his is a solely state-oriented socialism.   If he does win, it is to be hoped that the process of re-orienting the Labour party’s resources towards the kind of community organisation advocated by Stella Creasy – though she too needs to reflects on the contradictions inherent to her (and Liz Kendall’s) view of power   – will be near the top of the to-do list.  In practical terms, this might mean enabling/encouraging CLPs to work with and resource emergent or re-emergent trade councils (remembering of course that trades councils cannot constitutionally affiliate to Labour), or with other institutional developments.  This kind of grassroots resourcing, funded through an extended NEC CLP Improvement Fund, should take precedence over the proposed Diversity Fund, which is a distraction from the real job in hand, and which simply fuels the Westminster-centricity of the party.


More likely, of course, is that whoever leads or deputy leads the party will prove to be a disappointment when it comes to internal party and movement development.  That goes with the territory.   In reality, local parties – along with any local bodies and people they can develop alliances with – are going to have to do it for themselves.





[1] The legalistic principles (Laski, esp. chapter 1), and the historical reality of state formation by violence (Tilly) that underpin the doctrine of associative democracy are my preferred underpinning to my proposals for the development of institutions with parallel legitimacy of the state, not least as they coalesce with a more explicitly Marxian analysis of the state as an agent of capital, and therefore one which needs to be undermined through these ‘parallel legitimacy’ means or more directly.

However, it is also worth pointing out – perhaps in the interests of strategic alliance building between the left and (more intelligent) Conservatism – that associative democracy is also consistent with the basic tenets of communitarianism, and even with the kind of reformed ‘Big Society’ programme now advocated by people like Danny Kruger.  From this perspective, it might be argued that the kind of parallel democratic structure advocated here acts as a corrective to the current ‘rights v responsibilities’ imbalance.  The old Big Society programme, now rubbished by the left and earlier advocates alike, can be seen as massively imbalanced towards the responsibilities side of the bargain, with local communities and organisations getting all the crap that goes with coping with the cuts, but none of the rights that could have gone with that.  (We”ll leave aside here that a key failure in both communitarian and Red Tory/Big Society thought is the essentialist assumption that positive communities are just ‘there’ – an assumption arugably even less valid than it was when it was first dreamed up, or emerged from faith-based discourses such as Catholic Social Teaching)

[2] See my earlier post on strategic action fields and the development of links to organisations with ‘mutually realisable interests.

[3] Trades Councils’ constitutions do not allow for official affiliation with the Labour party.

[4] I have written before about the wider potential for modernised and reinvigorated Trades Councils.

[5] In my own area, South West Lancashire Trades Council changed its remit over the years so that it runs to all intents and purposes like a small charity, focused on debt advice.  This is not a criticism of the people who have taken it in that direction in response to an identified and unmet need, and it is quite possible with appropriate support from the TUC that many could re-emerge with new purpose and energy.

[6]  For evidence of the hostility between the ‘new young Turks’ at Frontline and other social work educators, see its CEO’s “get out of the way” attack in Progress magazine, and the response.  The choice of Porgress magazine as a place for the initial attack is not a coincidence, since it was Progress, and in particular its head honcho Andrew Adonis, who were responsible for making Frontline happen, via a compliant IPPR (which hot-housed Frontline) and a Coalition government delighted at the managerial, anti social work ‘blob’ approach being promoted by Frontline.  The coup has been, to date, astonishingly effective.

[7] Declaration of interest: I sit on the advisory panel of the Family Rights Group’s Your Family, Your Voice project, which is seeking to drive its work to more local level, though it is early days.








a priori


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 labour movement’s post-election battleground: Part I of II

1  Introduction

Back in January, I was invited by Left Futures to provide a response to a post by Trevor Fisher.  Trevor considers Labour a lost cause when it comes to austerity. This is his conclusion:

The objective of the austerity movement is to destroy everything that Lloyd George and the political consensus that we have known for the last 90 years. A co-ordinated response can defeat the political objective of the neo-liberals to set up a new anti-state consensus.

So why is it not happening? The Labour Party cannot be changed in the near future. It has embarked as New Labour on a Titanic style voyage into the ice field, at high speed. Labour is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It is time to look for lifeboats. The solution has to be a people’s movement against austerity. The existing work of the People’s Assembly has to be boosted.

Trevor’s analysis is not, of course, an unusual one.   The idea that a Labour government will simply be ‘austerity-lite’ is now almost a mantra those who consider themselves left of Labour (within or outside the party).   Here are just a few examples expressing, in varying ways, anger or hopelessness or (in Sunny Hundal’s case) simply incomprehension at Labour’s purported plans to mimic the Tories in government.

Trevor’s analysis – like most others in this vein –  incorrect , for three main reasons:

  • Labour is part of the solution to the problems brought by five years of austerity, because it is actively planning for investment in public services;
  • The existing work of the People’s Assembly is, while impressive in many ways, misguided;
  • The idea that the best way to respond to the neoliberals’ anti-state consensus building is to support a return to the pre-2008 public service infrastructure of late capitalism is itself regressive.

In this essay, I present an alternative strategy for labour movement activism, which I contend takes us beyond these common errors of analysis by the Left. In part I, addressing the facts around Labour’s actual planning for government, before moving on to how and why so many people have misunderstood what Labour is about.   In part II, I look in details at what might be done for, by, with people like Trevor – no doubt a solid member of the labour movement, but who’s only recourse at the moment is another round of meetings and rallies calling, loudly but vainly, for the people to rise up against austerity.

2  What’s really being planned

Labour is seeking to portray itself as a party committed to ‘fiscal discipline’, and its central economic policy is now that it will never spend what it cannot save elsewhere.  I think this is a misguided strategy born of a narrow-minded elite in the Labour party, panicked by Tory control over opinion polls in 2001-12 (see section 3), but it is too now late to change that messaging in the 60-odd days to the election.

Behind the scenes it is different.  Labour HQ has calculators in the office, and they know perfectly well that they cannot make the cuts that the current profile suggests without collapsing parts of essential public services, and they know that this will cost them electorally; the new rounds of cuts will have to start to affect those beyond the vulnerable (e.g. social care eligibility) who to date have suffered more than other when their comparatively expensive needs have stopped being met, but who only vote once, and in relatively small numbers, so have been a calculated electoral write-off for the Coalition.

With a number of decent thinkers and planners – notably Jon Cruddas –  having fought a behind-the-scenes rearguard action against the fiscal conservatives, Labour is quietly planning to sustain and develop provision by borrowing/investing “off-balance sheet”, through mechanisms like the British Investment Bank (with an NS&I deposit) [1], which the Tott report commissioned by Labour makes clear is aimed at public services as well as SMEs, and through the development of ‘internal borrowing’ from Pension Funds [2], and through allowing local authorities to bring forward spend from later years in a five year cycle, effectively allowing them to borrow from themselves. [3]  This is in addition to the existing prudential borrowing regime, which is likely to see greater use in an environment where local authorities are not so afraid as they are currently about what comes next from the centre.

The condition for this investment from these sources is that as far as possible what is spent should create ‘downstream savings’, and it is from the “what should have been spent” pot that government, including local government and freed-up health economy organisations, will create the return for investors.   It will be, to a significant extent, a welcome foreshortening of the Social Impact Bond process developed and tested over the last 10 years, but which has proved to be bureaucratically difficult in the absence of political will.

A key unanswered question at the moment is to what extent these non-traditional routes to borrowing for investment will replace normal borrowing.

NS&I is not a bank and cannot simply create money for investment, so will presumably be constrained by the amount invested in NS&I, currently around £105bn [4].  While there is some good practice emerging around the use of Local Government Pension Funds to fund public spending where there is clear social value, to date these investments have been limited to capital schemes where the rate of return back to the Funds has been easy to determine because income streams are produced by the investment.  It is more difficult to persuade Pension Fund trustees, who must abide by their fiduciary duties [5] to protect those funds, to invest in ‘social infrastructure’ which creates savings downstream, as these savings must then be converted into returns [6].

My current view is that these non-traditional routes will not replace traditional deficit spending to the extent needed, though that it’s a good start. Given this, the further, vital question arises of what level of investment need can feasibly be packaged as social investment (and therefore open non-traditional funding) rather than simply additional spending on public services [7].  In any event, and as I go on now to explore, this is a question which the Left should be addressing for its own sake.

3  The two orthodoxies

What I have set out above may be the quiet reality of preparation for government, but it’s one known about by very few people in the labour movement, largely because of the strategic decision by Labour’s strategists (on which more below), to avoid challenge to the prevailing ‘deficit fetishism’, and instead to try and gain power by focusing on other policy areas e.g. the NHS.

This strategic decision requires a commitment to cost-neutral spending promises i.e. any spending commitment must be paid for by cuts/savings to other areas of current spending.  In order to know what’s really being planned, it’s necessary to a) talk to people closer to the actual development work (which I’ve done); and b) read the whole of policy documents, not just the summaries (which I’ve done).

In the absence of wider understanding of what is really being planned, most actors and organisations who self-identify as Labour and/or the Left have split into two broad ‘orthodoxies’, with a seemingly unbridgeable divide between them.

On one side of the ‘fault line’ are those who say an incoming Labour-led government must be ‘realistic’ about the public finances, and cannot therefore afford to reverse Coalition cuts, and those who subscribe what I will refer broadly to as the ‘anti-austerity movement’, who think a Labour-led government’s first duty is to reverse the cuts and reset public financing and public service to circa 2009.

Both sides are wrong, as I shall go on to set out, because establishing why and how they came to be so wrong, and what impact this wrongness has had to date,  is essential if the labour movement is to bridge the divide (which I address in part II).

The realist orthodoxy

The ‘realists’ are wrong for fairly obvious macro-economic reasons.  There’s no need here to go over now fairly established consensus that fiscal consolidation didn’t work, and that the way to boost growth (and pay down the deficit sensibly) is through a wage-led recovery, with a major lever for this being public investment.  The ‘realist’ support for fiscal consolidation and continued austerity has never been driven primarily by economics; calls for fiscal prudence have largely (from about 2011-2 onwards) been about a political messaging that Labour ‘can be trusted’ with the public finances, and the view (actually a self-fulfilling narrative) that the British public will never be able to conceptualize standard Keynesian economic management as anything other than spendthrift.

This is evidenced most clearly in Anthony Painter’s [8] at times excellent (2013) Left Without a Future: Social Justice in Anxious Times.  In a book devoted to ideas about how a future Labour government can create a more socially just society in times of continued fiscal restraint, Anthony sets out the need for that fiscal restraint in just a few short paragraphs (pp. 75-77), some of which are in themselves arguments against restraint.  All of the reasoning is contestable, especially the notion that “two or three years of very low growth, barely moving deficits and political impotence” might lead to a real danger of default (p.76), [9] but in any event he lets the cat out of the bag when, after this short justification he reveals its post-hoc nature:

It was in response to this debate that Cooke et al. [Anthony is one of the al.] wrote In the Black Labour: Why Fiscal Conservatism and Social Justice go Hand-in-Hand which was published in 2011 and created something of a stir in Labour circles.  Its core argument was that a reputation for fiscal responsibility was fundamental to any party aspiring to national leadership (p.78)

The realists’ economic rationale, then has never been anything much more than cover for short term electoral strategy, forged at a time when many in the Labour elite were concerned about the intractable opinion polls, which continued to show that the Coalition’s strategy of blaming a worldwide financial crisis on profligate public spending by Labour, was working remarkably well.  At that point, it made sense to this fairly small group of insiders, close to or within the pressure group Progress, that Labour should simply adopt a ‘balancing the books’ approach, because the battle for what economic common sense looks like had been lost. [10]

In their view, this was much more important than the longer term real-world impact of commitment to the In the Black doctrine largely, I suspect, because they simply didn’t consider real word impacts on the more vulnerable in society as being of themselves, important [11], even though it was clear by then that they, along with lower paid public sector workers themselves were facing the greatest direct burden of public sector cuts [12]

This all took place back in 2011-12.  Since then, Labour has, within the constraints it imposed upon itself by its commitment to no extra borrowing, brought to bear two broadly effective electoral responses to the Tories (while also playing Lib Dem Whack-a-Mole for light relief).  First, they have managed to articulate (in the Hall sense) the continued incompetencies [13] of the Tories in government with their elite background and narrowness of outlook (‘out of touch’ being the common phrase).   Second, they have managed to side step the Tories continuing lead on ‘economic competence’ by focusing on how improving figures at a national level of not translating into feelings of security and hope for the future amongst ‘real’ people.  You could even argue that Labour has managed to articulate all of these together, so that people think they are insecure and lacking in hope because Cameron is posh.  This has the added advantage of being true.

This is a good thing in the short term, and it is why a Labour-led government remains the most likely outcome despite a continuing poll lead for the Tories on economic competence.  The downside, though, is that what does or does not constitute fiscal responsibility – whether investment is actually better than  austerity – has become a taboo area within Labour, at least in public.  When Ed Balls committed to budget surplus in January 2014, leading In the Black Labour proponent Hopi Sen was simply able to tweet that the debate had been won.  To a large extent, he was right, although he underestimated the rearguard action that was mounted (see Part II for more details).

The effect of this, understandably, is that many of those who understand what actually fiscal responsibility is have now come to regard Labour as cowards and traitors.  A good case in point is Howard Reed, a decent economist, who penned White Flag Labour for Compass as early as January 2012 [14].

It could of course be argued that people like Howard should have spent a little more time looking at the kind of investments, set out above, which Labour is planning behind the scenes, rather than just the press statements, and that to effectively turn away from engagement with Labour over what it is getting right because it’s not getting everything right is actually very unhelpful to us all; indeed, this is pretty well Simon Wren-Lewis’ recent argument.

For myself, I don’t think such a blame game is helpful in the long run either; while I’ve tended towards it myself in the past, on reflection I think it’s more honest to hold myself to account for not having helped organise the forces of anti-austerity well enough back in 2011-12, not least because learning from what went wrong then is important for the new battle we face after the election.

I’ll come to this in detail on Part II, but the point to stress here is that many on and to the left of Labour attached themselves to the anti-austerity movement – to the extent that some former Labour activists are now standing against Labour in the general election – not because of actual pro-austerity policy from Labour, but because the fiscal conservatives within Labour, themselves driven by narrow political considerations rather than economic ones, created an environment in which plans for investment have remained largely hidden from view (e.g. in the IPPR Condition of Britain report (June 2014), the media and Labour’s own coverage of which failed to notice/deliberately declined to mention the chapters on innovative investment).

The anti-austerity orthodoxy

The ‘anti-austerians’ are wrong because simply returning public sector financing to the levels it enjoyed in the mid- to late 2000’s, without further consideration of how public services should be reformed, will be an utter disgrace, and a betrayal of ordinary people who depend on those services.  Yet this is apparently what is being proposed by an anti-austerity ‘movement’ backed by public sector unions who, understandably enough, are keen to defend their members’ terms and conditions in the narrowest sense of the term as best they can, but who appear to have rejected any responsibility they ever had for the quality of service provided.

The sad truth is that the quality of many public services has declined hugely in the past 20-30 years, and the pace of decline has increased, not simply because of the cuts but because of the way public servants do their work.  Journalist Kate Belgrave, for example, has recorded the transition of what we used to call employment services from a relatively harmless bureaucracy to a vicious institution which actively dehumanizes benefit claimants, and in which specific targets for inflicting misery on the already poor and powerless are implemented without challenge by trade unions.  In the NHS and care sector, the scandals at Winterbourne and at Mid-Staffs did not arise directly from public spending cuts or from privatisation, but from a decline in service standards which set in long before the Coalition came to power.

There are two main reasons for the decline in the quality of public services, and they form a duality.  First, the growth of managerialist ideology, itself a corollary of neoliberal economics, has created which are target- rather than value-driven, and in which every level of management holds the next one down accountable for reaching targets (often now called ‘outcomes’) while often preferring not to know how they are achieved.   Only last week, when earning a living tendering for a public sector contract (for a social enterprise) I was told by a senior manager that with the contract in question there was ‘no room for quality’; this was said with no hint of surprise.

Second, there has been a massive de-professionalization of the public services workforce.  Initially this de-professionalization was a conscious outcome of managerialism [15], as trade union and professional association concerns for the maintenance of quality were pushed to one side as impediments to competition-driven progress, but 30 years on most unions and associations simply no longer see it as their job to concern themselves with the quality of the service they offer to their fellow citizens; their sole role,  as they now see it, is to defend the terms and conditions of their members [16].

In my own profession, nursing, such a view of a trade union role has become institutionalized to the extent that when the Francis report recommended that the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) be formally split into a ‘trade union side’ and a ‘quality of provision’ side, there was barely a murmur of protest from the RCN.  Even more revealingly, Francis did not even feel the need to recognise a possible role for Unison (the other main union/professional association for nurses) in ensuring or campaigning for quality of care.

The now endemic failure of the labour movement to care about the quality of services they provide damages it, of course; while would the non-unionised public support public servants’ industrial action in defence on terms and conditions if those same public servants don’t seem to care about them?

The anti-austerity movement is, frankly, an anachronism.  Its calls for a return to 201o spending, in the absence of proper reform, are in their own way as a regressive as the ‘realists’ call for continued austerity.   Now, I know to my cost [17] that such a bald statement, while perfectly defensible, is likely to be unhelpful to efforts to develop consensus around how a more progessive ‘post-austerity’ Labour might be organised for and won.  So let me be clear, even at the risk of repetition:  the vast majority of people who would now, if asked, hold to the anti-austerity orthodoxy position critiqued here, will be decent Labour (and ex-Labour) activists, members or supporters.

The fact that they support what I call an anachronistic position public services is not something for which they should be blamed, because the primary faults lies with a) a trade union movement which has overly narrowed its functions; b) those within the Labour party who, for the reasons set out above, have stymied a proper debate within the Labour party about what public service reform should and can be about [18].

There’s one more point to make about the anti-austerity movement as it’s developed to date, before I move on to how I think its members/supporters should think about the post-election period, and one which connects to those proposals.  This is that, while the anti-austerity movement has achieved precisely nothing of what it set out expressly to achieve, a good deal has been achieved as an unintended consequence.   While the primary ambition of retaining jobs and services by forcing councillors to spend up reserves then pass illegal budgets remains a pipe dream, the organisational and personal links forged at local, city and regional level, between grassroots trade unionists, service user activists and others such as engaged journalists and those who might self-define as anti-capitalists has been a very positive development.   As I’ll go onto suggest, it is through the emergence of an updated form of the Trades Council, properly allied to the appropriate power structures within the Labour party, that an effective working class post-austerity movement stands the greatest chance of success, and the fact that such organisational links have already been forged, even in a losing cause for now, offers promise.

Conversely, should the current anti-austerity movement move in the opposite direction, away from the Labour party power and resource that will make it effective, both it and those within Labour who believe in good quality public services and wider institutional development towards democratic socialism stand to be marginalised and alienated from each other even further than they are at the moment.

3  Developing a post-austerity movement

This is what I’ll turn to in part II.  I’ll argue that, while these two camps of orthodoxies currently seem poles apart, not least because of personal animosity and mutual name calling on both sides (and I’ve been guilty of that two), there  exists a substantial common ground between the two around which ideological and, more importantly, organisational consensus can be built.   Such a consensus, I will argue, might be built around seven core ideas, to which many can subscribe.  These are

i) that public services should have investment in human beings at their foundation;

ii) that such investment is as worthwhile, or more worthwhile, than capital investment, and that the ‘rate of return’ problem can be overcome;

iii) that public services are best when truly co-designed and co-produced, and that modern trade unions and trades councils have a key role to play here;

iv) that the institutional developments which allow for co-production will be most successful where they develop at a local level;

v) that while public service quality can be improved through intelligent, co-designed investment, such developments can and should act as a bridgehead to similar labour movement developments in the wider economy;

vi) that in order to facilitate all this, the Labour party will need to go beyond its Refounding Labour initiative and either open itself up to genuine labour movement direction, or risk becoming an irrelevance;

vii) that the window of opportunity after the election will be short, because if the two groupings described don’t coalesce organisationally around common interests, existing power interests 0 notably the narrow ones of the existing narrow trade union leadership and the Blairite right, will re-exert their power, and threaten the long-term future of the labour movement itself.



[1] Of course this borrowing is already happening via NS&I, via the Coalition’s 2.8/4% fixed term bonds for people aged over 65.  As, Chris Dillow points out, the other word for this is corruption, because of the particular choice of investor, but that doesn’t mean that using the NS&I as an investment mechanism is in itself a bad thing.

[2] Tott’s report indicates this form of borrowing can be even cheaper than conventional borrowing through the sale of bonds by the government’s Debt Management Office

[3] This is not likely to be introduced in year 1 of a Labour government, as local Public Accounts Committees may be a condition of such an internal investment mechanism (see Chapter 10 of IPPR’s June 2014 Condition of Britain report, which was effectively a Labour party report (a fact later confirmed by the Charities Commission, who reprimanded IPPR for being too overtly political.

[4] NS&I does not manage its own funds (and sadly, ATOS manage NS&I).  The funds are passed over to the National Loans Fund managed directly by the Treasury, where it is already used to fund roughly 10% of public borrowing.   There would presumably have to be a change in this arrangement if a proportion of NS&I funds were to be allocated direct to a British Investment Bank.

[5] The key obstacle to pension fund investment in social infrastructure has long been the fiduciary duty on trustees to maximise financial return to members, which has been taken as overriding all other factors and led pension funds to invest ‘safely’.  While there has been some movement towards a wider understanding of what members’ interests are, so as to allow invest in social and environmentally sound activities, and while there has been some very good local innovation in local government pension fund use, the recent Law Commission guidance remains very conservative in its approach, and there is still some way to go before we see a real rise in social investment by this route.

[6] Even when it comes to capital infrastructure, Osborne’s grand 2011 proclamation about tapping pension funds has so far turned out to be a damp squib, and Labour will need to re-energise this.

[7] I have been seeking to ‘crowdsource’ more extensive research, including a quantification of how far these new mechanisms will fill a more traditional borrowing gap.

[8] In my view, Anthony Painter is by far the best of the movers and shakers in the realist orthodoxy camp, and his Left without a Future (2013) is certainly worth a close reading.  While it is ultimately let down by the ill-conceived parameters of continued ‘tough choices’ Anthony provides for himself (as set out above), it is insightful both about how ‘investment’ should be seen in its widest sense, and in the need for the development of a range of new institutions aimed at delivering social justice (though I disagree with how his implicit suggestion around who should be responsible for designing these institutions, a matter on which I touch on in part 2 of this essay).  As I shall also set out in part 2 ,   it is to Anthony and some of his like-minded colleagues at RSA and IPPR, as well as to people like Jon Cruddas, that the (ex-austerity) labour movement will need to reach out to if it is to develop a truly effective post-austerity movement in the shortest time possible.

[9] Aside from the invalid short-shrift that Anthony gives to what he call the “ultra-Keynesian” argument – that there is real no barrier to deficit spending as long as it takes place within a functional economy – the other policy idea he dismisses all too easily is that of engineering inflation at around the 4-6 % level through quantitative easing (not the same, I should stress as deficit spending/investment on public services/infrastructure).

[10] That is not to say that countering the Tories credit card imagery was ever easy.  Such a metaphor fits neatly with Lakoff’s concept of the two central metaphors contesting the grounds in US politics:  the strict father vs. the nurturing father.  In these terms, it might be argued that Conservatives currently have the upper hand because the strict father metaphor has a hold, and it may be that Labour has to deliberately develop nurturing metaphors of its own as a way to ‘sell’ investment as a social good rather than a profligacy.

[11] I remember well Hazel Blears castigating me in a CLP meeting for being too focused on the needs of the poor and the vulnerable.

[12] Of course, cuts to public spending also have indirect effects on the same group, by sucking money out of local economies and delaying recovery, and the weighting of cuts towards deprived areas has made this even more significant when it comes to regional inequalities.

[13] To blow my own trumpet for a second, I’ll add that I was amongst the first to advocate an opposition strategy of focusing on the details of incompetence, and it was my research around the maladministration of the Regional Growth Fund which created the ammunition for an early hit of this kind on Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions.  Unfortunately, while there have been other successes, the strategy was never deployed consistently.

[14] Howard Reed did engage with my reading of Labour’s investment plans, although he suggested I was over-optimistic.   Richard Murphy declined to engage, and continues to hold the view, reflected in Trevor’s Left Futures piece above, that Labour is Tory-lite.

[15] This is a conventional leftwing view. It is arguable that the legitimation of managerialism actually started earlier than this, and is as much a product of the socialist response to technological innovation in mass production as of neoliberalism.  As Peter Hain notes in his new book, Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism is marked by a dismissal of GDH Cole’s proposals for a modern ‘guild socialism’, on the grounds that these are incompatible with mew technologies and mass production.   While Hain seems happy to take Crosland at his work, my own view is that the side-lining of the whole guild tradition is at the roots of today’s mega-unions’ compliance with de-professionalization, especially in public services.

[16] There are vestiges of the old commitment to public service quality.  Ironically, in the face of what came next from the PCS, in 2011 the union asked election candidates to sign up to a pledge heavily focused on the quality of public services.  By 2012, that emphasis appeared to have been lost, as the Workfare programme was critiqued not for what it did to people on benefits, but solely for the effect it had on the workforce.

[17] When the Liberal Conspiracy version of the first part of this two part post appeared, I was called a wide selection of unpleasant names for my supposed treachery, but there was little or no actual counter-argument.  While that’s unimportant in itself, I accept that the provocative tone I adopted in the piece was more about my self-righteousness than any attempt to help forge a better strategy for opposition.

[18] That is not to say that there has been no debate within mainstream Labour about what ‘proper’ public service reform should look like.  The Progress pamphlet Reform in an Age of Austerity (February 2014), for example, is actually quite good on some of the crucial aspects of reform – particularly that it will need to be ‘relationa’ and personalised, but like the IPPR report Condition of Britain (see above) it remains hampered by the self-imposed fiscal straitjacket, within which these worthy ideals are mostly undeliverable.



Reflections on Rotherham: part 2 of 3

September 8, 2014 1 comment

Introduction to part 2

In part 1 of this critical engagement Professor Alexis Jay’s report on Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) in Rotherham, the focus was mainly on the factors which drove the upsurge in CSE in the late 1990s and 2000s, rather than the council’s and other agencies’ response to that upsurge.  Clearly, though, the way in which those ‘external’ factors took effect during the period had an effect on the appropriateness, or otherwise, of the response by those agencies.

In part 1, I made two main points in particular about the weaknesses in the Jay report in respect of these factors.  Here in part 2, I’ll expand somewhat on the implications of these, and of how the reports interprets them, before moving on to the ‘internal’ institutional dynamics of the agencies response to CSE, and will again suggest that the analysis by Jay is inadequate, and indeed potentially counterproductive at a national level, given her new role as adviser to the public inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse announced in July.

In part 3, I’ll move on to what I think is the biggest conceptual flaw in the Jay report – the failure to grasp what community development actually is  – and I’ll finish with an assessment of what does actually need to be done to stop and prevent the growth of CSE (and child abuse more generally), and offer some suggestions on how we might move in that direction.  Needless to say, these suggestions won’t involve manadatory reporting, which is at best a distraction, or fabricating evidence so that staff can be disciplined, as the MP for Rotherham is now apparently suggesting.  Sadly, Labour has been utterly useless in its response so far, and this is my attempt to help it respond better, before it is too late.

Ethnicity and political correctness

In part 1 I suggested that the report lacked the courage of some of its convictions about the “issue of ethnicity” (as one of the report chapters is entitled), with Jay going to lengths to say that ethnicity cannot possibly be seen as a predictor of child abuse perpetration, before backtracking and accepting that future work to combat CSE may have to confront ‘cultural issues’.  I then set out an alternative way of approaching the matter, in a way that not only allows for a ‘race-blind’ approach to tackling CSE, but which is actually more effective because it is race-blind i.e. it is not caught up by extraneous issues of ethnicity, but focuses on the actual material circumstances which are predictive of CSE [1].

This is important stuff because, if we accept that race-blind intervention to stop and then prevent CSE is not only possible but more effective than ethnicity-focused intervention [2], much of the criticism, itself based in the report on little more than hearsay, that police, council staff and councillors betrayed children because they weren’t courageous enough to ‘take on political correctness’ – becomes an irrelevance.

Maybe, just maybe, the managers and councillors were correct in their approach. Maybe, just maybe, being politically correct can be correct in terms of lived outcomes as well as votes.

That’s not to say that sending the Home Office researcher off on diversity training course for using the word ‘Asian’ in a report was the correct thing to do; this does sound cack-handed, as it is pretty well impossible to imagine a Home Office researcher into CSE having anything other than a good understanding of diversity issues, and therefore open to a reasonable debate, based on the kind of evidence I produced in part one about circumstance being the overriding predictor, about whether her approach was reasonable.   Her mistreatment, though, may have more to do with the dominant masculine managerialism referred to in the Jay report (and which I analyse below) than with the fact that she was right and they were wrong about the fundamentals of the best way to tackle the CSE epidemic.

Maybe it was the other way round.  Maybe the managers were right.  Maybe she was wrong.

Let”s be blunt, then. Even though the report hedges it is bets – “Recommendation 14 reads: The issue of race should be tackled as an absolute priority if it is a significant factor in the criminal activity of organised child sexual abuse in the Borough)” – this very hedging means that the media and popular reaction to the report has focused on the need to overcome political correctness and focus on ethnicity a way to prevent further abuse.

The Jay report may therefore end up doing children currently being exploited and at risk of exploitation more harm than good.

The perfect storm: external meets internal

Also in part 1, suggested that a key weakness in the Jay report – though this may have more to do with the terms of reference and timescales than Jay and her team’s own capacities – is the failure to assess why the incidence of CSE has risen.  My own answer to this question is linked to the argument above about circumstance over ethnicity, and argues that the rise of mobile and social media technology, plus the easy availability of internet porn as a progressively misogynsing factors [link to Us article], creates both the ‘motivation’ and opportunity to develop exploitative techniques.  Jay’s relative failure to assess the surge in incidence feeds into the over-emphasis on ethnicity.  It also incidentally allows her a route out of commenting properly on the horribly inequitable funding of the council as a whole; while she notes the 33% loss of spending power in Rotherham in comparison with 4.8% in Buckinghamshire (para 12.14) , there is no recommendation as to what might be done about such clear inequity.

But this is just one part the ‘perfect storm’ that hit those principally and statutorily responsible for protecting children – frontline social workers.   The other factors which hit children’s social care staff in the crucial period were understaffing – I’m not sure how any council department might be expected to operate with a vacancy rate of 43% (para 12.2) – and the rampant managerialism which took hold of public services delivery in the 1990s and 2000s.

I should be clear what I mean by managerialism, a term not used in the Jay report itself but which I use here to reflect the kind of events she describes (but doe not fully analyse) in her report..  I mean the ideologically-motivated assumption that if public services (indeed services of any kind) are subject to improved management targets and controls, then the quality of that services is bound to improve.  This assumption, as Chris Dillow has set out on his blog and in his fine book New Labour and the folly of managerialism is wrong, not least because what may be gained through ‘efficiencies’ is lost through diminished professional/worker autonomy.

This we can see from the Jay report, is precisely what happened in Rotherham in the 2000s.   The account at paras 6.21-6.24 about how social worker time was remorselessly squeezed away from both preventative and vital followup work is not just an account of understaffing.  When I asked frontline social workers in my area about this section, they actually burst out laughing at the idea that there might not have been downward pressure to increase “throughput” (the beautifully managerial term used by Jay at para. 6.23); of course frontline professionals would deny that they had submitted to such pressures, they told me, as that would make them look unprofessional in the eyes of Jay’s team (and therefore open to disciplinary measures for loss of professional standards), but of course they will have submitted to pressures – how, if there were no such pressures, would have the question of such pressure have arisen in the first place?

Perhaps even more revealingly, Jay covers the role played by Barnardo’s in the removal of professional autonomy, through the introduction of a “numeric scoring system” (para 6.38).  Jay detiails how, while managers may claim otherwise in their interviews (again, understandably in the view of possible sanctions), frontline social workers make it quite clear that there was little room for them to exercise professional judgment and override the scoring system where they felt the scoring was underplaying the actual risk at which children found themselves.

Again, I asked experienced children’s social workers, with whom I come into contact for me work, what they thought of these paragraphs in the Jay report (they had not read the report at that stage, so I paraphrased Jay but referred specifically to the Barnardo’s scoring system, which is well-known and in widespread use.  These colleagues answered to the effect that the Barnardo’s scoring model is deficient not just because it doesn’t, of itself, allow for professional judgment alongside the scoring, but that professional judgment is actively excluded by the insistence on the need, within the scoring process, for concrete evidence.

The (recent) example I was given of a teenage girl who had been found by police (involved in other crime detection work) on an edge-of-town caravan park, miles from home, and in a place unfamiliar to her family.  There was no evidence that she was on that night subject to sexual exploitation and so, despite the putting of two and two together by social workers, the risk assessment as scored downplayed a risk obvious to pretty well everybody involved in the case.

It is not always thus.  One of the local authorities that my work connects with had looked at the Barnardo’s mode in the mid-2000s and, because they remained open to some real frontline social worker interaction, had chosen not to go with the ‘best practice’ Barnardo’s model, but instead asked frontline social workers to develop their own model for standardised assessment.

What to make of all this?  Well, the first thing to mention is the level of control that Barnado’s, a voluntary sector organisation dominated by a controversial Chief Executive, appear to have had not only over Rotherham but across a swathe of local authorities in England.  While a voluntary organisation in legal definition, Barnardo’s size and capacity to undercut smaller organisations and in-house provision, combined with its clever marketing means that it has become something of an untouchable. Even here, where the finger has been pointed at Barnardo’s for the introduction of a scoring model which is demonstrably not ‘best practice’, or even good practice, the (otherwise very good) Rotherham Council response to the Jay report continues to refer to it in these hallowed terms, and to make clear that it use will continue.  Here is not the place to delve in detail into the relationship between Barnardo’s (and its arc-rival NCH) and the state, but it is worth stressing that if you are going to act effectively as an arm of the state,  then you really need to be held to the same standards as the state.  On this occasion, at least, this hasn’t happened.

The second, broader, point to make about this section of the Jay report is that, while Jay set out well the way frontline social worker were subject to managerialist influences to the detriment of their professional judgement [3], she probably fails to reach the correct conclusions on the basis of these findings.  Instead of pointing out how the managerialism which spread across local authorities in the 1990s and 2000s at the expense of professional autonomy – some of this because of contracting out to bodies like Barnardo’s – may have caused the practice failures she uncovers, Jay instead opts for another broad explanatory factor: the aggressive. ‘macho’ culture which dominated the council in the same period.   Yet no direct link is apparent between this macho culture and poor practice outcomes for children.

It seems to me that a more indirect explanation is brought forward while an indirect one is ignored, either because it is inconvenient or – I suspect more likely – the idea that managerialism night be a problem lies beyond Professor Jay’s conceptual paradigm of how a local authority should operate.  This is not to say that councillor and senior officer misogyny and aggression did played no part in what happened, but it is also possible that this cultural aspect of the council’s failure was fed and watered by the ideological and institutional factors which came into local government from Thatcher onwards, whereby management efficiencies become more important than professional relationships in a way which then fostered ‘black box’-style – I don’t care how the target is met, just meet the target – approaches to management [4].

Again, this is not just esoteric wondering about the background causes to the Rotherham failures; establishing why the failures happened is essential to ensuring that they don’t happen in future.  If the public eqnuiry on which Professor Jay will act as a key adviser and is chaired by a key proponent of privatization, accepts her analysis that macho, male-dominated councils are at the heart of the problem, then the solution will lie in human resources practice to ensure that more women are in top positions and /or that macho practice is trained and developed out of people.  If, as I contend we should, the key problem is actually that professional autonomy has been stripped away from professionals (and from professional training), then the answers lie elsewhere.  This will be a key battleground in the inquiry process, but at the moment the managerialists hold the higher ground.

That’s enough for part 2.  Part 3, covering the key conceptual failure of the Jay report, and recommendations for action on the part of those willing to think and act in the interests of children, as opposed to the need to be seen to be angry, will follow soon.



[1] There is a straight analogy with the application of English law here.  The basic principle is that an offender is prosecuted for an offence, not for the type of offender s/he is, although when assessing the level of offence it is leigtimate to take into account other offences committed to establing an offending pattern.  It seems odd therefore, for people interested in ‘British values’ to be arguing that there should be a focus on offender profiling rather than offence profiling when it comes to CSE.

[2] Another question arises here about the ‘issue of ethnicity”:  if CSE were in fact ethnic culture-driven, rather than circumstance-driven, what would we actually do about it?  Is Jay actually suggesting that priority should be given to changing culture in some way, over and above measures to intervene tactically in the circumstances which we know actually create CSE opportunities?  If so, this would seem to be anti-PC gone maaaad, a desperate attempt to paficy the Islam-correlates-with-rape crowd at the expense of children’s futures?

[3] It occurs to me that this may seem like too strong a defence of frontline social workers.  After all, whatever managerialist influences they were subject to, they are still professionals, with professional standards, so should n’t we have expected them to stand up better to their bosses.  The answer to this question is yes, we should, but my argument here (as elsewhere) is that moral condemnation of staff – and their sacking – does nothing about professional competence in the long term; we need to establish why and how professional didn’t feel able to act up to professional standards, and a failure to do so will be a like act of gross political failure (as well as failure in social work training, which i’ll cover in part 3)

Here is not the place to go into loss of professional ethics and standards in detail, other than to say that there is a rich seam of ressearch literature on the subject, for those politically professional enough to engage with it.  It’s called, broadly, Implementation Studies, and starts with the seminal work of Michael Lipsky (1980), which details how frontline professionals move, in certain circumstances, from autonomy and advocacy towards alienation and disregard for their clients as whole human beings.  It ends, for me at least for now, with this detailed qualitiative study of how even Finnish welfare professionals are subject to managerialism and see their work get worse as a result.

[4] The best read I know on this post-Thatcher trend, other than Chris Dillow’s book, is Gerry Stoker’s (2004) Transforming Local Governance: From Thatcherism to New Labour.  Here’s how he summaries managerialism:

Managerialism……..began in the 1980s and 1990s to take an increasingly strong hold in local government.  This ideology saw political leadership as important in setting direction but beyond that a potential source of inefficiency.  Politicians should set goals but not dictate the means to achieve them. The key to managerialism is its emphasis on the right of managers to mange against inappropriate interference from politicians or, for that matter, the special pleading of professional groups (p.13, my italics)



The early institution building of a new NHS

March 25, 2013 2 comments

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.

Is this the next stage of the NHS privatisation plan?

January 14, 2013 Leave a comment

The online social enterprise community – of which I may now well be an honorary member – has had some debate about the importance or otherwise of the Secretary of State for Health’s recent definition, for the first time in English law, of what it is to be a social enterprise, which I covered here, and originally here.

David at Beanbags and Bullshit gives links and a good overview of the debate, which boils down to different views on whether the definition set out in the new Healthwatch regulations will come to act as precedent, replicated in other legislation and  in broader NHS (and other departmental) policy, or whether it’s strictly focused on the very narrow, and relatively unimportant issue (given their lack of real power) of who will get to run Local Healthwatches.

To date, my own position on this has been simply “I don’t know”.  On the one hand, it has been difficult to work out how exactly this new definition might be used as a lever for privatisation of NHS services.   On the other, it’s  a puzzle as to why the Department of Health would go to so much trouble expanding the usual conception of social enterprise to include private firms as long as they don’t take out more than 50% from profits in any one financial year, unless there was some kind of plan to expand its use beyond the financially unimportant Healthwatch scheme.

However, the news emerging about Monitor’s Fair playing Field recommendation, that private health firms should become exempt from corporation tax on their NHS profits, has me leaning a little towards the latter interpretation, namely that the Healthwatch regulations form part of some devilishly clever scheme.

I find it difficult to believe that Osborne will find it politically feasible to stand up at the next budget and announce this new tax break in the face of a popular swell against tax avoidance, however much it might be sold on the grounds that Any Qualified Provider private firms currently suffer from unfavourable cost terms when compared with the NHS itself.  That would surely be too risky as a confirmation of whose side the Tories are on.

But if the tax break is dressed up as an incentive for social enterprise, tapping into the government fairly well developed narrative on the virtues of mutualism and pointing to existing ex-NHS staff mutuals as an example, but conveniently leaving out the detail of how social enteprises are legally defined nowadays, Osborne,  Hunt and the private health lobbyists may well feel its worth a go as part of the pre-election scorched earth strategy.

Or maybe that’s a conspiracy theory too far. I still don’t know.

If I’m right, you heard it here first.  If I’m not, then it’s simply the usual omnishambles, ok?


ps.  I ‘m thinking of doing a Freedom of Information request on the consultation responses and meetings which fed into the Healthwatch regulations, to try to ascertain to what extent the private health lobbyists were at work.  Has anyone else reading this done one, or are they interested in doing so?

The SWP meltdown, institutional legitimacy and the broader lesson for the left

January 14, 2013 6 comments

Laurie Penny thinks the SWP’s handling of rape allegations reflects badly on all of us, and that the SWP are only different because they are more open about their misogynist structures:

Other groups are not so brazen as to say that their moral struggles are simply more important than piffling issues of feminism, even if that’s what they really mean, nor to claim that as right-thinking people they and their leaders are above the law. The SWP’s leadership seem to have written it into their rules.

Actually, there’s no “seem” about it.  The leadership being above the law is written into the rules of the SWP.  That’s what makes it a self-declared Leninist revolutionary socialist party.  As SWP head boy Charlie Kimber makes clear in his comments at Harry’s place:

We live in what remains a profoundly sexist society, as is shown by the sex abuse scandals and cover-ups in mainstream institutions such as the BBC and the police. However, the SWP is not an institution of capitalist society but fights for the overthrow of the system. Our party has a proud tradition of fighting for women’s liberation, as is shown, for example, by our consistent campaigning over the decades to defend abortion, and by our criticism of George Galloway for his remarks about the Julian Assange rape accusations. Reflecting this tradition, our internal structures seek to promote women to leading roles and deal rigorously with any action by any member that is harmful or disrespectful of women (my emphasis).

That is to say, the SWP is committed, as a point of founding principle, to not engaging with the criminal justice system, but to handling “harmful or disrespectful” actions through its “internal structures”, which it regards as inherently superior to the legal institutions of the capitalist state.   Phil at AVPS makes the point very well:

[T]his crisis was precipitated entirely by the SWP’s own actions, but from the off they were caught in a bind  provided by their own revolutionary conceit.  If you’re in the business of  prosecuting class struggle to the point of the overthrow of capital, and you believe it is your party’s destiny to lead the working class in revolt, as far  as behaviour, misconduct and crimes committed by party members are concerned the  party is the sovereign body for pronouncing on questions of truth and guilt, of  sanction and punishment. Within the terms of party morality and the closed-loop  universe of the SWP’s particular form of revolutionary identity politics, they did the right thing investigating the allegations.

To be honest, I’ve never quite got how this works in practice, as there seem to be an awful lot of capitalist institutions that the SWP membership does engage with.  Rumour has it that it’s got a large property portfolio, and I’m pretty sure SWP members get around on Virgin Trains and the like.  Which institution it’s legitimate to engage with while organising for its downfall does seem a bit selective.

The key point, though, is that the SWP is not falling apart now because it didn’t call in the police; it’s falling apart because the justice system it used instead of the capitalist one apparently proved to be completely useless, in both senses of the term.  That is, it apparently wasn’t very well run (I won’t repeat the contended details here) but, even if it had been, the problem would still have remained that, in the event of a guilty verdict, there’d have been no way to mete out appropriate justice; the usual sentence for one of rape is one of imprisonment, but as far as I know the SWP don’t have any prisons.

In other words, the SWP has set out its stall as being a kind of state, operating within and against the capitalist state, but lacks most of the things that go to make up a state.

Now you can argue (as Laurie Penny might if she understood a bit more what does make the SWP different from other groups), that it is the very selectivity about what bits of the capitalist state to opt out of which betrays its misogynist heart – and I do wonder whether the party would have the same courage of its own institutions if the accusation had been, say, child abuse rather than rape.  That’s fair enough.

But I also wonder if there’s a wider learning point for the radical left in its anti-capitalist struggle, whether it be via “revolutionary” or “evolutionary” means.

What this sad episode, and the likely fall out shows us clearly enough is that, unless credible institutions which command widespread respect and are therefore seen as legitimate are in place before the borgeous institutions are torn down (or bypassed), then those same bourgeois institutions are likely to return in strengthened form, and with increased popular support.  There’s a glimpse of that in Laurie Penny’s own appeal to the sanctity of the law – not something you’d normally associate with her radical leanings – when it’s juxtaposed to the SWP’s own tawdry process.

This is not, of course, a novel insight.  We see fine solidaristic principle, followed by failure of legitimacy, and then mutual recrimination and lessened solidarity, everywhere we look.  The power of financial capitalism has been strengthened-by-scapegoat since the crisis, because there was no alternative system ready to replace it.  The anti-cuts campaigns have failed to date because there is not sufficient legitimacy in an alternative decision-making process to ensure that both elected representatives and officials have both the duty and the backing to deliver an alternative that sticks.  People going to job centres are treated poorly because unions have not yet been able to make their calls for solidarity with the workless more legitimate than the managerial directives imposed on staff.

All of which leads me to conclude that, ultimately, the left will only be any use at the grand scale if it gets over the self-imposed distinction (and accompanying hatreds) between revolution and evolution, and accepts that the quiet building of legitimate socialist institutions* in parallel with capitalist institutions, ready to replace them when the time comes, as just as much part of the struggle, and that the devotees of GDH Cole and RH Tawney are just as revolutionary, in their way, as those of Trotsky and Lenin.

*As a quick personal note: I was a member of the SWP briefly in the mid-1980s, taken in by the convincing rhetoric and (to me) new analysis of some very eloquent speakers and writers. I left when I was told that I needed to move my trade union stewardship focus away from the nitty-gritty of supporting workers in their workplace to defend their terms and conditions, defend them at disciplinaries etc.., in favour of more “revolutionary” activity.  When the time came to strike, the hospital I worked and organized at had a much bigger turnout than other places supposedly more under SWP inflluence.


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