John Curtice thought Labour might lose anything between 120 and 220 seats in the May 2016 local elections. In fact, the net loss was 18, principally to Lib Dem and UKIP candidates.
So why was the prediction, based on the extrapolation of local results from the national share, quite a long way out?
I think the main answer is staring us in the face, and it seems odd that no-one appears to have mentioned it yet. I also think it’s good news for supporters of Corbyn.
So this is my take, based on my own local election experience. (But if tl;dr applies – we did well because we had better candidates than we used to).
This morning, I had a really good meeting with two council officers and one of our five new West Lancashire Labour councillors. We were talking about environmental issues in and around her ward (I don’t represent that ward, but was wearing my Resources Innovation Adviser).
She was a delight to have in the meeting. She knows everywhere. She knows all the local groups. She knows lots of council officers already. She knows funding stuff. She knows how to set up a CIC. She gets stuff done.
She joined the party just recently, after Corbyn stood for the leadership. She was selected to stand for council not because she’d done years in the party, but because she’s so bloody good. I’m good at all this stuff. She’s really good.
She’s one of five new Labour councillors around here. Twelve months ago I’d never met any of them.
But they all won, all with increased majorities over their opponents, because they are all well-known people in their area, all social activists in very different ways, but never before active in party politics. They won because they were massively the better candidate in their own ward. One such candidate took a previously safe Tory rural seat- just like I did all those years ago – because she was by miles the best candidate. Voters are not stupid.
They all won selection to be a candidate because they were good, not because they’d done their time or because they were another councillor’s son or daughter.
If I were to ascribe socio-economic class, I’d say three are working class, one is working class become middle class because of doing really well at school, and one is middle class. None of them are parachuted in posh boys/girls, and none are ‘connected’ to the party from previously.
West Lancashire Labour party is now a world away from what it was twelve month ago. It exudes confidence. It excuses competence. But more than anything, it exudes a commitment to social activism which goes way beyond the narrow confines of the council chamber, and ends up cleaning out rivers, chairing housing groups, campaigning for equal pay, representing people at risk Universal Credit sanctions (that’s me, that one).
And it’s the Corbyn revolution that’s made this happen in my area. Not all of them support Corbyn explicitly, but the all joined/stood up to engage in party politics because they understood a year ago that the party was changing, and there were new opportunities to enhance their existing social activism by engaging with the party political process.
Whatever the media says about the Corbynistas being committed Trots, out to take over the party infrastructure is – with the possible exception of one or two big Momentum branches within easy reach of central London – is utter garbage. The real Corbynistas are these people.
This doesn’t mean to say it’s like this everywhere. If it was, we’d have won a lot more seats than we did. In places like Thurrock, where we did badly to UKIP, I suspect the party has not been able to open up to new blood.
But overall, my sense – in line with Corbyn’s instincts and Phil’s commonsense – is that of a party heading in the right direction – opening up to new positive faces and influences, and genuinely moving beyond politics as usual. This trend will continue, and if the NEC and regional HQs can catch up with and then help replicate best practice and best culture from places like Bristol and Exeter, sbsequent local election results will really start to improve overall. More importantly, these local results stand a better chance of then being replicated in the 2020 general election, because voters will identify the link between the new form of local politics and the national leadership which fostered it.
The big downside risk, of course, is that the door may be slammed shut on these new influences by the parts of the party who feel their old power base most threatened – not because they wish the party harm for the most part, but because they are now too blinkered to see the results for what they are – good candidates beating worse candidates in the places those good candidates got to stand.
So no, the results on Thursday weren’t great in themselves, but what they presage might just be, whatever maths the gainsayers do.
She shuddered with the evidence that time was not passing, as she had just admitted, but that it was turning in a circle (chapter 17)
I’ve not written on Corbynism for the first 100 days. I missed its early rise so spectacularly that I decided a period of silence, humility and reflection on why I had done so , and more importantly what Corbynism actually is, was warranted.
Here, 100 days on (and 101 days tomorrow) are my first reflections on what Corbynism isn’t, what it is – though Jeremy Corbyn may not well know it – and what promised land it may just offer British socialism.
Or not, depending on whether the British left decides that time has actually passed, or whether it should go in a big 40 year circle of diminishing returns.
What Corbyism isn’t
82 odd days into my 100 days of reflective solitude, and having started to come to some conclusions, I went to listen and perhaps engage with self-proclaimed intellectual activists at the heart of Corbynism.
The event, held at the woolly-left think tank premises of the New Economics Foundation was entitled Corbynism (and what Laclau & Mouffe would tell us about it). It was just awful, both in its organisation and in its content. There was no visible chair to invite and moderate contributions, and the principle contributors simply rambled on about the failures of New Labour and how the rise of Corbyn was a great moment for the British left, on which it should now seize. Laclau & Mouffe were hardly referenced , and the contribution of the one speaker who did try to interpret Corbynism through a Gramscian lens was soon lost in the to and fro between others who had less focus on the subject supposedly at hand.
The way the seminar was conducted meant I couldn’t bear to stay for the last hour but, from what I saw, I got the impression that those with most intellectual clout in analysing the rise of Corbynism, and therefore in steering its course over the next few months, are doing so with the worn out tools of the 1970s and 1980s. They are also using the tools badly.
I’d describe the analysis at the meeting as ‘sub-Gramscian’, stripped off all the finesse that Perry Anderson & Tom Nairn and brought to it in the 1960s and 1970s , and now little more than a vague and in-vain aspiration to a ‘counter-hegemonic electoral coalition of the dispossessed and the partly-dispossessed. Gone, it seems, was any real appreciation that Gramsci was largely writing about the defeat of the left, and of the current hegemonic power over culture and ‘common sense’.
Indeed, such was the reductionism that, ironically, this aspiration to a new electoral coalition did not sound too far removed from the much-maligned Tony Blair’s recent defence of his own – in the electoral and social context of the late 1990s – rather successful coalition building:
Above all, in a society in which fewer and fewer people thought of themselves as traditional working class, we needed to build a new coalition between the aspirant up and coming and the poorest and most disadvantaged.
This was just one awful meeting, but the impression that this where ‘mainstream’ intellectual Corbynism is at the moment is confirmed by other reading .
Doreen Massey’s editorial for Soundings, for example, written shortly after Corbyn’s election as leader, sets out her hopes for what groupings might come together to create a new (counter)-hegemonic force via the enactment of Laclau and Mouffe’s “political tasks” (these being the development of “identifiable commonalities” and “chains of equivalence” such that a common enemy is identified. It’s worth quoting at some length:
There is no doubt that Corbyn’s support draws together many flows. It draws together young and old, long histories and new initiatives. It encompasses elements both of the labour movement and of new social movements. It is definitely not only ‘the young’, as it was initially, rather lazily, labelled. The presence of young people is marked, but so too is the presence of the over-60s (a potentially positive constellation that might help get us beyond the supposed battle between generations). It brings together Generation Rent – priced out of the housing market and let down by the Liberal Democrats over university tuition fees; disillusioned
Labour voters coming back to the fold after years in the Blairite wilderness; and people who marched against the war in Iraq only to feel that it had made no difference.
Then there are those in ‘the squeezed middle’ who see their standard of living dropping year on year whilst that of the wealthy mushrooms; the environmentalists who see the chance to move climate crisis higher up the actual political agenda; the ballooning precariat who are no longer buying the line that it’s their fault; people who see corporations not paying their tax, and the privileges of the 1% swelling, whilst everyone else pays through ‘austerity’. There is a politics here that speaks to people using food banks, pensioners whose pension is not enough to live on, and victims of social cleansing forced to move away from their homes. And there are more constituencies than this, many of them overlapping.
Among these new constituencies there are also connections with some of the most innovative moments in socialist democracy over the past fifty years: the anti-racism, feminism and peace movements from the 1960s onwards; that great experiment in popular democracy, the metropolitan counties of the urban left and the GLC (Greater London Council); and the contemporary wave of experimental activism, from alter-globalisation to Occupy.
That’s a long list. In fact, it’s just about everybody who’s not a capitalist exploiter. And it’s not just long. It’s a list deliberately set in the context of the attempts, a generation or two ago, to do exactly the same thing as is proposed now.
This catch-all aspiration to anti-Tory coalition begs a simple question. How on earth, if the counter-hegemonic project didn’t work back then (except in small New Urban Left pockets, for short periods), will such a counter-hegemonic project work this time around?
The answer is also simple. It won’t.
Pretending that the Corbyn leadership will magically create the kind of social and political solidarities amongst groups of citizens who currently feel not just that they have nothing in common but who now actively oppose the others’ interests – as a result of a hegemony of the right only reinforced by the financial crisis and now a security crisis – is simply wishful thinking.
We live in an age of – to use Anthony Giddens’ term – of deep ‘ontological security’, much deeper than that of 30 years ago. As I explored a little while ago, the question of what’s wrong with our politics can and perhaps should be recast as a (Rieffian) question about what is so wrong with all of us.
In such insecure times, Doreen’s vision of an end to the “retail politics” of New Labour and a switch to a “notion of campaigning to change what the electorate might want, to argue for values, and understandings of the world, that may not be popular now but are what the party (says it) stands for” (p.7), reflects a well-meant but hopelessly outdated concept of false consciousness amongst the masses, which can be overcome through a series of courageous political acts and educational endeavours.
This concept of false consciousness, and the consequent imperative of political education of the masses, may have had some validity before the onset of late ‘capitalist realism’, but from Adorno & Horkheimer onwards both socialists and conservative intellectuals have, and with varying degrees of cultural pessimism, come to the conclusion that realism is either inescapable, and humanly bearable only by an alienation from our true ourselves and submission to capitalism’s material and/or ‘moral’ authority, or escapable only via some form of postmodern ‘lucidity pact’ with the capitalist devil.
I will explore this failure of analysis by the sub-Gramscian Corbynistas more in future blogs (and the book-to-be), particularly on how any attempt to recreate the occasionally successful-in-the-short-term, but overall failed attempt of the 1980s counter-hegemonic strategy for a rainbow coalition of interest and identity groups is doomed to failure in a context, 30 years on, of massive ‘ontological security’ and atomization of the working class.
Suffice to say, for now, that those professing to analyses Corbynism through a Gramsican lens seem to me to be confirming what Gramsci himself had to say about why those on the left who seek to oppose the successful hegemonic strategies of the right by appropriating the right’s techniques, but without the material power to combat the ‘ideological apparatuses’ (to borrow a post-Gramsci term) ranged against them. The occasional unexpected victory (e.g. Corbyn’s leadership win), says Gramsci, has the counter-productive effect of making the left think it can win on the right’s terms:
[T]he social group in question may indeed have its own conception of the world, even if only embryonic; a conception which manifests itself in action, but occasionally and in flashes — when, that is, the group is acting as an organic totality. But this same group has, for reasons of submission and intellectual subordination, adopted a conception which is not its own but is borrowed from another group; and it affirms this conception verbally and believes itself to be following it, because this is the conception which it follows in ‘normal times’ — that is when its conduct is not independent and autonomous, but submissive and subordinate. Hence the reason why philosophy cannot be divorced from politics. And one can show furthermore that the choice and the criticism of a conception of the world is also a political matter (p.23)
In shorter terms: the right won. We lost. The right is much stronger politically and culturally than it was 30 years ago. Combatting it on its own hegemonic terrain will fail, and just make us weaker. The new sub-Gramsci intellectuals of Corbynism need to get real.
What Corbynism is, or at least can be
That’s Corbyn #100. Tomorrow, with Corbyn #101, I move on from the doom and gloom. I think Corbyn, and Corbynism, do constitute a great moment of opportunity for the left – just not the kind of opportunity either Corbyn or most of the Corbynista are currently aware of, mostly because they’ve not read enough books, like what I have. I think the opportunities are much greater than the Gramscians think, but it will take a wholesale revolution in British leftwing thinking (and consequent action) if we are to seize them.
 In my meagre defence, I missed the early rise of the Corbyn factor because I don’t live in an area which felt anything like Corbynmania, which was by and large restricted to London and other ‘metropolitan’ areas.
 My going to London in the first place was inspired by my twitter comrade @RF_McCarthy’s inspired suggestion of waiting to get to the point where someone crassly misinterpreted Chantal Mouffe’s work, then producing her from behind a wall in the manner of Woody Allen producing Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall. I wrote to Chantal, but for some reason she ignored me.
 Another explicitly Gramscian expression of hope around early Corbynism come from Ken Spours, in his analysis of Osborne’s continuing hegemony
At this point Corbynism could be seen as constituting a ‘primitive political bloc’, designed to mobilise the Left, Greens and a new wave of young people to provide the Labour Party with a sense of vitality and moral and political purpose following a catastrophic defeat. Its primitivism lies in the combination of the enthusiasm and mobilisation for a clear anti-austerity position and the fact that its politics is not yet sufficient to build a comprehensive and effective progressive counter bloc. Moving beyond primitivism involves, among other things, recognising that bloc autonomy can only be momentary and that the real aim should not be independence and the comfort of political identity (although these may have a valid function in 2015), but the more difficult and longer-term exercise of hegemony in the conditions of the 21st century.
John Gray enjoys an anti-Corbyn rant in the New Statesman this week. I particularly enjoyed the accusation that Corbyn is planning to murder millions of us so as to secure a better future:
[T]he view of politics he [Corbyn] professes, which sounds so invigoratingly unorthodox today, was thoroughly commonplace then. The ruling ideology on the bien-pensant left was a version of what George Orwell in 1945 called catastrophic gradualism – the theory that nothing can be achieved in politics without bloodshed, tyranny, lies and injustice; the only way to a better future is by sacrificing the current generation of human beings.
But it was this bit which really took my eye:
There has long been a tendency in the murkier depths of European politics, including sections of the left, to suspend moral judgement in regard to groups that harbour active terrorists, homophobes and Holocaust deniers and to excuse anti-Semitism on the grounds that those who display it are involved in legitimate struggles. That this strange tolerance can surface at the top of Labour is new and ruptures the party’s deep links with the British liberal tradition. For the first time in its history, a serious question must be asked as to whether Labour can be trusted to promote civilised values (my emphasis).
This seems a little at odds with what Gray writes in Enlightenment’s Wake (1995), his critique of the attempt by ‘the Enlightenment project’ to impose a universal liberalism on the world:
That is to say that it [Gray’s ‘value pluralism project’ to counter ‘the Enlightenment project’ he so hates] affirms the ultimate validity of a diversity of polities, moralities, forms of government and economy and of fairly and social life – of a diversity of cultural forms, in short. And this is not the fathomlessly shallow cultural diversity that is invoked in the professionally deformed discourse of numberless academic seminars on race and gender, with its tacit agenda of global cultural homogenization on the US model; but rather the real diversity of historical practices, often agonistically constituted, of which subordination, exclusion and closure of options are – in liberal forms of life no less than in others – essential elements (p.126-7).
This seems to me a much stronger argument for the ‘suspension of moral judgment’. against the active promotion of “civilized values”, and in tacit favour of ‘subordinating’, ‘exclusionary’ regimes, than Jeremy Corbyn has put forward to date.
I don’t think much of Enlightenment’s Wake overall, not least because it actively refuses to engage with Habermas’ then ongoing efforts to construct a new basis for Enlightenment rationality and democratic polity by way of a universal pragmatics of communication* (though I do think he offers some useful insights along the way)
But I had assumed that Gray genuinely believed in his own intellectual trajectory, however flawed it might be by that lack of engagement with communicative theory. Perhaps not. Perhaps he really is the David Starkey of philosophy.
*I suppose it’s possible he simply never bothered to read the harder bits of Habermas, and relied on others’ simplistic summaries.
Philip Rieff is for days like today:
The spiritualizers have had their day; nowadays, the best among them appear engaged in a desperate strategy of acceptance, in the hope that by embracing doctrinal expressions of therapeutic aims they will be embraced by the therapeutics; a false hope – the therapeutics need no doctrines,only opportunities. But the spiritualizers persist in trying to maintain cultural contact with constituencies deconverted in all but name.
Philip Rieff (1966), The Triumph of the Therapeutic, p.16
Decision time for the Labour leadership and deputy leadership election is upon me.
This is my final choice, barring very unexpected events before I actually do the online business:
1st preference: Corbyn
2nd preference: Kendall
No other preferences
1st preference: Creasy
2nd preference: Eagle
No other preferences
The reasoning for my preferences can be summed up thus.
1) I take issue with a number of his stated policy positions, especially the emergent so-called Corbynomics of ‘People’s Quantitative Easing’, which I consider to be a sop to deficit fetishism. He has also had pretty well nothing to say about empowerment of grassroots activists and local parties. In isolation, the Corbyn offer is a disappointing one.
2) I am not, in my own mind therefore, a supporter of the candidate Jeremy Corbyn.
3) What I am a supporter of of the genuine grassroots movement which has made him a possible winner of the leadership contest. I was wrong about Corbyn having no chance of winning, and that his candidacy was therefore a distraction from the real task in hand – the building of a grassroots movement. As of now, the two have been combined – a grassroots movement has developed, and it looks like he will win because of that. I have fears about what will happen to that movement now if the organisational building blocks are not put in place to sustain it (see below), but it would be illogical – and lacking due humility at my wrongness – to vote against the movement simply because it’s not been constructed the way I think it might have been. Social movements are always and necessarily messy, and are undone as much by the needs of control freaks as they are by that messiness.
4) The organic development of a genuine leftwing movement, and my duty to support that in whatever way I can- currently outweighs my concern that, as and when elected, he will be surrounded by a self-regarding new Bennite elite which has little regard for the movement that got Corbyn to the leadership, and little understanding of how to empower local parties and the local labour movements, such that they are able and willing to push out beyond the narrow territory it now occupies, and develop a political space which extends beyond the current confines of state power. If this concern of a takeover by a new elite is valid, it will fall to me and others to raise the alarm, and to combat it as best we can.
5) I do not know if Jeremy Corbyn will be more unelectable in 2020 than the other candidates on offer. Having failed to predict his current popularity amongst the Labour leadership elecorate, it would be foolish of my to predict whether he will be so bogged down by his ‘IRA-supporting’ (or whatever) past that he is unable to help get a leftwing voice heard at national level, or whether the dynamic of politics has changed so much that his perceived ‘authenticity’ will help him rise above all this.
6) I do not even know whether he will make it to 2020. It may well be that a Corbyn PLP leadership is merely a stepping stone towards the leadership of a candidate for 2020 unsullied by any association with the worst aspect of Blairism. There are several obvious candidates, come 2018-19, who might benefit from the work done under Corbyn to shift the Overton window to the left on what electability and credibility actually mean.
7) Nor, actually, do I care that much. As of now, a Corbyn leadership stands as much chance as making countrywide electoral headway as the leadership of any of the current candidates; predictions to the contrary are largely made by people within Labour who failed, like me, to predict the current movement. My vote is for the movement, not the person.
8) If Corbyn does not make it to 2020, it may be interesting to see if Liz Kendall can shake off her association with the elite Progress project, and return in 2018-19 -if Corbyn does not make it through – with some of her more interesting ideas fleshed out properly; currently she has failed to do so, and a promising middle section to the campaign has been outweighed massively by a disastrous start and and disappointing end. I give her my second preference merely to signify that she did say one or two interesting things, which the other candidates did not.
9) My choice for deputy leader is easier. Stella Creasy is the only candidate thinking creatively about how the labour movement can really engage with the new political dynamic in the country; while I disagree with her on crucial aspects of what power and empowerment actually mean over time (I do not think she grasps that the Iron Law of Oligarchy applies to social movements to), she is at least trying. I do not think she will win this time – and I fear the kind of quasi-statecraft in which Tom Watson will engage – but then nor does she. This campaign is really about setting down markers for the next one. Angela Eagle is my second preference, as she is a patently decent peacemaker within the party, though the deputy leadership will need more than that.
Starting from a case study in public procurement devoid of any sense of reality, but full of the twisted logic of managerialism in times of austerity, I move onto an assessment of how such ridiculous development in public service (non)-delivery might act as a catalyst for a new surge of associative democracy institution building at a local level, which might then act as a bridgehead to wider autnomous re-professionalisation and trade union focus on service function, in the spirit of ‘English pluralist’ activists/writers like RH Tawney, JN Figgis and Paul Hirst, and in keeping with the insights of implementation theorist Michael Lipsky. I also consider how such efforts might be supported by a social work profession in crisis and a Labour party in, erm, its own crisis.
(This is a consolidation with very minor changes of two previous posts, written some weeks apart.)
Here’s the Reverend Giles Fraser on how the police are now the social services of last resort:
The police have to sort stuff out that other people don’t know what to do with, or haven’t got the resources to deal with. Like vicars, they are often the last stop in a game of pass the parcel.
Ah, if only that were true.
This is an excerpt from a specification for a contract recently awarded by a local authority in the North of England:
External Family Support Service contract
The Contractor [to a NW local authority] will provide intense targeted support at short notice to families with multiple and complex needs often in crisis situations where there is a significant risk of children being accommodated by the Local Authority.
The Contractor will be required to provide Family Support hours as and when requested by the Local Authority. Specifically the service will be required outside of normal office hours.
The Contractor will be expected to provide the above hours across seven days per week, including Bank Holidays.
Care for children / young people in their own home in situations where parents may be intoxicated or recovering from minor surgery etc. and unable to meet their children’s needs for a short period of time.
Conduct work with parents to raise their awareness of the impact and consequences of their chaotic lifestyle and behaviour on their children’s physical and emotional welfare.
Leaving aside the bizarre juxtaposition of intoxication and minor surgery as impediment to safe parenting (possibly a copy and paste error, possibly just ignorance), I think it might be agreed that this is quite a challenging contract: available at all hours, going into potentially volatile domestic circumstances, ensuring child safety and then – presumably when parents are sober enough to listen – putting them to rights on their responsibilities.
Yes – as I had to advise a group of senior social workers I showed this excerpt to at a conference – this is a real contract, really awarded by a real local authority, really recently.
How much, then, do you think the contract might be worth, expressed in £ per hour of provision?
When I asked the same group of social workers what a local authority might expect to pay for this work, taking into account of all the management, training and supervision requirements set out in the contract, and assuming that this would be a lone worker service (not, incidentally, something the police would envisage), the first estimate was £100 per hour of intervention. That seemed reasonable, they said, given the complexity of the service. After some ‘lower, lower’ exhortations, they settled on a measly £20 per hour.
This is what the contract specification actually says:
The maximum price permissible to fit within the Council’s affordability envelope is £16.00 per hour for the support and £8.00 per report. This is due to the on-going budget pressures the local authority is currently experiencing.
When I told them the real price, the social workers thought I had made it all up.
But that’s not quite it. The tender exercise also invites bidders to say by what percentage they will reduce their price if they want to get paid on time; this ‘early payment discount’ is an increasingly common feature if local authority contracts.
The upshot is that this local authority has outsourced vital emergency social services work to a provider who may be getting as little as £14 per hour for complex and potentially dangerous work on a 24/7, 365 days a year basis.
Let’s be frank. The service set out in the specification simply cannot be delivered at that price. It’s just impossible. The provider will know that. the local authority knows that (indeed the excerpt above more or less acknowledges it). So what will actually happen is that the contract will be ‘delivered’ on paper, but not in the real world.
In one scenario, the provider staff member may turn up at a flat, they have been referred to by the social services Emergency Duty Team (EDT), who got a call from the police. The provider staff member will call the police, on the basis that it’s too dangerous, and leave – having recorded an hour on her timesheet. The police will call the EDT, just as they did an hour ago…… The vulnerable children may or may not be removed to a ‘place of safety’ under Sec 46 of the Children’s Act 1989. In all likelihood, they won’t be, because within this ‘unreal’ contract there is provision for making the existing place safe.
In fact, in terms of Giles’ concept of “social service of last resort”, it’s no longer the police – it’s a service which doesn’t really exist.
This is just one contract. I could point you to others quite like it. I was told by one local authority commissioning officer dealing with contracts for the implementation of the expanded duties under the Care Act 2014 that there was “no room for quality in this one”: she just had to make sure the right target number of carer assessments etc. were ticked off. When I wrote to another commissioner seeking a small expansion in contract value with a view to bringing real added value to it (this in family support), I got a copy-and-paste legalistc letter warning that we risked breach of contract if we did not comply with the terms. No mention was made of what we were actually offering.
All over the country, providers are gaming contracts, cutting quality, cutting corners, because they have to. Commissioners in their turn prefer not to know this is going on, because it’s easier that way, and service users won’t know any better. This is a product not just of austerity, but also of a collapse of collective responsibility amongst public service professionals, who have been brow-beaten by their managers to the extent that reality is actually what your boss wants it to be, not what’s actually real.
But how do we try and make reality again? How do we turn back the tide of managerialism-of-the-unreal in a time of continued and even greater cuts? Concrete labour movement and civil society organisation proposals come in part II.
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-warEnglish 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 .
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’ , 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 ), 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 , 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 .
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 , 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 theFrontline programme , 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 theFamily Rights Group  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.
 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 buildingbetween 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 essentialistassumption that positive communities are just ‘there’ – an assumption arugably even less validthan it was when it was first dreamed up, or emerged from faith-based discourses such as Catholic Social Teaching)
 See my earlier post on strategic action fields and the development of links to organisations with ‘mutually realisable interests.
 Trades Councils’ constitutions do not allow for official affiliation with the Labour party.
 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.
 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.
 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.