Archive

Archive for the ‘Socialism’ Category

On Corbynism (part 2 of 3)

December 30, 2015 9 comments

habermas picIntroduction to part 2

In part 1, I set out how the British Left’s reliance on Gramsci as principle political inspiration for its 40-50 year long modus operandi is now outdated and even delusional.

Under the alienating condition of late capitalism, I suggested, the idea of successfully addressing ‘false consciousness’, through a process of political education and  efforts to gain political terrain by ‘shifting the narrative’, has become even more implausible than it ever was.  This is not just because power has become ever more concentrated in the wrong hands, but because in a very real sense people living in the conditions of late capitalism are just not the same: they are, in Giddens’ terminology, “ontologically insecure”, and as a result largely now lack a capacity to meet the demands which a Gramsci-inspired revolutionary project would make of them.

Where then, does that leave Corbynism?  My conclusion to part 1 was to the effect that, if the direction of the Corbyn leadership/project is set by the type of political activists that dominated the recent NEON seminar Corbynism (and what Laclau & Mouffe would tell us about it), then the Labour left – and perhaps Labour itself – is doomed to social and electoral obscurity, in the way that so many gainsayers are now taking pleasure in predicting.

But I am not a Corbyn gainsayer.  I think Corbyn’s victory in the leadership battle in September was very good news indeed for Labour (and perhaps even the wider European left), as long as its potential can be harnessed through a process of intellectual reassessment and consequent practical orientation.

This harnessing is what part 2 and part 3 (to follow) are about.

Part 2, given the scale of ambition, is quite long (part 3 will be shorter).  So if you can’t be bothered to read all the way through, my main conclusion is that interpreting Corbynism through the work of  pre-war Italian communist is no longer valid (if it ever was); instead, we should interpret it through the work of Germany’s greatest post-war political philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, and though the development of German political culture in general.   Doing so, I contend, offers a real prospect of renewal for democratic socialism in Britain.

What Corbynism is: a proto-Habermasian project

The ‘usual Gramscian suspects’ have tried to squeeze early Corbynism into the only leftwing framework they understand; in time they may succeed, in a way which squeezes the life out of Corbynsim. But for the moment at least, Corbynism is not what they would have it.  We can see this from two brief examples.

First, there is the interview conducted with Corbyn by BBC political reporter Norman Smith, just a few days after Corbyn became leader.  Smith felt strongly enough about what he’d just gone through with Corbyn to write a follow-up piece about the change of style he had witnessed.   He described how refreshing it was to ask a politician questions to which the politician actually listened, and then replied; Corbyn, he recalled, even appeared to be considering a response to some questions as he spoke, as though he’d never thought about it before.  Smith concludes simply with “maybe he [Corbyn] is on to something” with this different style, suggesting that not just journalists, but the wider public might be receptive to it.

Secondly, and rather better known, is Corbyn’s first appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions, at which Corbyn sought to set down a marker for his ‘new politics’ both by sourcing his questions directly from the public and by asking his questions as genuine questions, to which he expected an answer.  The most noticeable thing about this event is not Corbyn’s civil tone and ‘everday  language’ questioning, but the way in which Cameron felt obliged to respond in kind, in a quieter tone (continue to listen to the broadcast and he soon reverts to type on questions from other MPs).

On neither occasion – and there are many others with a similar feel for the Corbyn style – does Corbyn conduct himself in a way which fits the ‘war of position’ strategy of the Gramscian-influenced Labour left, or of the equally (though less explicitly) Gramscian-influenced Labour centre.

Indeed, for mainstream Labour ‘strategist’ Mark Ferguson, Corbyn makes a terrible mistake when he allows PMQs to “turn into free airtime for Cameron”; for Mark, losing the opportunity to get your voice heard, and allow an opponent to have their’s heard, is a cardinal political sin.

Mark’s criticism reflects other early calls for communications strategy as normal: from Owen Jones calling for a “media offensive with clear, sharp messages”, to Tom Clark calling for a spin doctor to sharpen those messages.

All of these critiques rather miss the point that the ‘freshness’ that gets to Norman Smith is precisely because Corbyn eschews the conventional game of having the answer ready before the question is put – a hitherto self-enforced paradox neatly summed up by intelligent political commentator Stefanie Lehmann:

Paradoxically, the leader must be both human and relatable, and mechanically effective by always having an answer ready

Corbyn has, however intuitively, realised that this paradox cannot be resolved, and has plumped for being “relatable” over being “mechanically effective” (in other words, ineffective in the real world).

Old-style, war-of-position politics, dominated on the British left (and the right, less knowingly) by Gramscian and sub-Gramscian thought cannot deal with this ‘new, kinder politics’, and of course Corbyn’s conduct is itself out of kilter with a vocal minority of so-called Corbynistas, for whom the same old gaining of internal terrain within the same old Labour party remains the same old ‘struggle’.

But there is a strong, coherent, and in some respects remarkably successful leftwing intellectual tradition which does explain not just the ‘kinder politics’ of Corbynism, but also explains why it proved so attractive to both new and old members of the Labour party that it brought Corbyn 60% of leadership votes, and why (perhaps more arguably) the polls about Corbyn’s early days are so conflicting.

This intellectual tradition, which for reasons I will explore in part 3, has not to date had any traction with the British left, is the Habermasian tradition – a tradition which has had a subtle but powerful influence on German political culture since at least the 1980s and is, I will contend in part 3, a significant factor not just in Germany’s economic success but also its social cohesion and openness (at least relative to the UK).

It is this tradition, at the expense of the worthy but now-outdated Gramscian tradition, to which I suggest in the remainder of this essay that the British left should now consciously turn for inspiration – not just in the short term as a way of understanding then bolstering Corbynism, but as a longer term route to the renewal of the British left.

This is, I recognize, an ambitious suggestion, and will no doubt receive its fair share of mockery from people within mainstream Labur, but I see no other form of leftwing thought that might prompt the left to move beyond the tired and certain failures of the current cycle of decline; to my mind, only Habermasian inspired democratic socialism grapples with the realities of the human condition under late capitalism (in a way which recalls but expands on Marx’s concept of alienation) and provides the grounding for a normative project of democratic renewal.

What’s the Habermasian tradition?

The Habermasian project for the ‘New Englightenment’, even if dated just from his ‘linguistic turn’ in the early 1980s, is a massive undertaking, challenging  in its complexity (and language) and startling in its overall coherence (although it remains incomplete and open to much valid criticism).

As such, it is difficult to know where to ‘cut into’ it, but perhaps in light of my critique in part 1 of the continuing and counterpoductive reliance of the Gramscian left on the need to resolve the ‘false consciousness of the masses’ (see, for example, Doreen Massey’s essay [pdf] on how Corbynism offers this prospect), the best place to start is with Habermas’ assessment of the position under capitalist modernity:

In the place of false consciousness there appears today fragmented consciousness, which hinders enlightenment about the mechanism of reification.  The conditions for a colonization of the lifeworld are thereby fulfilled; as soon as it is stripped of its ideological veil, the imperative of independent subsystems press in from the outside on the lifeworld and compel assimilation, like colonial masters in a tribal society (vol. 2, p.522 [pdf] italics in original).

This summarises Habermas’s exposition of how capitalist modernity ‘inflitrates’ our consciousness, in the way previously assessed by his Frankfurt School forbears Adorno & Horkheimer, as making resistance futile, at least from the point of view of ‘traditional’ leftwing politics (cf. also Mark Fisher).    It also points to Habermas’ conceptual distinction between ‘system’ and ‘lifeworld’, by which he means ‘normal’ societal relations [1], unhindered by the ‘colonization’ of capitalist financial control, media, administrative processes and, more broadly, consumerist cultures.

This analysis of the alienating properties of capitalist modernity [2] links to and is underpinned by the second major theme in Habermas’ work – the prospect of “communicative power” which is in turn underpinned by a complex grounding in formal pragmatics [pdf] (essentially how people communicate in ‘everyday language situations) and to the consequent development of a programme of universal ethics and ‘rules’ for legitimate argumentation.

Clearly, in a short essay I can’t hope to do any kind of justice to the complex, overarching strength of Habermas’ reasoning and backing empirical evidence (e.g. JL Austin on linguistic competencies and Lawrence Kohlberg on intrinsic ‘moral development’).    I will come back to these details in other writing.   For the present, the  important link to make with nascent Corbynism is Habermas’ contention that at the root of all human communication is an built-in mechanism for and motivation to mutual understanding, and that ‘strategic’ forms of communication, of the type extolled by the political commentariat and strategists referred to above, are ultimately distortions of that in-built human mechanism.

From here, as noted, Habermas creates an ‘ideal type’ of argumentation, free of the constraints we see in actual argument, where various forms of duress are brought to bear around membership and allowable content by those with power. [3].

Ultimately, Habermas points us towards forms of deliberative democracy and  ‘public sphere’ as not just normatively desirable, but also ethically and linguistically grounded, in a way which may help us to resist and turn back the colonising influences of capitalism and, through this process, rediscover our ‘automomy’ as humans relating to other humans (in other words, to address the  alienation described economally by Marx, sociologically by Giddens (“ontological insecurity”) and Ulrich Beck, and culturally by Rieff and Lasch).

To cut a very long story short, my contention is that Jeremy Corbyn – and some of the facets of his leadership campaign – offer us a glimpse of this ambitious Habermasian democratic project, and that now is the time to recognize that glimpse for what it is.

Moreover, my contention is that this Corbyn-led glimpse of a ‘new, kinder politics’ – in which the corruption of every language and deep distrust of the body politic go hand in hand skipping towards a dark future [4],  is supplanted by something approaching argumentation aimed at mutual understanding, and where the ‘validity claims’ Habermas demands of such argumentation could actually be redeemed [5] – is actually what has made the Corbyn project to date so attractive to people prepared to engage with it.

It is this glimpse of something new – largely unrelated to specific policy content from the Corbyn camp – which has excited a wide range of people, and which at the very least saw the people of Oldham West & Royton vote to give Corbynism a chance (I don’t underestimate the quality of the local candidate in the by-election, but I do think it had something to do with the size of the majority, given my own conversation with “apolitical” people about Corbyn’s ‘authenticity’).

It is this glimpse of the new which, I suspect, may also explain the seemingly odd opinion polling, in which Corbyn as “leader” or “possible PM” currently scores very badly – because people can’t yet make the conceptual leap to what a new style of leadership competence might look like, and adopt a safety first attitude [6] – but in which he scores much better than Cameron for being “in touch with British values”, for example.

So how might a Habermasian Corbynism fit? (towards part 3)

As noted, the call for the wholesale co-option of n intellectual tradition, aimed at a transformation of the British political culture, is an ambitious one, to say the least.

Even to get to first base – that of the idea being taken seriously –I will  need in part 3 of this essay  to pre-empt and respond to some of the more obvious objections and questions.

The two main questions I see are arising, and which I will see to answer in part 3, include:

  • Why, if the Habermasian project is so powerful and convincing, has it made virtually no headway in Britain in the last 30 years?
  • The Habermasian project is strong on democratic deliberation, but what’s so socialist about it?

This I will do before moving on to how in current institutional and practical terms a consciously Habermasian Corbynism might start to be brought to bear within the next year or so, and before the false, sub-Gramscian constructions of Corbynism, which foster internal battles for ground, squeeze the life out of the new opportunities that those same sub-Gramscians helped to create through their undoubted organisational energies [7].

Within this, the current ‘movements’ (as a catch-all term) with which I will seek to align a proposed new Habermasian influence will be:

1) The current Momentum strategy of the Corbyn leadership (though not necessarily Corbyn himself), which I will argue, in spite of the torrent of justified but exaggerated criticism of infiltration by the less-thinking hard left, is potentially an inspired route towards the kind of civil society/public  sphere democratic and associational democratic institutions of which Habermas approves, and which fits with both the work of Habermas activist/scholar Mark E Warren and the earlier, related thinking of the late Paul Hirst.  In this context, I will argue that Momentum has no place within the formal structures of the labour movement – an argument I will be taking forward through my own  formative Momentum branch.

2) The (remants of) Blue Labour and the much more extant Common Good Labour(ish), which contains/contained some impressive thinkers/activists like Jon Wilson.   I will argue that Habermasian Corbynism can come to the aid of some of Blue Labour thinking about community and family tradition as a bulwark against the impacts of capitalist modernism, but in a way which moves – via the Habermasian concept of constitutional patriotism – beyond the authoritarianism and even the reactionary impluses of the very worst bits of Blue Labour, which arise because there is an insufficiently rigorous grounding (cf. the authoritarian morality inherent to Phillip Blond’s Red Toryism).

3) The new Open Labour network, established with admirable organisation and energy by Labour members sick of the apparent slide towards civil war in Labour, and promoting a pluralism which is appealing, but again insufficiently grounded to make any real headway.

4) ‘Kendallite Labour’: as I’ve set out previously, there is much to commend in this sect’s vision for the dispersal of power, though that concept needs refining, and there will certainly be an intersect between Habermasian/Hirstian  thinking about how this can be put into practice through the development, within and beyond Momentum, of associational democractic organisations.

5) What I’ll call for now Painter Labour:  Anthony Painter is the only public intellectual I know of from the Labour centre who has sought to distance himself from those tired certainties, and is currently seeking to plough a different intellectual course, framing/basing his work on the radical ‘first principles’ tradition of Tom Paine, in a way which might assist Labour and the Left in coming to terms not just with current modernity, but with the huge technological, social and environmental change now upon us.  Again, I think there will be significant points of intersection between his thinking and whatever may come (I hope) of Habermasian Labour.

I’ll finish part 3 with an afterword about the relationship between Habermas, Germany’s greatest 20th century public intellectual, whose commitment to socialist ideals and to resisting moves towards a revisionist take on Nazism  has done so much to build the relatively tolerant and cohesive Germany we know  today, and the construction of which many British leftwingers would give their own right arm to have been part.

See you for part 3.

 

Notes

[1] Habermas’ concept of what constitutes the lifeworld is perhaps the most contentious part of his overall schema.  There are valid criticisms, especially from feminist academic  such as Nancy Fraser (pdf), that the conception is too static, and does not properly account for power imbalances within the ‘lifeworld’.  Any serious attempt to incorporate Habermasian thought into the British left way of doing things will of course need to take account of such critique.

[2]  I have, in the interest of relative brevity, sought to avoid quoting Habermas directly in this essay, though I will certainly need to do so in further writings.  However, I do think a direct quote is warranted to show how close Habermas’s anlausis of capitalist modernioty is, at points, to the work of third-way intellectual guru Anthony Giddens, and how therefore Habermas’ more complete schema should be taken seriously in a British context, including by those who supported the rise of New Labour (as I did) but who now need to move beyond it.

Culture and personality are attacked for the benefit pf a crisis-overcoming stabilisation of society…The results of this substitution [are that] in place of anomic occurrences(and in place of the….withdrawal of legitimation and motivation) phenomena of alienation and insecurity of collective identity arise (vol 1, p.566, quoted in Stephen K White excellent critique Jürgen Habermas: Reason, Justice & Modernity (p.121)).

[3] Habermas defines  the three formal conditions of the ideal speech situation as follows:

[1] Each subject who is capable of speech and action is allowed to participate in discourses.

[2] Each is allowed to call into question any proposal. Each is allowed to introduce any proposal into the dis­course. Each is allowed to express his attitudes, wishes, and needs.

[3] No speaker ought to be hindered by compulsion— whether arising from inside the discourse or out­side of it—from making use of the rights se­cured under [1 and 2].

[4] There is not space here to delve into how Habermasian thought can elucidate the current problem of distrust of politics and politicians, and how this relates to a corruption of  language.  In further work on this, I will certainly make use of the insights of Mark E Warren, probably the leading Habermas-influenced associative democratic theorist, and especially his superb essay Deliberative Democracy and the Corruption of Speech [pdf]  in which he sets out the argument – highly relevant to emergent Corbynism, that effective democracy is not just about what is discussed, but about the relationships which are built via the process of discussion, and which serve to counter the processes of alienation and insecurity to which I have referred above.

[T]he first contemporary theorist of deliberative democracy – Habermas – built his theory out of a pragmatic philosophy of language (what he called “universal pragmatics”) that emphasized the social relationships that are established as a consequence of making claims, and upon which the cognitive content of claims depend for their capacities to coordinate among and between social actors…

So the work accomplished by deliberation is in part about what is deliberated: conflicts, claims, values, information, and matters of substance that is communicated through language. But it is in part about the relationships that are established as a consequence of speaking and listening – relationships that constitute speakers as agents who have the kind of solidity that others can trust p.14-15)

[5] These ‘validity claims’, which Habermas suggests operate subconsciously in everyday speech, and which must be ‘redeemable’ by a speaker if her/his speech is to be recognized as a valid part of consensus-oriented speech are:  truth, normative legitimacy and truthfulness/authenticity.  This conceptualization of what makes up everyday language is at the heart of Habermas’ linguistic theory and normative project, and I will come back to them (and how they might be practically taken on board) in future writing.

[6] It is course arguable that the best arena in which to set forth for the first time a ‘new politics’, which engages with questions on a ‘want to hear the actual answer’ basis, is not that of national security, whether the dangers to it are real or perceived, and this may account for some of the bad polling around the Syria war vote.  However, even here, polls swung toward the Corbyn position in the period before the vote, even while his ratings as an effective leader slipped.

[7]  I make this point, about how many of those I now criticize for their ‘sub-Gramscian’ thinking about Corbynism were actually responsible for him becoming leader in the first place, advisedly. I recognize that my criticisms in part 1 of the seminar I attended, and the more general  ‘false Corbynism’ it represented, may come across as too personal, which in would in turn be out of keeping with the ‘kinder politics’ Corbyn really does seek to engender (whether or not consciously).

In fact, I admire greatly what the early ‘Corbynistas’ achieved.  They spotted, while I didn’t. the real appetite for what Anthony Painter (above) now describes rather too dismissively as a longing for “something raw and emotive”, and which Jeremy’s character and public persona might deliver.  The fact that they now interpret what happened in a way which will damage Corbynism is a facet of the longterm ‘Grasmci-isation’ of the British left, to the exclusion of all other currents.   Those activists cannot be held responsible for the path-dependencies created in the 1960s (which I will examine more closely in part 3).

Why Labour lost and what we do now

May 21, 2015 2 comments

I cobbled this together for a submission at the new Radical Labour site, but the site appears so radical it’s decided only to publish articles from established radical voices.  I’ve had no reply.  Heh ho, so I’m publishing here, because at least I answer myself.

 

Labour lost the general election in large part because it didn’t connect with people in the way that UKIP, the SNP and even the Greens connected with them.   People saw Labour as too close to a now widely distrusted set of democratic institutions – institutions which were healthy once, but which have been corrupted by people just like us.

How do I know that?   I know that because, contrary what many #labourdoorstep campaigners may claim on twitter about the “fantastic response”, I’ve been on lots of doorsteps where people tell me Labour, or I as there representative, are full of shit.   Alternatively, they don’t open the door, which is the same message put more politely.

At least with a Tory fatcat, you know what you’re getting, goes the argument…. It’s not so much the greed; it’s the perceived hypocrisy that makes people hate us.

So if we are so much part of the problem, how can we be part of the solution?

Logic suggests that, in order for Labour (ever?) to win again as a democratic wanabee socialist party, the party and labour movement must first help restore trust restore trust in our democratic institutions?

But how do we do that, from a position of opposition? And 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, 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 as far Miliband’s argument with Russell Brand got 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]).   Johnson’s 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, Johnson’s 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 organizing 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 did a Labour PPC about to lose 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, but only with further deleterious consequences for democratic legitimacy, such that forces even further removed from the objective interests of the working class come to be seen as a bastion of hope.   As Ukip declines, an even darker force may emerge, unless we can (re)fill the perceived democratic void [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, quoted 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 precise opposite of what was needed to facilitate genuine civic participation.

But if Labour, and other comrades on the left. are 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 party 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 creative Labour opposition (operating initially at least through its local government power bases), if it able to throw off its managerialist shackles.

Another example may help: 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) campaign for reinvestment in such models via innovative funding 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.

Notes

[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 relegitimize 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 marginalization.

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.

From a politics of consumption to a politics of production

May 7, 2015 5 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Milibandism and the concept of change

April 27, 2015 1 comment

Claire, who follows these things, reports that Ed Miliband said today [1]:

Change happens because people demand it.

 

I think this expresses, pithily, both the strength and the current limitations of emergent Milibandism.

The strength is obvious enough.  A new Labour-led government will be better at responding to the demands that it hears through its existing channels, because it will manage public finances more appropriately, and perhaps even regulate markets more effectively.   So free school spending will give way to more sensible educational investment, housing costs may be brought down by a combination of rent capping and (eventually) increased supply, and lots of other stuff promised in and beyond the manifesto will be delivered.

That’s better than nothing, but it’s still tinkering at the margins.

Big change doesn’t happen because people getting better at demanding better stuff.   Big change happens when people start producing better stuff, through better organisation, and better quality control.

Milibandism, if it is escape its current consumer capitalist limitations, needs to get serious about the supply side.    In terms of public service provision [2], this should and can mean four interrelated areas:

1) Re-professionalisation of service delivery, by facilitating/welcoming the organic growth  of worker- and peer-led institutions, whether that be a new National College of Teachers run by educators, at local levels, rejuvenated Trades Union Councils which have the political legitimacy to make judgments on provision, and to call the managerial class to account.  Concomitantly, the judgments of the external agencies like Ofsted and the CQC, which have so blighted public services, will need to be challenged and deligitimised.  This is the main organisational challenge, in my book.

2) Investment in preventative, person-centred services on the basis that they are preventative, person-centred and autonomously delivered,rather than on the basis of downstream savings.    These savings will accrue anyway, but more effectively than via centrally designed processes (centrally planned person-centred processes are, of course, self-contradicting).

3) The steady expansion of what is regarded as a public service, from the current narrow definition (things runs by councils and the NHS) to a much wider one which includes energy, transport, retail and more.  This isn’t, I should stress, a call for public ownership, but a call for public accountability in the services that matter to the public.  Why should we accept cruelty to a pensioner on a train when we wouldn’t accept it in a library.

4) A new humility within the Labour party, rooted in an acceptance that change happens because people organise it, and that this organisation happens most effectively within the labour movement, not within the party.

Milibandism hasn’t yet made this conceptual leap from more effective consumerism to more effective production as the best way of creating change, though Jon Cruddas gets it, and Stewart Wood may do – at a theoretical but not yet organisational level.  As I set out here [3], the key challenge for a post-election anti-austerity, Labour left and trade union alliance, is to organise for it anyway, so that the Labour party has a moving bandwagon to jump aboard.

I’ll be writing lots more about that in the days amd weeks to come [4]

 

 

[1] I have no idea where he said this, but I trust Claire.

[2] Of course, supply side reform is not just about worker-led public service reform, even when public services are more widely defined than currently, but it’s a pretty good place to start.

[3] There was supposed to be a part II to that post, expanding on what I’ve greatly condensed here, but that’s been sucked into other writing endeavours yet to see the light of day.

[4] see [3]

Evaluating Cameronism: was it Talebian or Thalerian?

April 26, 2015 2 comments

On Thursday Miliband criticized Cameron for his failure to foresee or do anything about the collapse of the Libyan state. Cameron’s reaction was:

I’ve learnt as prime minister that it is so important in a dangerous and uncertain world that you show clarity, consistency and strength on these foreign policy issues. And I think frankly people will look at these ill-judged remarks and they will reach their own conclusion.

There’s no substantive defence of the UK government’s foreign policy here.  Instead, Cameron simply asserts his own status as statesman, implying a contrast between himself and Miliband.  The  suggestion is that he simply doesn’t need to stoop to the level of explaining himself; he, in uncertain times, is just needs to be trusted.

As such, Cameron’s reaction supports the thesis I set out during the Libya war, that the best way to assess Conservatism under Cameron is less through the lens of overt ideology, more through that of the ‘operational code’ of government.   The operational code of Cameronism, I suggested (invoking Jim Bulpitt), was much more linked to high politics/low instincts which informed governing styles before Thatcher, than it was to the managerialism that emerged in the Thatcher years.  This return to an earlier operational code, I suggested further, was largely rooted in the upper class backgrounds of our new rulers.

Four years on, I’d stand by much of that analysis, and especially of how this operational code has been a cause of basic government incompetence in many areas of domestic policy, but Cameron’s phrasing reminde me that there’s another another way of evaluating Cameronism in its dying days, and one which is perhaps more relevant to Labour’s approach in government  after May 7th.

If we believe Cameron’s own words, his approach government has been informed by two leading thinkers.

The first is behavioural economist Richard Thaler, who acted as adviser to Cameron around 2008.  Thaler promoted what has become known as ‘nudge theory’ – essentially the idea that governments can modify the behaviour of their citizens by persuading them that lots of other people are modifying theirs, and that they should to.   This led, in government, to the well-funded and still extant Behavioural Insights team in the Cabinet Office, with its particular focus on Randomised Control Trials as an effective means of keeping the people in their place.

The second, is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, purveyor of Black Swan theory.   By 2012, Taleb was a regular guest at 10 Downing Street, and his views on risk and uncertainty – interpreted as arguments in favour of conservative public financing – were sweeping the party hierarchy.

Nudge theory and Black Swan theory are, of course, utterly incompatible.   The former assumes that human actions can be moulded into regular patterns which create desiraboue outcomes on a regular basis, and is a form of central planning.   Think Big Society.  The latter is based on the view that central planning is an irrelevance in the face of the inherent uncerainty of complex human interactions taking place in a complex and uncertain natural environment.

But I don’t point this out simply to mock Cameron and his coterie for their faddish intellectual pretensions.  Rather, I’d argue that there is actually a coherence in this incoherence – a coherence if you actually locate the competing approaches within the Cameronian operational code of high-low politics.

For if we look at the record we see at least an attempt at a Talebian approach to international relations – expressed in Cameron’s own words as the need for ‘strength’ in an uncertain world – but more broadly in the introspection we have seen develop since the disastrous Boys’ Own Adventure in Libya (even if measured solely in term of impact on the UK economy) , and in the Little Englander politics within the European Union.

Domestic policy, on the other hand, is dominated not by the Talebian advice to  “collect opportunities” (p.170)*, but by the Thalerian game plan: to manage, even micro-manage the populace, and narrow down different modes of action, on the basis that some are not socially desirable.  Again, think Big Society, think Community Organisers but also think benefit sanctions, think bedroom tax, think traditionalization of the curriculum. Think Troubled Families programme.  All terrible ideas, badly implemented, all rooted in a desire to get people to conform to the rules set for them.

So, after May 7th, where will a Labour-led government stand?   What will be its operational code?   Well, it could do worse than, quite consciously, ‘flip’ Thaler and Taleb: develop an international relations and environmental policies which has at least some elements of a Thalerian grand plan for cohesion, while remaining as prepared as possible for  the Black Swans, but at the same time take a Talebian approach to the needs and aspirations of the people they are there to serve, enabling those people to amass a range of life opportunities and even – and here we go beyond the individualism inherent in Tabelian thought – fostering the kind of social solidarities which help people forge Black Swan preparedness.

 

 

*Taleb is here referring to Loiuse Pasteur’s aphorism “Fortune favours the prepared”.

 

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.

 

 Notes

[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.

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 146 other followers