Kirkby 43 years on – 14 months worth remembering

October 11, 2015 2 comments
Museum of Liverpool

Museum of Liverpool

This morning when I woke up, I came across an article in the Liverpool Echo about the Kirkby rent strike. There’s a video on that page as well, which explains succinctly the attitude of the tenants, by Nick Broomfield. As an interesting historical aside, Roger Bannister tells me that the teacher telling all the children that the police are their friends is Reverend Ronald Johns, who was jailed in 2012 for sexual abuse. Don’t tell me the Establishment isn’t evil.

The Tory assault on public housing properly got under way with the Heath government. Rents began to go up and subsidies from rates were cut back. Labour councils broadly acquiesced to this, introducing a means test to protect the worst off – though that sentence shouldn’t leave you with the illusion that I think means tests are good things. They are a means to exclude the super-rich from any calculation. In the context of housing, slightly better off tenants were to be used to subsidize worse off tenants – instead of increased direct levies on the super-rich.

This was the point of the Housing Finance Act 1972, as well as increasing sales of council housing.

Let’s get back to the bit where Labour councils acquiesced. Labour councils followed their Tory counterparts in putting rent up. The Parliamentary Labour Party generally agreed with means testing. At the 1972 Labour Party conference, the leadership celebrated the length of time the HFA had been kept in committee. This was instead of giving support to a composite resolution that would instruct Labour councils not to implement the Act. And since there was a bloodbath of Tory councillors in 1972, that covered the vast majority of council housing.

Provisions in the Act to compel obedience were punitive – much in the manner that the District Auditor was to take over councils in the 1980s, if they refused to set a budget or set an illegal budget (and please note the distinction between these), a Housing Commissioner was supposed to do the same to Councils who refused to implement the HFA. One by one, the 42 Labour councils which initially set out their opposition to the Act complied – with the exception of Clay Cross, which was left on its own to fight the Tory government and lost.

The key moment in all this was at 1972 Labour Party conference. In preference to the composite motion I mentioned earlier, the leadership preferred a bland motion proposed by the AEUW to “support local campaigns of tenants, trades councils and Labour Parties to spearhead the campaign against the Act.” This is of interest even still today because the language is so similar to the banalities of the People’s Assembly and everything else that the leaders of the union movement propose to escape massive coordinated strike action to bring down the government.

Means testing divided council tenants against each other. Lack of clarity and central instruction as to how to resist (or rather, central pressure not to resist too much) allowed Labour councillors to default on their obligation to defend the working class. Despite this, opposition developed. Working class people simply weren’t content just to let the latest attack wash over them. They resisted. Rent strikes developed in Kirkby, Dudley, even in London, and elsewhere. In the end these were defeated – not least because of the ambivalent response of Labour.

What they show, however, is that the impulse to resist is not just resident in the few Militants or the members of the Socialist Party. It is inherent to the working class.

A clear strategy of resistance has two prongs today. Elected representatives must vote against ALL cuts, must propose needs-budgets and must organise the working class around these demands. And the union movement must prepare for massive strike action. Demurring from either of these puts people who talk great guns about fighting austerity objectively in the camp of the class enemy. And no amount of theoretical waffle will cover that up. These strategies are the only thing with the potential to swing the working class into action – and only the working class, not some small body of dedicated political activists, even at the top of the Labour Party, has the power to change things.

The alternative – 5 more years of People’s Assembly-style waffle – will see the Tories successfully pass and implement laws designed to shackle the unions, Baldwin style. Baldwin got away with it after the union leaders defeated their own General Strike in 1926. The defeat of 2011 was on a smaller scale, but it was equally self-inflicted and it was the turn-off on the road that led us to where we are now.

Battles are being fought all the time on a relatively small scale to avert that disaster. The fight for a left candidate (or at least an anti-Prentis candidate) in the Unison General Secretary election, to build on a decent left showing at the last NEC election. The fight for a socialist General Secretary of NIPSA. The massive show of support for Jeremy Corbyn is part of this – particularly from those layers who aren’t fossilised readers of Labour Briefing. The working class want to resist, are searching for channels to resist. Corbyn can’t provide that on his own; the entire edifice of the labour bureaucracy is ranged against him.

There’s McCluskey coming out against scrapping Trident, and hinting that a deal is possible on the anti-union laws.

There’s the Labour moderates securing their majority on the Constitutional Committee.

There’s every MP and their dog looking to get five minutes of fame disagreeing with the Corbynites.

There’s the press, not commentating on the news but acting as the prison wardens of the Establishment.

There’s the union leaders like “Sir” Paul Kenny talking down Corbyn publicly.

And there is the vast weight of bureaucratic indolence and indifference that will fail to hoover up the enthusiasm of these people who have newly entered the political arena, not as people who love the Labour Party but as people who want to, need to, absolutely must fight austerity – because it is killing them.

For that reason, we still need the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, to be prepared to stand against austerity, and to look to engage with the ranked mass of the working class. Through the collaboration of the union bureaucracy, and the failure of Corbyn either to see what’s necessary as regards a political strategy of resistance or, alternatively, failure to implement it through the Labour Party, the Tories might suppress dissent for a time. But it will come back with a vengeance. The working class has not been pacified. The forward march of labour has not been halted. And they will need to be armed with socialist ideas and methods of resistance.

In the spirit of Kirky, Clay Cross and the Liverpool 47.

No to all cuts.

For a General Strike against austerity.

On John Gray’s anti-Corbyn rant

September 27, 2015 3 comments

John Gray enjoys an anti-Corbyn rant in the New Statesman this week.   I particularly enjoyed the accusation that Corbyn is planning to murder millions of us so as to secure a better future:

[T]he view of politics he [Corbyn] professes, which sounds so invigoratingly unorthodox today, was thoroughly commonplace then. The ruling ideology on the bien-pensant left was a version of what George Orwell in 1945 called catastrophic gradualism – the theory that nothing can be achieved in politics without bloodshed, tyranny, lies and injustice; the only way to a better future is by sacrificing the current generation of human beings.

But it was this bit which really took my eye:

There has long been a tendency in the murkier depths of European politics, including sections of the left, to suspend moral judgement in regard to groups that harbour active terrorists, homophobes and Holocaust deniers and to excuse anti-Semitism on the grounds that those who display it are involved in legitimate struggles. That this strange tolerance can surface at the top of Labour is new and ruptures the party’s deep links with the British liberal tradition. For the first time in its history, a serious question must be asked as to whether Labour can be trusted to promote civilised values (my emphasis).

This seems a little at odds with what Gray writes in Enlightenment’s Wake (1995), his critique of the attempt by ‘the Enlightenment project’ to impose a universal liberalism on the world:

That is to say that it [Gray’s ‘value pluralism project’ to counter ‘the Enlightenment project’ he so hates] affirms the ultimate validity of a diversity of polities, moralities, forms of government and economy and of fairly and social life – of a diversity of cultural forms, in short. And this is not the fathomlessly shallow cultural diversity that is invoked in the professionally deformed discourse of numberless academic seminars on race and gender, with its tacit agenda of global cultural homogenization on the US model; but rather the real diversity of historical practices, often agonistically constituted, of which subordination, exclusion and closure of options are – in liberal forms of life no less than in others – essential elements (p.126-7).

This seems to me a much stronger argument for the ‘suspension of moral judgment’. against the active promotion of “civilized values”, and in tacit favour of ‘subordinating’, ‘exclusionary’ regimes, than Jeremy Corbyn has put forward to date.

I don’t think much of Enlightenment’s Wake overall, not least because it actively refuses to engage with Habermas’ then ongoing efforts to construct a new basis for Enlightenment rationality and democratic polity by way of a  universal pragmatics of communication* (though I do think he offers some useful insights along the way)

But I had assumed that Gray genuinely believed in his own intellectual trajectory, however flawed it might be by that lack of engagement with communicative theory.  Perhaps not.  Perhaps he really is the David Starkey of philosophy.

 

*I suppose it’s possible he simply never bothered to read the harder bits of Habermas, and relied on others’ simplistic summaries.

 

Rieff on Corbyn

September 12, 2015 1 comment

Philip Rieff is for days like today:

The spiritualizers have had their day; nowadays, the best among them appear engaged in a desperate strategy of acceptance, in the hope that by embracing doctrinal expressions of therapeutic aims they will be embraced by the therapeutics; a false hope – the therapeutics need no doctrines,only opportunities.  But the spiritualizers persist in trying to maintain cultural contact with constituencies deconverted in all but name.

Philip Rieff (1966), The Triumph of the Therapeutic, p.16

Hungary and article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty

September 4, 2015 2 comments

One strange consequence of ‘the refugee crisis’ [1] now in full flow in Europe has been the spotlight put on the nature of the Hungarian regime, and the views of Prime Minister Orban on what Europe’s about:

Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims. This is an important question, because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity…..Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian?

This, I suspect, isn’t a vision of Europe shared by many readers.   Nor is it one reflected at Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty, which Hungary was the first of the 27 states to ratify. Article 2 says:

The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.
Nice rhetoric, but utterly unenforceable, it might be argued.  Except that this is what  Article 7 says about making sure states abide by the values of Article 2.
1. On a reasoned proposal by one third of the Member States, by the European Parliament or by the European Commission, the Council, acting by a majority of four fifths of its members after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2. Before making such a determination, the Council shall hear the Member State in question and may address recommendations to it, acting in accordance with the same procedure. The Council shall regularly verify that the grounds on which such a determination was made continue to apply.

2. The European Council, acting by unanimity on a proposal by one third of the Member States or by the European Commission and after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine the existence of a serious and persistent breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2 after inviting the Member State in question to submit its observations.

3. Where a determination under paragraph 2 has been made, the Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide to suspend certain of the rights deriving from the application of the Treaties to the Member State in question, including the voting rights of the representative of the government of that Member State in the Council. In doing so, the Council shall take into account the possible consequences of such a suspension on the rights and obligations of natural and legal persons.

The obligations of the Member State in question under the Treaties shall in any case continue to be binding on that State.

4. The Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide subsequently to vary or revoke measures taken under paragraph 3 in response to changes in the situation which led to their being imposed.

5. The voting arrangements applying to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council for the purposes of this Article are laid down in Article 354 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

For myself, I cannot think of a more appropriate time for members of the European Parliament to stand up for the founding values of the Union, and seek to invoke the parliamentary and treaty procedures set down for just this kind of development.  It’s what the parliament’s supposed to do.

It might therefore be something readers want to submit to their MEP for consideration, especially with a view to a resolution going first through the S&D grouping [2]. I wouldn’t bother with the UKIP ones, mind.

 

[1] Not actually THE refugee crisis, but one of them.  Rohingya refugess fleeing by boat from the pre-genocidal actions of the Burmese military regime also constitute a refugee crisis, as do the 660,000 Eritrean refugees who have fled over the border into Ethiopia (a small percentage of whom have sought to get to Europe via Sudan and Libya)

[2] That’s not to say the S&D don’t have issues to resolve in their own ranks. Try SMER in Slovakia.

How I’ll vote in the Labour leadership election

September 1, 2015 1 comment

Decision time for the Labour leadership and deputy leadership election is upon me.

This is my final choice, barring very unexpected events before I actually do the online business:

Leader

1st preference: Corbyn

2nd preference: Kendall

No other preferences

Deputy leader

1st preference: Creasy

2nd preference: Eagle

No other preferences

The reasoning for my preferences can be summed up thus.

1) I take issue with a number of his stated policy positions, especially the emergent so-called Corbynomics of ‘People’s Quantitative Easing’, which I consider to be a sop to deficit fetishism.  He has also had pretty well nothing to say about empowerment of grassroots activists and local parties.  In isolation, the Corbyn offer is a disappointing one.

2) I am not, in my own mind therefore, a supporter of the candidate Jeremy Corbyn.

3) What I am a supporter of of the genuine grassroots movement which has made him a possible winner of the leadership contest.  I was wrong about Corbyn having no chance of winning, and that his candidacy was therefore a distraction from the real task in hand – the building of a grassroots movement.  As of now, the two have been combined – a grassroots movement has developed, and it looks like he will win because of that.  I have fears about what will happen to that movement now if the organisational building blocks are not put in place to sustain it (see below), but it would be illogical – and lacking due humility at my wrongness – to vote against the movement simply because it’s not been constructed the way I think it might have been.  Social movements are always and necessarily messy, and are undone as much by the needs of control freaks as they are by that messiness.

4) The organic development of a genuine leftwing movement, and my duty to support that in whatever way I can- currently outweighs my concern that, as and when elected, he will be surrounded by a self-regarding new Bennite elite which has little regard for the movement that got Corbyn to the leadership, and little understanding of how to empower local parties and the local labour movements, such that they are able and willing to push out beyond the narrow territory it now occupies, and develop a political space which extends beyond the current confines of state power.  If this concern of a takeover by a new elite is valid, it will fall to me and others to raise the alarm, and to combat it as best we can.

5)  I do not know if Jeremy Corbyn will be more unelectable in 2020 than the other candidates on offer.  Having failed to predict his current popularity amongst the Labour leadership elecorate, it would be foolish of my to predict whether he will be so bogged down by his ‘IRA-supporting’ (or whatever) past that he is unable to help get a leftwing voice heard at national level, or whether the dynamic of politics has changed so much that his perceived ‘authenticity’ will help him rise above all this.

6) I do not even know whether he will make it to 2020.  It may well be that a Corbyn PLP leadership is merely a stepping stone towards the leadership of a candidate for 2020 unsullied by any association with the worst aspect of Blairism.   There are several obvious candidates, come 2018-19, who might benefit from the work done under Corbyn to shift the Overton window to the left on what electability and credibility actually mean.

7) Nor, actually, do I care that much.  As of now, a Corbyn leadership stands as much chance as making countrywide electoral headway as the leadership of any of the current candidates; predictions to the contrary are largely made by people within Labour who failed, like me, to predict the current movement.   My vote is for the movement, not the person.

8) If Corbyn does not make it to 2020, it may be interesting to see if Liz Kendall can shake off her association with the elite Progress project, and return in 2018-19 -if Corbyn does not make it through – with some of her more interesting ideas fleshed out properly; currently she has failed to do so, and a promising middle section to the campaign has been outweighed massively by a disastrous start and and disappointing end.  I give her my second preference merely to signify that she did say one or two interesting things, which the other candidates did not.

9) My choice for deputy leader is easier.  Stella Creasy is the only candidate thinking creatively about how the labour movement can really engage with the new political dynamic in the country; while I disagree with her on crucial aspects of what power and empowerment actually mean over time (I do not think she grasps that the Iron Law of Oligarchy applies to social movements to), she is at least trying.  I do not think she will win this time – and I fear the kind of quasi-statecraft in which Tom Watson will engage – but then nor does she. This campaign is really about setting down markers for the next one.   Angela Eagle is my second preference, as she is a patently decent peacemaker within the party, though the deputy leadership will need more than that.

 

 

Towards associative democracy

August 25, 2015 3 comments

Abstract

Starting from a case study in public procurement devoid of any sense of reality, but full of the twisted logic of managerialism in times of austerity, I move onto an assessment of how such ridiculous development in public service (non)-delivery might act as a catalyst for a new surge of associative democracy institution building at a local level, which might then act as a bridgehead to wider autnomous re-professionalisation and trade union focus on service function, in the spirit of ‘English pluralist’ activists/writers like RH Tawney, JN Figgis and Paul Hirst, and in keeping with the insights of implementation theorist Michael Lipsky.  I also consider how such efforts might be supported by a social work profession in crisis and a Labour party in, erm, its own crisis.

(This is a consolidation with very minor changes of two previous posts, written some weeks apart.)

 

Part I

Here’s the Reverend Giles Fraser on how the police are now the social services of last resort:

The police have to sort stuff out that other people don’t know what to do with, or haven’t got the resources to deal with. Like vicars, they are often the last stop in a game of pass the parcel.

Ah, if only that were true.

This is an excerpt from a specification for a contract recently awarded by a local authority in the North of England:

External Family Support Service contract 

The Contractor [to a NW local authority] will provide intense targeted support at short notice to families with multiple and complex needs often in crisis situations where there is a significant risk of children being accommodated by the Local Authority.

The Contractor will be required to provide Family Support hours as and when requested by the Local Authority. Specifically the service will be required outside of normal office hours.

The Contractor will be expected to provide the above hours across seven days per week, including Bank Holidays.

Work includes:

Care for children / young people in their own home in situations where parents may be intoxicated or recovering from minor surgery etc. and unable to meet their children’s needs for a short period of time.

Conduct work with parents to raise their awareness of the impact and consequences of their chaotic lifestyle and behaviour on their children’s physical and emotional welfare.

Leaving aside the bizarre juxtaposition of intoxication and minor surgery as impediment to safe parenting (possibly a copy and paste error, possibly just ignorance), I think it might be agreed that this is quite a challenging contract: available at all hours, going into potentially volatile domestic circumstances, ensuring child safety and then – presumably when parents are sober enough to listen – putting them to rights on their responsibilities.

Yes – as I had to advise a group of senior social workers I showed this excerpt to at a conference – this is a real contract, really awarded by a real local authority, really recently.

How much, then, do you think the contract might be worth, expressed in £ per hour of provision?

When I asked the same group of social workers what a local authority might expect to pay for this work, taking into account of all the management, training and supervision requirements set out in the contract, and assuming that this would be a lone worker service (not, incidentally, something the police would envisage), the first estimate was £100 per hour of intervention.  That seemed reasonable, they said, given the complexity of the service.  After some ‘lower, lower’ exhortations, they settled on a measly £20 per hour.

This is what the contract specification actually says:

The maximum price permissible to fit within the Council’s affordability envelope is £16.00 per hour for the support and £8.00 per report.  This is due to the on-going budget pressures the local authority is currently experiencing.

When I told them the real price, the social workers thought I had made it all up.

But that’s not quite it.   The tender exercise also invites bidders to say by what percentage they will reduce their price if they want to get paid on time; this ‘early payment discount’ is an increasingly common feature if local authority contracts.

The upshot is that this local authority has outsourced vital emergency social services work to a provider who may be getting as little as £14 per hour for complex and potentially dangerous work on a 24/7, 365 days a year basis.

Let’s be frank.  The service set out in the specification simply cannot be delivered at that price.  It’s just impossible.  The provider will know that.  the local authority knows that (indeed the excerpt above more or less acknowledges it).  So what will actually happen is that the contract will be ‘delivered’ on paper, but not in the real world.

In one scenario, the provider staff member may turn up at a flat, they have been referred to by the social services Emergency Duty Team (EDT), who got a call from the police.  The provider staff member will call the police, on the basis that it’s too dangerous, and leave – having recorded an hour on her timesheet.  The police will call the EDT, just as they did an hour ago……   The vulnerable children may or may not be removed to a ‘place of safety’ under Sec 46 of the Children’s Act 1989.  In all likelihood, they won’t be, because within this ‘unreal’ contract there is provision for making the existing place safe.

In fact, in terms of Giles’ concept of “social service of last resort”, it’s no longer the police – it’s a service which doesn’t really exist.

This is just one contract.  I could point you to others quite like it.  I was told by one local authority commissioning officer dealing with contracts for the implementation of the expanded duties under the Care Act 2014 that there was “no room for quality in this one”: she just had to make sure the right target number of carer assessments etc. were ticked off.  When I wrote to another commissioner seeking a small expansion in contract value with a view to bringing real added value to it (this in family support), I got a copy-and-paste legalistc letter warning that we risked breach of contract if we did not comply with the terms.  No mention was made of what we were actually offering.

All over the country, providers are gaming contracts, cutting quality, cutting corners, because they have to.  Commissioners in their turn prefer not to know this is going on, because it’s easier that way, and service users won’t know any better.  This is a product not just of austerity, but also of a collapse of collective responsibility amongst public service professionals, who have been brow-beaten by their managers to the extent that reality is actually what your boss wants it to be, not what’s actually real.

But how do we try and make reality again? How do we turn back the tide of managerialism-of-the-unreal in a time of continued and even greater cuts?  Concrete labour movement and civil society organisation proposals come in part II.

Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Outsourcing reality (part II): the response

August 25, 2015 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Notes

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a priori

 

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