A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Hardie’s legacy and Labour’s civil society future

In Ideology, Party politics on January 21, 2011 at 6:52 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

At the risk of over-simplifying my first assertion, the history of post-1970s British politics can be seen as a binary conflict between the following spheres: state vs. market, Labour vs. Conservative, working class vs. middle class, wealth redistribution vs. wealth creation, equality vs. liberty. By the 2010 general election, a torrent of factors – national sovereignty being challenged by supranational unions (e.g. the Lisbon Treaty), economic autonomy being undermined by globalisation (the increasing power of the IMF and WTO), the 2008 financial crisis (ending the neo-liberal consensus) – have finally rendered this binary a deadlock. We are now drifting through an immaterial void, the new national order which will dominate the early 21st Century still forming in primordial soup. Cameron, in opposition, had the first opportunity to act, performing a volte face with the Conservative party and laying claim to civil society. The coalition has, so far successfully, painted Labour as the party of the out-of-touch managerial state and top-down reform. However, as I hope to show, the older and alternative thread within the Labour Party is of civil society activism and bottom-up reform, and that Labour’s recognition and revival of this thread is the key to its critique of the Big Society and re-forging progressive politics for a new generation.

The Big Society is a multi-form concept; a regeneration of British communities, a redemption for painful deficit reduction, a way out of the Conservative Party’s Thatcherite cul-de-sac. Whilst Thatcher famously declared at her zenith that “There is, as we now know, no such thing as society”, Cameron’s loudest mantra has so far been “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state.” Cameron’s aspiration for Britain is one in which the public sector is scaled back as much as possible, and power is devolved to local communities; schools placed in the hands of teachers and parents, hospitals in those of GPs, public services with business and the voluntary sector. This fits neatly with the constantly laboured necessity of dismantling Labour’s juggernaut-sized state in order to reign in the country’s spending deficit. Cameron believes that, with the state scaled back, people will be freer to run their own communities and lives.

As laudable and potentially inspirational as this rhetoric is, there are gaping rends in the ‘progressive conservative’ Big Society philosophy. There is such a thing as society, and it’s not the same as the state, but it’s not the same as the market either. Retracting the state does not miraculously make people free; in a huge number of communities, the state, however distant and bureaucratic, is the only force preventing the market from privatising all. Taking the example of education reform, Michael Gove wants to shift power from local authorities to create independent ‘free’ academies, and is doing so against the will of the vast majority of teaching staff who he claims he wants to empower. Aside from the concerns many have about the creation of a two-tier system, the overbearing workload for staff, the temptation for schools to opt-in in exchange for a short-term cash boost, and the likelihood of affluent ‘sharp-elbowed’ middle-class parents hijacking the process to best help their own children, these academies would be democratically unaccountable to children and parents. If an academy goes bankrupt, where does it turn? Why, to the line of businesses ravenous to rake in profits from running chains of them, of course. Companies such as Tribal, Edison Learning and Serco have already expressed an interest in buying academies, and Gove has publically stated he has “no ideological objection” to this. I know I’m not the only one who finds the commodification of education a repugnant idea.

Nor, though it may shock the coalition leadership to hear it, can the government through sleight of hand exchange the state for voluntary sector in public service provision. Before the election, Cameron expressed hope that charities and faith groups would perform the job of the public sector in alleviating poverty and providing welfare utility. In light of Eric Pickles’ confirmation that voluntary groups would not receive additional funding for this work, the last week of December saw David Robinson of Community Links and the Bishop of Leister joining the growing number of voluntary sector figures concerned about the workability of the Big Society in the face of a massive welfare scale-back. The latter commented that “This can’t be the throwing of a switch and saying the state walks out and the church walks in. It is completely irresponsible to say these people will be cared for by amateurs.” If Labour has sometimes been guilty of undervaluing the role of civil society, then the Conservatives are optimistic to fantastical levels about its ability to do the job of the state unaided whilst at the same time fending off the vultures of the free market.

So how can Labour respond to the Big Society, and ensure that the post-crisis order is one dominated by progressives? The largest hurdle it must overcome is, I believe, not its association with Gordon Brown’s economic mismanagement – that is only part of the bigger picture. The real problem is the legacy of Labour’s top-down managerialism, and the fact that the party compromised its values and vision to be elected under a neo-liberal consensus. The new shadow cabinet proclaims its progressive credentials from the opposition benches – public sector investment, equality legislation, the largest ever redistribution from rich to poor – but none of this, as the rolling coalition reforms show, is set to outlast the government which instigated it. Miliband cannot criticise Cameron’s privatisation, because, far from providing a counterpoint to Thatcher-Major privatisations, New Labour joined the fun by part-privatising schools and the London Underground. He cannot criticise the meagreness of the new banking levy or minimalist regulation, because New Labour was happy to let the financial sector steer Britain into the economic abyss. And he cannot criticise the government’s removal of ring-fencing and centralisation of funding, because Labour, New and Old, saw it as a virtue to keep the reigns of power firmly in Westminster’s grasp. Labour’s job is hard because, in many ways, Cameron is only pursuing policies from the Blair-Brown platform.

In fact, Labour has an often overlooked rich tradition of civil society movements. It was created in 1900 out of the efforts of trade unions, which represented a sizable chunk of the poor population disregarded by the Conservative and Liberal state apparatus. Its founder and first MP, Keir Hardie, is regarded as one of the greatest activists in our history – his sense of democracy extended beyond the market and parliamentary state to local communities, faith groups, feminists, trade unionists and anti-imperialists. Labour’s historic values, as Maurice Glasman has pointed out, are not only abstracts like equality and liberty – they are also solidarity set against liberal individualism, activism set against conservative servility, and mutualism and reciprocity against capitalist self-aggrandisement. In many ways, the post-war Old Labour of Atlee, Wilson and Callaghan is as guilty of equating progressivism and socialism with statism as its New counterpart. After Labour’s experience of wartime governance and the 1945 landslide, the idea that the only route to change was the seizure and steering of the central state became hegemonic within the party. By contrast, early Labour in the tradition of Hardie, Lansbury and Tawney was a true grassroots mass movement, the like of which we have never seen since.

The voices on the Left which have represented this bottom-up rather than top-down tradition since Blair’s rise – Jon Cruddas, Will Hutton and Neal Lawson prominent among them – are finally being listened to. And neither is this renewed commitment to mutualism, localism and active citizenship rather than passive consumerism purely intellectual. The Conservative government’s spending cuts have kindled a new wave of civil society activism rarely seen in the last 30 years of neo-liberal hegemony, but this is not Cameron’s ostensibly citizen-empowering Big Society, which is showing itself to instead empower unaccountable big business and quangos. This is a wave of new grassroots organisations created to battle against the slicing up of the public sector – there are now dozens of regional anti-cuts groups, national anti-privatisation groups such as Keep Our NHS Public, and others for single-issues such as the anti-tax avoidance UK Uncut. The Labour Party itself has gained 32,000 new members since May, 10,000 of them disillusioned Lib Dems. Seven months into this parliament, it seems that the only community Cameron has succeeded in building is one against his own government.

If Miliband is tactful, he will ride the wave of public outrage (only set to grow as the cuts begin to strike the poor and middle) and in the process shear off its violent fringe. In doing so, he will attain a democratic mandate at least as great as a government which was formed from a series of enigmatic backroom deals. This will lay the foundations of the civil society-centred platform Labour must fight the next election on.

I suspect that, given the renaissance ideas of community and civil society are enjoying at the moment, Labour’s policy review will yield such answers. There are already prominent examples of such policies in action; for instance, Lambeth Council is in the process of becoming Britain’s first cooperative local authority. Some service provision has already been mutualised with promising results; Community Freshview to revitalise derelict land, cooperative housing for poorer people to own whilst avoiding loan sharking, and peer mentoring to rehabilitate potential young offenders. Another case can be seen in Citizens UK’s campaign for the living wage, which Ed Miliband has backed, and has enriched low-paid workers by over £40 million since 2000. Unlike the Big Society, this is not to diminish the important role of the welfare state, but to localise it and make it work alongside communities and people, rather than managing them like employees of a gigantic corporation.

Labour must jettison the narrow liberalism not only of the Blair-Brown years, but the top-down, managerialism, centralising thread of its ideology which goes back to the post-war nationalisations. It must also reenergise its concept of socialism past Antony Crosland’s now canonical assertion of economic equality as the party’s sole creed. Perhaps most importantly, it must re-stake its claim to the Big Society which Cameron has hijacked for the Tories – mutualism, localism and solidarity must become core tenets of its vision once more, coupled with an unambiguous commitment to the environmental cause. The direction emerging from our national void-drifting is increasingly away from central state and towards the literal meaning of democracy: the empowerment of the people. For the sake of the majority at the mercy of unrestrained capitalism, Labour cannot allow itself to be left behind.

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  1. Hi James,

    I’m not sure I necessarily agree with you about this:

    “As laudable and potentially inspirational as this rhetoric is, there are gaping rends in the ‘progressive conservative’ Big Society philosophy. There is such a thing as society, and it’s not the same as the state, but it’s not the same as the market either. Retracting the state does not miraculously make people free; in a huge number of communities, the state, however distant and bureaucratic, is the only force preventing the market from privatising all.”

    As you argue earlier: “Cameron’s aspiration for Britain is one in which the public sector is scaled back as much as possible, and power is devolved to local communities; schools placed in the hands of teachers and parents, hospitals in those of GPs, public services with business and the voluntary sector.” This “scaling back” of the State isn’t the same thing as an abdication of responsibility, just like sub-contraction of catering services by a University doesn’t amount to a withdrawal of said services.

    After all, privatisation can refer to a number of things. It can refer to direct privatisation, where the state guarantees nothing; privatisation where the market is in charge of what services are provided, to which people and how they are provided. But often, privatisation is sub-contraction: the Railways, for example, are in a weird half-way position of providing nationally important services and being run as regional monopolies by necessity, and there is a complex arrangement of regulations and subsidies. On a more simple level, the central idea of academies is that of making the running of certain State schools independent of full public control, although I would argue that since the State still contributes the majority of funding, it still holds the main levers of control. Free schools is probably the best example of privatisation whilst guaranteeing services: education becomes private (but not-for-profit), but the State still funds pupils by the same amount, and also provides funding for start-up capital in some cases, as I understand it.

    So I’m not exactly sure what the argument is against “privatising all” per se — the State, after all, is still in control of how public services are provided, it merely chooses sometimes to subcontract. Of course, I understand why there can be specific objections to private providers, and I understand why it’s not a given that this is a useful way to spend money. But I don’t see a hugely ideological objection.

    After all, the people delivering public services are already doing it for profit. It’s only the nature of that profit which is different — personal profit, or institutional profit, rather than corporate profit. The only true non-profit provision of services is done by people who refuse any kind of remuneration for their efforts, which is limited in its ability to contribute on a mass scale.

    “these academies would be democratically unaccountable to children and parents. If an academy goes bankrupt, where does it turn? Why, to the line of businesses ravenous to rake in profits from running chains of them, of course. Companies such as Tribal, Edison Learning and Serco have already expressed an interest in buying academies, and Gove has publically stated he has “no ideological objection” to this. I know I’m not the only one who finds the commodification of education a repugnant idea.”

    I’m not sure I understand this argument on a factual level. Academies work through the injection of private capital (a minority injection, I might add, compared to the existing state funding), in exchange for a majority stake in the governing of a school. So private companies already have a role in the running of academy school. Chains expressing an interest would be part of the existing process, rather than buying up failing academies. As for that, is it even legal for companies to buy academies? I suspect not, and I’m almost certain that it would be illegal to run an academy for-profit, because it is to run a free school for-profit.

  2. Those are just some thoughts for now — I might come back with some additional ones on your conclusions, but at the moment I’ve run out of time.

  3. […] I begin, I would like to welcome our newest writer, James Bartholomeusz. I enjoyed reading his analysis of Labour’s past and future, and look forward to future […]

  4. Hi David,

    Thanks for your comments – I’d like to respond. Perhaps you could clarify what you mean about not-for-profit privatisation? I’m fairly sure that the primary incentive for private companies to take up state contracts is the financial profit. A private company running a school not-for-profit would indeed be laudable, but I’m sceptical about how this could be achieved on a large scale.

    This also ties into an article I hope to write soon about the changing role of the state. The best model for the welfare state in my view, originally held by its creators such as Beveridge and Atlee, is one which operates like a giant cooperative with everyone putting something in according to their ability and everyone taking something out according to their need. Universalism of standard and service (or as close as we can get to it) was a key part of Beveridge’s vision – born out of the mutual spirit of the Second World War, he saw the benefits of a national joint enterprise in increasing community cohesion. This was vision shared by the post-war Conservative governments as well as the Labour ones, up until Thatcher of course.

    There have been two major challenges to this vision since the 1940s – targeting and privatisation. Targeting might seem economically logical (aiming provision at the poorest to the greatest effect) but, as thirty years of excessive targeting have shown, it has longer-term negative effects. Dividing the population into ‘them’ and ‘us’ – those who rely on state support and those who don’t – has been shown to be very detrimental to equal citizenship and self-confidence and propensity to work amongst the poor (This argument is laid out very well in ‘The Solidarity Society’ by Tim Horton and James Gregory). Jon Cruddas is one of the ‘next Labour’ thinkers who has suggested a universal income provision as a right of citizenship.

    Privatisation also undermines community cohesion by turning service provision, which should be available to all citizens, into a consumer choice. Another great victory of the wartime experience and post-war consensus was the recognition that there are some services which should be run as a joint enterprise and not to make a small clique rich. I disagree with your argument about the profit-motive in the public sector – the vast majority of teachers and health professionals are underpaid and overworked.

    Even if free schools or academies are run not-for-profit, the experience of the state sector under New Labour has shown how problematic wide gaps in service between regions and localities can be. The ‘postcode lottery’ syndrome, along with the publication of league tables, has allowed affluent families to monopolise good schools and leave the rest for those who can’t afford to own a house in the catchment area.

    • “Thanks for your comments – I’d like to respond. Perhaps you could clarify what you mean about not-for-profit privatisation”

      From what I understand, it means when profits made are invested in the future of the school, rather than paid as a dividend to shareholders. It’s probably a lot more complicated than that, but I think that’s the essence.

      “A private company running a school not-for-profit would indeed be laudable, but I’m sceptical about how this could be achieved on a large scale.”

      Well, this is a criticism that was made of Gove’s free schools by the creator of the policy in Sweden. He argued that without allowing schools to be for-profit, the idea wouldn’t work because a voluntary school was happy to put you on a waiting list, but a for-profit one was always eager to expand. I’m not sold on the idea of schools being for-profit as a bad thing, although I can see arguments about possible market failure, and the State having to bail out failed schools, as having merit.

      I’m not sure whether the sponser gets any profit out of an academy. I suspect that it doesn’t, and it is about voluntary involvement, but I’m not too sure. I think there’s probably enough of a market for sponsorship with the number of academies that Labour imagined, although whether there is for the number Gove invisages, I don’t know.

      I agree with the point you make about targeting. It seems odd that people still insist on trying to find something of a link between taxes paid and public spending — after all, it spending followed only those who paid money in then there would be no point in public spending in the first place. However, it strikes me that with targeting (which is only increasing now, of course) there has not been an attempt to prevent a decline in social solidarity. I don’t think targeting need necessarily automatically fragment society, but I can certainly see how without good information, and good promotion of social values, it could do so.

      My argument about personal profit in the public sector was harsh, and not entirely fair — but neither, I think, is characterising all commercial service provision as profit-grasping and greedy. Indeed, it’s worth bearing in mind that some SMEs tend rarely to achieve much more than the provision of a niche service, at small profit. Particularly with those of smaller size, one of the overriding factors in their survival is going to be customer satisfaction, as well as enjoyment of the trade.

      With public sector work, jobs may be generally overpaid, but there are many cases — the 2008-2009 recession, for example, where there was a greater job security (something which is at risk now, of course) and the greater influence of unions — where the job arguably has higher personal rewards than in the private sector. I don’t doubt that the ideal of public service is higher in these jobs, but I think that it’s wrong just to ascribe that as the only motive of people’s decision to take up those jobs. If public sector jobs were chronically underpaid, then we would have a real problem, and services would probably suffer and the private sector gain at the public sector’s expense.

      I don’t think huge profits at the expense of the State are desirable. Indeed, I’m sceptical of the State’s ability to act as consumer of services provided by private companies. That’s a massive flaw in the idea of a market in public services, although there are still arguments in favour of private provision — if the company delivers other services privately, for example, and has an incentive not to damage its reputation. This is why I like ideas like Free Schools, which seem to me to devolve decisions made by the State to many different individuals, making their own choices. There’s far less potential for one big body to mess things up, which I think is compatible with the vision of public services for the people as a whole. It’s also why I’m sceptical of academies, given that they’re not driven in the same way, and seem to be informed by both a distrust of Local Education Authorities and a fetishisation of private sector management, rather than consumer power.

      “Even if free schools or academies are run not-for-profit, the experience of the state sector under New Labour has shown how problematic wide gaps in service between regions and localities can be. The ‘postcode lottery’ syndrome, along with the publication of league tables, has allowed affluent families to monopolise good schools and leave the rest for those who can’t afford to own a house in the catchment area.”

      I agree that this is a big problem, and possibly shows how all of the reforms generally being discussed (apart from tiering, which Michael Gove supports) merely tinker with the structure of the system than targeting the lack of power the poor exercise at the moment. However, I think this is a double-edged problem. On one hand you have the fact that the more affluent middle class are far more mobile, and can much more easily access more distant schools. This is something which does need addressing, and I think schools should have an incentive to be socially comprehensive in the children they support. But on the other hand you have the lack of constructive involvement of some parents in their child’s education, which I think is just as damaging. Indeed, I don’t think that many “sink schools” are at all bad, and I’d go even further and say that segregation isn’t necessarily their biggest problem. If children are all eager to learn and supported by their families, then they’ll probably fare much better when compared to State schools serving more affluent children, than they do now. This, in turn, might serve to reverse segregation in the long term, as the affluent middle class had fewer reasons to fear schools dominated by poor children.

      People power — or “nudging” — therefore has the potential to solve these problems in tandem with, or even instead of, top-down reforms such as tiering, which suffer from the potential to turn parents against the system. I think some hard-nosed incentives are probably needed to motivate parents to take an interest in their children’s well-being, and I don’t think this is all “Pie in the Sky”.

      If there’s one book you should read about education, it’s “The Beautiful Tree”, by James Tooley, which looks at private education for the poor in the developing world. He shows that many extremely poor families take a huge interest in securing a better future for their child through good education. Now, of course, you can’t make a direct comparison to the UK, because a huge number of factors are different. For one thing, our public services aren’t infested with corruption, and for another, the wealth gap probably isn’t comparable once public spending is taken into account. But I do wonder why some families are so less engaged than others, and whether this can’t change. The State shouldn’t be replacing people’s personal responsibility, it should be complementing it.

      I don’t have a real answer to this question, although I have a few minor ideas — making child benefit reliant upon school attendance, for example. My experience of EMA makes me think that there are ways the State can nudge people into taking on more responsibility, and I’m fine with the idea, even though some people find it repulsive.

      Sorry about the length of this!

  5. Hi David, thanks for the response. You’re certainly right about there not being an automatic causal link between welfare targeting and a fragmented society (Will Hutton, hardly known for his hard views on the poor, is pro-targeting) but I agree it can be contributory. The situation isn’t helped by the Right-wing press painting recipients as ‘scroungers’ and ‘benefit-cheats’, when these cases are relatively rare and really a result of much wider issues surrounding inequality, globalisation and the abandonment of the goal of full employment.

    I also agree you about Labour’s academies programme; a case of right principles, wrong policy. As I hope I communicated in this article, the tradition within the Labour Party which I think needs to be jettisoned is the model of the state as Soviet-esque, top-down, centralised and managerial. You put it very well when you say ‘the state shouldn’t be replacing people’s personal responsibility, it should be complementing it’. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a ‘big state’ as long as it is localised and works with, rather than dictates to, people and communities. This is the direction Labour should pursue: i.e. the Big Society, but better.

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