The future of the left since 1884

Labour must give up its instinct to control

British politics is ruled by a peculiarly inappropriate set of metaphors. Commenting on Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony of the London Olympics, David Cameron could only say “it’s more proof Britain can deliver”. Boyle’s spectacle told a story about the experiences...


British politics is ruled by a peculiarly inappropriate set of metaphors. Commenting on Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony of the London Olympics, David Cameron could only say “it’s more proof Britain can deliver”. Boyle’s spectacle told a story about the experiences that made Britons what we are. It was about the things that allowed people to flourish: the countryside, the NHS, children’s fiction, music, as well as the forces of rampant capitalism that block human fulfillment. But Cameron’s comments treated it as a target to be ticked off. The show was just another package that, in anxious times, had safely arrived.

British politicians seem obsessed with the post office. The coalition government speaks of ‘delivering’ a balanced budget just like you deliver the mail. No.10 had a ‘delivery unit’. Labour now talks about ‘delivering fairness and prosperity’. The postcode lottery is a real concern.

We only have to think for a moment to see how wrong the postal metaphor is to talk about public services. Post is delivered through our letterbox so we don’t need to be at home to collect the letter. The recipient doesn’t participate.

The idea of delivery converts the art of leading our polity into the management of things, whose delivery is measured irrespective of their quality or context. It reduces the rich, meaningful relationships public services create to something lifeless and prosaic. For Cameron, it didn’t matter that Boyle’s show was a unique, wonderful event, appropriate to its occasion. The postal state doesn’t care if a student’s exam results makes them happy or gets them a good job; it doesn’t bother whether an infrastructure project is going to improve our quality of life. All that counts is that something measurable happens.

In the management of our public institutions real people have been replaced by abstractions. Statistics, standards, guidelines, performance management measures. The result is that public sector workers aren’t listened to, and the public feels ignored.

We need a state that treats people as people, not as statistics or units of management. That means public institutions which are better at cultivating relationships, where reciprocity and mutual responsibility count; where professionals, users and local citizens need to have real authority .

How can we make that happen?

Labour needs to abandon the bossy administrator and management consultant, and become instead a movement about collective decision-making and common action, care not command. To create public institutions that have relationships at their centre, we need to get people talking. Instead of waiting to be elected into government Labour should see itself as a power in the land now. The shadow cabinet needs to begin a national conversation that gets workers and unions, national and local politicians, public sector managers and citizens together to argue, negotiate and agree a new settlement for Britain’s public institutions now.

But for that conversation to happen, Labour politicians and progressive administrators need to challenge some of their most deeply held instincts. First, is the idea that a tiny group of people in Westminster and Whitehall can be trusted to decide what’s best for the rest of us on their own. In the last few decades, the national leadership of the Labour party has gone into alliance with a small group of people who believe their managerial expertise and superior moral values allow them rule without any kind of relationship with the people and institutions that make up this country. Over the last hundred years, that elite has reproduced itself through the public schools, civil service, social sciences and management profession, all of which endorsed the idea that a better society can only come if an enlightened elite possesses unbridled power.

Labour was meant to make sure things were different. Our movement was founded to organise working people to challenge the administrative hierarchy. It wasn’t about decapitating the ruling class or even being anti-elitist, but making sure no group of people could rule unilaterally. Whether they are bankers or bureaucrats, those with authority should only have power if they’re forced to negotiate with those they rule. Yet too often now, Labour politicians’ passion for social justice and language of egalitarianism veils a belief in their unilaterial right to direct and control the rest of British society without challenge. Real, practical democracy is the only answer to people’s massive sense of disempowerment.

Labour needs to return to its old purpose of challenging the unilateral authority of the people who run the organisations that dominate our lives, whether they are in the private or public sector. A reformed state will take authority from unaccountable officials (quangos, regulatory bodies, government departments) and give it to institutions where big decisions are only taken after public argument. That means a big cull of the statutory guidelines that Whitehall issues to direct public institutions, and all central regulations properly debated in parliament. The shift would be obvious if the leaders of local institutions were elected by annual popular assembly. Schools and hospitals could hold an annual shareholders meeting where citizenship, not money, buys you a vote.

Labour’s historic commitment to equality means we need to give up the instinct to control, command and deliver. It should be Labour’s task to build institutions that expand popular participation in both our public services and market economy.

Jon Wilson’s pamphlet ‘Letting Go: How Labour can learn to stop worrying and trust the people’ is published by the Fabian Society. To download the PDF and for information on how to obtain a hard copy, please visit the publications page. 

Those wishing to join a discussion detailing some of the ideas in this article and pamphlet can attend the launch event details are here

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