The Labour movement column
A couple of weeks ago I took part in pre-election hustings on education and skills in front of an audience of staff and governors in the further education sector. As you would expect, I was presenting the Labour case. I knew where my weak points were and tried to close them off as effectively as possible which I managed to do with one rather important exception. It is difficult to make generalisations but I would say that the audience was centrist in the main but skewed slightly to the centre-left. And yet, they had a huge issue with the state interfering with the way they, as professionals, applied their knowledge.
After a dozen years of Labour they felt that the state – and the quangocracy that is its extension – simply interfered with their ability to do their job. These were not people who do not believe that they should be utterly professional in what they do. They were comfortable with the notion of professional development and quality assurance. They were in the main people who felt that they could do an even better job if so much of their time and energy wasn’t spent responding to the monitory state. I argued continually that Labour was more committed to investment in further education and more credible than the Liberal Democrats. I reminded them that the Conservatives’ ‘age of austerity’ would reduce the number of courses that were offered and the number of people employed in administering those courses.
That latter point was taken on board. And yet, I just couldn’t wrench the mood away from the feeling that the state was taking up time and energy that should be devoted to meeting the needs of the local community and employers. And it was Labour that was taking the hit for that. It was a process that started under the Thatcher/Major governments, but Labour has come to own the negativity. There was a vote at the end of the hustings. The Conservatives got 37%, with Labour and the Lib Dems coming in at 29% each(perhaps also a reflection of the historical split in the progressive vote, or my debating skills!)
And now today, the Conservatives have a day-long jamboree in a community centre in Southwark to flesh out what they mean by the ‘big society’ which aims to chime very much with this irritation with the modern state. It features a parade of shadow cabinet ministers, Cameron himself, and video messages from the likes of digital age buddhas such as Clay Shirky. It marks a serious return to an agenda which was largely jettisoned a couple of years ago and only really taken up again in November of last year.
Civic resuscitation is not a holy grail only sought by the Tories. Labour has been quietly experimenting also. There is a rich community tradition within the history of the labour movement – including through unions, friendly societies, and churches. And now, spontaneously and organically a number of Labour councils have been experimenting with involving the local community and professionals with the running of local services. 115 Labour Councils have signed a charter which offers an alternative vision to the Tories’ EasyCouncil model – by involving local communities in the delivery of services they will free up resources to protect the needy. Already, co-operative delivery of services including Sure Start, housing, education, and social care have been experimented with in Lambeth, Croydon, Salford, Torfaen, and Stevanage. Some of the community ethos within these concepts has begun to seep into the party itself. Learning the lessons of engaging community leaders in connecting local action with political change in Birmingham Hodge Hill, Liam Byrne MP has launched the Local Action Network.
But it would be churlish to claim that the Conservatives are just adapting to Labour’s agenda. There were some really eye-catching announcements in David Cameron’s speech today that genuinely raise the bar. Most particularly, the idea to train 5,000 community organisers in the Alinsky art of empowering individuals and communities to take action for themselves is profoundly interesting.
Both Labour and the Conservatives have yet to find the right balance between the state and civil society in their vision going forward. Labour is still too unquestioning of the limits of state action and too willing to reach for it in providing the answer to every single identified problem.
The Conservatives have taken ownership of the language of a new settlement: ‘big society’ and ‘post-bureaucratic age’ are indicative of their awareness. But they have a less convincing understanding of the risks to equality, opportunity and poverty in getting it wrong. And they risk replacing the ‘big state’ with a more localised version of the same. Michael Merrick – in a neat distinction – has described this as local socialism over social localism.
It remains a contentious question: can you – in David Cameron’s phrase – use the state to remake society?The new cadre of community organisers will be trained and employed by the state. Will they just become a fancy sort of community liaison officer? If so, they will fail. Communities are – in a tautological way – empowered by power. What is needed is not merely consultation – there’s plenty of that. What’s needed is local ownership, organisation, leadership, and real participation.
Both main parties are fishing towards such an agenda but neither can quite resist pulling the levers they find in front of them. Just take Michael Gove’s desire to free schools while wishing to micro-manage how they teach in the classroom. It doesn’t make sense. What this represents is that the urge to interfere and intervene lives long and dies hard. And that’s why, there has to be a suspicion that any state driven agenda will not work.
In the end, state interference rather than support was what those professionals I addressed were frustrated by. Labour has inadvertently taken ownership of their frustration. Should they find themselves in office the Conservatives will find themselves easy recipients of that frustration. Promise power and offer only new and different forms of meddling and they would pay the price. The ‘big society’ makes for good short-term politics. Unless David Cameron means what he says and is prepared to accept the consequences of that then he could find that the milk will sour very quickly.