Yesterday it was announced that Bickerstaffe Children’s Services, the childcare social enterprise I help run, had been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Small business best practice awards. Which is nice.
Reading through the Guardian’s covevage – a journalist had called me a couple of weeks ago to get the lowdown – I was struck how One Nation it all sounded:
Bickerstaffe Lodge prides itself on individual relationships with parents, an approach it believes is the key to successful cashflow management at the nursery and early years centre and after school club near Ormskirk, Lancashire….
To ensure dependable cashflow, many nurseries invoice in advance, often for a month or a whole term, which can be very expensive. Most offer standard – sometimes strict – terms. Paul Cotterill, one of three directors who runs the Lodge as a not-for-profit organisation known as Bickerstaffe Children’s Services Ltd, says that often this lack of flexibility can lead to late payment or default, the exit of the child from the nursery, or loss of trust.
Identifying these pitfalls, Bickerstaffe operates a flexible, individually-tailored approach based on relationships with each and every parent.
“Right from the start we had a bit of unspoken flexibility,” Cotterill explains. “It wasn’t a crystal-clear business decision, it was more of a subtle switch that moved the invoicing process from a transaction approach to a relationship approach.”
Had we really, I wondered into my coffee, been developing a relational state for ages, long before the IPPR manual on it came out, even before Labourlist’s One Nation week told us how to behave relationally, and without even realising what we were up to?
Yes, we had been, I decided. Indeed, when I read Tess Laming’s contribution to the IPPR report, it felt like she might have been making notes at the back of the cramped nursery office, as we discussed how to go about cashflow management in a way which met our business needs not just in terms of cash but also in in terms of overall quality, and – crucially – in a way which met the legitimate demands of our staff to ‘do the right thing’ by our parents: As Tess says:
Crucially, the logic of a democratic and relational state must extend to a new political economy that does not seek simply to maximise shareholder coffers but to balance the interests of capital, labour and wider society, build the legitimacy of employees’ voices in the workplace and ensure their creative potential doesn’t go to waste (p.56).
And it seems to me that, high-falutin’ as all this ‘relational state’ John Cruddas stuff may sound at first, if it’s actually simply reflecting intellectually what’s happening in ‘best practice’, then there must be something in it, and Labour may well be on the right track with its new political philosophy.
The challenge now is to ensure that, as political philosophy is translated into party policy over the next couple of years, that policy remains rooted in the ‘best practice’ of organisations like ours, and workers who stand in solidarity – a term which has slipped rather from the Labour lexicon – with the people they work for. Or, as Marc Stears says much more eruditely:
Most human relationships are mediated through some form of institution, be it formal or informal. These institutions provide a structure that enables relationships to persist across time in a way that ensures they are not entirely dependent on the whim of any individual at any particular moment. Persistent organisation of this sort is what distinguishes the euphoric moments of communality that accompany one-off events, such as the Olympic Games or a music festival, from the sustainable relationships that are needed if we are to flourish in the ways that many of us are seeking. Traditional institutions, including trade unions and cooperatives, played this role during the tumultuous time of industrialisation, but many have struggled mor e recently. An agenda focused on relationship-building should begin by promoting our collective institutional life (p.41).
Bickerstaffe Children’s Services is, we hope, one such ‘persistent’ institution. There are lots more out there, just waiting to become Labour policy.