One Nation Labour and the lessons of Surestart

November 15, 2012 5:16 pm

By Duncan O’Leary

One Nation Labour signals a move away from technocratic politics to a much richer story about how people relate to and treat one another. It speaks to the value of human relationships, it stresses the importance of institutions that bring people together and it argues for everyday democratic processes which give people a stake in the decisions that affect them.

No-one said such a politics is easy though. The story of Surestart, one of the last government’s most ambitious ideas, is an instructive case study for anyone interested in the One Nation Idea and the notion of a political project that takes human relationships more seriously. Surestart was an attempt to do this in two ways. First, its focus was not just on delivering services for individuals, but on supporting good parenting and enriching family relationships. Second, the approach adopted was built on personal relationships (rather than bureaucratic structures). Services were shaped by knocking on doors and asking people what they needed, rather than being designed by policymakers elsewhere. ‘”What works” is important, but “how it works”…is equally, if not more, important’, wrote Norman Glass, the man who inspired Surestart.

Glass’s article, however, was not celebrating the programme but mourning its transformation from community initiative to national programme in 2005. His paean to the programme was prompted by the dilution of these two principles. When established in 1999, Surestart’s stated objectives were to:

“Work with parents-to-be, parents and children to promote the physical, intellectual and social development of babies and young children – particularly those who are disadvantaged – so that they can flourish at home and when they get to school, and thereby break the cycle of disadvantage for the current generation of young children” 

By the time Glass was proclaiming the ‘abolition’ of the programme, as it moved towards the ‘Children’s Centre’ model, the goalposts had moved. The aim was now to:

“Achieve better outcomes for children, parents and communities… through increasing the availability of childcare for all children; improving health and emotional development for young children; supporting parents as parents and in their aspirations towards employment.”

The focus on parenting and family relationships had given way to a more straightforward desire to help parents into work. This was far less about relationships and far more about hitting GDP targets and lifting working parents out of material poverty. Thus family centres became children’s centres. Running parallel to this change of direction were changes in the way Surestart was run. As the programme was rolled out nationally local authorities took the lead, heralding an era in which grass-roots influence over the direction of centres would be diminished.  In part, this decision was made on cost grounds. It was hoped that local bureaucracies could run things more efficiently than local people. But the shift in governance arrangements also reflected a concern that the overriding goal of Surestart – ‘better outcomes for children, parents and communities’ – was not being met.

The programme had been set up explicitly to tackle disadvantage, but the concern was that the piecemeal approach to establishing which services were required was insufficiently evidence-based. New guidance published in 2005 warned against merely offering the services requested by parents, at the risk of losing sight of the central purpose and objectives of the programme.

Norman Glass was clearly horrified at the transformation of Surestart and the changes are easy to criticise. The programme seemed to have less warmth and humanity by 2010 than it had done ten years previously. But the tensions – between growth and other priorities and between what people want and what the experts think ‘works’ – are dilemmas that will not go away. In a fiscal environment at tight as the current climate the countervailing pressures against a more ‘relational’ politics are, in fact, bigger than ever. Who will argue against a more rational and efficient way of doing things?

Two responses are necessary. The first is to make some big strategic choices about public spending. As Nick Pearce, James Purnell and others have argued, future governments are going to have to distinguish between desirable policies and real priorities. There will not be enough money around for both.  A more ‘relational’ politics would surely establish modern family services, with aims close to those that Surestart began with, as one such priority. The second necessity is to recognise that a ‘relational politics’ is messy and will take time.  The ‘most needy’ families will not always come forward first and the services that parents want will not always be those that the experts recommend. These tensions cannot be wished away but they can be ameliorated by the right form of statecraft.

Public services can reach people by working with institutions that are already trusted in local areas, rather than government having to create a new building every time it funds a new service. And policy can do more to bring people together to work out how best to deploy scarce resources. Democratic processes within institutions like children’s centres can bring professionals and the public into a dialogue about their respective priorities. The ‘outcomes’ that policymakers have identified (and put money towards) can be matched up with the priorities of the people involved.

Surestart did not get all of this right. But there are important lessons to be learned from its pioneering first phase. Chief among these is the temptation to swap a politics built on relationships for something altogether more rational.

Duncan O’Leary is Deputy Director at Demos. This is an edited version of an essay published in the IPPR report ‘The Relational State’.

This piece forms part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList

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