A crisis in Britain’s institutions is driving popular frustration at everyone with power, from bankers to newspapers to politicians. From duck ponds to the economic downturn, we’ve allowed small groups to look after their own interests without being held to account by the people their lives impact.
One Nation Labour is our response to that crisis. It isn’t just an electoral strategy. It has the potential to be something far more radical. If it develops strong relationships with the public sector and business, trade unions and voluntary associations, it can fundamentally change the way we think and act towards the world around us, to mark as great a transformation in our ethics and practice as the Conservative governments of the 1980s.
Thatcherism treated people as calculating consumers who weighed the short-term costs and benefits of every action (including voting) for themselves. It’s the way of interacting with the world that created the crash. That attitude still infects our political and economic institutions. It saturates our current mode of retail politics. Politics has become the science of ‘delivering’ of packages and projects for individual consumers instead of the art of discovering what we can do together.
Instead, One Nation Labour recognises that our interests and aspirations are bound up with our reciprocal obligations to those around us. Institutions work best when people are driven by a sense of common purpose. But the motivation to work together can’t be imposed from above. It takes conversation, argument and negotiation between people who share their everyday lives.
A One Nation politics takes aspiration seriously. But it notices that aspiration starts with our relationships with people we care about: family and neighbourhood, our town or city, community and country as well as our selves. It’s about the way self-interest is entangled within the reciprocal obligations we have to the people around us.
To put that into practice, One Nation Labour needs to focus on changing our institutions, our businesses large and small, our schools, hospitals, job centres, the places where people get together to work, consume and care so they’re driven by that sense of reciprocal obligation. How do we do that? What does One Nation Labour mean in practice?
First, it means ordinary people having a more powerful voice in the way our private businesses and public institutions are run. That will create tension, of course. We need to recognize that people have different interests, but let the argument happen. If consumers had more say in the way their banks are run, the financial crisis might not have happened. The best schools are those where parents constantly challenge.
In practice, that means insisting workers and users are represented on the boards of companies and public institutions. Ensuring parents make up a third of the governing body of all schools would be a good start. The voice of workers and users needs organizing, with a role for Trade Unions, professional associations and user organisations. We could encourage the formation of parents unions, for example.
Joint ownership by workers and consumers would give people more of a stake. We should encourage the mutualisation of public and private institutions, but make sure they’re run by a conversation between different interests not just run by one group.
Second, we need a renewal of authority within our institutions. It isn’t about everyone being able to decide everything. We need to be able to trust the people in charge. But authority isn’t just the power to regulate or command. It comes from a leaders’ obligation towards the people they lead, on recognizing the important role of workers and users in providing challenge.
We need to nurture a form of leadership that is more democratic. That might mean public events where leaders are asked to account for themselves before the public whose lives are affected by their decisions; something like London Citizens’ accountability assemblies, for example. To be really radical, we might elect leaders head-teachers and hospital managers as well as company bosses at assemblies in which different interests are represented.
Thirdly though, institutions can only listen, look outwards, and lead the communities they are part of if they’re free to make their own decisions, and aren’t constantly looking over their shoulder for the latest guidelines or government regulation. Our institutions can only nurture a sense of mutual obligation if the power of Whitehall to coerce and cajole is limited. Yes, government needs to set standards and impose rules. But when it does it should insist on things that really matter and make sure rules are only made after proper argument. Labour needs to be the party of deregulation, not the bossy bureaucrat. But it only can be that if the voice of people replaces central directives as the means institutions are held to account.
One Nation politics is more than a slogan and a set of policies. It marks a change in political style. It starts by being more comfortable with the tensions that come when people have a say over the institutions that rule their lives. It recognizes the plurality of Britain, but has faith in the capacity of people to forge a sense of shared purpose and create the common good from the argument.
Jon Wilson is a historian at King’s College London and author of Letting Go. How Labour Can Learn to Stop Worrying and the Trust the People, published by the Fabian Society
This piece forms part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList