Ed’s gone blue, but can he let go?

2nd October, 2012 7:04 pm

Political leadership is the art of bringing people with different interests together to act for the common good. That doesn’t just need policy detail. We need something bolder – give people a say over their institutions that run their lives.

With his conference speech today Ed shows how far he’s gone in this direction. It’s a perspective influenced by Blue Labour, the movement rooted in the practice of community organising inspired particularly by Maurice Glasman. A society where everyone takes responsibility, an economy that values vocational skill as well as academic knowledge, a politics that puts our reciprocal obligations to one another above profit or a philosophical idea of justice – all these are now central to Ed’s position. One nation politics is about bringing people with different interests together for the common good.

The Labour grandees who challenged Ed Miliband for more policy detail last week miss the point. ‘Policy’ is part of the problem. The word ‘policy’ suggests politics is about small groups dreaming up schemes in Whitehall that are imposed without listening to the people who’ll ‘deliver’ or benefit from them. It’s the centralized, expensive approach to government that got us into this mess to begin with.

The grandees need to remember politics is about leading people not managing things.

Britain’s problem now isn’t just a lack of aggregate demand or economic growth. Whether it’s News International, the banks, the scandal of utility bills or the low wages so many try to live on, people have suffered because their voice has been silenced by the institutions they work for or are subject to.

Britain has become a fractured, divided society because our politicians have allowed our institutions to be run by tiny groups of people who wield unilateral power. Since the 1980s, our lives have been taken over by managers and technocrats employed by big shareholders or ministers too distant to really hold them to account. Where power is not challenged it’s hardly surprising this has been the age of megaprofits; or that people have such bad experiences of public services, as Fabian Society research shows. For Britons to feel part of one nation we need to unravel the management’s seizure of power.

That’ll happen if people are involved in the decisions that affect their lives. How long would fatcat pay last if CEOs had to justify their salaries before remuneration committees elected by workers and consumers as well as shareholders? Would Northern Rock have made such risky investment decisions if it’s board had been made up of homeowners and local businesses?

It’s the same in the public sector. Schools, hospitals, job centres, the BBC – each can only improve with the active stewardship of the people they employ and serve, where doctors and patients, teachers and parents need to work together for the common good. That’s what one nation means in practice.

Yes, government’s need to decide big things. We need a plan for new housing, better vocational institutions, new infrastructure. But the relentless attempt to micro-manage every detail of our public sector leads to public workers disempowered and the public humiliated. Good politics should be about bringing us together so we achieve more through common endeavour than we do alone; business and workers; public sector managers, workers and users. ‘Policy’, by contrast, doesn’t quite deliver.

The politics of the common good needs our politicians to listen as well as tell us what they’ll do. It needs the art of negotiation and persuasion not just command. But above all, it means politicians need to learn to let go – to recognize when the ends they seek are best be created if other people are allowed to do things their own way. We can’t avoid arguments, but if different interests talk, we can create a sense of the common good. The vocation of politics is create institutions people talk, argue and create their own sense of the common good from conversation. It shouldn’t be to determine what they decide.

Could Ed and the shadow cabinet do that? Yes. It’s a change that has already started. Compared to flashman Cameron, Ed and his colleagues are speaking in a humbler gentler tone, leading by listening not just telling people what to do.

Let’s not underestimate the scale of the change that’s needed. But we’re starting to a transformation in the sensibility of a generation of politicians brought up as middle managers in the machinery of state – as special advisors, and civil servants – not political leaders. Most of the shadow cabinet have been trained to think they need to show they’ve got all the answers, and can act to instantly fix every minor crisis. But Labour’s leaders are starting to realize that can’t broker a sense of the common good, can’t create one nation, if they already know all the answer. One nation isn’t just a slogan, it’s a different way of doing politics in practice.

Our situation has created unexpected transformations. Policy wonks like Ed have become real leaders. The Fabian Society has often been associated with exactly the attempt to centrally manage Labour needs to abandon. Yet it’s the Fabians who’ve published my pamphlet arguing Labour needs to trust people more.

The Fabians get it. His conference speech shows Ed does too.

Jon Wilson is an historian at King’s College London and the author of Letting Go. How Labour Can Stop Worrying and Learn to Trust the People

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