Can “One Nation” survive clarification?

Anthony Painter

The beauty of the ‘one nation’ concept is both its ambiguity and the emotional needs it meets. In this regard, it is rather similar to ‘change we need’. Can it survive clarification? Few political concepts can but while it is still alive it is proving to be a powerful platform for debate on the centre-left. So it can be both about diversity and integration, reform of the state and its curtailment, post-liberalism and progressivism. For now, this is a strength not a weakness.

There are three main voices in this debate: ‘state sceptics’, ‘state reformists’ and ‘statist social democrats’. The latter has been Labour’s default. All make a contribution to the ‘one nation’ debate. The balance between them – and it will be a balance – will be determined by context, instinct, good fortune and influence.

In addition to this LabourList debate, two publications were launched on Monday which neatly fit alongside the ‘one nation’ debate. The first from the IPPR The relational state edited by Graeme Cooke and Rick Muir contains an absorbing debate between Geoff Mulgan, in the ‘state reformist’ camp, and ‘state sceptic’, Marc Stears. The second, a joint publication from the SMF and the RSA, Fiscal Fallout, also articulates a state reformist position.

The Mulgan and Stears exchange is enlightening and energetic. It should be noted, first of all, that there is a difference between being anti-state and sceptical of it – the Stears chapter is very much the latter rather than former. Stears’s view is the state tends towards standardisation and this can be disempowering. It is a view echoed in Jon Wilson’s recent Fabian pamphlet ‘Letting Go’ which argues we should learn to trust ‘the people’ more. There is another ambiguous concept – the ‘common good’ – which tends to accompany this analysis. Essentially, people, groups, interests come together in a mediated democratic space to articulate, associate, and compromise. This is how their humanity is expressed and safeguarded.

There is something very attractive about this and its focus on place, time, relationships, institutions and power. Its limitations are similar to the Big Society and, indeed, it is philosophically related. Actually, Max Weber’s notion of the state – as holder of a monopoly on legitimate violence – remains more convincing than the state as ‘standardiser.’ The bureaucratic model of the state is one way in which the state operates rather than the fundamental source of its power. One thing the state does with its legitimate power is raise taxes (other than when it fails horribly as in the cases of Amazon, Starbucks and Google!) With these taxes it creates social institutions that wouldn’t otherwise exist: schools, care centres, public parks, art galleries, national broadcasters. These are some of the very places where there is an opportunity for relationships to develop and human needs to be expressed.

Both Stears and Wilson are far too sophisticated to fall into the state bad, civil society good mode of thought that the Big Society often became. But if we need new economic, democratic and social institutions, one wonders whether realistically they can be built sustainably without state action. A Tocquevillean spontaneous, civic culture is attractive but could it ever be up to the task of meeting the complex needs of the twentieth-century post-moderns? However, the ‘state sceptics’ pose a serious set of challenges – very important ones.

So ‘one nation’ can benefit from the challenges of the ‘state sceptics’ but it seems that the ‘state reformists’ will ultimately provide a more robust and politically enduring governance agenda. The state in our recent experience has been in the main positive but, like any source of power, can become negative. States can be oppressive rather than emancipatory, extractive rather than inclusive, divisive rather than unifying. In democratic societies, the state has, in the main, proved to be emancipatory, inclusive and unifying.

Geoff Mulgan in The relational state and Ben Lucas and Henry Kippin in Fiscal Fallout both argue for major forms to the institutional logic of the modern state. All three consider that the ‘delivery state’ epitomised by the ‘New Public Management’ as Cooke and Muir point out is reaching its limits. This is not to suggest that, as Andrew Adonis points out in Education, Education, Education, that the results of targets and institutional focus was not considerable. In fact, the Academies programme may never have happened if it were left to local interests to determine.

As Ian Muheirn and Nida Broughton calculate in the Fiscal Fallout paper, cost pressures over the coming years will be immense. The figures are eye-watering. This makes a statist social democratic approach to achieving social justice pretty much unimaginable. It also means that the sort of reform that moves toward agreed outcomes but uses the complex human networks that assemble in and around public services will be critical in innovating, managing demand, allocating, and prioritising. As Stears makes clear, much of this policy agenda could well be shared between the ‘sceptics’ and the ‘reformists’.

For Mulgan and for Lucas/Kippin there is the need for the state to operate in a different kind of way: one that adapts, responds, and fosters human relationships. There are so many areas where this could make a real difference.

One could imagine a welfare state that meets particular needs rather than just offers set financial entitlements. A person may need childcare, training or for their debts to be reduced, for example, and smart relational interventions would empower. Public sector workers can better spread understanding and technique through peer networks. Patterns emerging in big data sets showing the relationship of groups of people with particular characteristics experiencing the same threats and limitations could provoke targeted interventions in, for example, public health, crime, transport, skills and work. The design of long-term care services around individual needs is also known to create wider efficiencies.

Relationships between business, skills providers, job centres, schools, local authorities could create better pathways into better work. The same could go for finance of growing businesses. Cooperative housing or energy both provide a service and wider public benefits as a result of responsibility forged through relationships. Support for the family through better childcare can ensure both parents meet their responsibilities and are able to access opportunity. Troubled and needy kids may need support and part of that may come through a more sensitive understanding of the gaps in the human networks that surround them – mentors could plug these gaps as a result. A similar approach could work in the realm of adult social services too – for example, Leeds City Council has set up a network of 6,000 neighbourhood volunteers to help older residents.

Lucas and Kippin argue for a strategic review of the state based around the best social and economic outcomes for expenditure. This will require considerable change – not least the sort of ‘single pot/local or sub-regional’ delivery mechanisms recommended by Michael Heseltine in the No stone unturned report.

Whether all this amounts to the creation of a ‘relational state’ as opposed to a radically reorganised state in which decisions take account of the centrality of relationships in securing better outcomes is not particularly important. What is important is that this reformist agenda constitutes a recalibration of state, market and civil society. Rather than separate spheres, they become interwoven, providing not only checks and balances but mutual support also – and where it matters. The checks and balances have become too weak – as the financial crisis demonstrated. The mutual support is at distance.

In one significant respect, the ‘state sceptics’ have been triumphant. ‘One nation’  – and LabourList this week – has become a shared space to explore a new centre-left argument. The time will soon be upon us to turn this into both a political and a governance agenda. There is no shortage of passion, ideas, policy proposals, and debate. ‘One nation’ is an optimistic message – and a platform for real change.

Anthony Painter is an Author and Critic.

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

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