Reforming the state is the biggest issue in British politics

Jon Wilson

Anyone who doesn’t live on a peculiarly disconnected desert island would recognise we’re living through a political crisis. The rise of UKIP and the success of the Yes campaign are merely the latest signs of a crisis not merely in politics, but in the British state as it works now. The English humanity of Nigel Farage and splenetic passion of Alex Salmond stand in contrast to the abstract, distant way in which most of us are treated by government.


The greatest failure is that a state that wraps us up in targets, guidelines and jobs-worth red tape is so ineffective. Our government is bossy, but when it comes to the big questions, it is powerless. It didn’t stop the financial crisis. It can’t help businesses create good jobs. It won’t guarantee our parents are looked after safely in nursing homes. Throughout our public services, in schools and hospitals, in the BBC and universities, there is care and creativity. But too often it occurs in spite not because of senior management. It’s no wonder people feel out of touch, and are attracted to anyone who speaks a different language.

The crisis is a consequence of our failure to confront the central dilemma of democracy: we choose our leaders, but when we elect them we do not lose our power. That magical moment in the ballot box gives politicians the authority to lead and coordinate. It does not give them the right to boss and command, we expect to be treated as dignified people with the capacity to control our destiny still. Yet the instruments our politicians hand to public servants treat us as passive consumers. The state thinks we’ll act if we’re handed goodies and bribes, or commanded told with rigid rules. The complex relationship between people and government is reduced to the ‘delivery’ of discrete, countable commodities.

We need a new settlement between people and the state. The principles and policies laid down in Labour’s policy review aim to lay the foundations for just that. At their heart is a simple argument, articulated in a pamphlet published by Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford today: the state doesn’t have all the answers to our society’s ills. People, collectively, do. The task of government is not to ‘deliver’. By itself  it does not have the capacity to do very much. Its job is to lead and coordinate, to build ‘partnerships and networks’ between people and institutions which can get things done. ‘Politicians will be convenors, bringing people together to help them help themselves’, as Jon and Jonathan put it.

What does that mean in practice? Let me give an example. Britain’s car industry has been strong in recent years. The foundation for success was laid in the last years of the Labour government, with the creation of the Automotive Council. Peter Mandelson was its architect, bringing together firms in different parts of the car supply chain to coordinate plans, share investment and work together, developing a common strategy for low emission vehicles, for example. Mandelson insisted the unions were represented too. This wasn’t some bureaucrat-led industrial policy that bludgeoned or bribing people to do things they didn’t want to; neither was it just the free market. It recognised the freedom of people to act, but provided a strong incentive for them to act together.

Our new political settlement needs the central state to relinquish its doomed attempt to control every outcome. Instead, it needs to use its authority to create and empower institutions where people with different interests get together and work to support each other for the common good – just like the Automotive Council, but also like new local banks, vocational colleges, shared health and social care services and – I hope – housing cooperatives which will proliferate if Labour wins next year.

It needs to recognise the organised power of people is always more effective than state regulation: unions are far better at keeping wages high than minimum wages. Its about devolution and collaboration, not command and control. A political culture in which voices are empowered and heard, people don’t always get their way, tension isn’t suppressed but people are treated with the dignity that lets them work together for common goals.

I think a lot of politicians get all this already. It’s what good MPs do in their constituencies week in week out, only then to arrive each week in Westminster where the imagine power operated differently.

But something weird happens when they become ministers, they to meet civil servants and imagine they are accountable for national outcomes. The big challenge is going to be reforming our bureaucracy. The aim will be to create an ethos and practice of government that recognises the capacity and freedom of individuals and institutions in society; and which understands that the collective action of free citizens is always more effective than rules written by bureaucrats. If the task of government is to coordinate the common action of different public and private institutions, the civil service needs to be a body of organisers and convenors, not policy works and managers. That means radical changes in the recruitment and training of civil servants, and the structure of the civil service. A plan for civil service reform needs now to be a big priority.

If we reformed the way the state works earlier, the United Kingdom itself might not now be in crisis. Whatever happens in the Scottish referendum, we’ll see a radical reshaping of the relationship between the nations of the United Kingdom. However things change between Westminster and Edinburgh, the chance to transform the relationship between Whitehall and the rest of us needs to be taken now.

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