Friday, May 02, 2008

The need for a public service movement

Peter Ryley has a really good post up over here. I think everyone has their own version of this bit of evidence...
"...a mere one week before the 1997 landslide, Labour strategists felt they could still lose if the Tories announced another cut in income tax. The election victory had been a foregone conclusion since Britain was forced out of the ERM in September 1992."
... that we were sold a dodgy bill of goods. That 'no compromise with the electorate' had to be replaced with a recognition that the Tories and their allies in the media were running a narrative that we couldn't ignore.

And our suspicion was that this had provided an odd assortment of Atlanticist (worst kind) Christian Democrat entrists with the pretext to mount a mini-coup on the next Natural Party of Government.

One of his main themes here, though, is worth looking at:
"The public sector, Labour's natural support base, has been alienated by 'reform' - a permanent revolution of part-privatisations, pseudo-marketisation, micro-management through targets and bloody performance indicators, resulting in rising bureaucratic workloads. Labour initiated none of this; it was all Thatcherite in origin. In 1997 I expected that the damage would stop, instead it has intensified."
There is a problem with this. I think it would be fairly hard to make the case that Labour hasn't delivered the kind of funding that many on the left (and on the left of Labour) would have hoped for. Labour has chucked money at a public sector that hasn't shown a capacity to spend it particularly well - not least because of the dose of clap that it has caught in the management department. They've mostly done it in a fairly Crosslandite way (public spending drawn from good fiscal management, stability and surpluses rather than from a radical reworking of redistributive taxation).

The problem is the one that Peter rightly points identifies: an inability to understand that the public sector is managed in a different way, incentivised differently, and has strategic needs that are just incompatible with the (massively over-rated) management methods of the private sector.

But this refusal to identify with the public service ethos is something that few Unions have really targeted. Unions still only really get animated about bread-and-butter salary issues. They don't see the point in taking on the ideology of modern management because they don't have a ready response to it. It doesn't have a ready-made narrative that they can explain in the split-second of face-time that they get with their members.

The current fiscal uncertainty will result in public sector cuts and a round of fairly feeble strikes over the coming months that are unlikely to achieve anything apart from - bizarrely - driving some of their pro-strike members to vote Tory next time. Labour will be damaged for its short-term failings in the one field that it has succeeded rather well in overall, and that damage will be inflicted partly by the people that we would expect to campaign on behalf of the public service ethos.

New Labour has a handful of founding myths. Things like...
  • You can't take on the press and win - and there's no point in complaining about it
  • That you can't suggest a raise in taxes and win an election afterwards
  • That you can't win an election with a divided party.
I'm sure you can come up with a few of these yourself. And it would be unfair not to acknowledge that they are all, to some extent, positions that have been arrived at through the bitter experience of the 1980s and 1990s.

But probably the most potent one is the myth that Labour can only present itself as a party that represents the public interest if it can distance itself from producer lobbies. It's a tough one to explain, given the party's umbilical link to the unions, but the the Labour Party politicians that I know say that the whole thing can be explained in three short words:


You can argue all you like about how fair this is, but until the people that work in the public sector can articulate just how bloody awful the quality of public sector management is - how destructive the centralisation, the managerialism, and the pseudo-market simulations are, the Labour movement is going to struggle to win elections and do what it thinks needs to be done. And - given the NUT history, those who work in the public sector have to make the case that professionalism involves a greater level of dialogue between the providers and the users of these services - and that dialogue shouldn't be dominated by politicans, newspapers or employers.

If the myth of the pernicious producer lobby is to be overcome, the public sector is going to need to co-ordinate its voice more effectively on things other than short term pay and job losses. There is no articulate institution that has the respect of the general public, or - failing that - the means to project itself over other competing forces. Such a force is needed. It needs to establish what most people who work in the public sector know: That the public service ethos is alive and well.

At the moment, after yesterday's débâcle, getting the kind of government we'd like is almost the least of our worries. But it is never too late for the establishment of a public service movement. It isn't too late because the benefits will take years to feed through - whatever happens between now and May 2010.

3 comments:

The Plump said...

Interesting. I have never questioned that more money has actually gone into the system, but what is surprising is that I still work in an environment of cutbacks and crisis. This suggests that much of the money has gone elsewhere. In post-16 education much has been thrown at private training agencies that are in competition with the public sector and threaten some of its provision's viability. Madness.

You are dead right about the public sector unions. I was unhappy about our last dispute as it was all about pay, someone actually used the phrase 'lecturer poverty'. What shit. We are well paid and if they want to see poverty there is plenty of real stuff around. Our problems are all about conditions of service, workload, and unbelievably pointless, unproductive, wasteful and mind numbing bureaucracy. The one thing guaranteed to lower quality is quality assurance. This all eats resources that should all go elsewhere. Throw in the PFI and managers ability to waste money on consultants ... EXPLETIVE!!!!!!

Let's kick out the Christian Democrats. Come back Social Democracy, all is forgiven.

ad said...

You cannot have good public sector management because it is far too large to manage well.

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