Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Old instincts

Here's another post that I've had sitting in my drafts folder for a while - I've decided to finish it and get it out rather than ponder on it any longer:

A few weeks ago now, Dave Osler had a really good post up about the failure of the left to take advantage of the worst crisis of capitalism since the 1930s. Luke Akehurst also appears, thankfully, to be back on his feet and he had a typically pugnacious post up here that (oddly) chimes well with Dave.

Despite their differences, they appear to agree on two big things:
  1. They're both pointing to a genuine crisis facing Labour, and one I'd agree exists. I suspect that you could get reasonable odds on the party not existing in it's current form within the next decade or so - the French Socialists may currently be describing Labour's future, and social democratic parties elsewhere have disintegrated in a way that should prove to be a warning to all of us.
  2. They are both appealing for fresh thinking. I completely agree with Luke about the need to avoid the siren call of betrayal as an explanation for Labour's current problems. New Labour's rise can be explained, at least in part, by the sterility of centre-left thinking in the 1990s
However, I really can't endorse Luke's highly defensive 'we'd do it all exactly the same way if we had our time again' approach (I met Luke back pre-1997 and he is nothing if not consistent).

I think that there are a lot of very old left approaches that Labour could take - ones that would make electoral sense while advancing a left-ish agenda. In many cases, I think that they involve a return to values that existed in the British labour movement during the late 19th and early 20th century.

I've posted most of them in the past (thus the links) but I'd suggest that it may hint at directions for an electorally successful alternative to the current position that the Labour Party is taking - without asking the party to really change it's clothes too much. One qualification: All of these posts are about a long-term re-orientation of the Labour Party and the left in general. They're not really intended as short term policy proposals:
  1. A more aggressive critique of monopoly capitalism - position the left closer to genuine enterprise. I banged on about this a while ago here. One of the best posts I've ever read on a British blog - this one by Pete Ryley - covered the backstory to this.
  2. A more aggressive attitude towards the state bureaucracy. New Labour's single biggest failing has been in the quality of public management. The higher-paid public sector workers and the management consultants who often replace them are probably the less likely to vote Labour than their underlings, yet they've been huge beneficiaries of a Labour government. These people are the enemy. Allowing the Tories to gain points by attacking them is just potty, and I suspect that when Gordon Brown asks them to be a bit restrained in their demands, he'll just make himself look even weaker than he already is. Even I'm tempted to vote Tory next time when I read stories like this one.
  3. The creation of a client group of public sector workers. Having chucked money at the public sector, Labour has managed to persuade public sector workers - including many on the lower pay-grades - to vote Tory. Again, it's not the first time I've made this argument. It's time that public sector workers saw their bosses get a bollocking and a few small high-profile gestures on pay and conditions wouldn't go amiss either. Recruit them to appraise their bosses and the stupid agency arrangements that drive them all nuts. Matthew Taylor's view that public sector-led innovation could even result in cost savings is worth a look again. We should be inviting Inspector Frost to moan about Mr Mullet.
  4. A concerted attack on agencies that do public sector work. They do it expensively, badly, and none of the people who make a fortune out of the whole shooting match will ever vote Labour. Fuck 'em! This is one of those issues where a spot of good old transparency would work wonders. How much do they get paid to do their work? How much do they pay their staff? How much do they pay themselves? How much are we paying for middlemen who enervate the people they should be motivating to provide good service? We need to know.
  5. Co-operatives - both consumer and worker varieties. There is almost nothing by way of a well-resourced discussion about the scientific management of co-ops. Again, this is an old theme here. A cross-party commission on co-ops including the Lib-Dems and The Greens would be very useful here.
  6. Adult education. The emphasis on 18+ education has, I would suggest, gone ahead of the real demand for it. Don't get me wrong - increasing those who go through third-level education is an admirable aim, but I'd suggest that people returning to education in their late 20s and 30s (or later) would be less content to compete for the places on Applied Madeupology courses that seem to dominate large slices of the curriculum (self-organising and informal education has to be an important part of this). An offering to fund people who've been in work for years to take time off and study something that they really want to, would be electorally attractive as well as being the right thing to do.
  7. Political decentralisation. The Tories have been allowed to steal these particular clothes - and they've done it easily. The Labour Party - perhaps in partnership with the Lib-Dems and the Greens - needs to establish a commission on how a higher quality of candidates can be found for council elections. How can these people be handed more power at the expense of upper-middle managers? How can they improve their relationship with voters and reputation at a local level? There are implications from any likely conclusions such a commission would draw for regional and national government. There's even an efficiency argument for it.
  8. Democratic renewal. The moment you mention democratic reform, the left gets itself stuck into a tedious pointless argument about voting systems. Yet there seems to be little or no interest in things like co-design - involving people in design and build of their own environments, schools and transport systems, etc. There are many other areas of democratic renewal that can be discussed and acted upon without touching on different flavours of PR. What about participatory budgeting or a better use of social media by elected representatives? What about MPs taking a more active role in public enquries? They could start by spending the last six months + of a Labour government getting Labour MPs to cross examine bankers on TV - an inquiry into the current crisis. Here's an argument for this from the Irish Republic.
  9. Open Source - again, I posted recently on this one. By promoting collaborative information sharing, both small businesses and consumers could benefit at the expense of larger businesses.
  10. Can't think of a tenth one now. Nine's enough to be going on with, innit?
New Labour grew up, at least in part, out of the observation that a small-c conservativism in the British people was offended by the the posturing of New Left-influenced elements within the party. I'd suggest that all of these ideas - outlined above - avoid this problem.


The Plump said...

Great to see adult education in there. 1,400,000 fed up voters never struck me as a good idea.

Phil said...

Overall, that's a set of positions that could appeal to all left liberals, not just those who vote Labour.

However, point 3 "creation of a client group of public sector workers" is obnoxious. If New Labour had created such a group which subsequently backed illiberal laws, most of us would have been rightly outraged. By definition, a "client group" is dependent on a sponsor; thus "a client group of public sector workers" is no different from a regional or religious community that turns out en masse to vote for the tribal leader.

Alternatively, you could argue that public sector workers should be given more control of their enterprises, which ties in with the decentralisation argument. Co-ownership of an organisation, even on a nominal level as in John Lewis, delivers results. The experience of co-ownership encourages workers to defend the organisation and consumers (not the owners or tribal leaders).

Paulie said...

If a political programme is to succeed it needs an electoral strategy underpinning it.

Mine is to get public sector workers to vote Labour.