Monday, November 22, 2010

Labour's new leaf

I see Ed Milliband is planning a back-to-square-one rethink of what Labour is and what it's for.

This can only be a good thing - indeed, it's a once-in-a-generation opportunity under normal circumstances, and I'd argue that the huge change in the way we relate to each other and to the media over the past few years makes it something a good deal bigger than that again.

Labour has serious issues to deal with. It's managerialism over the past decade-and-a-half resulted in a huge investment that actually served - bizarrely - to enervate people working in the public sector and those engaged in other less commercial versions of collective action. We need to invest in improving our understanding of what management, what's wrong with public/private, and how incentives work.

New Labour got a lot of non-totemic things right. We often focus on the big noisy betrayals and fail to comment on the way that the public space was rescued and renegotiated in some quarters. Contrast the bloody-awful top-down way that teaching has evolved with the genuinely inspiring investment into school buildings and some other positive aspects of school management.

But in government, there were also lots of little things that I think illustrated huge intellectual failings. Little things like the (now shelved) promotion of petitions at a national level (I'm hoping that the local variant that councils will be statutorily bound to produce will go the same way shortly) and the clumsy have-your-say approach to inclusive policymaking.

These things all seem like small personal obsessions, but I'd argue that they hide the big problem that Labour has. We're going into an AV Referendum without a lively and conclusive internal discussion of what democracy is for - what the role of parties and elected representatives is, and how democratic reform must primarily create better government. As far as I can see, the only question of principle that we're being asked is 'will we win more seats under the new system than the old one?'

If I recall correctly, there was almost no response when we were in government to the crude and anti-democratic package of local reforms that the Tories were offering - at least in part because a large part of the Labour movement didn't actually understand what was wrong with them and saw them as a bit of populist gamesmanship that we should have pre-empted.

Labour now needs to understand what inclusion means and why its not just a target but something that makes public policy better. The right have had their hidden hands to do this job - create a foundation that all of their other thinking stands on - over the past thirty years, and this issue is at least as important for those of us who believe in a mixed economy.

We need a definition of diversity that goes beyond inclusion and tokenism. We need to understand what the opportunities are out there for things like participative service design or co-design. How can the relationship between active citizens, the media, government (in all of its forms) and the great mass of people who neither comment, participate or (often) vote. This is our Big Society question and one that we should be able to deal with much better than the Tories ever will.

Much is being made of how Labour will tough-out/duck the question of the relationship with the Unions, but again, this seems to be only addressed in obsolete terms. There is undoubtedly an important role for organised labour to interact with Labour (arguably, giving it *more* power) - but not without a renegotiation of organised labour's own structures.

Labour needs to give the Unions - and the rest of us - a clear steer about what it's red-lines are in democratic terms. All other reforms - either in terms of our policymaking and campaigning, or in terms of our internal structures - can only be done properly if this foundation is in place.

It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There's so much more to say on it, and I don't have the time right now. I'm sorry if I sound like I'm focussing on stuff here that's probably more suited to my other (more serious) blog or my current Political Innovation project but I try and be a bit more bi-partisan there, so....


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