Who Are You?

in ‘White Papers’, Reports, Articles

Letting Go Of Its History
Personal Motivation
Four Unexpected Comparators
Rediscovering The Basics
Less Isms More Solutions
Who Is The Party To Be?
Where To Start

The experience of an apparently different body with a committed mission and ideology is used here to introduce the subject of this chapter. The Family Planning Association was arguably the most successful of any organization – public or private – in the 20th century. In 1967 abortion was legalized . In 1974, Barbara Castle, Minister for Health, announced that free family planning for all would be included in the NHS Reorganisation Bill. Over 1,000 FPA clinics were handed over to the NHS. The FPA’s aims of universal free contraception had been not just partially or nearly or almost achieved, but completely. Few other organizations of any sort could point to such stunning success. The FPA’s mission was totally fulfilled, its ideology delivered.

Then big problems emerged. It continued with its work of education and, via a trading arm, supply of contraceptives. But by the 80s even the trading arm was in decline. Whilst it had legendary social reformers like Marie Stopes gracing its history, FPA was drifting, in decline and with internal tensions mounting. It had lost its core purpose. It was in existence, but for why? Staff were at work, but the lift that comes from a clear purpose was gone. Dinner table conversations with friends conveyed status and the moral high ground on those working there, until they attempted to explain what they were now trying to achieve. It all went a bit mumbly.

Once any organization, and particularly a charity with social objectives, is no longer clear why it is here, then performance will suffer and decline is inevitable. The same is true for commercial organizations and for the public sector.

One option for the FPA was to close. It was after all victorious and even the most backward Tories were not going to outlaw contraception. It might have been said that the condom was safe in their hands. The brave and the organizationally best choice would have been to shut up shop, and gift the assets to a new cause. In effect this is what happened, but it took till the mid-90s for the FPA to adopt a new purpose in the form of sexual health. Twenty years was spent in hand wringing and debate (and loss of output) before the difficult and inevitable decision was taken. People like organizations to continue, and not just for their own employment, although this can be a major continuant.

In the 80s, such was the appreciation of their importance in the commercial world, something of an industry grew up around defining a company’s mission and vision. For some, the results were startling – “the forth emergency service” provided such resonance to staff and stranded motorists alike it lifted the AA out of its rank as a series of roadside repair vans. In a different way, the National Marriage Guidance Council became Relate and at a master stroke transformed its image from an austere bureaucracy run by forbidding ladies with marriage at its heart, to what it is today – a non-denominational (in family terms) relationship agency.

But the pursuit of an uplifting and inspiring mission and vision is far from simple. You will have seen the many strap lines that senior managements assume will be put into dramatic effect by the staff, simply through their articulation. “Trusted-reliable-secure” was one such of the delivery company contracted by a bank to deliver a new debit card. Such was its security that delivering the card was nearly impossible, mocking its claim to reliability. Trust came to seem a random word plucked out of the core values generator.

On its merger, Coopers and Lybrand and Price Waterhouse became PricewaterhouseCoopers and the largest accounting firm in the world (with a very long name). In search of some unifying and motivational theme its leadership went for the “Breakthrough Firm.” In practice, the merging of people businesses flounders on the distinctive cultures that previously have made these firms successful. The cultures compete for dominance in every corner. One or other wins out, and the losers drift away. Mergers are a drag on the growth of people businesses. Far from breaking away the new firm spent much energy competing internally and lost market share. Subsequent missions included the aspiration to be the “leading firm” – which begs the questions as to why customers chose one firm and not another and what the other firms aspire to be – “the non-leading firm”, “the lagging firm”? Next came the “partner of choice” – which, if realized, makes every other firm not a partner of choice and therefore not chosen, a scenario as likely as pigs flying. “Monday” was the new name for the to-be-floated consultancy, on the grounds that all the staff are raring to go on a Monday morning. Most recently “the iconic firm” became the anointed strap line. You can see desperation setting in here – “iconic accounting” is nothing if not an oxymoron.

The point of relevance is that few organizations have had as clear and compelling visions as the Family Planning Association. Most are there to do a solid job of work – unblocking drains, washing an older person, building good cars, undertaking hip operations without mishap – and inspiring visions are neither needed nor inspiring. The inspiration is to do the job better than anyone else.

Like the FPA, the Labour Party had a remarkably successful 20th century in terms of its objectives being met. The awful conditions of the majority have long gone. There are no Ragged Trousered Philanthropists left. Britain wants social democracy and social justice. No one wants to stuff the poor, other than the old Tory rump. Inequity still exists, but not the over-powering kind of the 19th century. The New Labour project recognized all of this and set out more measured goals. However it left office dazed and confused as to its mission. The party is now in the midst of an identity crisis – though the business of daily politics may put that to the back of ones mind. The advent of New Labour put this crisis on hold whilst some much needed remedial government repaired and revitalized public services and redeployed some power via devolution, some proportional representation, the freedom of information act, and the human rights act.

Some have been debating whether New Labour was a good or bad thing, and whether it should continue or be dropped. Thus New Labour is identified as the source of the party’s uncertainty, and a return to more traditional values would provide the solution; others seeing the applied brakes as the cause, and thicker and more widely spread New Labour policies being the solution. Neither is the case. This particular debate takes place up a creak, in a canoe, without a paddle. The New Labour project was necessary to winning the election in 1997 and to its successes in government. Such was the poor image of “Labour,” the irrelevance of most of its policies to most of the people, and the completion of its original mission, in 1993 my advice to John Smith was to change the party’s name. This was a step too far for the party (but perhaps not for the country) and the term New Labour was borne later under Tony Blair.

From its election, the New Labour project was a success. Because the 1979 – 1997 Conservative government had been so destructive, it had an obvious mission – to repair the damage. Once achieved, and it was, the party floundered for a purpose.

Its very success during the period when it seemed it could do no wrong sowed the seeds of its demise. Once the controlling group of any organization becomes convinced of its semi-omnipotence, then the true benchmark of success on the ground for the people is lost, and with this the critical accord between the internal view of the leadership and the external.

Once this had diverged, the issue was not new or old labour, but old new labour as represented by Blair and co, or new new labour, unrepresented until the new Conservatives spotted a gap in the market. Whether the future now lies with new, old, only used once, nearly-new, or middle-aged labour is not the point. Understanding where the country is and what people want and need provides the basis for re-election, not tribalism based on backward-looking self-justification.

The party now has the same problem as the FPA had. It has fulfilled its founding objectives. But it still seeks to define itself through them. It remains in hock to its history and to its ideology. This will never work. The big question is will it take twenty years to work this out, alongside several election losses, or does the collective courage exist to take the difficult decisions now?

The forces for the status quo are strong. Many people have jobs and careers based on a party of labour – often the trade union route into the party’s headquarters in Victoria Street, as MPs, and party activists. As important is the whole frame of thinking that has gone into members working out why they support this political party. Turning the party’s objectives upside down and inside out is intellectually and emotionally challenging. Letting go of an apparently principled past for something presently undefined and even opposite to yesterday’s beliefs, is hardly attractive.

The history of change management demonstrates it takes the “burning platform” to get an organization’s people to shift. Without the licking flames, we all tend stick where we are rather than risk the unknown. Life is full of power structures reinforcing the existing. “Things are alright as they are” was fed to the confused AV voters, and they took the bait. Labour’s recent history from the 80s and the Conservative’s too in the 00s is that the platform only really catches light after three election losses. No one then has a handy fire extinguisher to douse small fires with such retardants as “ Oh, he’s become a Tory;” or “Oh that’s the deserving and the non-deserving poor”; or “we must save the NHS” or whatever means to cry “immoral non-believer” is chosen. A lead in the opinion polls and adverse headlines for the coalition government is the present comfort blanket.

My expectation is that the challenge to why the party exists, laid down by a much better world, will be too big a leap for many to accept. Too many party employees will feel too threatened by such a big change not to resist it. My hope is that individual agendas can be put aside and that the courage and the leadership exist to write a very new chapter in the party’s history. Which way will you jump?

If you are where I am then some tough and interesting questions have to be considered using the perspective an artist can bring to his work:

”The familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment.” Mark Rothko

Why is it here? What does it stand for? And who are you? These are the questions bouncing round. Clarity is essential for the party to regain its power as an organization. The present offer is a collection of mumbles. This paper seeks answers to these questions.

Letting Go Of Its History

Like many political parties, Labour has become typecast. Both in its own mind and in the electorates, it has come to own certain turf, and is loathe to let go of these ‘certainties’. But, what use are they beyond the comfort of habit? They must be jettisoned from the collective consciousness to provide clear space for understanding today’s real world. The first step is to consider specifically what to let go of from its ideology. Is the party to continue to be one of sectional interest? Are yesterday’s priorities for equal opportunities still tomorrow’s? Should minorities always dominate policy? What about safety, and risk? We start with the needy.

Bring me the head of a person in need.
The new leader of the party opened a speech with “The Webb Fabian tradition was born of an era where the challenge for the Left was meeting people’s basic needs for health, housing, education and relief of poverty. That need will always remain.”

Now, will it? Or, perhaps, more appositely, who will meet these needs? And who will those with these needs want to meet them? And do you regard your desire for a house as a need? Or part of life?

These quite simple Webb Fabian phrases, and there are quite a few in the party’s lexicon, are held as eternal truths. When stated, they sound good, provide some certainty in a messy world, and give a sense of worth to the listener. They are self-evident.

But when voters wake up in the morning thinking about somewhere to live, do they instinctively reach for the state? “I will nip down the basic needs shop after breakfast”? Do they feel: “I have a need which the state will meet”? Or, indeed, “I can look to those nice people on the left, to meet it”? That was the model in the Soviet Union, of course. All housing was provided and allocated by the state.

Or, when they wake up, do they think about seeing what is available in the local paper, or housing association, or council, or hostel, or Internet? And about negotiating their way through estate agents, officials, rents, mortgages, solicitors, removals firms, and utilities?

The Webb Fabian tradition is not connecting here with real lives and the way things, in this case housing, get done today. If this tradition is now restricted to only those at the bottom of the pile, to those in real need, then perhaps the tradition has a place. The theory surely still applies that the state is here to help those in need. The difficulty that arises is that need, incentive and motivation have interacted to produce a muddle. It may be the fate of all public services to be a muddle, but hopefully not as much as New Labour finished office with.

The provision of basic needs by the state has led to some being incentivised to not work – the difference in pay being small or negative; incentivised to have babies to secure housing and some sense of purpose – every child matters and the better they are brought up the better for all, except this child would not be here at all but for the benefits regime; babies being born into “Freakonomics” households where the circumstances are such the child is much more likely to end up as a tax negative citizen and in crime; and economic migrants going into “care” to secure somewhere to live. One person’s need can be another person’s incentive, or indeed the same person’s.

The difficulty for today’s party is that, again, it has a mental model of what to do based on life a very long time ago. Thus, need is tracked down and surfaced in some triumph. Indeed, those that locate new “needies” are accorded some status. These are the true custodians of socialism. The mental model for responding to that need is to give something, most often money but never called that – so aid or benefits or grants – or asylum or citizenship. Bits of conditionality have been tacked on here and there, but the core model is the direct relief of need. Think of an earthquake and the immediate aftermath. The need is absolute – food and shelter and medicine– and the relief model is immediately absolutely right.

But Shameless lifestyles in modern Britain have no relation to post-earthquake lifestyles in Haiti. This is an extreme juxtaposition, but something has to shake the party out of its dusty mental models. The overseas aid model has seen a significant proportion of the money going to corruption and maintaining poor governments, which has, at the least, set back a nation’s development – the real key to solving mass poverty. Is aid “socialism”? Is the 0.7% of GDP target based on real principle or the relief of conscience?

When faced with a Webb Fabian basic need in today’s world it may be a need, it may also be insured misfortune, uninsured misfortune, bad luck, laziness, the wrong
incentives from the state, choice, stuck in a rut, or no ladder to climb out. These options may or may not be the fault of the individual. The point is that responding to them all
with the giving model does not work. Ideological welfare is as productive as ideological privatisations. So long as the comforting Webb Fabian tradition is trotted out as an
anchor for thinking, Labour will miss the point by a large slug of indiscriminate public expenditure.

At this point, you can probably hear the rumble of shoes and click clack of heels as former minsters pour forth with their statistical machine guns and acronym grenades, to demonstrate how much variety there is in the government’s approach to welfare, how many different conditionality experiments it had on the go, and just how life was better. The rest of us turn off in the knowledge that the New Labour approach to welfare changed little in concept and remained as described above. The only people convinced by the machine guns and grenades of justification are themselves.

I sat on a Progress work group, with the secretary of state as the active audience, and including a former long-standing cabinet minister and several experts from the think tank world and advisers. Every time the fundamental questions were asked as to the purpose of welfare and what it is trying to do and for whom, the thinking became closed by the party’s history and traditions. Few were able to think outside the Beveridge box. The time for those traditions is well and truly over. They need to be celebrated and applauded, then tucked up in bed and laid to rest. The party can then start to understand who it is in the 21st century not who it was in the 19th and 20th.

Improving people’s lives has never resulted from permanent benefits. Giving people a purpose – building their own home, training in a skill, working on the land, specific support and mentoring, as well as generally improving social mobility are the needs here. Universal benefits will always be regressive in their outcome. Council housing was once an aspiration when it was allocated according to the merits, in terms of their achievements, of potential tenants. Council housing went downhill as a place to live when this was changed to allocation according to “need” as defined by homelessness. This change took no heed of the motivation and impact of collected needies.

People classified as being in need will have various motivations, not necessarily good. They may take undeserved assistance from the state, or not support themselves at the earliest opportunity, or be motivated to not support themselves by sufficient benefits, or take something that was not theirs. The notional sanctification by the party of all poorer people neither accords with reality nor does them any favours.

The first task for today’s welfare state is to disentangle the insured from the needy from the fraudulent from the demotivated from the perversely incentivised from those who will always struggle. The presenting circumstances of each may be identical, but the state’s correct response should vary. This is tricky when the organisations doing the judging are brought into the equation. It is much easier simply to classify equally all seeking benefits as in need and to provide standard benefits against some criteria designed to determine “need”. This also avoids that meaningless pc trump card of the deserving and the undeserving poor.

‘If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding. How can you have any pudding, if you don’t eat your meat?’ sang Roger Waters of Pink Floyd.

In realistic countries a divorce is not granted unless the ex-couple have been to divorce education classes and agreed a parenting plan setting out the time the children will spend with each parent and the associated arrangements.

To qualify for parole, lifers and fixed-term prisoners have to convince the Parole Board they are not at risk, once out. They must take courses based on cognitive behavioural therapy to tackle offending behaviour.

These are examples of ‘conditionality’. In this model of social change, anything from the state is tied to something being done by the recipient. You will get this if you do that. If you don’t do that, you won’t get this benefit. If you do this, designed to change your behaviour, you will avoid a penalty.

Experience of conditional welfare in other countries is strong, as I found in research for the Social Market Foundation in the mid 2000s. For example, since 1997 Mexico has run the PROGRESA (Programa de Educación, Salud y Alimentación) programme. This provides cash and other transfers to mothers in poor households, on condition that their children attend 85% of school days and their family visits public health clinics and participates in educational workshops on health and nutrition, as well as pre-natal care and immunization.

In 1993, the Bangladeshi government launched the Food for Education programme (FFE) – replaced by the Cash For Education (CFE) programme in 2002. Poor families rarely sent their children to school as they were needed to help the family earn a living by looking after other children or by working themselves. Under FFE, children receive monthly rations of rice or wheat if they attend school for a least 85% of their classes. The objectives to increase enrolment and attendance rates and to limit dropouts have been met according to the evaluations by IFPRI.

The success of FFE may be no surprise. The action is very clear – attend school – and this has strong public good and individual goal outcomes. The incentive is very clear – free food – and it substitutes exactly for the motivation for staying out of school – to work for food.

Unconditional benefits have produced poor results: in the life and work motivation of the individual; in the resentment of those footing the bill; and in legitimising and enabling social exclusion: providing those in the ‘sinks’ are not starving they can be left with no obligation on the rest of society to help them into the mainstream.

Experience from developing countries may or may not have relevance to those on welfare here. The point is that in today’s world government support can be provided in all sorts of ways. The job of the state is to do something useful. In an age of greater affluence than ever before, is there any nobler cause? Just think: a useful state. Not a self-serving state, not a product of history, not a state there to make some policy makers and politicians feel good about their altruism, not an employment office. Many in the party are motivated by a sense of humanity, a value to be applauded and applied. But, it is time to let go of the past and to move beyond Sidney and Beatrice Webb in shaping our thinking.

Evangelizing Minorities: Equal Opportunities and Discrimination.
The party both brought many more women into parliament with positive discrimination and emphasized equal opportunities in its policies and legislation. Opening up another male bastion – parliament – has been entirely positive. Many other bastions need opening including the boardrooms and the barristers. But today, to what extent do women – as a block group – merit their prioritization in the party’s thinking? Do they now need special attention? Are there other groups and other means to be considered?

I grew up with women’s liberation, as it was called, in the 60s. There was no question of the enormous humanitarian need for this movement. How the world has changed – by the late 90s, the then chief executive of Relate, Sarah Bowler, commented that there had never been a better time in history for a young woman to grow up. Women have liberated themselves, and for many, the world is their oyster, whilst men have lost their traditional way. Of course, women can still be found who are having a bad time, just as men and children can be found who are having a bad time. Virgin Trains does not discriminate against women as passengers. It does against cyclists and groups of campers. Plenty of women still feel resentful about their job opportunities, their home lives, their partners. Plenty of men do too. These are common problems with sometimes gender as a distinction but inequality not the cause.

The politics of feminism are tired. Versailles comes to mind. Far higher priorities exist in a post women’s liberation world. The plight of people in the Arab revolutions, Ugandan gays, and mass starvation are surely of higher priority than Fabian Review’s proclamation: “STILL UNEQUAL- Why the left is putting women front and centre” quoting statistics carefully selected to support its indignation.

Some other statistics on gender balance see a very mixed picture, with perhaps today’s highlights the reducing but continuing discrimination against men in terms of life expectancy – you still die two years earlier for being a man. Next was the discrimination against unmarried fathers who are denied automatic parental responsibility by a state which bestows this on the mother but which requires a court-based bureaucracy for the father. Fathers were marginalised in feminist thinking, reflected in many modern families, to the point where academic research has been needed to demonstrate the importance of them to a child’s development. It is seemingly not possible to be a father per se. This is both madness and outrageously discriminating. But these are just another set of partial statistics, proving nothing.

Statistical warfare is alas often the norm in making public policy decisions. But to judge whether or not gender merits priority for a political party would take engagement with the real lives of women and men and a real grasp of their relative contentment and happiness.

Gender is one lens through which to observe who gets the desirable jobs. But, with only 627 MPs, 99.0005% of women nationally are not MPs and 99.008% of men are not. In other words most people do not get these, or other, desirable jobs. Nolan is a means to level the political party playing field in government appointments, but uses all the usual selection criteria that have the effect of denying these opportunities to most people. The poles to be climbed to the top of most organizations are slippery and require the sacrifice of much of the rest of one’s life – family and friends notably – and a determination and drive few possess. This is not a selection technique designed to get the best to the top, but it is the way it works in today’s world. Neither does it give equality of opportunity to all groups with distinct characteristics, men included. Broadly, you need some appropriate psychological flaws to get to the top, whatever your gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or size. The campaigns for further women in board rooms I support. Fairness for the individual and making the best use of talent for society are the reasons. But do not expect any better ethos on average on boardroom pay or corporate accountability.

To continue to prescribe inequality of job access in gender terms is to miss the far bigger inequality faced by most people, the loss of talent in key roles, and the inadequate quality in many organizations, the House of Commons included. Yes, the number of women MPs should increase, but they will be from the same psychological stock as the men if only tackled from a gender perspective. At the time of writing, five of the seven members of the federal government of Switzerland are women. Their widely democratic and engaging constitution may have produced this outcome of diversity, not laws on equality or quotas.

The bigger issue is greater diversity in motivation, family background, experience, and talent. Besides the rightness of deprioritising gender in the UK – India is of course another matter entirely – the politics is significant too. Aligning with old feminists turns off those that bear the scars of their thinking:

It is time to declare victory once more and move on. Distinct women’s issues will continue, as they will for all sorts of groups, including men. Whether they merit sufficiently high priority against the many other problems of the time will be a matter of analysis and politics.

People with disabilities have experienced a major boost in their opportunities as a result of the provision of access to transport and buildings, alongside much better understanding of what a disability does and does not mean. This rebalancing was long overdue and a notable New Labour achievement. But this is another minority for which victory can be declared. Provision of facilities and access is now sufficient, further expenditure will see the money chasing fewer and fewer needs, and other causes merit higher priority, (including the averagely abled who just want to use a standard train toilet without it opening unexpectedly).

Labour has forever championed minorities and non-discrimination. Its origin was as a mass party representing the disadvantaged and oppressed majority of workers and families. This concern for the downtrodden extended to many of those suffering disadvantage. The government took a strong lead in the cause of unacceptable discrimination against immigrants and ethnic minorities, women, disabled people, gays, and non-smokers. Great. But its unwavering focus on these minorities who were accorded almost official status by the leadership and protected from any comment or question by “their appointment to HMG,” left substantive groups out in the cold or actively discriminated against. For all of its moral high ground on discrimination, objects of acceptable discrimination emerged during the 1997 – 2010 government – smokers, fathers, the white working class, private pension holders, and men.

Equality of opportunity remains a significant issue, but its solution is neither generalized reports telling an entire cohort (like men) that they are wrong, nor sweeping legislation. Entrance to the bar of barristers is still 90% private schools and mostly from the traditional public schools. De facto discrimination against women remains. Equally, this corner discriminates against men from non-public school backgrounds. The consequence is that a small but highly influential sector limits opportunities unfairly and operates from within a peculiar mindset. This can be sorted with very specific and targeted actions. Having a generalized equal opportunities commission has had no effect on this corner.

Equal opportunities and non-discrimination will always be cornerstones of any social democratic party. But, the party has to look at just where and how significant the lack of opportunities is, whether it merits priority in its objectives, and what it will do in practice to change it. At the same time evangelizing a minority can lead it to becoming a protected species, given special treatment, screened from any criticism or healthy satire so essential for a functioning community, aggressive in its sense of rights, over-provided for, and a “golf club” to aspire to. I have observed angry cyclists, cavalier bikers, demanding benefit recipients, domineering women, never used disabled facilities, and migrants taking the piss. Not being a minority does not make the rest of us are wrong.

An End to Sectional interest
Since mass enfranchisement, politics has been about representing one section of society to its advantage and to disadvantage another – broadly the have-nots and the haves or the other way round, the workers and the owners, women and men, immigrants and the indigenous, north and south. As society has become more equal and diverse, sectional interest politics has become less relevant. Elections can no longer be won on this basis. But the Labour party was founded by the trade unions and has always pursued sectional interests. What of the future?

Trade unions were invented to defend workers from appalling conditions and to limit high-handed management decisions – to gain a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. In those days, any improvement was right by any moral standard. That world has long gone – the workingman and woman have far bigger enemies today than British management: global competition, indiscriminate immigration, dirty banking, and Bob Crow (see below). But the trade union link via party funding, party membership, and sponsoring of MPs has trapped the party narrative in the archaic terms of worker’s rights.

The reality of today’s trade unions is that they do delay trains, disrupt services, reduce the educational attainment and social mobility of school children through preventing the dismissal of poor teachers, and they do maintain the privileged conditions of public sector employees vis-à-vis their private sector counterparts. I know what trade unions subtract but I am uncertain as to what they add today.

Of course, many could refer to examples of a union locally protecting an employee from the decisions of an arrogant, foolish, prejudiced, or malign manager. The Citizens Advice Bureau does this daily, too. When the union does it, somehow it justifies in the mind of many party activists the mental model they still have of supporting the weak and the disadvantaged. It gets them out of bed in the morning. It brings energy to their walking. It helps the conscience of the well-off professionals and intellectuals who are today’s backbone of the party, who live with the guilt of never having been downtrodden, never having been on strike, and never having been in a union. It legitimizes their place in a party originally for manual workers. This is their raison d’être.

Alas, the psychological needs of individuals – in this case the need to feel we are doing good, expressing some altruism, making a difference in the world – are getting in the way of good government. These are good objectives, but the party has been stuck for a long while with using these psychological needs in the service of aims long ago achieved, trapped in its history by the continuing association with the union “movement”.

Examine that word “movement” and think of Martin Luther King, for example, and I Have a Dream. Sidney Tarrow defines a social movement as:

“collective challenges…by people with common purposes and solidarity in sustained interactions with elites, opponents and authorities”

…and that is what the unions did. But, no longer – they are as much a movement as a train made stationary by the careless signal maintenance of their members.
In a party composed now mostly of educated professionals, anyone who sounds or looks like a worker – northern accent, shiny suit – is treated with some reverence, rather like members of a lost tribe found living in a suburb. David Attenborough may be studying them soon. After all, these are the descendants of Labour’s founders and inheritors of the founding mission. Untouchable in their beliefs and honour, the rest are to an extent, impostors, who have never stood around a blazing brazier at a picket gate, warming their hands in fingerless gloves. Shaking off this inferiority complex is essential.

The unaddressed issues in government of the anti-social power and practice of unreformed trade unions are stalking the party. Where they have the power or are allowed the power, they operate with all the ethics of a boardroom remuneration committee – mutual plundering of an organization’s funds to their distinct advantage, with the other stakeholders bearing the cost in a zero sum contest. Although less obvious, this is all so reminiscient of unions in the 70s in manufacturing industry – pursuit of mindless power for officials with no thought for the competitive position of the companies, mostly now long gone (along with their unions).

This is Bob Crow’s view of the role of his union the RMT : “our organization is purely to look after our members, with no regard for the travelling public” – the travelling public being the funders of his members’ wages of course. The RMT even proposed a four-day week for tube drivers. The then London mayor, Ken Livingstone, replied by asking how that would be justified to the five-day working week passengers. How much of my life has been lost to the RMT and the train delays it has caused, particularly on Leytonstone station as the Crow diverted trains to his depot Hainault? There is no such thing as society in Bob Crow’s world, only his psychological needs for control and power. Would it be an act of social justice to de-unionise London Underground?

Whilst it is an extreme example from elsewhere, the Spanish air traffic controllers with their average salaries of €350,000 pa and still striking are no more part of the legacy of the anti-fascist movement than the bankers. Neither are most of our modern trade unions. Neither are they practicing the ethics that would make the party distinctive that are about us all being in this together, and not simply using whatever power we have to acquire a bigger slice of the cake or the least responsibility. Or both. An “as much as gettable day’s pay for as little as doable” is not a rallying cry for anyone with social objectives.

Removing the unions from the party’s constitution is as important in its continuing modernization as introducing one-person one vote for the leadership elections in 1993 and abolishing clause IV in 1995. Once again, it will be a tricky battle up to the decision, and a piece of relieved history, once done.

Party Funding
The failure to reform party funding when it had the opportunity in government has left the party dependent on the 16 affiliated unions, largely the big three of Unison, GMB, and Unite. Much of this funding goes, ironically, to pay for the very generous and unaffordable employee conditions of the headquarters staff, ie the final salary pension scheme and the redundancy terms of up to £250,000. In practice, without the trade union funding and the trade union cost of conditions, the party would have about the same funding available to spend on its purpose. It would be both poetic and fair to ring fence the trade union account and take it outside the party to a trade union owned pension scheme, leaving the party itself both free of the link and of its cost – financial, electoral and mental.

Without the big corporate and individual donors of former years, the transition away from trade union funding will be difficult to manage. But it has to happen. The alternative is not a winning formula. Funding will become far easier to attract when the party is clear as to who it is, what it has to offer, and has regained the credibility to govern. People do not donate much to incoherent organizations.

Safety versus Risk.
Safety has been a preoccupation of government, the media, and the public. Supervision of children, vetting, physical health and safety, smoking, recreational drugs, binge drinking, driving, diy, safe sex, vulnerable people – every facet of life has been subject to safety legislation, control, and guidance.

A key objective from Labour’s beginnings was to improve safety by huge margins at some very unsafe workplaces where people died and were maimed with regularity. Regulating for safety also fits with the psychology of those at the top – control, control, and more control. At the same time it is a news media obsession and many people are not slow to want more protection for their children, to buy anti-bacterial sprays, to blame government for any accident, to opt for anything branded “safe.” Even rock and roll became safe with Dire Straits and its sanitized rock.

The price of all of this is well-known – loss of personal freedom, further intrusion of the state on the individual, boredom, over supervised children going through not just the teenage phase but now also the threshold phase before becoming adults in their late 20s, more court cases, more offenders, more public expenditure to run this industry, more disapproval, more aggravation.

At the same time 22% continue to smoke, known high health-risk foods have exploded in consumption, most drive regularly despite 25,000 deaths and serious injuries per year, adrenalin holidays grow, and children like nothing better than a death slide or simply doing something outside without supervision.

The phenomenon has an academic name, “compensatory risk”: the process by which, as a situation is rendered less dangerous, people respond by taking extra risk. We have, it seems, an inbuilt “risk thermostat.” Work by John Adams, an expert on risk compensation, suggests that the seatbelt law has not reduced the number of people killed on the roads, merely redistributed risk from drivers to pedestrians and cyclists. He sees a strong parallel between the vetting schemes and seatbelt laws: “The danger is that parents, teachers and children will take risks they would not have taken before.”

Risk is as much a human objective as is safety. People want risk and adventure: the more you sanitize life, the more people will seek risk, principally in individual pursuits free of institutional control (government or corporate): alcohol-binging, eating-binging, stress, mountain walking in the snow, drug-binging, smoking, driving without too much care, painting first floor windows from an unsecured ladder.

It would be a brave political party in today’s world to adopt a risk-promotion policy – soft on risk, soft on the causes of risk? – even though the economic, social, and psychological case is strong. But the party can at least drop the safety obsession, cut out the procedural nonsenses and their cost, and take a balanced approach to risk and safety.

Party of the Public Sector?
Anyone working in the public sector who did not vote Labour at the last election was either deluded or altruistic – deluded both in not appreciating just how well off they were and how much of that advantage would be lost under the Conservatives; or altruistic in that they knew this and felt it fair to forego it or better for all to have a change of government.

By the fag end of the last term, the party had become the party of the public sector and very little else. The closed grouping of one of its main constituents the trade unions mainly representing public sector employees, with many of its MPs from the same sector, a large activist base of local councillors, and the intellectuals from academia or think tanks, meant that the party sees little outside of the public sector. Being a public sector employee can be treated in the party as as worthy as being in a trade union, still a sine qua non if you are to be seen as a true believer. Look at the 2010 party leadership elections and every set of candidate nomination forms – very excluding and talent suppressing for people from outside these worlds.

Government itself is, of course, a public sector pursuit. It was at times painful to watch the 1997 – 2010 government so obviously not comprehending the lives of others not in this sector. It is both an unelectable proposition to be the party of the public sector, as well as being unfair. Such a narrow experiential base will not provide the broad understanding of our society to build a winning party and a successful government.

Personal Motivation

We rarely think about the impact of our own psychological needs on the selection of policies. But they count. Our motivations to get up in the morning are many and varied. Understanding the consequences of these motivations can take a party a long way in redefining itself. These motivations can be substantive blocks to change too as they are unstated but taken as read. Do activists need to feel they are better people in order then to govern well? Does the sense of cause help? Is being a progressive essential? Do people reject anything their opponents have acquired from them?

Want to feel more worthy than Tories: we are better people.
Hands up! Labour activists want to and do feel superior as human beings to members of the Conservative party. They feel they have a better moral code, they feel they want to treat their fellow man better, they feel the flatter fairer society is better in principle than the harsher world of the Conservative Party. Just as some have the psychological need to please, or the need to agree, or the need for attention, Labour activists have the need to feel morally superior. Just as activists in other parties do.

Channelled in the right direction, this psychological need or motivation has undoubtedly had its benefits for the world. But now that we are all playing in much the same field, it leads to some unfortunate ends. First, no longer able to claim much or any of the moral high ground, a vast amount of intellectual energy goes into proving that the Tories are still immoral and Labour is still the wholesome one. Second, too little energy (none at all by most of the policy wonks) goes into the difficult and apparently amoral aspects of government of doing it all better. This is not psychologically sexy.

Huge swathes of wordage are running around Europe on the subject of locating the moral high ground for the left, when actually everyone is there – social justice has won. It is akin to setting up a really good party and then, once started, complaining that it is not good enough or in the right place. There are plenty of issues to be dealt with. The dividing line is who will deal with them more effectively, with the most benefit, and with the fewest unintended outcomes. The banks need sorting. A treatise on the future for the left in Europe will not do it. Nor will moral superiority – justified or not. The issue is, what will?

No More Causes Anymore.
Rather like slum clearance, I grew up with an unconscious assumption that one day the big problems of the world would be solved. The slums have all gone from Britain. But there are plenty of causes left in the world. Avaaz, the on-line campaigning unit, almost always fires me up with its targets: from opposing the death penalty for gays in Uganda, anti corruption laws in Brazil, pressing China to open dialogue with the Dalai Lama, to communications links for the Arab uprisings in the face of awful police states. These are causes. This is where I go to express my personal outrage – the UK cannot compete on causes, thank goodness. I am not sure when a problem becomes a cause – it has much to do with scale and severity, but against the rest of the world only climate change merits the category of cause in the UK. Every other issue is a problem to be solved, no less deserving for those affected.

The danger with attempting to turn a problem into a cause is that first the emotional commitment of the public is finite and best reserved for real causes, and second the solution is usually about the basics of getting things to work better. Causes take mass action to have an affect, lots of outrage, and much noise. Our political
parties have a job of work to do. They no longer get elected to fight causes.

‘Progressives’ and other dangerous terms.
The term progressives (and its antonym, regressives) has entered the policy wonk place in recent years. Some acts and some people are now deemed progressive and thus a good thing, and some regressive. This seems to be an attempt to establish clear water between the good folks of Labour and the bad Coalition, at a time when knowing who the goodies are and who the baddies are, has become confused by the social authoritarians at New Labour and the sepia liberals in the Conservative party. The former distinguishing terms of Left wing and Socialist no longer work, particularly when the New Labour Government had removed liberty from its objectives and the Coalition Government has a more liberal criminal justice policy.

I want to be progressive, but how much this helps to produce good government is not clear. It does not help the party to get elected again. The term is used when activists are talking to each other, but it is publicly confusing, as it seems the party has amnesia.

A salutary lesson would be to list all of the regressive actions of the 1997 – 2010 government. Before the election, Progress ran the top 100 achievements of New Labour. It could now run the top 20 errors, and for whom. It would be an act of contrition – remorse and penitence – owning up to the sins of the past and thereby showing the candour the electorate will need to witness to restore faith in the party as a potential government. Former decision makers would learn how not to repeat mistakes particularly in how policy is made. Salutary and necessary. First on the list would be debt and spend economics.

Stealing our clothes.
Political parties compete. In the past, the dividing lines have been over economic systems – communism and capitalism, over the distribution of wealth, over the responsibilities of the state versus the individual, over human rights. As the world has learnt what works, and as most people have broadly decided to treat each other reasonably, so these old competitions have ended in a scoring draw – regulated market capitalism plus social justice. Both sides have won some and stolen some clothes from the other. One cabinet minister in the mid 2000s described the social democratic hegemony we are now in. This, in his mind, meant that they would go on in government for the foreseeable future. What happened, of course, was that the Conservative Party finally and belatedly migrated to the hegemony, the Coalition was borne and turned out in some ways more socially democratic than the previous government.

Here is a definition of the big society from the coalition government’s introduction: “We want to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want. We want society – the families, networks, neighbourhoods, and communities that form the fabric of so much of our everyday lives – to be bigger and stronger than ever before. Only when people and communities are given more power and take more responsibility can we achieve fairness and opportunity for all.”

Sounds like the next thing to socialism to me – we are all in the same park. It may be that the big society will go the way of care in the community designed to release mental health patients from unnecessary institutionalization, but used in the 80s as a cost-cutter. But when the opposition steal this many of your clothes with the big society, do not whinge, split hairs, turn it into an opponent of the state, and feel compelled to come up with the good society as a “washes-whiter” alternative. Celebrate victory. Your clothes have been copied. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. The question is, so what do you do now? And how?

Four Unexpected Comparators

Let us continue on this voyage of discovery by examining four unexpected comparators to the party in the shape of two train operators and two technology companies. Governments relate to their peoples in many different ways. How should the Labour Party relate?

Virgin versus Grand Central.
Six friends embarked on a holiday cycling the coast-to-coast route from Whitehaven to Sunderland. They took the 17.57 from Euston to Carlisle. The new Virgin trains do not have adequate space for luggage nor proper guards vans to take large luggage, bikes, (or even pigeons). Thus, a prior call to their customer services is essential in planning the trip. The call routed through the amazing modern telecommunications to India, was then on hold for 15 minutes, whereupon a literate call centre assistant was able to read from the Virgin procedure document and to state that the guards hole had space for four bikes only and had to be booked. The friend booked it and was given a 15-digit reference number, and instructed to write it on the back of the tickets. Having six bikes, they had to plan around this “public service standard” by taking cardboard and a set of tools to the station to dismantle the remaining two bikes, package them and put them in exactly the same place as the other four. As they are then no longer bikes but packages, carriage cannot be refused.

Duly primed, the cyclists arrived at Euston and boarded the train, only to find they had drawn a stroppy train manager that day. Their subsequent email to Virgin describes the next installment in the journey:

“Your staff at Euston were very helpful, and told us on which platform the train would be arriving so that we could get there early and disassemble the bicycles and not hold up the train. The incoming train manager was very friendly, and said that it was fine for us to put the bikes on.

However, we then met Mo (as we shall call him) who was to be our train manager. From the start he was both rude and aggressive; we had to explain twice that we had a reservation for the bicycles, and he told us that we were not allowed to package the bicycles up. When I asserted that I had checked with your customer services and we were, he grudgingly let us on. But he said “Any trouble with the bikes and I’m throwing them all off at the next station”.

Once we got on the train, it became apparent that it was delayed. The first announcement said that it was by 35 minutes. We were catching the last train to Whitehaven, which left 33 minutes after our scheduled arrival. When Mo next passed us, I explained our predicament and asked him if he would be able to help by contacting Carlisle station and asking them to delay the train. He said that he could not do this, as it was another train operating company. Whilst I’m sure this is technically correct, I know that in similar circumstances in the past, a train manager has gone out of her way to help me and succeeded in ensuring I catch my connecting train despite it being run by another train operating company.

We then had a further announcement saying we would be arriving 40 minutes late, which obviously meant that we would miss our connection. When Mo passed again, I asked him if he could contact Carlisle station and arrange alternative onward transport. He said no.

I then phoned your customer services who were very friendly but apologetic that they could not help, as they were about to close. They offered to put me through to Carlisle station customer services, which they did, but I was cut off before I was connected due to a tunnel. When I called back, customer services were closed.

I went to talk to Mo again in his cabin. At first he denied he could help me, but I persisted and explained I had already spoken to Customer Services. I made it clear that I was going to wait until he helped me in the same way that your customer services had attempted to, and so he relented and phoned Carlisle station. They then arranged transport and when we got there, taxis were waiting to take us to our final destination.

Were I reading this email, I would be thinking that maybe Mo just had a bad day, or maybe we’re a bunch of yobs that he took an understandable dislike to. Whilst I cannot comment on our apparent yobbishness, I can comment on Mo’s character as related to us by one of his colleagues – “a petty jobs worth.” “

The cyclists made the 130 mile arduous trip across the Pennines in two days and had a contrasting experience on the return journey from Sunderland to Kings Cross. Again they had called the train operating company, Grand Central, in advance to book carriage for bikes. No nested menus, nor automatic voice activation, nor even a variety of security checks, but a friendly human soul confronted them with a phone on his desk, who simply said they had plenty of space for cycles with no booking required, and they had never turned anyone away yet. One can hear the warmth and generosity in his voice.

“Cyclists are welcome on board all Grand Central services. Space for cycles is available in the first and last vehicles on each train.” Grand Central website

Their reconditioned Intercity 125 trains are not as modern as Virgin’s. But they have nice staff and keep to time better. By contrast, Virgin Trains works through procedures and controls. The relationship with the passenger is transactional. The model does not value knowledge or judgement. The desensitized script-driven person at the remote call centre sums them up.

These and many other instances of dealing with organizations, private and public, raises in my mind, do we want a Virgin Trains or a Grand Central society? Or government? Or public services? The contrast in values is significant. GC trusts the people that work for it, who can take local decisions, who treat the passengers as fellow human beings. It feels inclusive, adaptable, decentralized, and empowering as an organization. It is simple to connect with, lower cost, welcoming, non-discriminating, supporting local employment, connected. But Virgin Trains was more how New Labour worked.

Apple versus Microsoft.
Microsoft was the world’s most successful technology company. Microsoft is a top-down corporate based on a virtual monopoly of its operating system for personal computers, built on the system it bought from IBM, and on the windows user interface it lifted from Apple. Microsoft decides what the user will have and when. Microsoft runs a centralized model internally where their developers do what management requires of them.

Apple has built its success on designing its software around the user and making it as intuitive as possible. Latterly, with the advances in chip, screen and battery technology it has been the first to market with music players, smart phones and tablets. Its developers operate with much more freedom; its management system is more decentralized. It opened its smart phones to applications made by anyone.

Apple is not without undesirable market limiting and dictatorial behaviour , but it is reasonably engaging and democratic in its relation to the user and its staff, whereas Microsoft is a classic totalitarian corporate.

Apple is now the world’s most successful technology company and with the largest market capitalization – the value of all of its shares – (although has now made the same mistake as Nokia by changing its charging socket – think what this means in terms of its democratic connection to the consumer – it’s on its way down) Microsoft has stagnated in value for the last ten years.

Would today’s Labour Party like to relate to the public more as a Microsoft or as an Apple? It is more a Microsoft at present.

Rediscovering The Basics

So, if the past has been tucked up in the history books, personal motivations are now understood and no longer govern the thinking, and we have taken on board the comparisons above, the next step is to ponder some of the fundamentals of any country – democracy, liberty, local government, and population.

What’s wrong with democracy?
The 1997-2010 government started with a bang with democracy: devolution to Scotland, Wales, and London, proportional representation for these elections, some executive mayors, abolition of hereditary peers in the House of Lords, ………. and then it stopped. An inward turning organization does not see much outside. Personal power for those at the top is not a condition for redistributing power to others.

But, democracy is right. Democracy is a self-evident truth. Democracy is attractive. Democracy is essential to delivery. The demise of authority as an organizing force in society is well documented. The alternative organizing force is democracy. So what’s wrong with democracy? Why is it not part of the DNA of the Labour Party?

Democracy is a form of political organization in which all people through consensus, direct referendum, or elected representatives exercise equal control over the matters that affect their interests. The term comes from the Greek d?mokratía “rule of the people”, which was coined from dêmos “people” and kratos “power” to denote the political systems then existing in some Greek city-states following a popular uprising in 508 BC. Equality and freedom have been identified as important characteristics of democracy since ancient times. These principles are reflected in all citizens being equal before the law and having equal access to power. For example, in a representative democracy every vote has equal weight, no restrictions can apply to anyone wanting to become a representative, and legitimized rights and liberties secure the freedom of its citizens, who are generally protected by a constitution.

There are several varieties of democracy, some of which provide better representation and more freedoms than others. If any democracy is not carefully constituted to avoid an uneven distribution then a branch of the system of rule could accumulate power, and thus become undemocratic. As Franklin Roosevelt put it in 1938 “The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism — ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. ”

Direct democracy, classically termed pure democracy, is a form in which sovereignty is lodged in the assembly of all citizens who choose to participate. Depending on the particular system, this assembly might pass executive motions, make laws, elect or dismiss officials, and conduct trials. Direct democracy is in contrast to representative democracy where sovereignty is exercised by a subset of the people, usually on the basis of election.

Many countries that are representative democracies allow for three forms of political action that provide limited direct democracy: initiative, referendum, and recall. Referendums can include whether a given law should be rejected. This effectively grants the electorate a veto on government legislation. Initiatives, usually put forward by the populace, force the consideration of laws or amendments without the consent of the elected officials, or even in opposition to the will of the officials. Recalls give people the right to remove elected officials from office before the end of their term, although this is rare in modern democracies.

Consensus democracy is the application of consensus decision-making to the process of legislation. It is characterized by a decision-making structure that involves and takes into account as broad a range of opinions as possible, as opposed to systems where vote-winning majorities can potentially ignore minority opinions. Consensus democracy also features increased citizen participation both in determining the political agenda and in the decision-making process itself. Developments in information and communication technology are potential facilitators of such systems.

Deliberative democracy (also called discursive democracy) is a form of democracy in which public deliberation is central to decision-making. It adopts elements of both representative democracy and direct democracy and differs from traditional democratic theory in that deliberation, not voting, is the primary source of a law’s legitimacy. By people learning about an issue and by talking to each other the best solution is derived.

Against these definitions and against the most democratic countries in the world, the UK has a sizeable democratic deficit. There are some very obvious holes to be filled. First past the post falls at the first hurdle on the test of every vote having equal weight. Only full proportional representation (STV) passes the equal weight test. Too much power resides with the prime minister and too little outside. The civil service exercises considerable power but nowhere in any definition of good democracy is a separate self-appointed unelected government administration legitimized – in a fully functioning democracy, an independent civil service does not exist.

The system in the UK is built on representative democracy. Consensus, direct, and deliberative democracy have little place, but should do.

All of this matters, not because some ancient Greeks say it is a good idea, but because better decisions, better change, and more contentment are the result. In all of its forms, democracy matters to each of us. For as long as a dictator or a first past the post prime minister with few checks and balances and a monopoly civil service delivers good decisions and good change, they will be accepted. Voting and participating can, after all, be chores. But, when the dictator or the deficient democracy delivers too many bad decisions and bad change, the answer is to eliminate the deficit. It is time for power cuts in Britain – of those with too much.

More democracy is not just about voting, parliament, legislation, and the judiciary. Though the term “democracy” is typically used in the context of a political state, the principles are applicable to private organizations and other groups also. Grand Central is a more democratic company to work in than Virgin Trains. Typically, staff there have more control over their work lives and over decisions taken. The Labour Party’s original purpose could be rewritten in terms of workplace democracy, which has improved enormously in the 20th century. But still many public and private bodies operate through the organizational model of the machine – procedures, rules, centralized decisions, IT systems used to limit individual decision. Some of this control is essential – toilets must be cleaned properly – but much is no better than gross ignorance of alternatives: there’s no reason it’s policy; and/or the lack of pressure to do any better.

Few, if any, public sector bodies use the self-directed work teams common in automotive assembly. This practice of local self-organization was introduced specifically to improve productivity – local groups of workers invariably know how to assemble the rear suspension better than management, and far better than some remotely set pre-determined procedure.

Workplace democracy is not about flabby worker’s co-ops taking every decision by committee and going bust in the process, but about decentralizing decisions and choice as far as the overall functioning and performance of the organization is maintained or enhanced. Operationally, the Special Air Service is remarkably democratic: everyone speaks at the briefing before a mission because someone may have vital information, and because all will be better motivated by being heard. The colonel listens and takes the final decision.

Calls for more democracy within the party have followed the election defeat. But the party remains afraid of its members. Democracy is not being sought for democracy’s sake but because members have seen too many poor decisions, taken by a smaller and smaller group. Opening up decision-making will be essential to an electable future.

In schools, democracy is more than just a slogan too:

“Antidote’s research has shown a relationship between kids feeling valued and listened to and their performance. Antidote’s tools make learning more enjoyable and education more effective.”

The point is that democracy matters, the UK is at the democracy-lite end of the scale, many countries use democracy in all sorts of ways which are ignored or rubbished in the UK, and democracy works for quality of decisions, better implementation, and for individual contentment. Democracy should be at the heart of any Labour Party vision for the country. At present it is not.

Like or Loathe The Internet.
Continuing with the democracy theme, what did the 1997-2010 government think of the Internet? A good thing, a bad thing, a nuisance, an interference, a disruption, a liberation, an education? The government never set out its attitude to the Internet, nor a coherent policy. Its actions in office were sometimes about making broadband available to all, and sometimes about controlling and limiting what went on in it: records of personal emails and intercepts, pornography monitoring, the Digital Economies Act aimed at preventing piracy by the individual. Only when Tim Berners-Lee was let lose to mash data did the government take positive action to use the potential of the web.

The sum of the attitude to the Internet was essentially anti. Scratch the surface and ministers would see this vehicle for self-organization as outside of government and therefore to be corralled – it caused problems, it was threatening and disintermediating to the centralist, psychologically deeply disturbing to those with high control needs – typically to be found at the top of all large organizations including government. Government had plenty of excuses, of course – child pornography, vehicle for terrorist communication, threatening to the music and film industries – but these were excuses for blanket control, not specific problems to be resolved.

This is both a lost opportunity and anti-democratic. A chief operator of world capitalism, Martin Sorrell, head of WPP, one of the largest advertising and marketing agencies, said ten years ago “the web is the most socialistic and communistic phenomenon we have ever seen. What Russia and China failed to do, the web has done.” The jasmine revolutions in the Middle East in 2011 were aided by facebook, blogs, tweets, and followed closely on Wiki Leaks’ publication of US emails that brought more truth to citizens’ appreciation of their rulers’ attitudes. The Internet is a vehicle for individual knowledge, for dispersed power, the greatest act of equality ever seen – the democratization of knowledge.

Socialism is an economic system in which the means of production are publicly or commonly owned and controlled co-operatively, or a political philosophy advocating such a system. As a form of social organization, socialism is based on co-operative social relations and self-management; relatively equal power-relations and the reduction or elimination of hierarchy in the management of economic and political affairs. The Internet fits this definition of socialism like a router: it is a system in which the means of production are commonly owned and controlled cooperatively. As a form of social organization, it is based on co-operative relations and self-management, relatively equal power relations, and the reduction in hierarchy. With the end of planned economies and state ownership, one would have expected the Labour Party to embrace and promote this new dawn of socialism, but it seems not to have noticed just how socialist it is. And it works.

The Internet continues to develop its capacity for non-governmental moderation and regulation, built into business models. The more obvious examples are the feedback from consumers, for example on eBay, which acts as probably a more effective control on sellers than any government regulator. Such feedback is open to misinformation through such novelty metaphors as “astro turfing” and “sock puppeting,” but countered by “stack overflow” and technology message boards.

Would regulation built into the business model have done a better job than the Financial Services Authority, the Bank of England and Her Majesty’s Treasury at exposing and controlling the scams if banking products had been sold over the Internet? eBay is built on maximum transparency. The banking system is built on maximum opacity. This world hides behind commercial confidentiality and competitive advantage. This is largely nonsense. The intriguing question is how can the mechanisms of effective business-model-based regulation from the Internet be applied to the banking industry? All at much lower cost, of course, than current institution-based regulation.

The Internet is not perfect. Neither are its predecessors as knowledge-sources, educators, retailers, and entertainers. Professional encyclopedia writers or academics do not write Wikipedia. It is a fund of knowledge, far far more comprehensive than the Encyclopedia Britannica ever was or could be. Traditional keepers and purveyors of acquired knowledge are professionally threatened. It struggles with the major controversial subjects of the day – climate change and abortion for example. As with anything so new and so different, the means to reduce its imperfections are being developed all the time. But this is in the spirit of making the most of it, not compensating for fatal learning disabilities.

The Internet is a vehicle for extending democracy, for liberating people from ignorance, for inclusion and social cohesion, and for equality. Surely, the Internet should be at the centre of any vision for the future?

What’s wrong with Real Local Government? And is the party in favour of it?

Here are some definitions of local government: An administrative body for a small geographic area, such as a city, town, county, or state. A local government will typically only have control over its specific geographical region, and cannot pass or enforce laws that will affect a wider area. Local governments can elect politicians, enact taxes, and do many other things that a national government would do, just on a smaller scale.

Local government is authority over a small locale by the people living there rather than state or federal government, typically through locally elected politicians.

The twin tests of local government are the control of a local area by people who live there or their elected politicians. So, we do not have local government in Britain. We have bodies called local authorities, but not local government. About 75% of “local authority” funding comes from central government; much of it specified as to what it is to be spent on; local tax raising is capped by central government; much of how it runs is defined by legislation, regulation or guidance – it has become a cipher passing on central government’s requirements to the local citizens; 95% of local decision-making is exercised by the paid officials; and elected councilors are left with about 5% of power. Only the 13 local authorities in England with executive mayors exercise some local government. For most local government does not exist.

The last government proposed regional assemblies, in part to fill this gap, but the first on offer in North East England was rejected on referendum. In the main, this seemed not an objection to local power but a rejection of further institutions of government. Yet more second and third-rate government was not a cure for centralization.

Local government has an evidence-based bad name amongst many. But the country is largely out of practice of real local government, which is very different in operation and experience than the pretence in the UK. Re-establishing local government after such a long absence will take time and learning. For local people it will be about much more than simply voting periodically.

Looking around the world an approximate maximum size for effective government is a population of 7 million – a Finland or a Scotland as a nation government or the states of the US or the regions of Germany. The federal governments in these larger countries cover many more than 7 million of course, but their role is quite limited and much government occurs at the state and local level. Wales and Scotland now have the chance for good government. The Westminster/Whitehall set-up is simply too large and too complex. English regional government is out of the question. Real local government is essential.

Postcode lotteries may be an objection. They proliferate now, even with the government’s highly centralized system attempting universality. Life is, of course, in part a postcode lottery and fortunately always will be – life in an urban area with 20 inches of rain a year is a very different experience from life in a rural area with 200 inches. People are both borne into and chose different existences. Some variation is the price to be paid for real local government. But the variation arising from local decision-making will produce competing solutions – rather than the Whitehall answer forever more – from which the best gradually will be widely adopted.

A developing society in a complex world depends as much for its future on solution diversity and experimentation as does the natural world on bio-diversity. A similar truth applies also to lifestyles – from Art Colleges to Blue Labour to Travellers. We suppress difference at our long-term peril. I used to wonder why, despite its qualities as a newspaper, I felt so strongly about The Daily Mail. But it has always had such a narrow objective for acceptable lifestyles, and consequently since the second world war the nearest the UK has had to a fascist party.

Real local government also means electing more of other types of local public chief executives, and electing primarily for their capacity to deliver. Many services from national parks to courts need the fresh dynamic a new method for acquiring executive power would bring.

As an aside, observing countries where they work well for all, I wonder whether consistently successful school systems are possible without real local government?

What’s wrong with Liberty?
Liberté, égalité, fraternité, or “Liberty, equality, fraternity (brotherhood),” is the national motto of France. Although it finds its origins in the French Revolution, it was then only one motto among others and was not really institutionalized until the Third Republic at the end of the 19th century.

It was perhaps the strangest experience of the entire 13 years to come to realize very reluctantly that New Labour was against liberty. Some of it was an attempt to play “middle England.” But mostly, it proved H L Melken right once more: “ all government, of course, is against liberty.” On first hearing this quote is counter-intuitive. Surely democratic governments are not. But then recalling why the people at the top are there – it is their need for personal power that has driven them – it is hardly surprising that in government they should seek to accumulate more personal power at the expense of wider liberty. New Labour followed this course more than any of its party’s predecessors. Only the constitution preserves our freedom from the psychological needs of the people at the top. Note how the most psychologically controlling in the party voted against AV. Power sharing is not why they are there. There was a time when liberty was a sine non qua (without which it cannot be) of the party. It is time this returned.

Obvious infringements of liberty included the seizure and complete analysis of a friend’s PC on the grounds that his daughter had been arrested on a Plane Stupid demonstration at East Midlands airport; disrupting or preventing demonstrations using the anti-terrorism laws; indiscriminate photographing of anyone. In countries with sensible constitutions, this sort of behaviour would be unconstitutional. There, it would be quite clear who was breaking the law – the police.

The most gross infringement was kettling – a vile affront to democracy. This is the practice of putting demonstrators in a “kettle.” The specialist riot police form a cordon in say a city square, demonstrators are driven into it in the manner of sheep penning, and held there for several hours – nine hours in one recent case. The demonstrators are not allowed out whether they are sick or to use the loo, until the police decide to let them go. Then a narrow corridor of jeering police is formed, the gauntlet of which demonstrators have to pass through, where they are photographed and put on police records without any permission or offence-cause. The purpose of kettling is to dissuade demonstrating. Fascist regimes use similar practices.

As a human being, I find it deeply offensive. Kettling is an obscenity. Its origins are in the policing of the miners strike in the 80s, but kettling started under New Labour.

It should be (and may be) illegal. Bear in mind that the people doing it and deploying it get taxpayer-funded index-linked pensions at the age of 50, and cannot be sacked, as they are “officers of the crown.” Everything about this practice is everything the party should be against.

Besides wanting the practice banned, I wonder from where it came. It seems to be the latest outlet for the militant wing of London’s Metropolitan Police. In the 60s this tendency had plenty of scope focusing mainly on the black population of Brixton on which it expressed its power and violence. Arbitrary arrest, framing and even torture were the norm. The riots of 1981 brought their behaviour into the open and black people could no longer be their punch bags.

After too long a gap, the miners became the next opportunity in the big strike of the 80s. Whenever the police went over the top in their confrontations with miners it was usually the Met Police responsible. But the strike, and most others, ended.

Now without an acceptable target, all that was left was demonstrators. The fact that demonstrations in the UK have had a remarkable and largely peaceful record mattered not to whoever came up with kettling. Occasional violence, as in the poll tax riots, was all that was needed to let the militant police back on the streets. This tendency in the Met Police needs weeding out and destroying. Liberty matters.

The Morality of Population.
In 2008, at a Demos seminar on immigration, a senior treasury minister responded by saying that the leader of Newcastle city council wanted the population to grow and therefore a rising national population was fine. In practice for the whole 13 years, government worked on the basis that population size was not an objective, nor its problem. It never had an explicit population policy. But, as the country has found, like a Will the lack of one is one – if you don’t write a Will you still have one courtesy of the laws on intestacy. A laissez faire approach to population absolves no one in government from responsibility for its expansion. You have to have a policy and face the very significant consequences.

In one of the smallest and highest density countries in the world, an increasing population has costs in terms of beauty, landscape, carbon emissions, resource use, biodiversity, imports, congestion, breakdown, stress, freedom, free space, lifestyle compression, construction disruption, planning conflict, and infrastructure costs. What would Britain be like as a place to live with about half the population and the space of France?

An ageing population does not have to be one with proportionately fewer people able to work and to pay taxes. We all live much longer. 60 is the new 40. Few want to be without any productive work for the last 20 or 30 years of their lives. Practice shows that many of the ‘unemployable’ are employable with the right approach. New Labour’s destination of a population of 70 million only became necessary when it fixed a variable – the standard retirement age – and ducked reform of publicly funded pensions, whilst lifespan stayed variable and grew, and mass immigration became the salvation of this political chaos. Population matters. Get a policy. It would have many benefits if it went down.

{R Crumb series of cartoons of rural scene and green fields, to road and telegraph poles, tangled and urban, congested and the way we are now}

Less isms more solutions

One last influence in defining a political party is the terminology used and its sources: isms, solutions, and expressions.

The appearance of Blue Labour and a radio programme juxtaposing communitarians and liberals left me wondering how useful are these labels? Blue Labour likes blue collar Britain, is socially conservative and economically interventionist. Though they want more social protection for poorer citizens, they are skeptical about the top-down welfare state created in 1945, as it broke all the mutual solidarities, the ways people took care of each other, and handed them over to the state. Blue Labour seeks to understand and represent the views and values of millions of traditional working class voters. It may be vital to the Labour Party’s future, both because of the number of lost voters and because it creates an example of good analysis as it starts from real lives.

Blue Labour and the now dominant liberal wing of more educated public sector middle classes differ on cultural issues – communitarian or authoritarian versus libertarian. The programme noted the origins of this competition back to the Guild Socialists and the Fabians. 1945 is seen as the moment when the Fabians won that battle and this state centric, elitist, distanced, liberal strand of socialism takes hold of the British Labour party.

Listening to the concerns and vision of Blue Labour, I find much I agree with. But is it my role to judge these philosophies for living, or simply to observe them? After all, these are the preferences of folks in Heanor and elsewhere. These are quite deeply held views and strong organizing principles for communities, large and small. Would I be able to change them anyway? Only if I thought they were destructive to others would I seek to. Some mild variations on people treating each other well are hardly sufficient cause for Trotskyesque battles and winner takes all. But, the preferences for how different groups of people want to live their lives are important. Allowing and acknowledging difference is surely both core Labour and core electoral in the modern world. The irony of the immigration policy was that it required valuing the cultures of others by the British and not valuing our own, which became secondary to the imperative of immigration.

But the party is drawn to these debates around “isms” and to their fathers and mothers – Webbs, Hardie, Rousseau, Methodists, or whatever. The various intellectual factions of the party spend a lot of time and energy in these ism debates. But every political party can only win a majority by representing a coalition of isms, and other interests besides. In order not to be found out, a long-term government has even more need to coalesce the isms if in practice it has been pursuing a sole ism, as Gordon Brown did and, in part, David Cameron is. Sleight of hand will not hide the ism intent for more than a few years in government.

So both as a matter of principle – the party should represent and value a multi-ism society – and as a matter of winning, the party needs to find a way to cohere not compete its isms. Of itself, an ism means nothing, except it is short hand for describing a vision of society – the sort of society we believe in. But this is presumptuous in believing that a party can create a different society, as distinct from riding its changes. The 80s were the 80s were the 80s. Mrs Thatcher exploited and reinforced its values but did not create them. Britain learnt from that experience, as electorates do, and social democracy took hold with a lot of help from New Labour. It went wrong when it tried to smuggle in its isms (and practice its psychological flaws).

Where a political party can cohere its isms is not in debating their relative theoretical merits, but in looking at what the ism means for what exactly a government might do. Thus, liberals may want gay marriage legalized and Blue Labour to retain the post office. Let us resist the temptation for comparative judgement. If practical and of high enough priority we could agree to support both, providing one does not arouse deep opposition from the other. It is a fact of receptivity to change that if a set of proposals includes something dear to one’s heart, the rest of the package is often bought without murmur.

So, we need to hear about the aspirations and collective visions of all corners of Britain, we need to work out from the ground forwards what needs and could change to enable those visions, and then we need to cohere those that can. Electoral success is always a coalition. I would love to see every blog, journal, magazine, seminar and website devoted to this analysis until a new platform has been built. Less isms, more so-whats, more grouping, more solutions.

Someone who will make our lives easier.
The antidote to the isms came with one aspiration from my question as to what do you want from a government. The answer was simply: “someone who will make our lives easier.” I can imagine the repulse by the blogs and professional intellectuals to such a prosaic request. None of the triangulated principles carefully sourced to some founding father or to an adopted 18th century philosopher, or bestowed approval by analyzing its benefit to the one or other under-privileged section. Just something straight. No heroics.

“Here is my life. I am not selfish and I would like you to make other people’s lives easier too. But I am ok. I have no great disagreement with the society in which I live, and, anyway, the chances of turning it upside down are slim, and I have too much on to do that. So, oh political party, please understand my life and make it easier.”

Note the emphasis here is on the verb “to make.” It is not talk about, philosophize, policyize, debate, or otherwise indulge in politics for the posers who cannot do. It is “make.” Akin to the “get on and do a decent job of work” vision, the party with reachable ambitions and greater achievement, not the party with lofty ambitions and limited achievement. When setting objectives, is it better to go for a medium objective with 80% achievement or a high objective with 20% achievement? This is the usual trade off. To paraphrase Voltaire: “the best is the enemy of the good.” The party should be aiming for the good not the unattainable best.

Leaving aside what voters will elect, is there anything morally wrong with making people’s lives easier? Clearly it must be balanced against obligations. Effective action on climate change will make people’s lives harder in the short term. The phrase does not exactly grab the heartstrings, but the heartstrings have gone elsewhere to be plucked. The emotional fulfillment from making lives easier occurs with a job very well done, with competent delivery, with cumulative results on the ground, and the many visible fixes and improvements to be seen all around at the end of a term. Making our lives easier is a universal objective too. It applies to everyone, although obviously the fixes and improvements will help different groups.

Who is the party to be?

Freed from the shackles of history, comes the time to define who you are. A blank sheet of paper can be far more threatening than editing the Ruskin Library. Artists call it facing the void: that point when the next work cannot be put off, when no more domestic tasks remain as avoidance, when the artist has to live or die by his/her creativity. The party is or should be facing the void.

Forget the past, forget playing to worn out principles, start from today. Call foul on anyone who retreats to the old conscience comforts, or waves a shroud from the party’s past, or writes a think tank pamphlet with lots of high-sounding historical and philosophic references. If you are wanting to get there, you wouldn’t be starting from here.

I like much of the world we live in – friends, the food, the landscape, the humour, the comforts, the technology, art, music, kindness, humanity, and the quite extraordinary explosion in new knowledge. I accept much in this world as being stuck with although I do not care for it – capitalism, organizational life, congestion, mass consumerism. I do not like some in this world and we can change it – transactional relationships, inadequately accountable state and corporate organizations, extremes of wealth and poverty, illiberty, second rate government, global warming and climate chaos, noise, prurience, unhappy families, totalitarian US corporates, police states, child abuse by ageing parents, and parent abuse by over feted children. But these problems will be solved or improved only by careful and precise understanding and analysis, and by deft change and political leadership, not by calls to morality, competing worthiness, spin, nor internal factionalism or job protection.

Where to start?

There are always choices as to how to organize, usually unaddressed during periods of success, and only faced during decline. The basis for this should be the “best possible chance principle” I advanced in 1993 to John Smith to counter those opposing change and simply hoping for victory next time without too much personal discomfort. This principle says that the party should do everything it can to ensure electoral victory and to produce better government. No stone of status quo should be left unturned, no too difficult problem unsurfaced, no centre of personal power left dominant, in order not to leave success to luck but to give it the best possible chance.

To govern well and to avoid future failure through being in hock to ideology, here are eight principles to guide the formation of who the Labour party is and, in time, its new proposition to the electorate. These will appear in my forthcoming book: A Design for Successful Government

Ed Straw January 2012

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