Three pieces on Future Labour

Crack

I continue to struggle in the aftermath of Brexit.

Not, necessarily, just because of the result – it was a long time coming, and perhaps has woken the individualised and consumerised winners of the last 30 years from their torpor.

But also because of where it leaves Labour – stuck, somewhere, fighting the battles of the 20th century.

I’m not sufficiently informed, connected or clever enough to know where the Labour party should go and to offer a view on where the destination is and how to get there. There’s also little I feel I can personally do to help steer or jump on board with where Labour should go. I do know, though, that (1) I have been a Labour party member since 1998; (2) even now, I’m not sure if there is another “party” I would want to belong to; and (3) the current party cannot be or do what it should.

I therefore continue to look for the best diagnoses of Labour’s current situation in order to understand it as well as I can, and for glimpses of what the future could be and how Labour might plot a course to get there.

Three pieces I’ve found particularly useful of late are from John Harris, Neal Lawson and Anthony Painter. Here they are on where we are:

1. John Harris in the Guardian:

As with the centre-left parties across Europe in the same predicament, Labour is a 20th-century party adrift in a new reality. Its social foundations – the unions, heavy industry, the nonconformist church, a deference to the big state that has long evaporated – are either in deep retreat or have vanished completely.

2. Neal Lawson on Open Democracy

Everything that once made Labour strong and the 1945 settlement possible; a unified working class, a bureaucratic system of governance (Fordism), memories of the war and the depression and the existence of the Soviet Union as a global counter to capitalism had gone. They have been replaced by forces inimical to traditional social democracy, namely financialisation, globalsiation, individualization and consumerisation. Labour, I argued, was a ‘Kodak party in a world of instagram’.

3. Anthony Painter:

The point is that the working class – Labour’s alleged base – is irrevocably split. Moreover, there is no going back now. The schism is permanent.

And here they are on where to go.

John Harris:

The left’s future will involve many Labour people, but also some in the Greens, Liberal Democrats – even one-nation Tories – and thousands of people with no affiliation at all. However it is organised, it will have to start with an understanding of the fact this is a crisis of democracy, and support a change to the electoral system and a move towards multi-party politics.

Neal Lawson:

[We] must recognize that no single party or movement has all the answers. The future will not be imposed but negotiated. Most immediately it needs to be negotiated by all the progressive parties in a Progressive Alliance to try and counter the massive shift to the right we are experiencing.

Anthony Painter:

Instead of expending energy on saving Labour, something entirely new is needed. Labour was a movement before it was a party and so should whatever replaces it from within or without be.

This movement would seek to build from the cities out. It would embrace pluralist progressives – from the remain labour working classes to social liberals. It would be a movement that sought to build the right networks and platforms for social justice.

A movement of citizens that would over time seek elected office, it would espouse democratic, economic and social reform…

This movement would demand a new social contract; the current state fails to support the reality of modern economic life and leaves families and whole communities locked in insecurity and poverty. These would be new platforms for economic security such as Basic Income and social mobility. Security and mobility would be seen as dependent upon one another- holding no one back, leaving no one behind.

“Software is eating the world”

Quoted here, from which also this:

The connected world we’re building may resemble a computer system, but really it’s just the regular old world from before, with a bunch of microphones and keyboards and flat screens sticking out of it. And it has the same old problems.

Evgeny Morozov would agree.

Remembering “Rise of the Meritocracy” was a satire

meritocracy

From the New Statesman:

But I am also a big problem. People like me, who get educated and quickly head off to London when things aren’t going our way. We invested in ourselves, sometimes at state expense, and never really thought about putting that back into the places where we grew up.

There weren’t the right opportunities back home and that still stands. But, rather than doing something about that, people like me lazily joined the gravy train for London and now we’re surprised we feel more kinship with a 20-something from Norway than we do with someone who we used to knock on for when we should have been at school.

Reading this reminded me that Michael Young intended his 1958 essay “The Rise of the Meritocracy” as satire, not as a platform for policy. As the Economist noted:

Young… conjured up an image of a society obsessed with talent. The date was 2034, and psychologists had perfected the art of IQ testing. But far from promoting social harmony, the preoccupation with talent had produced social breakdown. The losers in the talent wars were doubly unhappy, conscious not only that they were failures but that they deserved to be failures. Eventually they revolted against their masters.

The vote to leave the EU feels precisely like a revolt by the “losers in the talent wars” against their masters.

Young, at least, offered a positive vision for what it could, should be like:

“In the light of this approach [they] sought to give a new meaning to equality of opportunity.

“[It] should not mean equal opportunity  to rise up in the social scale, but equal opportunity for all people, irrespective of their ‘intelligence’, to develop the virtues and talents with which they are endowed, all their capacities for appreciating the beauty and depth of human experience, all their potential for living life to the full.

“The child, every child, is a precious individual, not just a potential functionary of society. The schools should not be tied to the occupational structure, bent on turning  out people for the jobs at any particular moment considered important, but should be devoted to encouraging all human talents, whether or not these are of the kind needed in a scientific world. The arts and manual skills should be given as much prominence as science and technology.

“[All] schools should have enough good teachers so that all children should have individual care and stimulus. They could then develop at their own pace to their own particular fulfilment. The schools would not segregate the like but mingle the unlike; by promoting diversity within unity, they would teach respect for the infinite human differences which are not the least of mankind’s virtues. The schools would not regard children as shaped once and for all by Nature, but as a combination of potentials which can be cultivated by Nurture.”

 

 

What politics isn’t

In recent posts we’ve noted what politics currently isn’t: neither civil nor balanced.

Chris Dillow also notes here what politics isn’t, through the eyes of people who are interested in what passes for politics:

Most of those who claim to take an interest in it are not really interested in how to govern the public sphere: if they were there’d much more interest in the social sciences. Instead, they’re mere spectators in a wrestling match who are booing baddies and cheering goodies.

I cheered – well, sighed – reading this.

This begs the question: what is politics?

We’ll need to go back to Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes and Locke to get started on this. At least, though, we’re asking the right question.

 

Thymos: the desire for recognition

Plato Chariot

The division of the soul between desire and reason was familiar to me. What wasn’t familiar is the tripartite division of the soul, between desire, reason and what is called thymos: the desire for recognition.

The implications of thymos are considerable. In fact, Hegel argued it is the desire and so struggle for recognition which is the driving force of history.

We can see this in at least three ways.

The first is to understand thymos as our sense of justice. By believing we have a certain worth then we create the possibility for a sense of injustice if that worth isn’t recognised by others. In situations of injustice we can sometimes become angry or indignant – the latter’s etymology explicitly linking our reaction to its impact on our dignity.

The second is to see that, in a world of comfort and where most material needs are met, it is the thymotic part of the soul that is capable of driving action. If we were truly satisfied – the drives of our desires and our reason are met – then we would have no requirement to struggle. But when we feel our own worth or that of others not being recognised we seek out further struggle.

The final one is to recognise that the political process, our democracy, isn’t just about the process of using evidence, making decisions and balancing the competing interests of groups for the greater good. Democracy is also a platform through which people seek recognition for themselves and their views – it is driven by thymos.

Our conception of thymos isn’t singular. One person’s desire for recognition could be the desire to recognised as superior to other people (known as megalothymia; think Donald Trump). But the force of isothymia – the desire to be recognised as equal to other people (think of every rights-based movement) – is one that appeals.

Let us recognise, then, that people seek not just to satisfy their desires or act with reason to maximise benefits to them; they also act through thymos: the desire to be recognised.

Interest groups and political polarisation: outside the Bell Curve

There is a great passage in Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay (pp.481-484) that reminded me of what we’ve talked about here before: the exaggerated nature of political debate.

To summarise our thoughts (in the context of public services):

  • People’s experiences of public services follow a Normal Distribution
  • Although most people’s experiences are average or thereabouts, the experiences and examples we hear most about are, almost by definition, unusual
  • Politicians, organisations (from whatever sector) and the media most often talk about the very best or the very worst that public services have to offer
  • The very rare is what drives most activity in public services.

It’s this difference between the ends and the middle of the Normal Distribution that creates the problem in the space of people’s expectations of public services: The gap between what the Normal Distribution says our experience is most likely to be (95% of people will get an average service) and what we think our experience will be – the space represented by newspaper headlines and political rhetoric – leads to expectations that, in reality, can very rarely be met.

Normal Distribution - public services

Fukuyama’s example relates to interest groups within the political economy, and it is a compelling explanation of why our political debate feels so polarised (in the equivalent way to why feelings about our public services are so polarised).

By way of background, Fukuyama first notes Mancur Olson’s negative portrayal of interest groups, in which Olson feels they operate only to extract benefits for themselves. This itself would be fine, except for the fact the general public can’t organise as effectively as relatively small interest groups, resulting in a “steady diversion of energy” into activities that only benefit the interest groups.

Fukuyama then summarises de Tocqueville’s more positive take on interest groups, in which it’s argued they are “schools for democracy” and teach private individuals the skills of coming together for public purposes.

Somewhere between the two is James Madison, whose view of interest groups was that, even if you don’t agree with the ends a particular interesting group is after, the fact there are so many of them would prevent any one group from dominating. Echoing how a free market operates, this pluralist approach to interest groups means they’d all interact to produce an overall good for the public.

What, though, is the reality? Fukuyama comes to the same conclusion we do about the exaggerated nature of public policy – interest groups polarise politics.

Sharks Jets
Image via Fanpop

Fukuyama gets to this conclusion by drawing on arguments from E.E. Scattschneider and Olson as follows:

  • Political outcomes rarely follow from political preferences. Because there’s generally a low level of political awareness and participation amongst the population as a whole, decisions are actually taken by smaller groups of organised interests
  • What compounds this is that not all interest groups are equally capable of organising themselves
  • Those that are capable of organising are much more motivated to do so: they may feel more strongly or have more clearly defined positions they need to “defend” compared to weakly-held views or less well-defined positions
  • As a result, “politics is defined by well-organised activists, whether in parties or government, the media, or lobbying and interest groups” and there is an “intrinsic overrepresentation of narrow interests”
  • As a result we do not get compromise positions; instead we have polarisation and deadlocked politics.

It’s this that leads to the nonsense we see on Question Time each week, or “debates” where a presenter simply pits one viewpoint’s representative against another’s. It’s frustrating, and actually not at all representative of what the vast majority of people think.

Whilst political debate therefore operates mainly in these exaggerated positions at the margins, so it will be that people will disengage because of the seeming irrelevance of the debates to people’s everyday thoughts and beliefs.

The opportunity for public services of truly engaged expert citizens

The World Wide Web was invented in 1989 and Google was incorporated as a company nearly a decade later, in 1998. AirBnB started in 2007 and Uber in 2009.

I wonder why there was such a big delay between the web and Google, and then Google and AirBnB, Uber etc., and then a subsequent delay in their reaching a tipping point in terms of awareness and use by the general public?

I ask this because there have been a very wide number of approaches and initiatives for improving public services, not least health and social care, through technology and particularly the web. For example, there have been care comparison sites a-plenty, much talk of open data and suggestions of location-based services to replace off- and online directories. And yet we see relatively little evidence of these approaching a tipping point, let alone being used regularly by local authorities, providers and the general public when it comes to health and social care.

The prompt for these thoughts is this excellent, detailed post at Policy Exchange about the rise of the citizen expert.

In it Beth Simone Noveck (former United States deputy chief technology officer and director of the White House Open Government Initiative) takes as a starting point another area of public policy – citizen engagement – and notes how the obvious opportunity to improve public services and local communities hasn’t been taken in the way it could have been.

Citizen engagement isn’t just the equivalent of technology: it’s clearly bigger than that. Beth makes clear this point by showing how better harnessing the interests and expertise of citizens can help both bridge the democratic divide and make the most of people in contributing to their local communities and society.

The internet is radically decreasing the costs of identifying diverse forms of expertise so that the person who has taken courses on an online learning platform can showcase those credentials with a searchable digital badge. The person who has answered thousands of questions on a question-and-answer website can demonstrate their practical ability and willingness to help. Ratings by other users further attest to the usefulness of their contributions. In short, it is becoming possible to discover what people know and can do in ever more finely tuned ways and match people to opportunities to participate that speak to their talents.

But she also notes the most significant barrier to this: the continued dominance / monopoly of policy- and service-elites in the work that they do:

[There is a] long-held belief, even among reformers, that only professional public servants or credentialed elites possess the requisite abilities to govern in a complex society.

Why? Because it is believed

Citizens are spectators who can express opinions but cognitive incapacity, laziness or simply the complexity of modern society limit participation to asking people what they feel by means of elections, opinion polls, or social media.

The shifting of the cause of the problem of a lack of engagement onto citizens themselves rather than the professionals asking the questions is a familiar refrain. We regularly hear laments about “the usual suspects”, limited response rates or adversarial consultation processes that create more problems than they solve.

But this characterisation of this situation only makes sense for one set of players: it suits both the technocratic elites who dominate public policy and services, and the other well-embedded elites with (vested) interests who can mobilise quickly to respond to consultation/engagement that affect their organisations.

It is, of course, a characterisation that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. For example, we know that (proper) co-production in health and social care has a solid evidence base in the difference it makes. But we also know it continues to be at best a nice-to-have rather than a must-have.

Thus we come back to the questions kicking about in my mind at the start of this post: if the ability to do this sort of thing exists (be it citizen engagement or technology), why hasn’t social care and the like made the most of this opportunity?

It’s largely because elites aren’t yet comfortable with distributing leadership and expertise.

One of the ways to overcome this discomfort, then, is to make it valuable and rational for the existing elites to engage in effective citizen engagement by ensuring a ‘good’ group of people are engaged and involved in public service reform in the first place.

Noveck rightly says:

To make all forms of engagement more effective, we need to increase the likelihood that the opportunity to participate will be known to those who need to participate. If a city really wants to improve the chances of crafting a workable plan for bike lanes, it should be able to reach out to urban planners, transportation engineers, cyclists, and cab drivers and offer them ways to participate meaningfully. When a public organisation needs hands on help from techies to build better websites or data crunching from data scientists, it needs to be able to connect.

To do this:

[I]nstitutions [must] begin to leverage such platforms to match the need for expertise to the demand for it and, in the process, increase engagement becoming more effective and more legitimate.

This is appealing. Citizen engagement may not be valued by elites because there hasn’t been adequate effort or ability to engage sufficient citizens to make it worthwhile enough.

As Noveck concludes:

This is about chances for civic participation; to be a member of a local community and to make a contribution based on this… It has everything to do with what it means to be a citizen in a contemporary democracy.

This is why I particularly like this: this isn’t just about technical changes around the edges of public service economies, but the broad meaningful difference it could make.