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 They have been replaced by forces inimical to traditional social democracy, namely financialisation, globalsiation, individualization and consumerisation.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.

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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.

 

Obama’s civility in a polarised world

We wrote last week about political polarisation, through which we include two different-but-related things: (1) exaggerated debate about public services being the norm; and (2) the role of interest groups in polarising politics.

Then up popped a video comparing Barack Obama and Donald Trump’s ways of dealing with hecklers:

This echoed David Brooks’s piece reflecting on the civility of Obama’s presidency, and the fact we’ll miss it when it’s gone:

Obama radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance that I’m beginning to miss, and that I suspect we will all miss a bit, regardless of who replaces him.

What I note about Obama is that he always plays the ball and not the player. He engages in the debate and doesn’t resort to name-calling, ad hominem  attacks or the tone someone employs.

As you would hope, he engages at the upper scales of the Hierarchy of Disagreement:

DH0: Name-calling

DH1: Ad Hominem

DH2: Responding to tone

DH3: Contradiction

DH4 Counterargument

DH5: Refutation

DH6: Refuting the central point

Our polarised political debate means Obama’s civility stands out. Perhaps we can restore civility and try to engage in what people are saying and why, rather than who they are and how they say it?

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.

Making a point, ineffectively

Goodness knows there are many legitimate points to be made about the quality and nature of public policy at the moment.

Nevertheless, I feel it is incumbent on those who want to see positive change to public policy to do so in ways that are effective. I say this because I’ve seen a couple of examples recently that were, in my view, pretty ineffective.

The first is on a topic I agree isn’t right: the limbo in which the Access to Elected Fund finds itself. A source of funding that makes it more accessible for disabled people to stand for elected office is absolutely needed, and the ongoing uncertainty about whether it will be continued isn’t right. This said, there are better ways to make the point than to (a) call it

heartless

or (b) propose making a formal complaint to the UN about the breach.

The second is on a topic I am personally very supportive of (and indeed am part of the team working on it): Personal Health Budgets. In response to the scaling up of Personal Health Budgets from the current 4,700 to 100,000 the criticism is that this:

does not fit well with our politics of austerity.

It’s equally possible to say that the scaling up of Personal Health Budgets doesn’t fit well with England’s chances at Euro 2016, with Donald Trump’s continued presence in the Republican Party’s presidential nomination race or with the mystifying popularity of Strictly Come Dancing.

The point being that it’s an odd and wrong premise, and so a criticism that doesn’t make any sense.

(To expand: if the politics of austerity is wrong (the inferred conclusion) then Personal Health Budgets shouldn’t fit well; if the politic of austerity is right, then Personal Health Budgets are a means by which to get better outcomes, most often for less, from a system that doesn’t currently work as well as it should. Either way, the premise is a false one.)

It’s absolutely right that people are critical of public policy. The quality of debate and policy, though, only improves if interventions are effective, by which I broadly mean:

  • They make sense
  • They are in ways that are more likely to make the people who could effect the change engage with the issue
  • They perhaps offer options as to how to address the focus of their criticism
  • They maybe get involved in working towards a solution
  • They fundamentally recognise that it’s people on the other end of their criticisms – and so that it’s only by understanding how people change that decisions and public policy change.

Two pieces on Labour, and the “voter vacuum”

Two substantial pieces on the Labour party and its leader.

The first is from Spencer Livermore in the New Statesman.

One of Ed Miliband’s closest advisers and people behind the 2015 general election campaign, Livermore is honest about the mistakes make in the underlying assumptions of Labour’s campaign. He then outlines four assumptions the current Labour party (and Corbyn) are making which he thinks are wrong, including:

First, [Corbyn supporters] claim Labour lost the last election because we were insufficiently left wing, or “austerity lite”. But where is the logic in a position that says voters, frustrated that Labour was insufficiently left wing, chose instead to back an increasingly right wing Conservative party?

Second, Corbyn’s team believe that by mobilising non-voters behind Labour they will reduce the need to attract support from those who previously voted Conservative. But again, this ignores clear evidence that those who didn’t vote in 2015 were even more concerned that Labour might overspend than those who supported the Conservatives. These non-voters are unlikely to be attracted back to the polling station by a hardline anti-austerity position.

(I’m not including Livermore’s proposed third and fourth assumptions, because I personally feel they’re secondary and less relevant than the first two.)

The second article is from James Stafford, writing in Dissent Magazine. The piece – analysing (a) the particular moment of summer 2015 in which Corbyn became leader and (b) Corbyn’s true position relative to the historical Labour party – is worth reading in full. Here, though, are two passages that stand out:

Participation in the British Labour party may have grown in intensity, but it is further than ever from broader developments in society and the economy.

and the summary:

the danger for Labour does not really lie in his being too left wing. Rather, the problem is his inability to offer reassurance to the unaligned, or to respond convincingly to unfolding events… Corbyn’s confused response to the security concerns raised by the Paris attacks, alongside his apparent disinterest in defusing a party row over Syrian military intervention, pushed Labour’s polling numbers to near all-time lows.

It would be nice to think that out of crisis will come a turn to the radical left, but that hasn’t really happened so far. Instead, Britain feels ever more shrunken, mean, cold, and peripheral. The Conservatives are generally far better than Labour at speaking to—and perpetuating—this perception. Overcoming it will be a phenomenal labor of political skill, flexibility, and dedication, which will likely require the party to completely reimagine itself.

There appear to me to be two consistent points in both of these essays.

The first is that Labour currently exists in a “voter vacuum”. It isn’t allaying the concerns of or promoting a vision to the “unaligned” or to those who don’t vote. Nor does current Labour think it matters to spend time thinking about people who voted Conservative in 2015 or 2010 and why they did so.

The second is that – irrespective of who leads the party – Labour needs to reinvent itself for the world as it is now and in the future, and not for the world as it was. This, though, doesn’t seem to square with the idea of supporting a leader who many explicitly state (or wish) harks back (supposedly) to Labour’s authentic social democratic roots.

(For those who wonder where I am on this: I personally feel short-term gains (or at least not-as-bad-as-we-thought performances) in small by-elections and local elections, caused by a general interest and intrigue with Corbyn and exacerbated by continued trivial mainstream media coverage, will mask a philosophical, strategic and tactical decline in the Labour party over the next 3-4 years that will result in a substantial beating at the 2020 general election.)

Four lessons for political reform

Scene_at_the_Signing_of_the_Constitution_of_the_United_States

  1. Reform is a profoundly political process, not a technical one
  2. The political coalition favouring reform has to be based on groups that do not have a strong stake in the existing system
  3. While government reform reflects the material interests of the parties involved, ideas are critical in shaping how individuals see their interests
  4. Reform takes a great deal of time.

These lessons are from Francis Fukushima and how to reform patronage-based political systems to modern, merit-based ones, but I’d say they’re equally applicable to most public service change processes – including, of course, personalisation across health and social care.

If we were to apply the four lessons to how things have gone with personalisation so far, I’d suggest the following:

  1. Personalisation has focused too much on technical changes (e.g. Resource Allocation Systems, online directories of support), and not enough on political ones (including attitudinal and cultural)
  2. There has been a coalition of people wishing to change the social care and health systems through personalisation. This coalition, however, hasn’t been sufficient, and certainly hasn’t yet engaged enough with groups that have a strong stake in how things currently are (particularly social workers, who broadly remain wary of personalisation)
  3. The idea of personalisation is a strong one. Indeed, it’s probably driven reform in other areas of public services
  4. Even if we took 1996 as the starting point for personalisation, we’re still only 20 years into this journey. 2007 is a more realistic starting point (with the advent of Putting People First), and for the scale of political, cultural and attitudinal change we know personalisation requires, a decade is nowhere near enough. If this is in doubt, ask any race, gender or sexuality equality campaigners in the UK, US or beyond.

If we looked at the topic of social care funding, I suspect we’d find even less evidence on each of the four lessons for political change.