Our leaders need to rediscover the art of statecraft

Politicians need to be institution-builders. Not just making rules and spending money.

Politicians need to be institution-builders. Not just making rules and spending money.

No one has a plan. As Vince Cable lays into his own government for lacking "coherent vision", its clear David Cameron and Nick Clegg don't have a clue about how to fix Britain's real problems. It isn't just Ed Miliband who's accused of having "no strategy, no narrative and little energy".

This listless mood isn't a sign of laziness. We're in a deep-rooted crisis about our sense of what politics can do. Politicians now believe the only way to fix things is by making laws, or by spending or cutting money. When the cash or cuts don't work and regulation fails, politics seems to run out of answers.

Political debate has been reduced to a set of arguments about who to tax and how much to spend, where to regulate and where to let the market rule. What are politicians' response to the big questions of the day? Stimulus against retrenchment, regulate the City or free small business from red tape, tax mansions or tycoons. It's all about numbers or rules - about abstract things supposedly under central state control. It's as if our polity has been taken over by middle managers, monitoring statistics but showing no real sign Cof being in charge.

What's missing are people. Money and regulation don't do anything on their own. To get things done, politicians need to tap into energy that exists outside their control, in both society and the state. Good hospitals depend on good nurses and doctors. Economic growth is about energetic business people committed to more than making money. Everywhere, creating a better society relies on people with drive and commitment, who have strong relationships to those they work with and serve.

Take our schools. It's the quality of the relationships that exist between teachers, students and parents that makes the difference. Sometimes it takes a new building or tough rule to make schools realise that. But when it comes, improvement happens for local reasons. Schools improve when a good head gets rid of poor staff, creates strong connections to the local community and motivates good teachers with a story about the kind of place the school could be.

Take industry. When other sectors are stagnating, Britain's car industry is booming, with record exports in 2011. Why? Because it's an industry run by people who have strong relationships with each other. Unions, car companies and colleges work together. As a result they've sorted out the industry's supply chain and make sure workers have good enough skills. Active politics has been key. But it's been about getting people together, lobbying and cajoling not bossing people around. It's about leadership out there in society, not making laws or writing cheques beyond the locked doors of Whitehall.

The narrow, bureaucratic mindset that dominates national politics can't explain these kind of transformations. In fact, money and law, the only levers Westminster thinks it has, are weak, blunt instruments. Power, as Hannah Arendt argued, is about organizing people to "act in concert", not just telling people what to do. It's based on the skill of inspiring and persuading, not just making rules backed by the ultimately violent power of the law.

So what needs to be done?

First, politicians must learn to speak a more realistic language about the power of politics. Politicians are leaders. Leadership is not the administration of things. It's about the quality of interaction between real people who want to do their own thing. The state is not a machine. It's network of semi-independent institutions that each has its own way of doing things. Getting things done needs something other than force. Politicians need to start by telling stories about what Richard Sennett calls the "craft of cooperation" - how, against the odds, people with different interests and instincts can work together for the common good.

Secondly, politicians need to be institution-builders. Not just making rules and spending money, but creating permanent organisations that involve and energise people to work for a common purpose. This isn't the glib PR exercise of the "Big Society" - a good idea with no substance behind it. We're talking about the kind of serious work the founders of the Labour movement started, building trade unions, co-operatives, the National Health Service.

For the next election, Labour needs to tell how it will build institutions woven into the fabric of life - not just provide services that can come and go. That might mean a national or local childcare service, which parents, workers and politicians jointly run. Or regional banks, organizing local society to invest in local economic growth. Or getting serious about institutions that provide vocational education.

The energy to create the good society doesn't emanate from Whitehall. It comes when ordinary people are motivated to get together and work together for the common good - in the private and public sector, in business, in community groups as well as the front line of public service.

But our political leaders are from professions that cultivate exactly the opposite mindset. They are policy wonks and PR executives, used to working in a narrow world of total control. If they are going to lead rather than administer, inspire not command, cultivate the democratic forces in society rather than simply try to control, they are going to have to learn to do things differently - and learn fast.

Jon Wilson teaches history at King's College London, is a Labour activist and is involved with the Blue Labour movement.

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide