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.