The New Statesman Essay - We must learn to govern ourselves

Why has new Labour found it so difficult to deliver on so many of its promises? Because it relies on

The British centre-left is about to reach a historic moment: the first time that it has ever achieved a second full term of office. Yet behind Labour's domination of the political landscape lurks a darker truth: that people are disenchanted. Who looks forward to this election as the whole nation seemed to look forward to May 1997? As Professor Anthony King of Essex University has put it: "The overwhelming impression left by [polling] data is one of voter weariness."

This government may have recognised the problems people experience in everyday life but it has not provided the solutions. The fault is not so much apathy as political disengagement. People do not talk less or care less about politics than they did in the past; rather, they have become more detached from the institutions of politics and government.

Despite its dramatic outcome, the 1997 election saw the lowest turnout for decades, and nothing since suggests that the trend has been reversed. An ICM poll in the Guardian in January projected turnout to be the lowest since the Second World War, with perhaps a third of registered voters likely to go AWOL on election day.

Across the industrialised world, electoral turnout has fallen steadily over the last 30 years, by a national average of 10 per cent. The likelihood that people will identify strongly with a political party has fallen even faster, matched by declining confidence in public institutions. Across Europe, less than half of the public report confidence in their political representatives. Scepticism that government will deliver what it promises is not confined to the performance of one administration, nor is it confined to Britain.

Labour has been ambitious in its rhetoric. But the crunching and grinding of government machinery, as it strains to deliver on the promises, has been all too apparent. Tony Blair aims high - an end to child poverty, a "world-class" education system, a public health service as good as you could get in the private sector, a society that presents no obstacles to social mobility and meritocracy - but these ambitions go far beyond what the policy framework can deliver. The voters know that. The problems of disengagement and delivery are thus inextricably linked. The solution, I want to argue, lies not in the traditional dispute over more or less government, but in a decisive shift towards self-government.

Disengagement draws very different responses. One is that politics just has less to do now that the dominant ideological conflict of the 20th century is over. Peace and prosperity have reduced the task of government to one of competent management. John Prescott recently advanced this "culture of contentment" thesis as a pre-emptive explanation of why people may not turn out to vote Labour. This argument is unconvincing, especially when recent polling shows clearly that the most affluent and mobile classes in Britain are leaning even more definitively to the left than in 1997.

Another interpretation is Eric Hobsbawm's, set out in last week's NS essay. According to his view, the encroachments of the global economy on our lives have weakened and invalidated traditional politics. Democracy combines with consumerism to encourage short-term, individualist demands for self-gratification. We need, he thinks, to restore faith in the public experts' ability to find the right collective solutions. But this, too, seems wide of the mark. By and large, the decline in deference, the unwillingness to accept what we are told, the suspicion of pre-packaged solutions are good things. They cannot, in any case, be reversed.

Blair has asked the voters to allow him more time to deliver on previous electoral promises. But more time on its own may not be enough to restore people's faith. The promises that politicians feel compelled to make in order to get elected cannot be kept solely through modernisation and increased efficiency.

The Conservatives are grappling with the same problem, searching for a convincing story about how growing public demand can be met through a vague combination of free markets and more caring. "A good society depends upon the active compassion of free and independent families, neighbours and charities," said William Hague recently. He sounded like a countryside rambler who had misread his map and stumbled upon the Third Way.

In his promises to match Labour's spending plans, Hague merely shows how successfully this government has reshaped the debate on public spending. But cash totals are a distraction from the real issues. What is missing is any serious examination of the role that the state plays in our lives. Throughout the ideological battles of the 1980s and 1990s, the shape and size of the state changed remarkably little. If anything, it became more centralised and uniform in Britain.

Against this background of institutional inertia, people make increasingly complex demands on government and continuous pressure for more public spending comes from various quarters. The modern "active consumer" expects personalised services, and chafes against the inflexibility of schools, GPs and town halls in comparison to the round-the-clock culture of the private sector. Labour, to its credit, has responded. But the result is an uneasy mixture. While trying to offer more diverse public services and to treat citizens more like consumers, the government still uses the machinery of centralised administration, although it adopts language which often sounds like that of a private corporation.

The drive for better government through modernisation reinforces the myth that people's lives can be changed solely through improved services. Better health has become equated with more money for hospitals, safer communities with more police officers.

Yet health and education cannot be improved indefinitely just by increasing public spending and making the state work harder. We need lifestyle changes which encourage people to live healthily and exploit learning opportunities beyond the classroom. Likewise, carbon emissions cannot be reduced without changing the way we use cars. Jobs will not be created without harnessing people's own enterprise and imagination. Public safety does not depend on more electronic surveillance or more police officers on the beat, but on the flow of people through public spaces and the way they treat each other. Race equality can't progress without cultural, rather than legislative, change.

In other words, the government's struggle to deliver will continue unless it can also re-engage people in a way that goes beyond raising voter turnout. Indeed, the emphasis on delivery may actually hold back re-engagement. The conventional centre-left definition of strong public services risks creating new forms of dependence, to the extent that it makes people reliant on professionalised services.

The assumption behind our model of the state, and behind much of Labour's emphasis on hitting targets, is that things will get better if the government delivers on our behalf. But the only way towards real improvement is to return to the ancient democratic ideal of self-government.

To many people, this may sound like a goal more suited to the right than to the left. But self-government is richer and more complex than neoliberalism's negative freedom, because it allows a role for collective aspirations and mutual obligations.

Many of today's big political challenges rely on people's individual efforts being reinforced by the behaviour of others - changing the way we use cars, use energy or throw out our waste, for example. Challenging one's own latent prejudices about race makes little difference unless that is part of a culture which reinforces the social goal of treating people fairly. Accumulating educational qualifications may contribute to the upward mobility of an individual; unless it also strengthens our capacity for collective problem-solving, it does nothing to help society in general.

The challenge is to apply the principle of self-government to societies and institutions which include and serve millions of people, in ways which meet increasingly complex and diverse demands. The Athenian model, in which self-government was the exercise of freedom among equal citizens, benefited from the small scale of the city, and the exclusion of most of its residents from citizenship status. Twenty-first-century societies are governed on a much larger scale. Athens itself is now wrestling with the problem of how to combine the ancient ideal with the modern reality.

The problem of delivery is not confined to government. Many large corporations are struggling to meet increasingly complex, diverse demands from consumers and stakeholders, while containing their costs and retaining an identity. The internet is undermining the centralised control of information, which is deeply embedded in the design of the modern state. People are already helping themselves to a slice of self-government, which helps to explain many new political currents - from the defiance of laws on drug consumption to the countryside marches; from company demands for self-regulation to the anti-globalisation resistance movements.

So what does true self-government mean in practice? The obvious place to start is with democracy itself, and the introduction of compulsory voting. If there were a modest fine for non-participation, and a space on the ballot paper where people could tick "none of the above", we would have a core for 21st-century citizenship and a measure of dissatisfaction with the options on offer. (Sadly, Blair has recently ruled out this idea.)

The central thrust of democratic reform, however, must be towards involving people directly in shaping change, rather than electing representatives to do it for them. New forms of citizens' jury service, an idea first proposed by Demos in 1994 and since developed extensively by the Institute for Public Policy Research, are being applied locally for everything from community drugs strategies to setting resource priorities for health spending. The idea that membership of a civic community involves a regular commitment of time and effort needs to become the norm.

Democracy will not flourish if it amounts merely to endless consultations about your opinions, or places on committees. Self-government must include deeper forms of engagement and deliberation, as well as more frequent ones. Recent experiences in Bristol and Croydon, where referendums on local taxation drew small turnouts and favoured tax cuts over education spending, show the limitations of simply handing decisions over to the public without also deepening engagement.

For example, self-government in schools does not just mean more parent governors. Parents should establish and run their own schools (as they do in Denmark), while receiving state funding to do so. This would give far greater diversity in schooling than central government on its own could ever conceive. Again, existing secondary schools might join in federations to provide more flexible curriculum planning and intensive learning opportunities. Schools would be open 24 hours a day and serve as a community resource rather than restricting themselves to a single age group. The point is to align power with the capacity for active responsibility, but to do so in a way that does not deny the dependence of individual units on a wider whole.

Another example is neighbourhood renewal. It may be that the most legitimate form of local governance is at neighbourhood rather than local authority level. It is to this level that we may need to transfer public assets and mainstream revenue budgets for health, social security and education. It is at this level that we may need to develop measures of accountability to service users, rather than continuing to pass performance statistics back up the chain of command to central government.

Self-government is also important to a new business agenda. If we can define company performance in ways that go beyond profit and shareholder value - if we can develop taxation systems that take account of, say, investment in skills or impact on the environment - there will be no need for detailed government intervention and regulation.

In health policy, the shift would be towards more control among service users over when and where they could be treated, combined with a much stronger emphasis on taking active responsibility for personal health. Different communities could develop strategies to increase access to high-quality food, or high-quality sleep, by addressing the environmental factors that currently get in the way, rather than assuming that health gains will arise from new drugs or treatments.

There is a faint glimmer of such an approach in government policy. The emphasis that Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has placed on ordinary people helping to prevent crime, or Blair's efforts to communicate the idea of self-help in deprived neighbourhoods, show a partial recognition that in many areas government targets will not be met without changing behaviour. The tirades against "yob culture" are a graphic illustration. But these glimmers are overshadowed by a framework and a way of reporting politics that constantly overemphasise institutional performance outside any context which makes it meaningful.

The big problem with self-government - with allowing people to decide for themselves how services should be delivered within their own communities - is that it challenges our notions of fairness, equality and accountability. If we allow people to shape their own diverse solutions, we undermine the principle that everyone has the same basic entitlement to the same basic services.

Yet how often is that principle realised in practice? Our society has enormous variations in services and resources, and with very little real justification - take the "postcode lotteries" in the NHS, for instance. Diversity in standards of provision is a fact of life, not least because society has become more diverse and unequal over the last two decades. The question is whether diversity, combined with greater transparency and more organisational innovation, can generate provision that meets the needs of each more fully, rather than pretending that the state can achieve fairness by providing the same basic service to all.

Moving in this direction means several things: backing the rhetoric about civil society with money and responsibility; reshaping the central state to make it better at learning from ground-level experience and at pushing out resources rather than sucking them in; rebuilding local governance; creating forms of democratic community which cross national boundaries.

In short, it requires power to be distributed with responsibility. Unless politicians release their grip on the institutional levers - which anyway provide less and less purchase on society - a sharper crisis in the legitimacy of the state could surface more quickly than any of us now imagines.

Tom Bentley is the director of Demos.

It's democracy, stupid: an agenda for self-government is available at www.demos.co.uk