Time for a new axis at the centre

Westminster - Anne Perkins

Blairite insiders are talking again about the need for a stronger centre of government. "Anyone who spends any time at No 10 quickly realises that it is a tiny corner of a huge government machine," Philip Gould wrote in the preface to the paperback edition of The Unfinished Revolution, his account of how Labour got to where it is, "staffed with talented people but lacking the resources necessary to be a commanding and dominating nerve centre."

He's not the only one with Tony Blair's ear proselytising for a centre better able to harmonise the efforts of every government department with Downing Street objectives (and then promote them), whatever the cost in renewed accusations of control-freakery. In private conversations, Cabinet Office ministers are fretting at what they see as the imperial style of permanent secretaries and their ministers and their inability to see the big picture. Far from being in control, the people at the centre clearly feel they are at the mercy of departmental colleagues with their own policy objectives.

This should not be dismissed as a case of bruised egos and grumpy gossip from ministers who feel they have been shafted by Downing Street's determination to crawl over every dot and comma of their policy. (John Prescott is not alone in feeling that the rug has been pulled from under him. Other ministers who are seen as less-than-full signatories to the project, such as Margaret Beckett when she was at the Department of Trade and Industry, still smart from brushes with the knuckle-dusters at No 10.) However justified their complaints may be about the death of cabinet government, there's enough evidence about the failure of Whitehall to function coherently to make the lunch-time moaning of politicians at the centre a subject for serious consideration.

They will take much comfort from the Whitehall Project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which has been reviewing the way government works for the past five years and is now on the brink of publishing its findings. Much of the research was done during the Major years. John Major, no one now remembers, was chosen to lead the Tories precisely because he would reverse the years of Thatcher autocracy. It was only after he had done so and restored cabinet government that everyone remembered how awkward it was to have 17 or 18 baronies, each with ambitions to achieve and territory to preserve, entirely oblivious of the knock-on effect on other departments or, more importantly, the government's central objectives. "It often feels like a very hostile world out there," an unnamed ex-prime minister who could only have been John Major is quoted as saying, "and the fact was I could do very little about it."

There was a time when the awkwardness of running cabinet and finding consensus, or at least a majority view, was held up as one of the crowning glories of the British system. But Blair's circle, admirers of the Thatcher style, don't want negotiation and compromise, they want delivery, and delivery on those pledges that are turning that innocent little card every frontbencher had in his pocket in the run-up to the election into something as weighty and foul-smelling as a dead albatross.

Ironically, it was the Thatcher reforms of Whitehall, the introduction of agencies and quasi-markets and greater autonomy, that have made the centre even less able to control delivery than it was before. There may be greater transparency, and public services may be more accountable, but not to the Prime Minister. Professor Rod Rhodes, the Newcastle academic who masterminded the Whitehall programme, argues that government has got harder to steer and the centre is for ever struggling, not, as popular perception would have it, to take control, but simply to avoid being pulled apart by rival departmental warlords. That is the justification for the parallel Whitehall that is quietly sprouting behind the Downing Street walls.

Rhodes is gloomy, though, about the outcome of Labour's attempts to introduce joined-up government from No 10. "[It] runs the ever-present risk of recalcitrance from key actors and a loss of flexibility in dealing with local problems," he remarks. He fingers the Blairite determination to impose objectives from the centre as inevitably producing ever greater demands for central control.

It is the Treasury that emerges as the real force for integration of objectives. "The Treasury has a clear set of views on social policy programmes, which are vigorously pursued. These relate not just to the level of expenditure on social policy but also to their content," concluded the Whitehall programme after research conducted when Kenneth Clarke, not Gordon Brown, was still chancellor.

When, during the Kosovo crisis, the cry went up of: "Where's Gordon?", the reply should have been: "Running the country." If the power to sign the cheques makes it inherently the strongest of controlling forces, Brown brings to the Treasury a new focus on policy objectives across Whitehall.

However earnestly the neighbours at No 10 pick over detail, it is he who, freed by his own reforms to the Bank of England and with spending totals now fixed, has both the detailed, day-to-day grasp of policy development and the time, energy and determination to use it. In the Cabinet Office, with its mission to co-ordinate a developing role in cross-departmental policy-making, he has a willing partner. Whitehall has always been good at improvising solutions. An informal Treasury/ Cabinet Office axis may be the answer to the mounting concerns at the very top about delivery. Like all solutions to problems, it may contain problems of its own. But let's win the election first.

Steve Richards is on holiday

This article first appeared in the 23 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, No Jews on their golf courses

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times