Labour's next big idea: the "relational state"

Recognising the importance of human relationships could revolutionise public services.

Sparked by the financial crisis and subsequent recession, the Labour Party has been engaged in a serious debate about the core tenets of its economic policy. And there is little doubt that Ed Miliband has started to carve out a distinctive position on "responsible capitalism". However, there has so far been much less discussion about Labour’s approach to public services. If the party wins the next general election it will assume responsibility for a state both substantially reformed from the one it left in 2010 and under unprecedented financial pressure.

There is much of which Labour can be proud from its recent period in office: NHS waiting times, crime rates and school failure all tumbled. However, there was collateral damage from achieving these results, requiring a re-assessment of the party's dominant approach to running the state. The desire to demonstrate "delivery" led to a vast increase in command and control management techniques, which, while sometimes necessary to deal with appalling performance, tend to alienate the workforce and crowd out space for responsiveness and experimentation.

The correct instinct to give citizens power over public services narrowed to a choice between providers, neglecting the many ways in which people might shape the services they use. And the case for institutional pluralism and diversity beyond the public sector was often reduced to a fight about competition. Elsewhere, the drive for high standards of "customer service" was inattentive to the role of public services in enabling people to forge relationships with each other and a sense of common life. And finally, the fear that any variation or contingency in service provision would produce unacceptable inequalities drove a bias towards centralisation and standardisation that sapped professional creativity and local mobilisation.

These lessons don’t mean abandoning everything Labour did in government, less still failing to defend the real strengths of its record. But they should prompt hard thinking about how Labour would govern in the future, not least because major challenges – from chronic health conditions, to anti-social behaviour and educational excellence – cannot be addressed by the state delivering solutions onto an unsuspecting public.

In an IPPR publication out today, we argue that combining the best instincts of "New Labour" and "Blue Labour" offers the outlines of a fresh approach to improving public services and governing the state. Like New Labour this should be firmly anchored on the side of the citizen, in favour of non-state provision where appropriate, and intolerant of poor standards. And like Blue Labour it should care about institution building, guard against bureaucracy, and focus on how services are run, not just what they achieve.

So what might that mean in practice?

Given the major fiscal pressures it would face, the first task for an incoming Labour government would be to set strategic priorities. We would put childcare and social care high on that list, but the party should find ways to involve the public honestly and directly in the trade-offs and choices facing the country. It might convene a delib­erative citizen’s convention to provide advice and input to politicians ahead of the next Spending Review.

Beyond this, Labour should set a small number of core goals and citizen entitlements in the main public services, leaving more space to innovate. In education, for example, the focus could be on a national attainment "floor target" for schools and an entitlement to catch-up support for pupils at risk of falling behind. In health, it could be waiting times and a right to GP access. But there can’t be a hundred "priorities".

In the end, public services are only as good as the people working in them. In the past, Labour used extra spending to oil the wheels of reform. With less cash around, a grand bargain is needed that frees professionals from a excessive compliance culture, draws them into shaping and governing services and challenges them to stand up to bad practice.

Rather than a tired debate of public versus private, the focus should be on a supply-side revolution led by a new wave of autonomous providers. Self-governing institutions, bounded from the over-reach of both bureaucracy and profit, are most likely to foster strong relationships and service innovation. For instance, while the focus is on the funding challenge, social care services are crying out for greater humanity and innovation, with new forms of mutual and cooperative provision in the lead.

A more relational state also requires the mobilisation of local leadership and initiative. So Labour should decide on those things which must be done nationally and decentralise power elsewhere – starting with our major cities. They could be put in charge of Housing Benefit and housing capital expenditure, with a remit to use those resources to make housing more affordable in their area.

Decentralisation needn’t stop at the town hall though. Citizens should be given meaningful power over services. This can be focused on both individuals (such as those with long term health conditions managing budgets and care planning) and groups (such as parents associations having a say on the governance and priorities of children’s centres).

Finally, the drive for strategic priorities, institutional independence, professional autonomy and local control must be matched by strong forms of accountability, which extend beyond just targets and markets. In education, this could mean all schools having academy-style freedoms to innovate, balanced by democratically accountable local school commissioners. Similarly, it could mean reducing the amount of statutory guidance for teachers, matched by longer and tougher probation periods so that poor performers are removed.

The political viability of pivoting towards a more relational state rests on the basic question of whether voters want a government that tries to solve their problems for them, or one which gives them power over their lives. Does the public want outcomes delivered for them or space to foster the relationships that matter?

In the past, politicians have tended to go into election campaigns promising better schools or more nurses. That might not work anymore, especially when the money to pay for such promises has dried up. But if such pledges are abandoned, what comes in their place?

These electoral dilemmas are not the place to start thinking about how the next Labour government might run the state, but they are among the places where this debate will have to end up.

Graeme Cooke and Rick Muir work for the IPPR but write here in a personal capacity.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband addresses workers at Islington Town Hall on 5 November in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Graeme Cooke is research director at IPPR

Rick Muir is associate director at IPPR

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.