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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The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.