Labour would reform the state, not just rebuild it

Tight budgets will demand imagination and innovation in the way public services are run.

Against a background of austerity and pessimism, it is Labour’s duty to set out a vision for Britain’s future which is both optimistic and hard headed. As Ed Miliband has said it is our One Nation mission is to tilt the balance from despair to hope.

Optimism is needed to counter the Tories’ divided, inward-looking version of Britain. But Labour must also be hard headed because the country will take time to change. Tight financial constraints will require tough choices. As some budgets are increased to reflect our priorities others will have to be scaled back. These “switch spends” will not be an option but a necessity.

The road will not be easy. One Nation Labour is a decade’s commitment to national renewal. It offers a new contract for Britain’s future, committing a Labour Government to support ambition, fairness and strong communities. We are under no illusion that to win two successive elections we will have to demonstrate our progressive passion can deliver real change for families in an era where there is less money around. 

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Ed Miliband has led the debate on the need for big changes to the economy. He and the shadow cabinet also know that One Nation Britain will require big changes to the state, which, by 2015, will have been battered by cuts and subjected to an ideological onslaught on its value and integrity. Our vision for a new state is not about simply repairing the damage, recreating the post war state or replicating the state we built between 1997 and 2010. It will reflect both financial limits and the challenges of a changing world. Labour knows both that an active, effective state is an essential force for good   but that it should never be suffocating, overcentralised, undermine autonomy or diminish the importance of non-state factors in building the good society. That is why we will reduce the role of the state where appropriate and strengthen it where necessary.

This article is primarily about the states place in our one nation story about national renewal, a new social contract, public service improvement and a new democratic engagement between Government and citizen. I recognise a major priority for the state is always to protect the security of its citizens. I have no doubt this will rightly be the focus of other peoples contributions to the debate about a new state.

A One Nation approach recognises that both unconstrained markets and an over-bureaucratic state can frustrate people, holding them back from the lives they want to lead. All MPs surgeries include often vulnerable individuals who receive poor treatment at the hands of one public institution or another. So tackling inequality is about improving life chances and living standards but also requires us also to ensure people irrespective of status are treated with respect in their interactions with the state.

Labour’s vision of a new state must signal our commitment to a new engagement between government and citizen. The story we tell about the One Nation Britain we want to nurture recognises both the virtues and the limits of the state. As Jon Cruddas has said, people’s lives are shaped by relationships with family, colleagues, friends and community networks focused around leisure pursuits, the voluntary sector, faith and community identity.

The NHS, schools, policing, council services will always be vital, but our quality of life is heavily dependent on these non-state relationships. So the state needs to achieve the right balance between supporting these positive relationships and networks without seeking to replace or undermine them. Cameron’s Big Society did not fail because the public didn’t want a greater voice in shaping their own neighbourhoods and services. It failed because of deep rooted cynicism about Tories who claimed to champion active communities while cutting the voluntary sector, failed to appreciate the enabling role the state can play and were enacting policies that corrode the foundations of strong communities.

By the end of our period in government, Labour’s failure to talk about family and community left the impression that we saw Britain’s future only through the prism of state and market. One Nation Labour believes our future success depends on our capacity to harness the best of an active state, aspirational individuals, strong families and community networks supported by a vibrant private sector. A healthy life usually achieves the right balance between independence and interdependence.

A new "Rights and Duties" social contract will define the relationship between state and citizen. Rules and expectations that are explicit about both government’s responsibilities and the duty of citizens to make a positive contribution related to their ability and means. What does that mean? A tough and fair welfare system with a greater correlation between what people contribute and what they should expect in return while recognising that vulnerable people must always be treated with dignity and compassion. This includes a compulsory jobs guarantee for the long term and young unemployed and a clear requirement to take work except in cases of sickness or serious disability; rewards and incentives for wealth creators who innovate and invest for the long term with a clear expectation that businesses will contribute their fair share in taxes and decent pay; a living wage that will reduce the numbers dependent on the state for their income; a cap on non-EU immigration with immigrants supported to integrate, including a requirement to learn English; neighbourhood policing with the powers to enforce a zero tolerance approach to anti-social behaviour. The vast majority of British people are fair-minded, tolerant and generous but they want to be sure their government  will be tough in ensuring that the system is fair and not abused by their fellow citizens.  

Labour will need to undo the damage this government is doing to public services but we will also set out our own radical programme for change. When we left office, NHS waiting times and crime were at record low levels. Schools were improving with disproportionate progress being made in deprived communities. This didn’t happen by chance but through a combination of investment and reform. Many of the reforms were necessary and effective but it is also important to acknowledge that some top-down targets led to unintended consequences and sapped the morale of staff, crowding out innovation and creativity.

One Nation public services means a commitment to minimising the post code lottery with core entitlements and standards. It means striving to bring up the levels of the worse to those of the best in every community. Service improvement is essential to meet public expectations, reduce inequality, enable us to do more with less and cope with the demographic challenge of an ageing society.

This should not be about perpetual organisational upheaval but improving the quality and efficiency of the frontline. National standards, expressed in terms of entitlements, would be coupled with support for local delivery and innovation, transparent measures of performance, tough new value-for-money duties and audits, more empowered and more accountable staff at all levels, and a relentless focus on world class leadership. The remuneration of public service managers and executives should be subject to much greater transparency and scrutiny. Public service changes should not be imposed top down but co-designed with staff and citizens.

New private sector provision would be supported where state provision has repeatedly failed or is unable to meet needs and where partnerships between public and private can improve outcomes. But this has to be within a framework of public accountability and high ethical standards. It is one tool in the locker, not the answer in all times and places.

In the NHS and education, the Tories have focused on giving power to the providers of services. One Nation Labour will give more influence and control to patients and parents. In my view choice is neither a panacea nor a realistic option in many circumstances. But it is crucial to give people a personalised - not a “conveyor belt” - service, with greater control for individuals and families over decisions about their lives together with a greater stake in collective community provision.

It was a Labour Government that promoted personal care budgets, neighbourhood based budgets and a membership model for NHS foundation trusts. An increasing number of Labour councils are introducing new cooperative models of public service organisation. We will continue to be the public service pioneers and innovators. Whitehall must be reformed to remove the policy and financial silos which lead to poor procurement and undermine integrated frontline service delivery and place-based budgeting. More power and resources should be devolved to local councils and city regions in return for greater voluntary sector, community and business participation.

If we are to make inroads with those families who continue to present the most challenges to their communities we must change an approach which involves numerous agencies that fail collectively to achieve any real change. Instead, each family  should have one named lead professional who has control of a pooled budget and an agreed contract focused on opportunities and responsibilities. This would be both more efficient and more likely to reduce social exclusion on a long term basis.

Within a framework of clear national standards, our approach to service delivery will be to redistribute power from Westminster and Whitehall to local statutory and voluntary organisation, communities and citizens. Our aim must be to ensure that the vast majority who rely on the state for education, health and social care have access to the same quality and also the same level of control   as those who can afford to buy the best private provision.

As the failure of the coalition’s economic policies has demonstrated there will be no prospect of a fairer, more united country without dynamic businesses generating jobs and growth. That is why Chuka Umunna is working with business to identify how the state can develop an active industrial strategy, supporting UK plc to compete in the global market. This is something we came late to in government. It should have been an integral part of our policy from the beginning. Government must play a leading role in supporting viable businesses of all sizes to start, grow and scale up by ensuring Britain has the infrastructure, skills and capacity to innovate. We should not apologise for providing targeted support to sectors which give UK plc competitive advantage – new manufacturing and the green economy, for example. Nor should we be timid about the radical changes in skillset and mindset which will be required to create a new entrepeneurial Whitehall with the capacity to drive an active industrial strategy in partnership with business.

Most of all, as Ed Miliband has said, the economic model which is predicated on wealth and opportunity trickling down from a few at the top has been discredited. An active industrial strategy must ensure the economy delivers for the working people who help to create the wealth. Britain’s recovery will be built by the many not by relying on a few at the top.

A new state must also adopt a radically different way of interacting with citizens. “Real Time Democracy” requires new kinds of engagement, accountability and participation. The same level of effort made by parties to connect with the electorate during election campaigns should be devoted to engaging with citizens by a government throughout its term in office. Labour wants to consider a number of new ways of making this happen, harnessing the power of social media. In opposition, Labour’s Peoples’ Policy Forum and Your Britain website have already gone a long way in opening up the party’s policymaking process. Some potential ideas for an incoming Labour Government could include: opening up decision-making in a way that does not simply share the outcome with the electorate but includes the range of options under consideration; senior officials being expected to create advisory boards of frontline experts, including service providers and users; fewer Whitehall “consultations” and more citizen juries; public services having a duty to publish accounts and create systems of external scrutiny. The new state must have the explicit goal of improving public confidence and trust in the political process.

If we are to build an ambitious, fair and proud Britain we must reject those who want to pose a bogus choice between big and small state. The Tories are hell bent on undermining public confidence in the capability of government. By the time we left office it sometimes appeared that we believed the state alone could resolve our economic and social challenges. The truth is that building One Nation in the context of a shrinking interdependent world and where we are truly all in it together will require the best of an active state, strong families, ambitious individuals, dynamic wealth creators, a vibrant civil society and empowered communities. It is getting the support and incentives right to give people a real stake in our national renewal which will determine our nation’s future destiny. That is how Labour will rebuild Britain.

Ivan Lewis is the MP for Bury South

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Excitement, hatred and belonging: why terrorists do it

A new book by Richard English suggests that killing can bring its own rewards.

Like most questions about terrorism, why large numbers of people join terrorist organisations can only be answered in political terms. However terrorism may be defined – and disputes about what counts as terrorism are largely political in their own right – we will be ­unable to understand how terrorist groups ­attract members if we don’t consider the politics of the societies in which the groups are active. But terrorism’s appeal is not ­always political for everyone involved in it. Richard English, in his wide-ranging new book, highlights some of what he calls the “inherent rewards” of terrorism gained by members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). According to some former members, involvement in PIRA operations brought adventure, excitement, celebrity in local communities and sometimes sexual opportunities.

Terrorist activity also brought other intrinsic benefits. As one Belfast ex-PIRA man put it, “You just felt deep comradeship.” Or as another said, regarding involvement in the Provos: “Now I felt I was one of the boys.” Yet another reflected tellingly: “Although I was ideologically committed to the cause, for me, in many ways, being in the IRA was almost the objective rather than the means”; conspiratorial “belonging” and “comradeship” were, in themselves, rich rewards. Friendship, belief, belonging, purpose, community and meaning. One ex-Provo described his PIRA years as “days of certainty, comradeship and absolute commitment”. A bonus was that PIRA members’ actions could gain them influence and standing in their own communities; one ex-PIRA man reflected on how he saw himself after having joined the PIRA, in the simple words: “I felt important.”

English is a professor of politics and director of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews. He has studied political violence in Northern Ireland for many years and, for him, these inherent benefits are one of four ways in which terrorism can “work”. The other three comprise strategic victory in the achievement of a central or primary goal or goals; partial strategic victory, which includes determining the agenda of conflict; and tactical success, which may lead to strengthening the organisation and gaining or maintaining control over a population.

Understanding terrorism, English writes, requires taking it seriously: “treating it as the product of motivations and arguments which deserve serious, respectful engagement; and also assessing it as something worthy of honest, Popperian interrogation”. He is sanguine – surprisingly so, given the conflicts with which he is concerned – regarding the practical results such an inquiry might bring. Finding out how far and in what ways terrorism works has “practical significance” – indeed, its importance may be “huge”. As English makes clear, he “is not arguing that if we understood more fully the extent to which terrorism worked, then everything would have been fine in the post-9/11 effort to reduce terrorist violence”. He is convinced, however, that understanding how far terrorism works can greatly improve the struggle against it. “It does seem to me strongly possible that if states more fully knew how far and in what ways terrorism worked (and does not work, and why), then they would be able to respond much more effectively to it in practice.”

With all its caveats, this is a strikingly bold claim. It assumes that the failures of the post-9/11 “war on terror”, which no one can reasonably deny, were largely due to intellectual errors. But was it a lack of understanding that rendered these programmes ineffectual or counterproductive? Or was it that some of the West’s allies – Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and, more recently, Turkey – have been less than unequivocal in taking a stand against terrorism or may even have had some complicity with it? If so, it was the geopolitical commitments of Western governments that prevented them from taking effective action. Again, much of the current wave of terrorism can be traced back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Voicing a long-familiar consensual view, English criticises the US-led occupation for being “ill-planned”, leading to the destabilisation of the Iraqi security situation. But it is not clear that more forethought could have prevented this result.

If Western leaders had thought more carefully about the likely consequences of the invasion, it would probably not have been launched. With the regime and the state so closely intertwined, topping Saddam Hussein always risked creating a power vacuum. It was this that enabled al-Qaeda and then Isis and its affiliates to emerge, gain control in parts of the country and then project their operations into Europe.

Errors of analysis may have played a contributory role in this grisly fiasco. When British forces were despatched to Basra, it may have been assumed that they could implement something like the pacification that was eventually achieved in Northern Ireland. But the kinds of allies that Britain made in Belfast – and before that in the successful counterterrorist campaign in Malaya in the 1950s – did not exist in that part of Iraq. Like the overall programme of pacifying a country whose governing institutions had been dismantled abruptly, the mission was essentially unachievable. But this was not accepted by either the US administration or the British government. The invasion was based in ideological conviction rather than an empirical assessment of risks and consequences. In this case, too, high-level political decisions were far more important in unleashing terrorism than any failures in understanding it.

As has become the usual way in books on terrorism, English begins with his own definition of the phenomenon:

Terrorism involves heterogeneous violence used and threatened with a political aim; it can involve a variety of acts, of targets and actors; it possesses an important psychological dimension, producing terror or fear among a directly threatened group and also a wider implied audience in the hope of maximising political communication and achievement; it embodies the exerting and implementing of power, and the attempted redressing of power relations; it represents a subspecies of warfare, and as such can form part of a wider campaign of violent and non-violent attempts at political leverage.

This is a torturous formulation, not untypical of the academic literature on the subject. English tells us that his book is intended for readers in “all walks of life”. But the style throughout is that of a prototypical academic text, densely fortified with references to “majority scholarly opinion” and buttressed with over 50 pages of footnotes fending off critics. As a storehouse of facts and sources, the book will be a valuable resource for scholars, but its usefulness to the general reader is more doubtful.

The most interesting and informative of the book’s four main sections – on jihadism and al-Qaeda; Ireland and the IRA; Hamas and Palestinian terrorism; and Basque terrorism – is the one on Ireland, where English’s knowledge is deepest. Extensive interviews with people who had been involved in terrorist campaigns in the province led him to what is perhaps his most instructive generalisation: those who engage in and support terrorism “tend to display the same levels of rationality as do other people . . . they tend to be psychologically normal rather than abnormal . . . they are not generally characterised by mental illness or psychopathology . . . the emergence and sustenance of terrorism centrally rely on the fact that perfectly normal people at certain times consider it to be the most effective way of achieving necessary goals”. Terrorists are no more irrational than the rest of us, and there is no such thing as “the terrorist mind”. In many contexts, terrorism has functioned principally as an effective way of waging war.

As English notes, there is nothing new in the claim that terrorism is a variety of asymmetric warfare. The practice of suicide bombing has very often been analysed in cost-benefit terms and found to be highly efficient. The expenditure of resources involved is modest and the supply of bombers large; if the mission is successful the operative cannot be interrogated. The bombers gain status; their families may receive financial reward. (Religious beliefs about an afterlife are not a necessary part of suicide bombing, which has been practised by Marxist-Leninists of the Tamil Tiger movement and in Lebanon.) An enormous literature exists in which asymmetric warfare has been interpreted as demonstrating “the power of the weak”: the capacity of militarily inferior groups using unconventional methods to prevail against states with much greater firepower at their disposal. Understood in these terms, there can be no doubt that terrorism can be a rational strategy.

Yet there is a problem with understanding terrorism on this basis, and it lies in the slippery word “rational”, with which English juggles throughout the book. Terrorists are not always rational, he says; they are prone to overestimate the impact of their activities, and they make mistakes. Even so, what they do can be understood as rational strategies, and in these terms terrorism often works, if only partly. Here, English is invoking a straightforwardly instrumental view of reason. What terrorists do is rational, in this sense, if there is an intelligible connection between the ends they aim to achieve and the means they adopt to achieve them.

This means/end type of rationality typifies much terrorist activity, English maintains. But some of the ends achieved by terrorism are internal to the actual practice. “Inherent rewards from al-Qaeda terrorism might potentially include aspects of religious piety; the catharsis produced by revenge and the expression of complicatedly generated rage; and the remedying of shame and humiliation.” In this case, “hitting back  violently and punishingly at them [the US and its military allies] has offered significant rewards in terms not merely of political instrumentalism but also of valuable retaliation in itself”.

The inherent rewards of terrorism also include the expression of hatred. “The vengeful, terrorising punishment of people whom one hates, or with whom one exists in a state of deep enmity,” English writes, “might be one of the less attractive aspects of terrorist ambition. But it might also (perhaps) be one in which we find terrorists repeatedly succeeding fairly well . . .” Here, he may have understated his case. Killing cartoonists, customers queuing at a Jewish bakery in Paris and families celebrating Bastille Day in Nice will be a rational act as long as it succeeds in venting the terrorists’ hatred. Even if the operation is somehow aborted, the attempt to inflict mass death and injury may still serve as a type of therapy for those who make the attempt. If “hitting back at people whom one holds to be (literally or representatively) responsible for prior wrongs” can be rational on account of the emotional satisfaction it brings the terrorist, how can terrorism fail to work?

Clearly something has gone badly wrong here. Without mentioning the fact, or perhaps without noticing it, English has switched from one conception of rationality to another. Much of what human beings do isn’t the result of a calculation of con­sequences, but more an expression of their sense of identity. Philosophers describe this as expressive rationality, an idea they use to explain why voting in circumstances where you know your vote can make no practical difference can still be in accordance with reason. But is expressive rationality beyond rational criticism? In order to understand terrorism in Israel-Palestine, Ireland and Spain, English tells us, we need to understand the national context in which the terrorists act. This doesn’t imply “a comfortable acceptance of any single national narrative”, given that various terrorist groups “have done much to open such narratives to a very brutal interrogation”.

But is the terrorist narrative exempt from questioning? The reader might think so, as there is nothing in English’s account that fundamentally challenges the narrative of Hamas, for example. There is no discussion of the endorsement in the Hamas Charter of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and no examination of the influence on Hamas’s policies of the delusional world-view that this infamous anti-Semitic forgery articulates. If this is a Popperian interrogation of terrorism, it falls short of the impartial critical rationalism that Karl Popper recommended.

An analysis of the intrinsic rewards of terrorism may be useful in considering the outbreak of Isis-affiliated ­terrorism in Europe. In contrast to that of the IRA, including its ultra-violent Provisional wing, this cannot easily be understood in terms of instrumental rationality. Even when compared with its predecessor al-Qaeda, Isis has been notable for making very few concrete demands. No doubt the present outbreak is partly a reaction to the jihadist group losing ground in Iraq and Syria. But as English suggests, we need to ask for whom terrorism works, and why. When we do this in relation to Isis, the answers we receive are not reassuring.

Nothing in human conflict is entirely new. There are some clear affinities between anarchist terrorist attacks around the end of the 19th century and jihadist “spectaculars” at the start of the 20th. However, there are also certain discomforting differences. Anarchists at that time made public officials, not ordinary civilians, their primary targets; they attacked state power rather than an entire society; and they never acquired a mass base of supporters and sympathisers. Bestowing identity and significance on dislocated individuals and enabling them to discharge their resentment against a hated way of life, terrorism by Isis is of another kind. Against the background of deep divisions in European societies, these rewards could become an increasingly powerful source of the group’s appeal.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom” (Allen Lane)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue