Labour needs to challenge the British tradition of government

A reforming, centre-left government must fashion a credible and robust statecraft, revitalising the civil service for the challenges of the contemporary age.

Civil service reform and the machinery of government may not be as immediately enticing as the progressive challenge of transforming Britain’s broken political economy, or revitalising the post-war welfare state. But the question of how to use governmental power effectively will be a vital issue for the next Labour government. Competent statecraft is about the capacity to generate sound policy and crucially, to implement and execute reforms in an ever more diverse and complex society. In his seminal treatise, The Prince, Machiavelli famously argued that well governed states, "are full of good institutions…conducive to the security of kind and the realm".

Good statecraft entails constructive relations between civil servants and politicians in which decisions are, wherever possible, informed by knowledge and evidence; it requires a modern notion of accountability where officials take operational responsibility where appropriate, but also contribute to greater openness in the policy-making process; efficiency and value for money are achieved through effective implementation based on decentralisation and an understanding that those who implement policy should have a voice in its formulation; and there is proper democratic oversight of government and policy-making, principally through the scrutiny function of parliament.  

More than ever, solving the major strategic challenges confronting the UK requires effective governance. Policy is increasingly about resolving trade-offs accentuated by financial constraints and fiscal austerity. These are likely to grow in future years given demographic pressures, new demands on state-funded services, and rising public expectations. What, for example, is the right balance between direct income redistribution and investment in early year’s provision to tackle child poverty? How should the state encourage employers to contribute more towards the costs of retraining and lifelong education? How should the National Health Service become more preventative and user-focused? These are all questions about the appropriate distribution and targeting of resources: how to harness all of the policy levers available to achieve strong outcomes strengthening economic efficiency and social justice.   

Throughout history, reform of the state has legitimately been a priority for progressives in British politics. Towards the end of the First World War, a coalition of liberals and Fabians established the Haldane Committee which developed the modern departmental system of government that still predominates today, driving the major social reform achievements of the inter-war years. After 1940, Labour’s contribution to the war effort was in part to open up Whitehall, bringing a legion of experts into the civil service to improve economic policy and industrial planning. This was the seed-bed for the 1942 Beveridge report which established a comprehensive welfare state and NHS. 

Post-1945, the Attlee administration sought to further update and modernise the central civil service. By the 1960s, in the face of relative economic decline and industrial stagnation, it was clear that the system of government needed further reform, a challenge seized by the Wilson government which established the Fulton Committee in 1968. Fulton’s proposed reforms sought to improve civil service training and capacity, strengthening departmental co-ordination and sharpening policy-making expertise. And after Tony Blair’s 1997 victory, Labour set about improving the capacity of Whitehall to carry out a new generation of social reforms – from the New Deal and Academy schools to Sure Start and a plethora of early years’ interventions to equalise life-chances.   

Despite these successes, however, there are practical lessons from the post-1997 governments which ought to be heeded. This is precisely what my new book on Governing Britain (IB Tauris, 2014) seeks to do. I argue that there are five key, stand-out governance reform messages that should be understood.

The first is that successful policies more often build on, but also adapt, what went before: don't rip up policies or institutions for the sake of it. Incremental reforms are often those most likely to succeed in the long-term. Labour chose to scrap Grant Maintained Schools after 1997, insisting they were divisive in promoting a two-tier education system. However, by the early 2000s, the government was developing its own model of "independent state schools". It would have been better from day one to place GM schools within a new framework of public accountability, local democratic oversight, and equity guarantees.    

A further lesson of the New Labour years is that Number Ten cannot circumvent departments and "front-line" public agencies. At times, the centre sought to directly control the levers of implementation, bypassing Whitehall departments altogether. Invariably, this led to less effective policy-making and execution. It is in departments where expertise, knowledge, policy memory, resources, and experience of front-line implementation are often greatest. Central government needs to work with agencies and people throughout the policy chain if it wants sustainable, long-term improvements in performance. Labour’s experience demonstrates that a "top-down" delivery regime will help to shift a public service from "incompetent" to "acceptable", but rarely "from good to great". 

The third lesson of the post-1997 period is that governments need to boost their strategy and delivery capacity. Governments should have the ability to foresee problems and understand policy challenges more forensically than is the case at present. They should learn from policy experiments tried and tested elsewhere, being open to ideas from around the world. There is no harm is absorbing lessons gleaned from other sectors in understanding how to address modern delivery challenges. The Internet is transforming the manner in which the retail sector operates in the UK, alongside customer experience: public services cannot be immune from such trends, even if they are also concerned with equity and accountability.

At the same time, the civil service badly needs more people and capabilities. Alistair Darling has referred in his memoir Beyond the Brink to how few officials there were in the Treasury after 2008 that had experience either of financial services or handling major economic crises. The slimming-down and "hollowing-out" of the British state to cut costs and promote efficiency may result in worse outcomes over time.

Fourthly, the New Labour years demonstrate conclusively that "joined-up government" is still a long way from reality in the British machinery of governance. Departments and agencies are still too inclined to engage in turf wars, passing the buck of resolving "wicked" policy problems onto one another. Much greater emphasis on genuine departmental co-ordination and inter-agency collaboration will be required.

The final lesson of the post-1997 era is that governance reforms are harder as the UK has remained a highly centralised state with few checks and balances on central executive power, stemming from the nature of the British political tradition. Devolution has redistributed some power from central government, but Whitehall remains firmly in control. The default governing code is one of hierarchy, centralisation, command and control – an ethos of "central government knows best". This too needs to be urgently reformed – part of a long-term process of political decentralisation. 

Britain has to learn from the experience of other countries in reforming its governance arrangements, as well as reflecting on previous historical experience. "Power is harder to use and easier to lose," argues the political scientist Moses Naim, as every government is discovering across the developed world. A reforming, centre-left government must fashion a credible and robust statecraft, revitalising the civil service and our machinery of government for the challenges of the contemporary age. 

Patrick Diamond is vice-chair of Policy Network and lecturer in Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of Governing Britain: Power, Politics and the Prime Minister, published today by IB. Tauris  

Ed Miliband speaks to an audience on the living standards crisis at Battersea Power station on November 5, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.