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Empowerment: The new political territory

Gordon Brown talks of placing power in the hands of people themselves, but a splurge of Whitehall in

In the 20th century the key political battleground in British politics was the relationship between the state and the citizen. Labour traditionally favoured the collective, the Conservatives the individual. New Labour realigned those ancient nostrums by becoming as comfortable with the notion of aspiration as redistribution. This change allowed us to claim victory in the battle of ideas over the past decade. The challenges we are now witnessing in the 21st century call for further change. Victory in the battle of ideas over the next decade will go to the party that can facilitate a paradigm shift in the relationship between state and citizen.

Interestingly, all three main political parties are toying with the notion of moving power from one to the other. Nick Clegg wants a "People's NHS" to realign the Liberal Democrats as less big-state and more individual-citizen, but many in his party oppose such talk. David Cameron talks of "shifting power from the state" to charities and communities, but they simply lack the capacity to deal with the modern challenges brought by a globalised economy and a diversified society. And while it is welcome that Gordon Brown embraces "a new politics that places power . . . in the hands of people themselves", a splurge of Whitehall initiatives seems to point in the opposite direction. This half-in, half-out approach won't work. Uncertainty has to make way for clarity.

Some of new Labour's most senior and thoughtful leaders are arguing the case for change and suggesting how it might be done. They are calling for a new marriage between an active state and active citizens, with each empowering the other. There are three principal reasons - at least from the point of view of progressive politics - for leading this change.

The case for change

The first is born of failure: the growing gap between politics and the public. In the UK, membership of political parties has halved in the past 25 years. But our country is far from alone in witnessing record levels of cynicism and disengagement. Average turnout at national elections across the OECD has fallen by 10 per cent in just 20 years. And yet, in many respects, public involvement in civil society is increasing, not diminishing. Half of all Britons volunteer regularly. Over one-third of people who don't vote at general elections do participate in a charity, community group or campaign. Alternative forms of political activity - whether boycotting goods or lobbying MPs - is rising, not falling. And while 61 per cent of people do not believe they can influence decisions about their local area, 63 per cent say they are prepared to do so. My conclusion is that the public is not so much turned off by politics, as by the way politics is done. Or, for that matter, the way public services are run. Public disengagement is a symptom of disempowerment. Too often we shut people out when we should be letting them in.

Our political system was framed in an era of elitism, when rulers ruled and the ruled were grateful

Second, such a change is in keeping with the times. In a world of massive insecurity and constant change, people are looking for greater control in their lives. At the same time, public expectations have rightly moved up a gear. People nowadays are more informed and inquiring. Ordinary consumers are getting a taste for greater power and more say. The problem, a decade after Bill Clinton declared an end to the era of big government, is that while people may have become more empowered as consumers, they do not yet feel empowered as citizens. Ours remains a "them and us" political system. It was framed in an era of elitism. Rulers ruled - and the ruled were grateful. Economic advance and universal education have swept aside both deference and ignorance. Now the internet redistributes knowledge and offers us the chance of being active parti cipants rather than passive bystanders. These changes open up the potential for a more participatory form of democracy.

Third, equity demands that it should be so. Despite rises in living standards and falls in poverty in the past decade, a deep inequality gap still scars our country. We all pay the price: the wasted potential of the alienated young; the taxpayers who pay the price of social failure; and the decent, hard-working families that live in fear of crime. Over many decades social mobility slowed down when it ought to have been speeding up. Action by this government has halted that process. The glass ceiling has been raised, but it has not yet been broken.

I believe it can only be done by shifting the focus beyond the welfare-state solution of retrospectively correcting the symptoms of inequality - such as low wages and family poverty - towards an approach that proactively deals with the roots of disadvantage before they become entrenched. By cutting taxes for the low-paid. By giving more people a real stake in society. By enabling people, regardless of wealth or status, to take greater control over their lives. By recognising that it is power that needs to be more fairly shared in our society. The sense of hopelessness that clouds the poorest communities in our country grows out of disempowerment. Of course beating crime, creating jobs and rebuilding estates can help. But I believe that this cloud of despondency can only be dispelled through a modern, participatory politics that allows both local communities and individual citizens to share more evenly and directly in power.

These fundamental shifts in the structure and culture of 21st-century Britain call for new Labour to resolve its ambivalence about the modern roles of the state and the citizen. From the mid-19th century the state took on more responsibilities. In large part this accretion of power was necessary and it was right. State action was needed to guarantee clean water and safe streets. The expansion of a market economy relied on legal rights and clear rules which, again, only the state could uphold. And in the creation of the welfare state - with its jewel in the crown, the National Health Service - the state offered equity and security as an antidote to the deprivation and injustice of an era of economic upheaval and total war in a way that charitable endeavour and employer philanthropy could never hope to match.

And yet, by the last quarter of the 20th century, it was becoming clear that too much state could be as bad as too little. When Labour got on the wrong side of that argument, we lost. The Berlin Wall was about to tumble and with it the ideological perversity of state communism. In econo mic policy, western governments had demonstrated a poor record of picking winners, but losers had developed a consistent habit of picking governments. State regulation had come to stifle market innovation. So, in the Thatcherite reforms of the 1980s - most notably the privatisation programme - power was moved from the state to the market. And in the new Labour reforms of this century - most notably the creation of institutions such as an independent Bank of England, NHS foundation hospitals, city academies and now trust schools - power has been moved again from the state to new service providers. What neither Thatcherism nor Blair ism has successfully done is moved power from the state to the individual or to the community.

Labour's choice

For the past decade new Labour has been caught between two philosophical traditions: a Fabian social-democratic model, where progress is secured through the state exercising power on behalf of citizens, and a mutual model, where it is secured not through the state controlling, but the state empowering communities and citizens to realise their own advance. Of course these traditions share common ends - the eradication of poverty, for example - but they prioritise different means: the dispensing of state benefits on the one side and the opening up of educational opportunities on the other. The twin changes we are now witnessing - globalised economies and assertive citizens - call for this decades-long divide between statists and mutualists to be resolved decisively in favour of the latter.

Too often, governments - including new Lab our - have fallen for the fallacy that once the commanding heights of the state have been seized through periodic elections, progressive change automatically follows. In truth this works neither for citizens nor for governments. People are left confused and disempowered. Governments end up nationalising responsibility when things go wrong without necessarily having the levers to put them right. Progress in the future depends on sharing responsibility with citizens so that they become insiders, not outsiders.

None of this suggests the state has no role. Quite the reverse. Economic uncertainty and mass migration, global warming and global terror make the case for an active state. People want to know they are not alone. But they also want to control their own destiny. So the modern state has to step forward where citizens individually cannot act - providing collective security and opportunity - but step back where citizens in dividually can - exercising personal choice and responsibility.

Cameron and his Conservative Party have drawn the wrong conclusion from the modern world. It is not an active state or active citizens that are needed to meet the challenges of the modern world. It is both. It is only the state that can equalise opportunities throughout life and empower its citizens. Equally, only citizens can seize those opportunities and realise their own aspirations to progress. The right wrongly rejects the state's role. What is needed is a different sort of state: one that empowers, not controls.

A future agenda

This narrative should run through government policy like through a stick of rock. A new assumption should guide the whole government's policy: power should be located at the lowest possible level consistent with the wider public good. That would involve Whitehall being scaled back. Local police and health services would be made directly accountable to local people through the ballot box. Local councils would be freed from much central government control as their system of financing moved from national taxes to local ones, with local communities having the right through referenda to determine locally decided tax rates. As in the United States, Canada, Australia and many other countries, locally elected bodies would be able to borrow either from the markets or through local bond issues. The aim would be to get local services better attuned to the needs of local communities.

The right wrongly rejects the state’s role. What is needed is a different sort of state: one that empowers, not controls

Where local services are failing, communities would have the legal right to have them replaced. Community courts and restorative justice should spearhead a reinvigorated effort to deter and prevent antisocial behaviour. A new form of public ownership - community-run mutual organi sations - could take over the running of local services such as children's centres, estates and parks. And, as individual citizens, parents would get new powers to choose schools and NHS patients to choose treatments. People in old age, those with a long-term condition, families with disabled children or people in training could choose their own publicly funded budgets instead of conventionally provided services.

Progressive politics cannot stand still. It is the Conservatives' job to conserve. Labour must always be a party of change. Our own recent history tells us this is so. After we lost the 1992 election, many people thought they would never see a Labour government again. What changed was that we did. Building on the efforts of Neil Kinnock and John Smith, Tony Blair's courage in transforming his party was a first step to us winning power. We should never forget that lesson. One of new Labour's key strengths has been its preparedness to face future challenges rather than taking comfort in past achievements. Our willingness to change has forced even our most strident opponents into contemplating changes they once thought abhorrent. Now change beckons once again.

In the past decade we have made good progress as a nation in reducing poverty, improving services and creating jobs. A decade ago, those were the principal challenges we as a country faced. Today there is, of course, more to do on each of those fronts, but in addition there are new challenges to meet. In this new world the old top-down approach to governance will no longer work. It is not just that the public has reached the limits of what it will pay in taxes, although it has. People in low- and middle-income families are under pressure and feeling the pinch, so, inevitably, public spending growth in the period ahead will be lower than in the period just gone. But it is also that, just as the global credit crunch and its consequences have exposed the limits of untrammelled free markets, so the entrenched problems of social exclusion in so many communities and unfulfilled potential among so many of our citizens expose the limits of centralised state action.

What made for progress in the past will not secure progress in the future. What is now needed is an approach in which doing things with people rather than to them becomes the key to unlocking progress, whether that is improving health, fighting crime, regenerating neighbourhoods or protecting the environment.

Just as at other points in our history an old orthodoxy has been swept away by a new one, so I believe this is an idea whose time has come. In 1945, the new idea was for power to be vested in the central state and its policy expression was nationalisation. In 1979, the new idea was for power to be vested in the free market and its policy expression was privatisation. In 1997, the new idea was for power to be vested in reformed institutions and its policy expression was modernisation. Now the new idea is to vest power in the citizen and the community and to make its policy expression empowerment.

This is the new political territory. Neither the right nor the left has yet, in truth, fully come to terms with it. Whoever does so first will, I believe, win both ideologically and electorally. It really is time to make a reality of Nye Bevan's famous dictum that the purpose of getting power is to give it away.

Alan Milburn is MP for Darlington and honorary president of Progress. This is an extract from "Beyond Whitehall: a New Vision for a Progressive State", published on 18 September by Progress. Available free of charge from: http://www.progressonline.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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