Labour is in trouble with public sector workers. What should be one of its power bases is seriously alienated. This was the theme of Nick Cohen’s Observer column last Sunday. Using crime fiction as a device, notably the character of Superintendent Mullett, a bureaucrat and careerist, together with the Bristol University study of public sector altruism, Cohen painted a bleak picture of bureaucratic demands overwhelming staff trying to deliver a service. It is pretty accurate. Yet why should this be so? Cohen writes,
Chris Dillow, author of New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism, describes Brown’s Mullettry as a marriage between Old Labour’s Fabian belief in the centralised state and Thatcherites’ worship of management consultants. Between them, they have spawned a bureaucracy which despises democratic accountability and, worse, does not and cannot work.
There is quite a bit of truth in this and I have never been an opponent of freeing the Labour Party from the dead hands of the Webbs, even if I have more of a problem with their technocratic elitism than with their statism per se. However, I do not think that this is the whole story. As I see it, part of the cause of this alenation is also rooted in the best traditions of Labour, not just its worst.
When Labour came to power there was a clear sense that not only was the public sector under-funded but that it was also failing to deliver to the poor. Who got the worst education, had the poorest health, and was most likely to be a victim of crime? The working class. This is what Labour set out to remedy – and then proceeded to get the way they did it wrong.
Rather than see this as a matter of class inequality, they saw it as a consumer issue. This matched their self-image of New Labour as a citizens’ party, rather than of any single sectional interest, champions of the consumer against the producer. In doing so they embraced a narrative that told of a system with under-performing staff and management that did not care about anything other than self-interest. Inevitably, they became antagonistic to the public sector workers who voted for them in droves and who had also welcomed the new government with a sense of hope. Their stance left idealists, like myself, bewildered.
Instead of building alliances within the public sector by supporting those of us who shared their concerns about social exclusion and inequality, New Labour had their own ideas. Firstly, they embraced the ideology of leadership and thus we saw our managers’ salaries increase – well, if leaders are so vital you need big salaries to attract the 'best' people, don't you. Secondly, those, increasingly remote, managers were given more power against their workforce but were also constrained by having to implement the chosen methods of ‘reform’.
This is where managerialism came into play. Labour felt that an efficiently managed and reformed system could iron out inequities and create their beloved meritocracy. They adopted two main tools, quantitative analysis with performance indicators and targets, and marketisation, complete with private sector involvement. It was a limited form of market competition as they have always seen it in terms of competition between providers rather than provision, which has become increasingly shaped by central funding. For example, in adult education, we have seen funding withdrawn from things people actually want to do and directed into things the government thinks people should do, whilst colleges compete against a range of private training providers who have access to state funding.
I view the idea that consumer choice is the antidote to class inequality as, at best, hopelessly naïve. This is why I am less fulsome about the Blairite Ultras championing of the early liberal opponents of Fabianism. Their critique of state centralism is highly pertinent, but without a commitment to a different model of political economy it too will not address those stubborn issues of class and inequality.
There is another factor in all this - an exaggerated belief in modernity. It was faith in the notion of a new era of scientific understanding that bred a belief in technocracy in the early Twentieth Century. It was this too that led to a flirtation with eugenics. The conventional wisdom of our time, which New Labour bought into heavily, was that the fall of Communism, allied to the forces of new technology, had led us too into a new world. There was a lot of futuristic guff floating around about ‘weightless economies’, ‘portfolio careers’, and ‘the end of history’. The world certainly changed for Eastern Europe, however, apart from international affairs, it was business as usual in the West.
We have not escaped our history and still wrestle with some of the old dilemmas raised by the consequences and contradictions of industrialisation and democracy. Where I fully agree with Nick Cohen is when he writes that there are other Labour traditions to explore. However, there is far more than “the Co-op and guild socialist movements” and “radical liberalism”. There was an extensive individualist and collectivist anti-statist left, there were decentralists and democrats, and a range of critiques of conventional economic theory. They are well worth exploring for their insights and alternatives. The continuities with the past that still haunt us suggest that knowing our history, rather than denigrating it, is a surer way to shape a better future.