Saturday, June 07, 2008

Public discontent

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.

5 comments:

Paulie said...

That's a really good round-up of the arguments there Peter, and you know I agree with you on this.

One thing that I think I've learned lately though: The focus on structures is less important than the need for an understanding of what the public sector is for and what the deal is.

There is an unspoken greivance between people that work in the private sector and the public sector. We (I work in the private sector) think:

- They get job security
- They get good holidays
- They get bosses that are accountable in some way
- They get health and safety officers and equality schemes and equal ops
- They have unions that can sometimes get their way
- They have a career path - a well troden structure
- They moan about their pay, but actually, they often get more than we do
- They fuck off early on a Friday and no-one notices
- They don't give a toss whether they do their job properly or not
- They just blame politicians when one of their schemes go wrong
- They don't work weekends and they only work their paid hours

And so on. I'm exagerating these greivances for illustrative purposes, and I won't bore listing the reciprocal grievances that you lot have about us. But - if you spent a bit of time working for a private equity employer, beleive me, you'd be screaming all of the above at the top of your voice.

But it's largely unspoken, and this needs to change.

Also, the last thirty years have been a massive failed experiment. At the bottom of the whole privatisiation / next-steps / PPP / blablabla experiment has been an assumpton: That the two sectors are porous and that people can switch between one and the other and cross-fertilisation can add value.

This assumption has now been proved to be wrong. People pick one or the other by their mid-20s and stick with it, for the most part. Sometimes, public sector people get private sector employers and work in some half-arsed impersonation of the private sector, getting the worst of both worlds. But broadly, they stay in a 'public sector job' being passed around by NGOs, 'social enterprises' charities, management consultants and their original public sector bosses.

It's time that public sector workers found a voice - a professional voice - that is amicably divorced from their unions. One that is agnostic on pay-and-conditions, but one that promotes an articulation of what working in the public sector is for. How it isn't simply a massive 'producer interest'.

The Unions have been largely silent on managerialism - and only really pipe up when pay is cut or people are laid off. Something else is needed.

Shuggy said...

- They get job security
- They get good holidays
- They get bosses that are accountable in some way
- They get health and safety officers and equality schemes and equal ops
- They have unions that can sometimes get their way
- They have a career path - a well troden structure
- They moan about their pay, but actually, they often get more than we do
- They fuck off early on a Friday and no-one notices
- They don't give a toss whether they do their job properly or not
- They just blame politicians when one of their schemes go wrong
- They don't work weekends and they only work their paid hours


All this is true - apart from the fucking off on Friday. Oh, and the bit about not caring about whether we do our jobs properly. On the other hand, we take care of adolescents that everyone else is scared of - so it all balances out. Btw, you don't capitalise the beginning of a sentence if it follows a colon.

Shuggy said...

They don't work weekends and they only work their paid hours

Oh, and that's a load of shite too. When do you think the marking gets done then?

And will you deal with the whole capital letters following the colon thing? It's been annoying me.

Paulie said...

Shuggy: I didn't say that *I* think those things. My missus is a teacher so I'm not allowed to. I'm saying that the pubic sector and the private sector have a mutual resentment going on that isn't really based on an accurate picture of what their work involves.

It's a bit like that 'Moynihan's Law' thing. People don't moan about private equity bosses because there's no point. But if you work for a private equity employer, there are no words for just how shit it really is.

On the punctuation thing, just think about how many weekend hours could be saved if you were to ignore where commas and colons go.

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