Friday, January 07, 2011

Civil Society and the Big State

Maurice Glasman is one of Labour's rising stars. A founder of London Citizens, he was recently made a Lord and is one of Ed Miliband's closest advisers.

Writing in the Fabian Review, Glasman sets out a critique of how Labour lost its identity, and what needs to be done to reconnect with its core purpose.

For Glasman, the rot started in 1945, as "the triumph of Labour in 1945 was based upon the defeat of the Labour movement. It placed all hope in its continuing control of the state and moved from organisation to mobilisation at elections, from the good to the right, from democracy to justice, from reciprocity to fairness." This led in turn through Crosland to New Labour and a focus on managerialism as a means to achieve equality. Labour needs to learn James Purnell's "crucial insight" that it was "too hands on with the state, and too hands off with the market".

Instead, Glasman argues, Labour "needs to rediscover and then embrace the meaning of the Labour movement as the democratic resistance of organised working people to the commodification of their lives and environment. And it must do so without resorting to the state as the exclusive instrument of regulation but also turn towards a balance of power in corporate governance through the democratic representation of the workforce."


I think this analysis, while interesting, is deeply flawed. It simply isn't the case that the "ultimate end" of the Labour government of 1997-2010 was equality, nor that there was the level of continuity between the Attlee, Wilson and Blair governments which Glasman's case would suggest. If James Purnell really believed that Labour was being "too hands on with the state", he had a pretty funny way of showing it as a minister. And so on.

But for the key weakness in this argument, let's return to 1945. Why did Attlee and his government choose to nationalise the coal mines and create the National Health Service, and was this really, as Glasman argues "a defeat of the Labour movement"?

In fact, the reforms of the Attlee government were shaped by the experiences of the Labour movement and organised working people. Civil society demanded the nationalisation of the coal mines. And the poor experience of being treated by a range of different charitable health providers in the 1930s and before was precisely the reason why the creation of the NHS was - and remains to this day - so popular.

The Big State, in other words, was created by and in response to the demands of organised working people. And the approach which Glasman calls for, of a strong civil society built on relationships of organised people where equality is an active practice, will lead to calls for more action by the state, not fewer.

Consider the causes which London Citizens has adopted in recent years. They range from requiring councils and businesses to pay a "Living Wage" to an earned amnesty for illegal immigrants, a cap on interest rates to a statutory charter on responsible lending, getting local councils to provide wheelie bins rather than plastic refuse bags to closing down betting shops to improving road safety with a new traffic crossing.

These are all excellent causes, but it is hard to see how responding to the economic crisis by capping interest rates, for example, is an example of being "less hands on with the state".

On the same day that I read Glasman's piece, I also saw some excellent research by Community Links, an anti-poverty charity in East London. Like Glasman, Community Links noted the importance of good relationships between professionals and clients in areas such as helping people find work, do well at school, live healthily and get advice to sort out problems.

They have found that public service professionals (whether they work in the public, voluntary or private sector) need autonomy, time to build relationships with clients, access to training and skills development, and positive attitudes towards clients.

This strikes me as a very serious challenge to New Labour's (and the current government's) approach to public services, and offers a very helpful way to think about how to redesign public services for the future. And it is interesting that, like Glasman, it focuses on the importance of taking time to build up good relationships with people as a means to strengthen society and improve outcomes.

But this approach is not going to work if the aim is to roll back the State, which is the aim of both Glasman and the "Big Society". Instead, it needs to be about helping to make the state more effective in meeting people's needs and aspirations, and in using the state and civil society together to resist the domination of capital.


At 4:42 pm , Blogger Hughes Views said...

Interesting post and an interesting link. I guess that Glasman must realise how different Britain is now compared with 1945 and, more importantly, the period when Labour was establishing itself. But he writes almost as though nothing has changed.

Part of Labour's difficulty in defining itself for the twenty-first century is its success in the twentieth. Most of the evils that led to its existence have, more or less, been addressed. People no longer starve on our streets like they did and as my father remembers witnessing when he was young in the 1920/30s. Workers are no longer exploited in the ways they habitually were then.

As you write, the challenge today is resisting "the domination of capital". But I'd add "without destroying the benefits that regulated capitalism has brought".

But our state is too small to do much on its own. New Labour was caught in a Catch-22 situation with regard to financial services regulation. With our economy so dependent on that sector we risked ruin if we over-regulated whilst the rest of the world was heading in the opposite direction.

So we need to be part of a super-state and, as David Milliband often reminded us, to work to reform the world's institutions.

It occurs to me that one of the major problems with global capitalism is that it's making too many people too rich. No longer is it a small group of people; in Britain alone something like a million people live in super-rich families. How on earth this issue can be addressed without international co-operation is beyond me. Especially as these super-rich people are firmly in control of the media and the multinationals.

That the "higher tax will drive away the entrepreneurs" argument still has any traction when most of the people who would be affected are salary-men is of course because these very salary-men are the ones who can so influence the rest of us.

Apologies for this inconclusive ramble...


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