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State • Governance • Decentralisation

Let it go

Patrick Diamond - 05 February 2015

Liz Kendall and Steve Reed's new pamphlet, published by Progress, makes an eloquent case for British Labour to radically rethink its approach to the state. What are the major obstacles this approach will need to overcome?

Liz Kendall and Steve Reed’s pamphlet 'Let It Go' makes an eloquent case for British Labour to radically rethink its approach to the state. The motivation for public service reform is not merely to appeal to the aspirational middle-class desire for higher standards of quality and performance, but to help those who often have least power in relation to the services that the state provides. The powerful idea encapsulated in the rise of socialism since the late 19th century has been the notion that we should all have the power to lead lives of our own choosing. As such, Labour’s goal should be to ensure that no family or community is forced to depend on poor services. Kendall and Reed are correct to emphasise the importance of Labour breaking with the old monolithic bureaucracies which in their lack of responsiveness to citizens did so much to damage the party’s standing, especially in working-class communities. To transform the state into a genuine agent of opportunity and security for all is no doubt a big idea for the future of the left.  

There is a wider context to the argument being made here, which is of relevance across the European social-democratic family: how to ensure that the empowerment agenda can be an antidote to the rise of populism, disengagement and mistrust of the political mainstream. In a previous Policy Network contribution, Anthony Painter set out the case for a new model of ‘contact democracy’, which aims to bring voters back to politics. As Painter puts it, ‘contact democracy’ is a system, ‘where local needs are met, new voters are mobilised into mainstream democracy, hate and extremism is challenged, support for community life is extended, and social capital is developed within communities is a crucial component of the ‘new statecraft’. There is an alternative to the politics of pessimism and despair integral to populist movements, which ultimately reduce the scope for democratic engagement and deliberation.

Nonetheless, as with all big ideas, the vision articulated in 'Let It Go' faces major obstacles. For one, not everyone on the left is signed up to the proposition of radically transforming the relationship between citizen and state. As Jim MacMahon, leader of Oldham council puts it, ‘In the Labour party, we’re not used to allowing for difference. We use the language of postcode lotteries because we’re scared of different places receiving different services…The party believes that it can dictate centrally what it wants to happen’. This mind-set, which had a significant impact on the post-1997 government, still runs deep on the British left.

A second issue concerns the underlying preferences of voters. In general, citizens favour the broad principle of subsidiarity – that power ought to be exercised as close as possible to the places most affected by government decisions. There is frustration that in a highly centralised political system, communities are left feeling powerless on issues from planning and regeneration to the provision of local school places. On the other hand, the evidence is that voters still feel comfortable with traditional features of the Whitehall system of governance, not least the presence of top-down targets ensuring minimum standards in the NHS and education. Part of the appetite for centralised delivery comes from citizens.  

Finally, Kendall and Reed focus on changing the role of political actors in relation to the provision of services. As they insist, ‘politicians can no longer pretend we can fix everything from the centre’. What Britain still lacks, however, is a coherent constitutional understanding of ministerial responsibility which clarifies what ministers are and are not accountable for in our political system. What makes ministers notoriously reluctant to ‘let go’ is precisely the fear that they will inevitably be blamed when things go wrong: at the heart of our democratic contract is the proposition that voters can remove the politicians that they decide are guilty of incompetence or mismanagement. In reality, the conventional doctrine of ministerial accountability has been out of date for decades. But it needs to be fundamentally recast and properly clarified if this compelling vision of giving real power to communities over public services is to be fully realised.                  

Patrick Diamond is vice chair of Policy Network

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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