Any willing provider? Labour's new anti-state chic. A review of the Purple Book andTangled Up In Blue
The Purple Book: A Progressive Future for Labour, Robert Philpot (ed), Biteback, 2011.
Tangled Up In Blue: Blue Labour and the Battle of Labour's soul, Rowena Davis, Ruskin, 2011.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the years following the economic collapse of 2008 was the absence of new ideas on the democratic left. Labour's election defeat confirmed for most that something had gone awry with modern social democracy. Most agreed that approaches to state and market had been ill struck, and that the economy had become too dependent on the City. But these axioms never gave birth to much in the way of renewal. All the while the Tories were stitching together their own story, re-casting the crisis as one of overspending and inefficiency, co-opting Britain's other allegedly centre-left party along the way.
It's amid this impasse in 2011 that Labour's multi-coloured insurgencies have emerged, offering their own readings of the past, present and future. Chief among them have been the Purple Book, organised by Progress, and Blue Labour, lead by Maurice Glasman but resuscitated from his misdemeanours here by Rowena Davis. Although many Progress members may now balk at the suggestion, the two actually started life closer than is often recognised. A number of the Purple Book's contributors and cheerleaders (e.g Caroline Flint, Tessa Jowell, Philip Collins) were involved in the first wave of seminars and publicity that gave rise to Blue Labour. They've since sensibly gone their own separate ways, but retain their shared starting point that the root of Labour's woes lay in becoming too centralist and remote; “administrative, elitist and technocratic”, as Davis puts it. Both claim to be interested in returning to Labour's decentralising tradition, and both eschew 'big state' Fabianism, top-down universalism and public spending as the solution to all of societies' ills.
As befits its organisers, The Purple Book approaches this argument in a considerably more slick, metropolitan way. At its best, it is far more thoughtful, practical and self-aware than many of its critics have given it credit for. It hangs together in a way few anthologies do, and is more astutely conscious of itself as an electoral strategy than its rivals. There are plenty of interesting ideas on the value of co-operatives as a means of spreading social control over public services (Caroline Flint, Steve Reed and Paul Brant's sections on housing are surprisingly engaging) and on revenue-raising at a local level.
The trouble with it is, at times, it feels like a new language is being adopted to advance a familiar agenda, which is essentially one of marketisation. The passage on public services that Paul Richards approvingly quotes from Blair's memoirs is interesting in this respect:
“...we have fashioned a template for reform: changing the monolithic nature of the service; introducing competition; blurring the distinctions between public and private....and in general trying to free the system up, letting it innovate, differentiate, breathe and stretch its limbs.”
Richards adds the only problem with this approach is it didn't consider social ownership in the mix. But he never really explores whether Co-ops should be prioritised above private providers, for instance, just that services should be removed from monolithic central state control. This ambivalence is made explicit by Alan Milburn who, on education, says:
“There need be no single model. There could be academies or trusts, parent-owned or community controlled, run by social enterprises formed by teachers or by chains run by voluntary, or for that matter, private sector bodies.”
The impression gained through the book is not of a central state endowing local communities, but of diversification and the state “letting go” as an end in itself. All this is fine if one believes in it, but it's difficult to know how it differs from the current government's 'any willing provider' approach to healthcare. Co-ops are in the mix and are to be encouraged, sure, but what of the potential for conflict between different providers? Surely a Co-Op couldn't hope to compete with private providers in terms of outcomes; does the state inherently privilege Co-Ops in the contracting process to balance this out? What are the rules applied when opening services to tender? What if no local group – or demand for co-operative control - emerges? None of these questions are ever really explored satisfactory, apparently lost to the contributors' reforming zeal.
A similar frustration stalks you as you read the books' sections on political economy. Tristram Hunt's contribution is fantastic, by far and away the best of the bunch. It wisely focuses on 'pre-distribution' and the need for the state - in smart, considered ways - to get 'up stream' and shape a more equitable distribution of the benefits of growth, as opposed to simply redistributing through the tax system. But this more bold, hands-on approach with the market is never matched or built on elsewhere. The living wage, pay multiples, greater democratic organisation in the workplace, regional or national investment banks - all are examples of small, fairly inexpensive things that can be done to achieve the more balanced economy the book talks of, but nothing like it is ever touched on. Instead we get a few nods to more “strategic” industrial activism from Peter Mandelson, but what this means is left fairly vague. Would it mean, for instance, protecting local communities from predatory takeovers of local industries such as Kraft's of Cadbury's?
Throughout there is often simply an unwillingness to leave well-worn comfort zones and suggest anything that might appear 'anti-business' or 'old Labour'. Instead the book frequently retreats into public service reform, or constitutional issues, as if the past 5 years hasn't happened. At the end of the book, editor Robert Philpot lists its recommendations – there are around 10 pages on reforming the state, and just 1 on reforming the market. But what the UK has seen is surely not a failure of the big state, but the market – or at least, the state's relationship with it. How else to understand the financial crisis, or the de-coupling of growth from wages?
In short, it's not that 'leaving the big state behind' (the books' promotional strapline) feels like the wrong prescription for the UK's problems – it's that it's the wrong diagnosis. When Patrick Diamond argues that “social democrats need to acknowledge that state intervention has left a multitude of social and economic ills untouched”, he writes as if we've just experienced 30 years of post-war Keynsianism. Nor did Labour lose because it was too statist. Philpot triumphantly reveals 1 in 4 of Labour's lost voters saw 'government as part of the problem not the solution' – but what of the other 4 in 5? Nobodies arguing there's a thirst for a Soviet-style command economy, but there is room for a positive case to be made for the state in the market, actively shaping it not least so that it puts money in the pockets of ordinary, hard-working people. A brash anti-statism simply neglects the challenges of our time.
A similar misreading pops up through the Blue Labour story, as documented in intimate and intelligent – if at times slightly breathless – fashion by Rowena Davis. It holds at its heart the mantra that “relationships are transformative”; that organising local communities is the best means by which to achieve social change. But instead, to Glasman, Davis writes, “the modern Labour party...seemed obsessed with expanding the state”. This would be fine were it just a piece of posturing, but it leads Glasman to sweeping statements (“the model that we had in 1945 of universal state based [provision]... lead to massive erosion of solidarity”) which can in turn beget frustratingly rigid policy conclusions.
Take Sure Start centres. Blue Labour, says Davis, wouldn't open more of them, because it believes they've become “a means of...free childcare” while both parents are at work, not of promoting relationships. Instead, Glasman wants the state to facilitate neighbours taking turns to look after each others kids. But Sure Start centres more often serve as a space where parents interact with and help other parents, picking up tips or sharing support as well as receiving it from staff. They foster exactly the sort of relationships that Blue Labour values in a more effective manner than ad hoc approaches. The idea that universal state services are always an anathema to social solidarity is simply false – as the public support the BBC or the NHS further shows.
This belligerence denies a more important, complicated conversation about when, where and how state services get it right in promoting relationship, and how they can change to get it right more often, rather than just cease. Here Davis tellingly notes that traditional social democrats were the only under-represented sections of the Labour party during Blue Labour's formative seminars - Sunder Katwala couldn't make it, and no Brownites were involved. It's difficult not to conclude that greater dialogue with the schools of thought Blue Labour sets up such antagonism to (particularly Fabianism) could give more nuance, and less divisiveness, to its conflict with 1945.
Yet there remains much to engage with about Blue Labour, and Davis convincingly argues that it has been received rather lazily by parts of the media (the reaction to Glasman's recent intervention serves as a case in point). Unlike both the Purple Book, and Philip Blond's Red Toryism, Blue Labour is rooted in a powerful critique of free markets, seeking to organise communities “against the dominance of capital”, on their high street and their workplace. This lends itself to plenty of thought provoking policy prescriptions. It has cogent ideas, for instance, on shifting the UK towards a more skills based economy, and its ‘a third, a third, a third’ model of public services (wherein, for example, a school would be run equally by the state, parents and staff) avoids a lot of the ambivalences of the Purple Book.
It’s also no surprise to learn from Tangled Up In Blue that Glasman wrote probably the two most rich and evocative Labour speeches of recent years - Gordon Brown at Citizens UK and David Miliband’s Keir Hardie lecture, both among the best either have given. There’s a certain magic and humanity to the Blue Labour language, of organising and action, that transcends the Think Tank generated jargon of our time. So much so in fact that its advocates occasionally slip by you a slight (and sad) exaggeration of the appetite among the public for getting involved in local decision making, something common to the Purple Book too. Oscar Wilde, afterall, famously said “the trouble with socialism is it takes too many evenings”, and Davis does in turn seem to over-state the influence of both Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and Brown’s Citizens UK speech had on the electorate.
Nevertheless, it's imperative that Fabians engage with the strength and weaknesses of these two books. Social democrats shouldn’t allow ourselves to be boxed in as reflexive defenders of the state. Not even the most ardent among us can deny that occasionally government ends up feeling top-down and transactive, or that services need to be shaped by those running and receiving them. Neither should we dismiss the power and energy of community activism as only to be harnessed for winning election campaigns; sometimes you need to govern in poetry, too. But there is an urgent need to push back against the bogeyman-esque depiction of the state that at times animates Purple Book and Blue Labour thinking. We need to articulate a vision of the state that's not in opposition to organised communities, but in constant partnership with them, providing a bulwark against the dominance of capital and the dysfunction and alienation which accompanies free market capitalism. How’s that for a New Years resolution?