Actions speak louder than words
Read the first part of Jon Wilson’s argument here
For hope to be possible, political leaders need to show how they and the people can make things better together. We, in the Labour party, have lost the ability to do that. We don’t talk about how things really happen.
As I said here yesterday, an abstract language is the sign of an evasive political culture. Politicians talk a lot about what they want to achieve. They talk about their values, their ends: a fairer society, a more responsible capitalism, safer streets.
But politics is about process, not just outcome. It’s about people feeling part of the journey as much as the destination.
We seem stuck in the middle of a weird paradox. Politicians imagine (wrongly) that the command of the central state is the only thing that makes things happen. Too scared to do anything, they also refuse to commit the power they have to any kind of transformative action.
The result is that ‘action’ means leaving the problem to someone else. Take targets for example, the obsession of British statecraft from John Major to Gordon Brown. Setting a target explains what Whitehall wants to happen. Some targets were good, some bad, some now (hospital waiting times for example) badly missed.
But a target doesn’t answer the real political questions that any idea of public action needs to answer. Where the money’s coming from; what kinds abilities do you need to put into practice; who is on your side, against whom will you need to fight?
As the historian Theodore Porter argues, numbers (targets, statistics) defuse political controversies by depersonalizing. Often, the only effective change comes with a political battle, standing on one side or the other of a fight. Always, it requires the recognition that real people, who have their own different ways of doing things, are the only power for getting things done.
We should have a politics which talks about the power we need to make the places we live better and the people we live with better off. How will my local school improve? How do we revive the industrial estate down the road so my kids will get work there? How do I win a battle with my electricity company to reduce my bills? Instead of helping us answer them, politicians are obsessed by ‘delivery’ in the abstract.
Delivery is a word that only makes sense to politicians and bureaucrats. Good teachers, enterprising businesspeople or caring nurses talk about the particular things they do well, not ‘delivery’ in the abstract. The idea of delivery treats the complex network of institutions, which politicians need to work with to get anything done as a single series of identical machines managed in exactly the same way.
What the idea of ‘delivery’ doesn’t do is tell a story about skill, or good work, or how we do things together, or anything that makes sense in the experience of peoples’ lives. It’s part of a language that kills hope by disconnecting politics from the way people think about what really happens.
The problem is that politicians talk about the ends they seek without offering a story about how they’ll be put into practice. They forget that their power relies on persuading people who have their own way of doing things, on their ability to bring together people to create their own sense of common purpose.
Politicians need to be clear how they will spend or command; but they need to understand that cash and regulation get very little done on their own.
It is the spirit of local institutions, the relationship between leaders and workers in a school or business, which makes things happen. In any kind of practice what’s good comes from the shared experience people have of acting together. Power, as Hannah Arendt argued, is the capacity to act together.
How did we forget all this? Labour was once supposed to be about the power of collective organization, in trade unions, in nationalized industries, through national planning. Some of that really did happen. We have the NHS. Until the 1980s, unions kept living standards high.
But obsessed by the ‘white heat of technology’ and the technocratic fix, Labour increasingly imagined that expertise – policy wonks and scientific experts – could replace ordinary people doing things together. Labour institutions became elitist or self-interested or stuck in the past.
Tony Blair correctly diagnosed the problem: Labour was out of touch. But he gave the wrong answer. He argued that we needed to abandon, not rebuild, our institutions. Blair thought we could be guided by nothing but our values.
But ideas mean nothing without people. And to do anything people need places where they can nurture each other’s skills and talents, develop a sense of common purpose and get paid for what they do well.
Instead of the Tory ‘big society’, Labour needs to speak with passion and practicality about renewing the common life of institutions, public and private, which create work, which give people a sense of meaning as well as money, and which preserve all that’s good in life against the ravaging power of the free market.
To begin, I think that means Labour needs a new language of public sector reform. It needs a way of thinking about ‘the state’ that recognizes that power comes from ordinary people, whether public workers or ‘customers’ being organized to demand things get better. The man in Whitehall or McKinsey doesn’t have the answer; neither does the free market. What matters above all is the quality of the relationship people have with the people who we do things with. The state should help us nurture each other better, not ‘deliver’ abstract goals by command.
The paradox is that building strong relationships often means getting stuck in and being willing to have a fight. Things will only get better if we avoid evasion, recognise tension and see that the clash of different interests is inevitable. It’s time politicians started to accept we’re not going to agree all the time. Out of argument though, we can create a common life.