Small can be beautiful when it comes to the state

by Paul Connell

It’s not meant to be easy being a lefty. If it were, everyone would be doing it.

Being so at the moment is as testing of stamina as ever.  In the face of a global financial crisis that has demonstrated the truth of just about every criticism of capitalism ever made, the alternatives we are offering, or being offered, seem scant.

Ed M and every other European mainstream socialist party leader must be casting nervous glances at France where electoral victory has soured so quickly that le pauvre Hollande has managed to pass from glory to ignominy without passing through indifference. He is paying the price of disappointed expectations, curious as he didn’t actually raise any except not being Sarkozy, on which he has done quite well. There’s that and there is the Mori-Ipsos poll of generation Y which suggests a strong rejection of welfarism in the shape of redistributive tax and benefit policies by the electorate of the future.

Let us leave aside for the moment the question of the contribution of public spending to current economic woes (answer – not much). Let’s just acknowledge that there isn’t going to be the money for a large scale regeneration of state-run services anytime soon and people aren’t going to vote for a party proposing it. Back to the future won’t work. Labour has to plan for government without a commitment to expanding the state.

Of this necessity let us construct a virtue. Where, after all, is it written that socialism means a big state, generous benefits or “something for nothing?” Lots of places, in fact, but let’s leave that as a rhetorical question.

Having spent the best part of the last 30 years working in the UK public sector at local government, civil service and voluntary sector levels, I experienced periods of austerity and spending booms. Clearly, periods of plenty were more enjoyable than the thin years but it wasn’t as simple as big spending= good, low spending = bad.

When Labour got back in in ‘97 and after the brief reign of Queen Prudence, we had an explosion of czars, rollouts and initiatives, followed by a breathless rush to delivery. Delivery of what? Not results but evidence of results.  Local Authority departments became machines for recording performance indicators.

Take one example, school exclusion. It had been well established that children excluded from mainstream schooling were at higher risk of low attainment, early parenthood, criminality and substance misuse. Evidence based policy dictated that kids should not be excluded.  So they weren’t. Some great work went into keeping difficult kids in school and supporting teachers to keep them there. Some, inevitably, were just too difficult. So, many no longer went to school but, with a bit of imagination, could be found another designation for their status and the excluded box didn’t have to be ticked. Success!

There was a surreal lack of empiricism about services on the part of many managers, who learned to run department from a PC screen, tweaking and adjusting stats, avoiding like the plague spending time with actual service users.  I was never very surprised at that time to find out that many senior local authority figures had a past in the Marxist left, and a predilection for a “scientific” approach to society. It wasn’t that they weren’t keen to engage with reality; their reality was what was visible on their spread-sheet.

Models of the state have, through different governments, often involved familial analogies. Callaghan’s style was avuncular, if in the manner of a slightly erratic, disreputable uncle.  Thatcher’s (and Major’s)  approach could be termed  paternalism if the model of paternity was Viz’s Victorian dad; hypocritical, demanding respect at the end of a stick and willing to see his children succumb to the effects of the physic they prescribed.

With the arrival of Blair and Brown the model of paternalism became more Simon Day’s competitive dad of Fast Show fame: impatient, hectoring and, fundamentally, uncaring about anything but achievement.

But the state isn’t a family or a relative; it’s a structure we create by our common political consent to provide for resolving social tensions and meeting common needs in security, health, education and so on.  Strange that Labour as the party of the state has never really understood how state services work.

The state has never cured an ailment, taught a class, investigated a crime or cultivated the talent of a young athlete –people do so in spite of, rather than for the state. The state is merely the superstructure above them which can help or hinder, often both. It is people who have relationships – the state is impersonal. During the New Labour years it became, for some, so impersonal as to be felt just as oppressive as the Tory model. Politicians necessarily see services top down but they are delivered and experienced bottom up.

This is not to suggest that higher public spending did not lead to improved services. Quite the contrary; long-neglected infrastructure was updated as were antiquated practices. Given reasonable resources and the right sort of encouragement, most public servants want to deliver good services.  Some don’t; they’re just warming a seat till retirement. The well intentioned are motivated to be so on behalf of the people with and for whom they work, not by government, whatever its colour.

More spending can improve things and the urge amongst public service workers to expand and keep expanding services is natural. Every one of us can see every day where a little more money could justifiably be spent. But it’s the guys with the PCs who are on the 6 figure salaries while the poor bloody infantry are on humbler wages.

The left no longer really discuss the role of state; the right do. “Because something needs to be done doesn’t mean the state needs to do it,” as one David Cameron put it in opposition. He’s right but nor does it need to be Sodexho.  Ayn Rand has never managed to be quite as trendy in the UK as the USA but withering the state to leave the way clear for plundering corporations and heroically brutal John Galt figures is as much a part of Tory thinking as the GOP’s. One role of the state, I would suggest, is the protection of individuals from the very attentions of all those who would limit personal autonomy and responsibility: multi-national business, big media and the equally real threats of “tradition” and “community.”

Living as I now do in Spain, I can see how ideas associated with anarchism have become part of the political wallpaper here as they remain alien in the UK.  Co-operation, syndicalism, local action and collectives offer a whole range of options between the state and the open market. That this arose in a vacuum of state intervention during the Franco years is not to devalue a range of provision that is now, in the current economic crisis, offering more people a buffer against despair than the official services are capable of.

Of course such entities are beyond the reach of the state’s urge to standardise, regulate and oversee.  That is their strength if we are prepared to let one novel factor enter into our calculations of what makes a service a good one; risk. If you remove the inspector peering over their shoulder sometimes people will do something other than what you think is good for them, and quite bloody right too. Folk being contrary is the very well-spring of socialism. We must take autonomy and responsibility more seriously, not just as a moral imperative but as a practical one. Charlie Leadbetter at Demos has already outlined the idea of personalisation of services in which service users decide and form their own services based on their own needs. Why stop there?

The state can fund, it can provide for protection, nurturing and facilitation; it can also leave the actual doing to others. Its priorities in times of restricted budget must be tighter, focused on empowerment not superstructure.

It’s not as if we’re going to have the choice.

Paul Connell is a former social worker who worked for 30 years in the public and voluntary sectors and now lives in Spain

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5 Responses to “Small can be beautiful when it comes to the state”

  1. swatantra says:

    These days leaders have to atrract and command attention and be pretty relaxed with it. So Obama fits the bill exactly; whether his policies are up to much is another matter. Hollande is easily forgetable, and the fact that he stole the job away from his ex Segolene is unforgivable, for me anyway. Sego would have been the far better choice if the French socialists had any sense. But they haven’t and are stuck with Hollande, just as we are lumbered with EdM.
    I’m not saying that the State should provide all Services, only the more essential like Health & social Care Rail Energy and Utilities and Postal and Education and Welfare. Private enterprise can provide the rest.

  2. Ex-labour says:

    For a Leftie its not a bad piece. Unfortunately Leftists, following their own beliefs and objectives, cannot resist intervention or more usually interference. This often necessitates legislation or government regulation and there lies the problem. The state gradually takes on more responsibility and the individual abdicates their own responsibility in proportion. The welfare system is a classic example where we now have a “something for nothing” culture as the ‘nanny state’ will take care of them.

    Another example would be our tax system where leftists, unhappy that some people are wealthy (even though they work for it), want to redistribute the wealth. The point they fail to grasp is that its NOT their money, its the individuals. As a result we have a tax system which is extremely complex and where we have a ridiculous situation where low income workers are on benefits i.e. tax credits because the state takes too much off them in the first place.

    The state should limit itself to the basic services as you state. However why do I get the feeling that even if they did this you would have left leaning groups and organisations demanding increasing changes based on vested interests, and the companies and individuals generating wealth would be the ever increasing cash cow.

  3. Paul Connell says:

    It’s not, for me, a question of the state does this, the market does that. It’s more fundamental – the role of the state isn’t necessarily to do anything but to ensure that it’s done, and that it’s done equitably, with social justice and environmental care as ends equal to that of profit.

    And the idea that wealth is only ever an individual right and resonsibility is nonsense – wealth derives from production – and everyone involved in that production deserves part of the proceeds.

  4. Ex-labour says:

    @Paul Connell

    I wouldn’t expect any other view from a Leftard. To you there is no such thing as personal property.

    The fact is that an employer will pay YOU for YOUR skills and expertise based on what they think YOU are worth. Therefore individuals will always be paid differently. The state does not come into the equation. Now that is the market operating as it should.

    There can never be equality (whatever that really means) because of the above reasons. Should a cleaner be paid as much as the manager ? No obviously. As for social justice that is just a construct of the left to enable the state to take a large chunk of your income and give it to their pet cause for political reasons.

    We should pay for basic services to be provided by the state, but should we be responsible via our tax system for everyone else, particularly if they have not contributed to society themselves.

  5. Paul Connell says:

    I don’t normally respond to even mild trolling (which ‘leftard’ constitutes) but hey, i’m a lefty so i’ve no firm principles.

    Our society doesn’t exist merely to provide businesses with the opportunity to make a profit. We aren’t just an economy. (hey there’s a good slogan ‘It’s not just the economy stupid!)

    So our relationships are not just economic- we have a variety of social, interpersonal and community relationships which, taken together, constitute ‘society’. This provides a context for economic activity. Nobody ever made a fortune alone. You make one on the basis of the infrastructure of education, health, policing etc which we as the state have created amongst ourselves. So if you can exploit it to make some money – good for you but you can then contribute to the maintenance of that infrastructure – that’s taxation.

    We also operate inside a finite environment and any economic activity has to be sustainable – but that’s a whole other issue.

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