Bad news Ringen in New Labour ears


For all of you dismissive of New Labour’s record there is now a perfect primer for your case. Its diagnosis is powerful but, in my view, its prescription less so. 

Stein Ringen is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at Oxford. He speaks in clipped precise tones and with a bone dry sense of humour. So when last night at the RSA he summarised his short but powerful book ‘The economic consequences of Mr Brown’ thus: “Gordon Brown promised prudence with a purpose. He failed”, the Great Room audience sat up and took notice. 

Ringen shows that since 1997 the UK’s very high child poverty levels have hardly moved, that health inequalities have grown, the downward curve of crime has hit a plateau and, while there have been some gains in educational outcomes, even these are contested.

It is a powerful analysis and not one that anyone involved in New Labour should dismiss lightly. Having said this, Ringen does look through the darkest of lenses. For example, he doesn’t ask what the trends would have been without a Labour Government (which had for example to deal with underlying drivers of greater inequality and cost generating shifts like population growth and the threat of terrorism). Nor does he recognise that some of the things Labour delivered (like the abolition of long waiting lists) were public priorities even if not ones he thinks important. Finally, the good professor doesn’t recognise the impact of major increases in capital spending, particularly on schools and in the NHS.

But while I might want to qualify Ringen’s assessment, I absolutely agree with his diagnosis. Labour’s big failing, he argues, was that it did not mobilise the public or public service professions behind its core social and public service objectives.  Having failed to build this trust and commitment (which was there waiting to be tapped in 1997) ministers came to rely more and more on central control, which in turn led to public service overload and demoralisation. Anyone who has ever run an organisation knows how easy it is to get into this downward spiral.

But why was mobilisation so difficult? For Ringen it all comes down to our creaking constitution. He argues that only measures such as increasing the power of Parliament, devolving more power to local Government, and taking money out of politics will lead to better, more coherent, more honest policy making. I support these measures but I don't think that they alone solve the challenge of mobilisation.

This, I think, comes down to some bigger problems about the way English people think about the English state, and the deeper culture of public life and democratic discourse. (It is now nearly fifty years old but still for me the classic text here is Perry Anderson’s The origins of the Present Crisis’.

This is why I have argued that an incoming Cameron Government (assuming there is to be one) needs to use its honeymoon period to embark on the long process of changing the terms of trade between Government and citizens. Ringen is right that bad governance leads to bad policy leads to disappointing outcomes, but it is the content of the conversation between governors and governed – indeed the very idea of this relationship - that has to change, not just the rules that frame that conversation.

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