It may not be immediately apparent from the news headlines, which were dominated this morning by Iraq and will tonight be fixated on En-ger-land, but today is a big day for British social democracy. Our leading left of centre think tank, ippr, has publishing a milestone report of its long and impressive Condition of Britain inquiry and it has been launched by Labour leader Ed Miliband.
The ippr report is comprehensive and contains many detailed policy recommendations, but most significant perhaps are some subtle shifts in the broader narrative about Britain’s challenges and the goals and methods of social democratic reform. In an article about the report ippr director Nick Pearce hints at a number of changes of emphasis.
There is a move from a simple redistributive economism. Pearce writes: ‘social equality and how we relate to each other as citizens matters as much as material equality in closing the gap between rich and poor’. Progressives need to focus more on power and accountability and this means ‘giving more power to counties and cities’ and ‘to ‘engage individuals and civil society in shaping what the state provides’. It seems that a critique of centralism is now just about universal on the centre left. Whether this conviction would survive the temptation of Labour having central power is an entirely different matter.
Another important theme can be seen as a return to ideas way back in ippr’s previous major report for Labour in opposition, the 1994 Commission on Social Justice. One the one hand, the legitimacy of the state must be rebuilt through greater conditionality and reciprocity. On the other hand, public spending must focus less on remedial interventions and more on those which enhance people’s opportunities to be self-reliant: ‘more fences at the top of the cliff, fewer ambulances at the bottom’ as the 1994 report put it, or ‘a hand up not a hand out’ as Tony Blair used to say.
Finally, there is a stronger emphasis on institutions; ‘social reforms embodied in shared institutions are more durable that those which rely on transactions’ Pearce writes. The report proposes volunteer-led neighbourhood justice panels, an Affordable Credit Trust and neighbourhood networks led by older people.
The ippr report deserves to widely debated. It demonstrates a genuine willingness to examine and address the weaknesses of the social democratic message and method in the modern world. This includes an important recognition of the need for a new form of ‘statecraft’. Yet, ultimately, apart from shifting power from Whitehall to town hall, it fails to provide a sufficiently bold account of what that new statecraft might involve, particularly the need for the centre left to reduce its reliance on its favourite fix – policy itself.
Evidence of the problem lies in Ed Miliband’s speech at the report launch, a response couched in terms of a set of new policy commitments. He wants us to know Labour has given up the idea that public spending is the answer to every problem but does not seem ready to give up the idea that public policy is the answer to every problem.
‘Well, what do you expect from a putative Prime Minister’ he, or you, might reasonably respond. What if, as I have argued in previous posts, the whole apparatus of policy making and democratic scrutiny is increasingly incapable of achieving the impacts on society that it intends?
The point here is not that we don’t need policy, nor that it isn’t better to have good policies than bad ones (the ippr report contains many policies which are better than both the Coalition’s and the last Labour Government’s), but that we need to think of policy as fuel for a strategy of social renewal, not the engine of that renewal.
If I could insert a paragraph in to the Party leaders’ conference speeches this year it would be something like:
‘ In a fast changing world, facing ever more complex problems and with an ever more independently minded citizenry the right an election victory gives us is not to exercise power but to try to create it’
Power is created by – amongst other things - the authenticity and clarity of leadership, the ambition and integrity of the conversations and collaborations that leaders help to convene, the quality and scale of new and reformed institutions emerging from people solving problems together, and the degree to which civic culture animates individuals and communities to direct their energies towards social progress.
Good policy making (and there is precious little of that around) can reinforce and amplify these aspects of a dynamic society but in the modern world policy increasingly rarely generates positive social energy on its own. To give one obvious and rather tragic example, if Blair’s Labour has taken the time and effort to make the abolition of child poverty a broad based and deeply felt movement it might have persisted as a national goal. Instead it was presented as a set of technocratic national policies for which people felt little affection or responsibility, and now the goal has been abandoned. Ultimately for all its many strengths the ippr report, and even more Miliband’s response reaffirm a policy driven view of social change.
An alternative technology of change isn’t easy to get your head round if you have spent a life equating social change with policy change. To articulate it would be hard and risky – it would, for example, involve a manifesto which was much stronger on analysis and vision and much lighter on policy.
But if my argument seems detached from political reality, ask yourself this; what do the British people seem to want right now – better leadership, a clearer vision and more reason to hope…or more policies?
Watching ippr and Ed Miliband lay out their serious thinking it seems unfair that it is overshadowed in some newspapers by more evidence of the voters’ lack of affinity for Labour’s leader. Then again, perhaps voters implicitly grasp better than even the most intelligent parts of the centre left what really matters when it comes to the possibility of social progress.