In the 1970s, a group of radicals took on the big state and big vested interests. They came to power, in 1979 (though arguably the IMF and the then Labour Government had already set the ball rolling in 1976). The state was pulled back from the economy and trade unions were neutered. Economic power was decisively shunted.
The argument was that adaptable economies come from free agents responding to the small changes in information that big states inevitably miss. This was to be the means of future growth. It was a pity that the economic model had no account of collective benefits from co-operation between free agents even at a local level. This was an individualistic creed. It also failed to apply the same logic to the state.
The state became stronger as well as weaker in the 1980s. In the areas where it still had competence, such as law and order, provision of welfare and public services, it either remained strong and centralised or became even stronger. Meanwhile, the market was left to itself and, predictably, it congregated in a big power fashion. As risk was aggregated, it became fissile and then the reactor overheated in 2007/08.
Labour was in power at the time. It completely failed to disaggregate and distribute power in any significant way while in office. It distributed resources. That is not quite the same thing. There were some valiant efforts – anyone remember Total Place, ‘double devolution’, and city-regions? Ultimately though, the state remained the same. It just had different priorities.
Within Tory opposition circles, there was a critique of the big state, however. This critique came under the banner of civic conservatism, the post-bureaucratic age, then Red Toryism and eventually the Big Society itself. The critique of the big market held rather less conviction than the critique of the big state. Nonetheless, in office the agenda has largely become an embarrassing family secret. City Deals and the Community Right to Bid apart, change has been incremental and painfully slow. The post-bureaucratic age works at a bureaucratic pace it would appear.
The lesson is that it’s easy to be a power dis-aggregator when you don’t like the people who happen to be in power. It’s harder to pursue the agenda when you happen to approve of the people in power. The Liberal Democrats, who were supposed to be the great localists British politics, have been barely audible on this agenda.
So it is in this context that an emerging divide within the Labour party – between centralisers and power distributors - should be viewed. A letter appeared in this morning’s Guardian from a group of centre-left thinker-tankers and campaigners. It argues, amongst other things, for:
“Devolution of state institutions, by giving away power and resources to our nations, regions, cities, localities and, where possible, directly to the people.”
As Adam Lent argued yesterday, this argument taps into a broader movement across politics between ‘big-enders’ and ‘little-enders’. The RSA’s ongoing conversation about the ‘power to create’ certainly biases itself in the direction of creative individuals, relationships, and institutions. It has a skew towards ‘small’. The point is that the Thatcherite critique outlined above failed to account for flexibility and adaptability of distribution of power within the state itself. It was also far too tolerant of aggregations of power within the market.
Labour’s period in office showed an equally deaf ear to the need for distributed power in order to discover new ways of securing better and more just outcomes for the portion of the national economy devoted to public services. And there is still a reticence in Labour to see small business and market innovations as part of a national social and economic recovery.
However, the fact that such a wide range of individuals and groups on the ‘progressive’ left are now flying the flag for the re-distribution of power as well income is encouraging. The worry must be that should Labour get into power, the motivation for many of this coalition may go once the faces at the top change. The hope must be that those in Tory and Liberal Democrat circles who argued from a similar power redistributionist perspective will raise their voices again also.
Whether we call them ‘little enders’, ‘democratic republicans’, ‘localists’, ‘power redistributionists’, they are history’s vanquished. Power is largely as concentrated now as it has ever been. However, with a technological transformation in train, an effervescent upsurge in entrepreneurialism in the private sector and in some local services, the monumental challenges of austerity and an ageing society, perhaps this time it might be different? Never have collective problems required a greater distribution of power, first downwards then outwards. Equally, never have the tools been so available to turn that opportunity into real change.
The politics of the re-distribution of power are with us. Those across the political spectrum as well as those who don’t really see themselves as political at all have an opportunity to join this conversation. The real question is ‘do we want a society where things are done for us/to us or do we want a society where we take charge of our own collective and individual future? That’s the political, cultural and institutional battle that lies ahead.