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There has been a quiet re-orientation of politics with some interesting and paradoxical unseen alliances forming. Increasingly, the framing of political statecraft is around your attitude towards institutions. On one side are the technocrats who include the Thatcherite Right and Fabian left*. These creeds espouse a technology of government, labour or business. Standing in opposition to the technocratic outlook are the institutionalists. This outlook prioritises the way people are, the way they come together, how they can pursue common goals, and how to perpetuate these relationships over time.

Jon Cruddas’s RSA lecture yesterday evening which was essentially an analysis of the institutional change necessary to pursue greater social justice. It is one of the most important institutionalist interventions yet. Cruddas’s political philosophy is grounded in tradition – the Labour tradition – but it is very clearly about the need for radical institutional change in order to meet the needs of people in this modern, technological society. It has a spirit, hence ‘radical hope’. Cruddas is Labour’s leading institutionalist. Looking across the conventional political aisle, you see the likes of Jesse Norman or Douglas Carswell. These are radical institutional reformers too. Norman envisions a new civility. Carswell pursues a new democracy. The goals of Cruddas, Norman, and Carswell are somewhat different but they all see the means as institutional changes at a human level.

When we think of institutions we tend to think of Enlightenment age buildings like, well, the RSA’s home at 8 John Adam Street. But it’s what goes on in the building that matters. And here at John Adam Street there is an organic, effervescent hum of human interaction and creativity- amongst fellows and staff alike. The institution is actually about values (creativity, responsibility, inclusivity), membership, association, and co-operation. This is a case in point. We have to find a way of looking beyond the word ‘institution’ to its human level to understand its importance and forget its tradition connotations which are the opposite of its true meaning.

The major difference between institutionalists and technocrats revolve around ‘policy’. These differences are about what policy is rather than which particular policies should be pursued. Technocrats seek to pursue ends largely through the existing hierarchies of the state (or the corporation or the organisation). The ends drive the means. Inequality is high so we must re-distribute through tax credits. Tax is a burden on enterprise so it must be reduced. Exam results are too low so we must set targets to increase them. This is all technocratic thinking.

An institutionalist would approach all these questions in different fashion. What is the nature of power in a system that produces such inequality and how can it be skewed in a different way? Are there deeper supports that small businesses need in order to thrive? What is it about education as an organic, human system that needs to be reformed to improve the learning experience of students? These are trickier, messier, more awkward, less ‘solution’ oriented questions. They are questions of people, power, interactions, and incremental change. Politics is bad at these sorts of questions. Changes are made to match grand rhetorical statements and then fall short. Few stop to ask ‘why’? Institutionalists ask the fundamental questions that technocrats are too impatient to ask.

We organise our politics around ultimate ends. The Conservative party sees a version of freedom as its end (a Hobbesian freedom). The Labour party pursues a version of social justice (an egalitarian social justice). But Thatcherite and Fabian perspectives both see the means as state action. The institutionalists share a different perspective. Human behaviour is shaped and evolved by institutions. That is where our politics should be focused. The ends reflect the means.

On a statecraft level, this institutionalist v technocrat divide is the fundamental one. Institutionalists are more enthusiastic devolvers of power to places and people. They are less enamoured with new public management and a target-driven culture. They see greater democracy, transparency, and downwards accountability as necessary rather than nice to haves. New technology hands new tools to each of them. Big data and nudge fill the technocrat with glee. Social technology and open data excite the institutionalist. You can’t always spot an institutionalist or a technocrat by their words – it’s their deeds that matter.

But there’s a rub. Radical and conservative institutionalists will part company at some point. For example, the latter would defend the House of Lords as an institution that has stood the test of time. The former would be unlikely to adopt such a standpoint expecting to see some reform to align it with modern notions of democracy. The radicals will wish to innovate and change our social institutions more aggressively that a conservative would countenance. The hope must be that this remains a creative tension. Because there are some big wins in sight - on the re-structuring of the state at least.

When politics is a popular argument about institutional arrangements it is at its most creative. Such a tension led to the creation of modern republican democracy, the regulation of the market economy, the radical innovation of social insurance. Now in a world of rapid technological change, value change (the ‘mentality’ revolution), widening inequality within nations, ecological threat, and demographic shift, such institutional creativity is necessary once again. The sooner this becomes a conversation between radical and conservative notions of institutionalism the better.


*NB This term should be distinguished from the Fabian Society which contains both institutionalists and technocrats- it is a slightly unfair term but I’ll stick with it for now until I can come up with something better.

Anthony Painter’s latest book is ‘Left without a future? Social Justice in Anxious Times’ .


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