Empowerment Should Be Our Idea Not Cameron?s

Empowerment Should Be Our Idea Not Cameron?s

Alan Johnson: Empowerment Should Be Our Idea–Not David Cameron’s

The Conservative Party launched its election manifesto this Tuesday. Its theme? “Power to the people, man, right on!”

Parents can set up schools, communities can buy out local pubs and post offices, MPs can be removed by voters in mid-term, local taxes can be kept down by referenda, and so on. Oh, and cooperatives are now officially “A Very Good Thing.”

The manifesto is also socially liberal. There is financial reward for marriage, but while many gay men and lesbian couples in civil partnerships will receive it (the Tories are really proud of this, by the way), I am (rightly) not eligible. I earn too much (anyway, I am not married; Debbie and I have been with Joni Mitchell on this one for nearly thirty years now–we don?t need a piece of paper from city hall).

My skepticism about the Tories leading a people?s revolution is boundless. But I have a nagging thought. I?ve heard this before, and not from Tories, but from our lot.

Back in 2007 there were a few blissful weeks when Tony Blair?s belongings were packed in crates in Downing Street and Leo Blair was using them for climbing frames, but Gordon Brown had not moved in yet. Blissful because, both cats being away, all the ministers got to play. And they played. Their giddiness reminded me of my own mood on those sweet nights when I was a boy and–my dad working the 3-11 shift at Formica and my mam working in the pub–my brother and I could take over the sitting room and turn it into a little football pitch so we could play Brazil vs. England.

In 2007, knowing the Ministers wanted to take advantage of their temporary freedom to think, I invited them to write up their ideas about the “social democratic future.” We created a Web page–a kind of suggestion box for junior ministers and MPs. The site was popular. (I recall a Liberal Democratic MP named Vince Cable, who wrote a piece about the need for financial regulation and a fairer tax regime, warning that the wheels would come off our economic merry-go-round if we were not careful. What did he know, eh?)

Even Tony Blair joined in. I recall taking a call from his aide (from Russia I think) about some editorial changes to a piece Blair had written. I was watching my lad play football at the time. (I tell you, if you want to impress people, take a call from No. 10 while pacing the touchline.)

Anyway, the point is that the vision of a social democratic future these Labour Ministers had back in 2007 was…power to the people. But it was an interesting social democratic version of empowerment, tempered by their experience of both the labor movement and of discovering the limits of the state while running departments of state.

Back in 2007, James Purnell argued that the environment in which public policy is implemented is complex, even chaotic, and so governments must therefore build public services into self-reforming services–complex adaptive systems with feedback loops and distributed responsibility, to use the jargon. He wrote, “public services like heath and education need leadership from the center. Sometimes they need intervention from the center, to address one-off, fundamental problems. But they do not need constant intervention from the center. That becomes control, rather than leadership–and control is ineffective, and demotivates front-line professionals.”

Jim Murphy noted that “the left has often been animated about the redistribution of wealth but has inexplicably been strangely muted about sustained redistribution of power in communities and public services.” And Pat McFadden made the case that progressive politics is “no longer just about resources. It is also about empowerment. It is about extending to the most excluded the kinds of chances, choices and power that the rest of society takes for granted.” McFadden saw a link between this egalitarian end and the means of choice. “Having an alternative means of provision should things go wrong is not an end in itself. It is about power for the consumer of the service”. In other words: choice matters because power matters.

Discussing schools, Jim Knight observed that the “maximum use of the levers available from the center has worked, but only up to a point. The improvement in results is unprecedented. [But] there are still far too many pupils insufficiently motivated to achieve their potential, too many with individual needs not being addressed. The answer is to be more fine-grained, more personalized. It is to offer more choice. It is to give power from the center.”

And each of these social democratic politicians knew how to distinguish our version of empowerment from theirs. As Pat McFadden put it. “New Labour seeks to expand opportunity and believes the state has a responsibility to do so, though is open-minded about who does some of the service delivery. [The Conservatives are] seeking to withdraw under a veil of statements of support for the voluntary sector.”

Well, it just didn?t happen. Our default position turned out to be statist. Even when the limits of centralized state management of public services were obvious, we clung to them for fear of something worse (or because nothing could move without the new Prime Minister?s approval, and he was not interested in giving power away).

And then the Tories took up the theme, so we stopped carefully differentiating our version of empowerment from theirs. We started seeking “dividing lines” instead. We retreated to scaring people with stories of calamity if central state control and uniformity were lifted, from “post-code lotteries” to “the BNP will be running schools if you give them half a chance” (as if managing both problems was beyond the wit of a modern polity).

Anyway, we let the Tories steal the theme of empowerment. Big mistake. We need to take it back.