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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

a missing social democratic vision

The mild weather continues. David Marquand – whose stuff is always worth reading – had a piece in Open Democracy the other day, emphasising that the Labour rethink under its new leader, Ed Miliband, needs to be deeper than so far evident. From his Scottish base, Gerry Hassan agrees and reminds us that, neither under Labour nor the nationalists, has Scotland bought into the neo-liberalism. However, as he has argued on previous occasions, these is no sensible vision being articulated there to deal with the continuing grip of neo-liberalism. Germany has managed to retain an industrial base; still has its commitment to indigeous industry and a financial system which supports that; and is weathering the present financial crisis well. I would be curious to know what the SDP and leftist vision is there.
In the meantime, I would urge everyone (but particularly those still convinced that private sector management and models have anything to offer the public sector) to have a read of a 2000 article on the management of government by the management guru Henry Mintzberg. In this he argues that it was not capitalism which won in 1989 - it was "balance" ie a system in which all three sectors were strong. The push to privatise everything will, he asserted, lead to the same disease of communist societies. His discussion is particularly helpful for the distinctions he draws - first the 4 different roles of customer, client, citizen and subject. Secondly the 4 types of organisations - privately owned, state-owned, non-owned and cooperative.
Then four models/metaphors of state management - government as machine, network, performance control and normative. In between he explodes the 3 basic management myths.

David Marquand's attack runs deep -
At stake now are the future of our public culture and, on a deeper level, of our civilisation. In the last few weeks we have seen four significant steps towards an insidious barbarism: the Health White Paper promising yet more marketisation in health care; the the proposal to hold elections for police commissioners; the decision to withdraw state funding for undergraduate teaching in the humanities and social sciences, and to create a market in higher education; and Michael Gove’s plans to flood the education system with academies and ‘free schools’, and in doing so to emasculate local government’s role in education.
None of these is earth-shattering on its own. Cumulatively they represent a profoundly destructive attack on the public domain of citizenship, service, equity and professionalism, which is fundamental to any civilised society. The whole point of electing police commissioners is to subordinate professional judgement to populist pressures – inevitably fanned by vicious media storms. The health reforms are designed to turn doctors into market traders, to open up the health-care system to profit seeking private providers and to turn patients into customers. Universities will become even more like private firms, complete with grotesquely overpaid chief executives, than they are already. Increasingly, they will stand or fall by their ability to compete for custom in a market-place dominated by a crass instrumentalism. Most academics will try try to hold firm to the values of disinterested enquiry, democratic public reasoning, humane learning and intellectual excellence, but the pressures of the market-place will be against them. And if Michael Gove achieves what he has set out to do, local government – already far feebler in this country than in the US or most of the rest of the EU – will become an institutional ghost. The barbarians are no longer at the gates. They are well inside them.
But the gates were stormed long ago. The Coalition is following where New Labour led – just as New Labour followed where Thatcher led. And, like New Labour and Thatcher, it is doing so, not because its members are wicked people, but because it is hard to do anything else in a culture from which the language of the public good and civic duty has been banished. The Labour movement can and should play a part in rescuing that language, but it can’t do so by itself. Labour people must reach out to other traditions – including some on what used to be called the ‘right’ – and learn from the wisdom of thinkers like Edmund Burke and Isaiah Berlin as well as from socialists like William Morris and social democrats like Tawney.

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