Sunday, 11 August 2013

Is there any reason for Labour's continued existence?

Perhaps it is even more significant that Labour backbencher George Mudie says he doesn't know what his party stands for, but Andy Burnham has caught the moment with his very public agonising - which amounts to much the same thing.

I have great respect for Andy Burnham. His summary of the fundamental problems of Westminster politics was spot on:

"I was schooled in this, kind of, 'how do we make a press release today that embarrasses the opposition?' That's the kind of politics that everyone was doing and the kind of culture developed where you're scrabbling over a bit of the centre ground with micro-policies that are designed to just create a little couple of days' headlines and create a feeling - but not change much else."

His solution is to merge health and social care under the auspices of the NHS. It is bold, and it plays to the Labour Party's old tradition - satisfying needs. He even sees the key problem of fragmentation in social care, which is has to be solved. He also recognises the importance of prevention, at least as far as good social care prevents people from turning up in primary care.

But there are three problems with this approach, brave as it is.

First, Burnham makes the same mistake as the coalition has made. He has not understood just how toxic the Blair-Brown legacy has been in public services, after a decade of target-driven centralisation, inflexibility and bone-headed IT investment along the lines laid down by McKinsey and others.

Health and social care do have to be merged, but they can't be merged using the existing system: it is built on the assembly line model and is not nearly effective enough at meeting people's real needs, not what the system thinks their needs are.

Second, Burnham includes no convincing analysis about why health and social care have been struggling, despite the ring-fencing of health services.  Austerity might have been convincing, were it not for the fact that both systems have been increasing their costs much faster than the rate of inflation for years.

Is it an older population, more expensive drugs, or an increasingly alienated, isolated population, who receive treatment from the system as long as they remain passive?  Any one of those requires some kind of analysis of how they can be tackled, or the costs of the new Greater NHS will rapidly overwhelm us - even after the austerity years.

It isn't enough to say that we just need to fund the current inflexible system better, with ever more central controls - in the Labour style - because people will not believe it, and they will be right not to.  It was disastrous before.  If they try and do it again, services will lose public trust.

But there is a third, more fundamental reason.  Mudie was right: the Labour Party has not actually stood for anything much beyond positioning for some generations now, and their last period in power was presided over by a leadership which found it impossible to disagree with whoever was wealthiest or most powerful in any argument.

The party has long since ditched socialism, and according to the LSE, New Labour achieved no change in income inequality at all.  In fact, they never tried.

The old Labour tradition (satisfying needs) is also problematic, given that - if satisfying needs is the heart of government, and the bureaucracy dedicated to that alone, then experience shows it tends to be deeply disempowering.

It is true, I am biassed against the Labour Party.  I became interested in politics during the dull and reactionary Callaghan years, so I joined the Liberals.  But Labour has still failed to develop an organising ideology.  It means that when they take power, anything can happen.

I simply can't see the point of its continued existence.

I'm aware that I have said some related things about my own party sometimes.  I'm also aware that my own party is in a coalition where their main power is simply to say 'no', on condition they don't do it very often.  But I have been impressed by the discipline of the Lib Dem parliamentarians (far more so than their coalition partners).

I am kind of crossing my fingers that this may imply, despite all the difficulties and strains involved, that they have developed some underlying ideological coherence themselves.


Left Lib said...

I find it curious that you use this phrase "satisfying needs". If you are unemployed you claim benefits as you need the money to survive. The Coalition is cutting benefits so that claimants are receiving less money than they need to live on. So if the alternative to satisfying needs is not satisfying needs, is this a policy you are happy with? I think people need to survive without resorting to shoplifting or begging. The preamble of the Lib Dem constitution says we are against poverty, but this government is increasing it. Those in low paid work are not doing much better either. The problem is that no party seems to want to put this right. I do not know what your views are on this. Mahatma Ghandi famously once said there is enough for everyone's need but not for everyone's greed. i think the electorate are having greater difficulty understanding the point of the Liberal Democrats at the moment

David Boyle said...

Dear Left Lib, I must admit that as I posted that last blog I did think to myself: I haven;t really explained that bit about satisfying needs very well.

I am absolutely NOT saying that governments should not satisfy needs. That isn't the point I'm making. I'm saying that when that becomes the core, the central task for government, then there are side-effects which tend to be counter-productive.

Satisfying needs begins to take over, and crowd out projects like preventing needs. Satisfying needs becomes an end in itself, and demonstrating needs becomes the only way you can access support. It also tends to be disempowering, because one-way transactions are disempowering.

That is what I mean about the poverty of the traditional Labour ambition. That doesn't mean that needs must not be satisfied - quite the reverse - just that there are more important tasks for governments to do

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you David. I can't see the point of Labour either.