Tuesday 11 February 2014

Liberalism and administrative tidiness

I was bawled at by a guard at Clapham Junction yesterday morning. I had held the doors open to let an old gentleman on. Shocking disregard of safety regulations and public money.

But then, I’m a Liberal.

And before you dismiss this example as too silly for contemplation, can I give you a couple more?

Imagine a single mother confides in you that she’s being beaten by her partner and begs you to say nothing; what do you do? Tell social services? Or do you at least consider the case for not doing so – local authority targets for taking children into care, and their appalling record for looking after them afterwards?

Imagine you suffer from serious eczema and you consistently find you know more about the condition in practice than your consultant dermatologist? Do you do what you’re told or go your own way?

Imagine your child is being bullied at school and the school is not doing enough about it? Do you knuckle down, think of the public money, or do you take them out?

These are not small questions. Nor are they rare ones, but I have begun to wonder if they are the touchstone of the different attitudes between Liberals and social democrats around public services.

Liberals retain enough scepticism about public institutions to be awkward.  They are sceptical enough to allow other people the space to be awkward too.

And social democrats? Maybe they do the same, but there is more consideration about the broader public interest, the distortion of public money – more Kantian nervousness about what would happen if everyone was awkward. More commitment to administrative tidiness perhaps.

What about the distortion of public money when people reserve the right to organise awkward local solutions?  All I can say is that it was self-build that first pointed me in the direction of Liberalism.

Cast your minds back, if you can, to the sclerotic public housing systems of the late 1970s. I remember when a group on the waiting list organised the first self-built housing estate on marginal land in Lewisham in 1979.

The Labour council was horrified. By definition, the ability to opt out and go their own way made these pioneers ‘middle class’ in the eyes of Old Labour. What about the impact on the rest of the waiting list? Why should a few people jump the queue by using their own sweat?

If it wasn’t for an imaginative housing chair, Nicholas Taylor, Walter Way – and Walter Segal’s timber-framed homes – would never have seen the light of day.

Why am I banging on about this?  The truth is I've been wondering why I find myself on the opposite side to most people in my own party on the issue of free schools, and it bothers me.

Of course there is a difference between the free schools ideal (self-organised groups of people who want something different in education and are prepared to wrestle for it) and free schools in practice now (occasionally gerrymandered boundaries favouring the well-off).

Clearly, free schools now are not quite in the same category as self-build.  They need to be brought under the same umbrella as all local schools.  They also need to provide a better fit to the central problem: the serious shortage of school places - and the staggering growth of the schools in the poorest areas.  Not a good sign.

Yes, there needs to be a new model for free schools.  I accept that.  But I believe in self-organised services, in their energy and innovation - not because they are infallible, but because they are human.

The arguments levied by people in my own party go way beyond that, as if it is the right to band together locally and make things happen that offends them - "prejudicial to the efficient use of resources in an age of austerity," according to the conference motion.  Or because it "wastes precious resources".

Well, forcing public services to be more flexible, allowing space for awkward people - which means human beings - does take precious resources.  The National Legal Services Program in the USA, allowing people to sue public services to assert their rights, took resources.  Otherwise people have to adapt themselves better to the shape of the service so they can be more easily processed.

That's tidiness, but I don't think it is Liberalism..

Giving people the space to come up with their own solutions, with other local people, is hardly the "efficient use of resources".  It isn't exactly tidy - but it recognises what everyone outside the political class knows: our institutions are inflexible and imperfect.  

I never concluded I was a Liberal because I believed that people should remain passive or because the system came first.  I never gt interested in policy to defend the system as it stands - or any of our other flawed institutions.  And I certainly never became a Liberal because I believed, above all else, in administrative tidiness.

1 comment:

ian said...

I blogged, six years ago now, on ways in which we might move control away from the centralised state. I'm not sure that I would stand by every word now, but I still think there is something worth investigating in the approach I described.