Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Labour's good society: moving beyond the state?

One year on from a general election defeat, is Labour finally signalling a new approach to the state, and the prevailing orthodoxy around the provision of public services?

It's an important question for a party that is searching for a credible response to the deficit, while the coalition uses every last opportunity to attack the last government for “this mess we're in”. Despite Labour riding on the crest of a wave in national opinion polls regularly showing a four or five point lead, many on the left are anxious for Labour to deliver a new narrative. Concepts such as the 'good society' – first mooted a few years ago - and 'Blue Labour' more recently – are being bandied around as possible replacements for the New Labour view of the world.

Chuka Umunna, Labour MP for Streatham

I'd arranged to meet Chuka Umunna, the charismatic Labour MP for Streatham in Parliament's Portcullis House to get an idea of where the Labour leadership is 'at' on these ideas. Half-expecting to find our interview cancelled at the last moment [Umunna was promoted to Shadow Business Minister the day before] I'm relieved when the man himself appears. And he's even prepared to share his chocolate wafer with me, while we discuss what Labour's really thinking about the 'big society', recently relaunched by David Cameron for the fourth time.

It's no accident that Umunna has recently been promoted to a key role on Labour's front bench, only months after being appointed to Ed Miliband's inner circle, initially as Parliamentary Private Secretary. Umunna appears to be genuinely passionate about a new way of thinking, and it's the sort of upbeat, optimistic tone which is very much present in Ed Miliband's speeches.

Our conversation begins with the historical perspective, always an encouraging starting point when considering the future. Umunna outlines the two differing approaches that the Labour party had taken in the latter part of the twentieth century with regards to delivery of its policies.

“As a party, this period in opposition gives us a chance to rediscover our soul and what our underlying principles are behind the programme to cut” says Umunna.

“From 1945, when the Welfare State and the National Health Service was born, until the mid-1990s you had a Labour party which believed in the state as a vehicle for positive change - a period in which the state was incredibly active and controlled everything not far from where we're sitting right now.

“From the mid-nineties, the party sought to show the British public that we'd made an accommodation with the market, and we became a lot more market-driven than we had been before. But we still continued to use the state” - Umunna refers to tax credits and other innovations as a vehicle to redistribute wealth, measures that became synonymous with Gordon Brown as Chancellor, an unambiguously pro-state politician. “It improved the lot of the people that I represent”. That includes me as Umunna's constituent, so I can see where he's coming from.

Then there's this idea of 'One Nation Labour' – which Umunna says he very much identifies with and peppers our conversation with, using it to define his vision of what the Labour party should be about.
This new thinking doesn't just appear to be a reaction to David Cameron's Big Society, of which Umunna says there is “some merit”, but is more of a reappraisal of what Labour's attitude to governing should be.

You might notice that we've been here before. Surely New Labour was itself an attempt to govern through the politics of consensus? And the term 'One Nation' is something that traditionally associated with the Conservatives from the post-war consensus period – Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath, let alone Benjamin Disraeli (who coined the term) even further back in time.

Regardless of the origins of these terms, there is a clear recognition by Umunna that New Labour sometimes didn't fully understand the consequences of its actions in power.
“The Labour Party was insufficiently social, and insufficiently democratic – dismissive of the ties that bind and the community bonds that exist throughout society”
“For a social democratic party - and I do believe that the Labour party is that – we were insufficiently social, and insufficiently democratic.” Referring to both the state-centric and more market-friendly approaches to government in the later half of the twentieth century, Umunna is frank about where Labour went wrong.

“We were rather dismissive of the ties that bind, and the community bonds that exist throughout society. So the state was rather overbearing or patronising if you like, to some extent encouraging a dependency culture” - and we're not talking about benefit scroungers here.

The issues are obvious on Umunna's doorstep. “In Lambeth, we have a massive third sector in terms of the quantity of groups, rather than how big they are. But they are all quite dependent on commissioning from local and central government. Umunna regrets that while it was in power, Labour didn't promote alternative forms of ownership.

“We saw the receipts of our embrace of capital, but there were problems. We didn't do enough to promote models that encouraged co-operative ways of working, or social enterprises that were self-sustaining."
“The market was just concerned with the bottom line – increasing the share price and the dividend payback, and was quite dismissive of anything that got in the way. It led to people being treated like commodities.
“The market was just concerned with the bottom line – increasing the share price and the dividend payback, and was quite dismissive of anything that got in the way. It led to people being treated like commodities.

Unsurprisingly, Umunna is undoubtedly a passionate advocate of 'mutuals', the sort of structure that has traditionally been the preserve of building societies until many turned into banks in the 1990s. He speaks enthusiastically about his own campaign for the re-mutualisation of Northern Rock, still in state hands after being nationalised in February 2008.

“Financial services should be the sector you start with, but it was a missed opportunity for the last Labour government. We didn't institutionalise social democracy by promoting these things.”

What else could be mutualised? “Imagine if the train you got to work was mutually owned. You only have to look at the much higher level of satisfaction with people who use building societies compared to banks. They're better run for a start”. It's an appealing prospect for those who mourn the passing of British Rail and yearn for a more accountable, publicly-owned railway.

“The challenge for us going forward is how we build that build that good society and and rebalances the relationship between the individual and the market.

Umunna talks about a better capitalism, reflecting Ed Miliband's speeches of late. “In 2003, productivity grew at twice the rate of wages. But wages have since stagnated, which is why we've had such an increase in household debt. People want to sustain the same lifestyles. Meanwhile, the top 1% have, in Umunna's words “flown away to a different planet, so for most people capitalism isn't delivering enough any of the time”.

“Taking it back to first principles, my politics comes from the belief that we are mutually dependent beings. Yes, we want to flourish and achieve as much as we can as individuals, and for our families too. But we aspire beyond that, to being ambitious and aspirational for the communities that we live in. You can see that where we live in Streatham. Umunna points to the many street parties held in the constituency for the royal wedding, which happened “not because of some doe-eyed adulation, but people wanted to associate and mingle.”

“What people value more than anything and what makes them happy is the time they spend with their friends and family. And you can't attach a value to association and togetherness”. Umunna defines “our communitarian values” as Labour's terrain. “The Tories don't have any of the answers on all of this, and we need to explain why it's our lawn, and why our concept of the good society is different to their concept of the big society.

“But it's not just Thatcherism with a nice smile – there is a deeper challenge. 
“The Tories want the state to get out your hair, but we see the state as your friend, not as your boss.”
“The big difference is that they want the state to get out your hair, but we see the state as your friend, not as your boss.”

I get the impression that Umunna is attempting to get to the heart of what the relationship between state and citizen should be – or at least ask some crucial questions about it. While other left-leaning parties seem to be fairly certain of the balance between the role of the state and the role of communities, it's not clear whether Labour has come to any conclusions just yet. And it may have another four years to work out the answer.

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