Reasons to be resurgent – part one

Stephen Tall’s posting about his boredom with the left/right debate in the Lib Dems prompted me to finish off this posting which had been sitting in my drafts tray for a couple of months.

Stephen Tall’s posting about his boredom with the left/right debate in the Lib Dems prompted me to finish off this posting which had been sitting in my drafts tray for a few months:

I don’t normally expect to find books on liberalism in a hotel library, particularly not one in Thailand.

We had ended up staying there by chance. After heavy rains, our original hotel in the centre of Chiang Mai had been flooded out and we were transferred to the Four Seasons Resort. And there, on another rainy day, I found Robert Reich’s book, ‘The Resurgent Liberal: And Other Unfashionable Prophecies’, left behind by another guest some time after its original publication date in February 1991.

I found it at a good time, since I was in need of some resurgence.

Truth be told, much of it wasn’t very helpful. Most of the book consisted of articles praising to the German and Japanese economic systems in comparison with the U.S. system. There is more of an argument to be had on that topic than a superficial reading of growth and unemployment statistics might suggest, but, perhaps understandably, these weren’t the articles that grabbed my attention.

After 29 articles of economic analysis, I got to Chapter 30, with the title of ‘Competence or Ideology?’.

This proved particularly stimulating on various levels.

Firstly by putting forward the thesis that it is the job of politicians, not only to understand and reflect the wishes of society, but to take a lead in “civic discovery” – “engaging the public in rethinking how certain problems are defined, alternative solutions envisioned, and responsibilities for action allocated”. This fits with a personal preference for providing voters with a wider set of political information than straight assertion of “this is what we think and why the other people are bad”. It’s not enough to run focus groups: politicians need to lead. But they need to lead in a way that respects the intelligence of the electorate and that genuinely gives them the space and information they need to shape their views on political issues in an informed way.

But, more critically, it proved stimulating because the later part of the article provided a framework for escaping from the entirely tedious Manichean view of the choices facing liberalism (or politics in general) as ‘state vs market’.

In essence, he summarised three philosophical approaches to the operation of public life – bureaucratic absolutism, democratic deliberation and utilitarianism – and took the view that democratic deliberation has recently been subordinated to the other two approaches.

I found this incredibly helpful.

‘State bureaucracy vs privatisation’ is not the only choice we face. Philosophically, reinvigorating localism and local democratic decision-making – fighting the centalised bureaucracy with its flood of ministerial regulations and army of unaccountable Whitehall-controlled quangos – is a valid and important third approach that can be taken to the problems of improving public provision and making it more responsive to people’s needs. The democratic state is not the same as the bureaucratic state.

Privatisation is not automatically the answer, indeed it can actually be a tool of state bureacracy and have little to do with improving choice or responsiveness. Subcontracting a public service to a private company may be a useful way for government to get round the rigidity of public sector employment conditions, but has little to do with using market mechanisms to give the citizen more choice or improve public service responsiveness. I’ve spent long enough in my life working for big companies to know that it is primarily competition, not the mere fact of being the private sector, that keeps organisations responsive.

Elections or direct democracy on the other hand are currently undervalued as a way of increasing responsiveness. I’m a strong believer in the power of contestability in holding public or private services accountable. Where I have a choice of providers, I can focus an organisation’s mind on my needs by threatening to take my business elsewhere. Where there is no choice of providers, I’d quite like to have the power to sack the person in charge via the ballot box. In London, mayoral elections have done considerably more to improve public transport than Gordon Brown’s privatisation of the tube. There are huge opportunities to improve public provision by making unelected roles electable, and by modernising our electoral system to make those roles that are elected harder to hang on to without genuine popular support.

In short, “economic liberalism” and “social liberalism” are not the only games in town. We need to throw a few more adjectives into the mix. In setting the direction for the party, we also need to consider other options, such as environmental liberalism, localist liberalism and deliberative liberalism. The simplistic “public vs private” debate might have been interesting about fifteen years ago, but to find the way forward, we’re going to have to try a bit harder than that.

Author: Martin Tod

Martin Tod is a marketing professional and Liberal Democrat living in Winchester.

2 thoughts on “Reasons to be resurgent – part one”

  1. A curious antipathy towards elected representatives has always suffused the British national attitute to politics – and perhaps thankfully, if this characteristic is in any way responsible for our general resistence to the forces of political extremism. That said, it seems curiously undemocratic that, on the one hand, politicians are bemoaned for being ‘just another layer of bureaucracy’ while on the other hand unelected Quangocrats escape similar group vilification despite being nearly as bureaucratic as politicians and considerably less democratic. I say ‘nearly’ because their claim to be more efficient presumably rests on the two tiers of their undemocracy: that they are appointed (and so escaping the peril of being incompetent, a claim based more in theory than in fact) and unaccountable. The fact that the quangocracy has much in common with the basic features of despotism should mean – if common sense had much to do with it – that a good political case can be made for the redemocratisation of all manner of local and national services. I sometimes fear, however, that obvious and practical policies do not play well in an age of unreason.

    Nice blog, by the way.

  2. That’s a very good point.

    If we privatise something we still need to make sure that it is for a good reason, not just to raise funds, privatisation is not an end in itself.
    Also, I have to agree that this government certainly is using privatisation and public private partnerships as an instrument of state bureauocracy.
    Gordon Brown also seeks to control business through regulation, something which don’t allow market mechanisms to work fully, and the same seems true of all the public service reforms proposed.

    As for local government. We deserately need some reform of this. There is much scope for even more localised democracy and more interaction with local communities, even if this only creates more of a sense of community, but things should be done ‘by the people’ not ‘for the people’. This is a malaise my local council suffers. The borough was formed by amalgamating three different Urban Councils, and the division is still felt with a Labour dominated council which has no representatives in a whole third of the borough in any position to have a say in the running of the council. Combine this with the leader of the council who says “I was elected by you to make decisions for you” (as opposed to the real situation of being elected by his ward members to represent them) and a culture of authoritarianism people are very disconnected from local government, especially in the north of the borough where councillors have no say in the running of things, especially as decisions are made by a self appointed Cabinet.
    Some attempts have been made to rectify this with ‘Community Councils’ but they are too troublesome with people disagreeing with the council too much (who just say, “we know best”) and one was threatened with closure for being ‘too old and too white’ despite the fact that it is a fairly accurate representation of the local demographic. Of course, young people don’t go, because they are shown no respect, feel nobody listens and are distant from those with power.

    I am sure much of the disappearance of local community is to do with a lack of democratic accountability at all levels of government and the fact that communities have very little say in the way things are run where they live. (the most successful places where anti-social behaviour is combated seem to be where the local community has acted together, not where ASBOs are slapped on people or government gimmicks are tried).

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