The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Tuesday, August 02, 2005
Escaping From Stringworld - Progressives For The Small State
by Phil Grant

Steve Travis' post The Second Time Around has made the case for Liberal Democrat moves to bridge the schism with liberal-minded Conservatives. This is one way of combatting the pessimism often seen from the "Stringworld" analysis of British politics. Stringworld thinkers can't see the labels "left" and "right" without taking them extremely literally. In Stringworld, everybody in politics is tied down to a straight line. We can move strategically right or left (if the move is rightward, more often than not it is a "lurch"), but that exhausts the possibilities - there's no escaping one dimension.

Stringworld thought is depressingly common - even among political analysts and commentators who ought to know better. And if we aren't careful, we'll start believing it. We'll forget the distinct approach that liberalism has to offer, and create an insoluble riddle for ourselves - move right and gain voters from the Tories while losing them to Labour, or move left and experience the mirror image of that?

Steve has shown that an avowedly liberal agenda can win support away from the Conservatives. It can win support away from Labour too.

Why did Labour win in 1997? The unattractive exhaustion of the Major government and the personal appeal of Blair for a start, but in policy terms what resonated with the swing electorate was a narrative of public services. The Conservatives had lost crediblity as defenders of quality health and education free at the point of use, despite spending which was numerically respectable, and would probably have risen faster under the continued Chancellorship of Kenneth Clarke (who has admitted his spending forecasts would have been wrapping fish and chips on 2nd May 1997) than under Gordon Brown.

But Labour seemed to convey the appropriate serious and dignified commitment to public services, grounded in its historical record as the party which created the modern health, welfare and education systems (the last two, however, devised by the Liberal Beveridge and the Conservative Butler).
The trouble with Labour in office - just as much in the Wilson years of managerialism as now - is that means are always confused with ends. Honourable Labour traditions of cooperativism and mutualism are not quite discarded, but they are always seen as too dangerous. You just don't know what you'll get with diversity and innovation - better have something thoroughly designed by Whitehall for the whole country. And it's hard to believe that Gordon Brown as Prime Minister will challenge this.

Wherever management is devolved downwards, it is constrained by a culture of targets, with the whole complex set of outcomes and aims of running a public service reduced to a small set of measurements. No one would claim there should be no "scorecard" for a public service, but when you only pay attention to the cost of cleaning a hospital, say, rather than how well it's done, it's easy to see the traps you can fall into.

Do Liberal Democrats really have to commit to more of this in order not to scare away former Labour voters who came over to us in 2005? If we oppose it, does that mean we are "lurching to the right"? We can do better, and not by trying to outbid Labour in centralism.

Where Labour has moved outside the managerial assumptions that a service publically funded by central government must be run centrally too, it's done so in a way that gives us the worst of both worlds. Private Finance Initiative deals result, in effect, in the government borrowing more expensively than it needs to, while being just as exposed as it always was to the risks of a project ballooning in its costs or in how long it takes to complete. Foundation hospitals distort NHS funding patterns without delivering significant choice or local democratic accountability.

What are the Liberal answers? There isn't a set that self-evidently ends the debate, any more than there is a single centralised template you can apply to a public service. And there is a major question of approach - to what extent do you allow service-delivering bodies to be completely autonomous, and rely on user choice driving the bad ones away, and to what extent does local government have a strategic planning role. Instinctively most of us would probably want to see some of both: certainly in the interim at the very least, rather than a "big bang" of instant and one-sided devolution to one or another set of bodies.

Some Labour thinkers such as Peter Kellner deserve credit for their analysis of this. They may even have charmed Tony Blair. But Gordon Brown, already largely in charge of the domestic agenda, isn't listening.

Centralism isn't working. And a major task of the Liberal Democrat policy review is to think hard - and look hard - at the evidence and experiments - about alternatives. This isn't a lurch to the right; it isn't a rejection of Labour-leaning voters: it is a true engagement with the problems of how to get where Labour's managerialism makes it afraid to go.
posted by Apollo Project @ 10:56 pm  
  • At 13 August, 2005 12:02, Blogger Patrick said…

    The link to the Peter Kellner's site seems to lead back to this page, instead.

  • At 13 August, 2005 14:32, Anonymous phil grant said…

    Patrick: look here instead -

    I will fix this in the main article when I have a moment - thanks for pointing it out.

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"What is Liberalism?: I should say it means the acknowledgment in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness; that artificial privileges and restraints upon freedom, so far as they are not required in the interests of the community, are hurtful; and that the laws, while, of course, they cannot equalise conditions, can at least avoid aggravating inequalities, and ought to have for their object the securing to every man the best chance he can have of a good and useful life." C-B.


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