State to the left, market to the right
Sometimes public policy debates can feel like a choice between two poisoned chalices: the unfettered market on the right and paternalism on the left. Yet, despite their obvious differences, these competing worldviews have a lot in common. Neither is particularly appealing or popular at the moment, and neither offers a convincing solution to our current woes. Each is bound by a common starting point: who should tell people what to do? Each offers a different answer – big business or the state. The pin-striped banker or the pin-striped civil servant? But each is bound by the assumption that the power to decide what a person is or does might not lie with the person themselves.
We shouldn’t be happy with either approach, because we know that they don’t work. In Waltham Forest, unemployment has doubled under this government. This has hit every group, but those with low or no skills have been hit the hardest. Leaving them to the market would be akin to leaving them to the dole. The number of unskilled jobs is set to shrink over the next decade, and there are few incentives for companies to train up unemployed workers. State-led paternalism in this area has succeeded more in increasing the number of people claiming sickness benefits than it has in increasing the number of people raising their skills in and out of work.
This government’s approach, as with everything, is more market than state. Responsibility for funding skills courses in higher and further education has been shifted from society (the state and companies) to individuals. The government tells us that we have the new-found freedom to upskill as and when we want. Only, it’s a little like the ‘freedom’ to eat every day at the Savoy – pretty irrelevant if you don’t have the cash to do it. The result? Fewer people going to university and fewer low-skilled people raising their skills. The work programme (which used to be known as the ‘flagship work programme’, but isn’t any more) has elements of each. The state acts as the market, allocating unemployed people to private companies to be processed. It hasn’t worked. On the government’s estimates, only 40 per cent of work programme ‘clients’ will find work; the Institute for Fiscal Studies thinks it is more like 25 per cent.
Different approaches in this area show the problems that occur when politics becomes simply a question of who tells people what to do. Disenchantment with politics increases, as people see themselves as being on the receiving end of a series of diktats. In the early 1980s, Mrs Thatcher cloaked herself in insurgent chic, rebelling against the elitism of the man in Whitehall knowing best. This image lasted until it became clear that her approach merely replaced the man in Whitehall with the man in Canary Wharf. We were still being told what to do – it was just a different person telling us.
Labour needs to cloak itself in the insurgent chic which breaks the ‘who tells you’ paradigm and puts genuine power in everybody’s hands. This isn’t the ‘lunch at the Savoy’ power embodied by Eric Pickles – giving councils increased power to decide which services to cut. It isn’t the insurgent chic envisaged by some in the Labour movement, who argue for no compromise with the economy or the electorate. And it isn’t the easy, lazy, answer offered by libertarians – get rid of the state and the market will see to everything. This insurgency would give genuine power to people and their local representatives, recognising that the market and the state have big roles to play, but that the solutions they propose on their own to our deep-seated problems just don’t work.
The work programme will never succeed while it ignores the two people that matter most – the unemployed person, and the company owner who might employ them. It will continue to be unsuccessful, and unsatisfying, while it continues to do things to people, rather than working with them. The state and the market cannot do it alone – the state can’t grow the economy alone, and the market can’t help those left behind. The Tories have shown that they can hug as many hoodies as they want – they still don’t understand the mutual support that the state and market offer each other. The old left still rely on the old paternalist approach of the state telling people what to do. We must show that we understand that it doesn’t matter who tells people what to do – people just don’t like being told what to do. Leave that to others – we must show that being stuck in the middle is not a bad place to be.
Mark Rusling is a Labour and Cooperative councillor in the London borough of Waltham Forest and writes the Changing to Survive column
Conservatives, Eric Pickles, local government, Margaret Thatcher, public service reform, state, unemployment, Waltham Forest, Whitehall, Work Programme