Friday, 27 March 2015

Reclaiming Liberty I

Liz Kendall and Lisa Nandy write:

For our generation of Labour politicians, the new Labour politics of the state is about putting power in the hands of people. It leaves the divisions inside the Westminster bubble far behind.

The debate is not between left and right, public or private, Blair v Brown.

Instead, it is about devolving power to our cities, counties and communities, and renewing our public services so that they are accountable to and shaped by the people who use them.

Politicians speak as if government exists without people.

Take children in care. Far too often the system we have constructed drives a coach and horses through the relationships that sustain children at the most difficult times in their lives.

Children are often sent to live far from friends and wider family, since foster care is funded, but often kinship care is not. It is not uncommon for children to have several social workers in a few short years.

When we have built these systems we have forgotten what matters to us as human beings – warmth, trust, the knowledge, as Shaks Ghosh, the head of Crisis, said over a decade ago, “that there is someone on the other side who cares if you live or die”.

So much is changing.

The welfare state was created in a world where elites were used to giving orders and the rest of us following. 

The labour movement grew by organising working people to ensure those with power acted for the common good, but it did so by creating its own, sometimes rigid, hierarchies.

Mourn its death or celebrate its demise, but this world is no more.

Today we live in a society where people are more aspirational but have less power and are more isolated.

We expect to be treated equally, but in too many areas of life we have lost the capacity to act together.

The state created in the middle of the 20th century was based on forms of top-down public management that are no longer possible.

When national politicians pull policy levers in Whitehall they often find they have no strings attached.

Politicians have tried to compensate for the collapse of the old hierarchies and the failure of the centralised state by using performance indicators and micro-management to exert control.

We no longer trust the old elites, but we do not trust ordinary people either.

Too often public services view people as individuals whose needs or demands can be met without thinking about their family and relationships.

People are treated as isolated units, ignoring the fact that we are happiest when we are involved, in relationships with other people, in the world around us.

Our priority now must be to develop new ways to give people real power over the institutions and services that have the greatest impact on their lives.

This will work only if people themselves create this power and it is built from the grassroots. It cannot be dictated by national government.

The core theme of our thinking is that liberty should be reclaimed as a defining ideal of left-of-centre politics in England.

We must champion the power of human beings to shape their own lives, and oppose the tyranny of the bureaucratic state and an unrestrained free market, both of which are generating huge inequalities.

Liberty is not an abstract slogan. It is not simply individual but shaped by the constraints of living together with other people.

English liberty is a social liberty.

We all live in society and are dependent on one another, and so our freedom is exercised with other people through negotiation and dialogue.

A state that values freedom is one where public services are determined by and with citizens.

The kind of liberty we want is only meaningful if we challenge the huge imbalances in power that exist in England.

Limited resources, time, confidence and social status have a powerful bearing on our ability to participate. This is why the role of the government matters.

We need a state that works in partnerships to help shape the institutions and social infrastructure that enable people to have more control over their lives and for individuals and families to flourish.

There are two challenges here.

First, we need a different kind of political authority at local, regional and national level.

A genuine commitment to devolution requires a commitment to sharing power at every level. We need to devolve power from Whitehall not just to the town hall but down to communities and individuals too.

The job of politicians is not to dictate and deliver. Political leadership is about bringing people and resources together to create the power people need to help themselves and one another, with the state acting as a partner.

Second, real democracy enables people to have the power and responsibility to decide what is important to them.

The job of Westminster is to create systems and structures that allow people to decide for themselves, and make sure they are held accountable.

Public services that are fit for the 21st century must be not just devolved, but democratic and participative.

They must be shaped by the widest range of people and civil society organisations, to support each other.

How that works cannot be determined from Whitehall. Giving power to people is a big departure from the way Whitehall and many of our town halls are run today.

It will be uncomfortable for many politicians used to holding power.

It holds enormous challenges: to give people more freedom, to tackle power imbalances, to avoid postcode lotteries, and to create meaningful accountability at every level in society.

Discussing how we do this is an important debate. But whether or not we do it is now beyond doubt.

The institutions that will last will be those that are built and run together, with relationships at their heart.

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