busting the class-based civil service into the one-nation smithereens we deserve

I wrote these words over at Speaker’s Chair some months ago:

Labour has to win in the South if it is win the policy arguments and make a post-2015 parliament governable. In a sense, the idea of a moral majority must make its return. The current coalition government of Tories and Liberal Democrats has ushered in a parliament of policy-making duplicity. Voters will not accept another five years of the same. Labour therefore needs to win that moral high ground – as well as gather itself sufficient voter numbers to win the general election.

If Labour wants to sell a One Nation concept, it cannot afford to be absent in such key battlegrounds as southern England. People have, perhaps rightly, questioned the One Nation rhetoric.  However, as its outlines begin to surface and firm up, the wisdom of its initial diffuseness is becoming clear.  As a document from Labour’s Southern Taskforce said earlier this year: “One Nation Labour believes that Britain should work for everyone, not just a few.” And if anything can go to the heart of southern England’s preoccupations, as well as help build and sustain a coherent Labour presence in these regions, it is this definition of Ed Miliband’s project. A Britain whose businesses and the government work for the benefit of everyone, and a Britain whose economy manages to serve itself precisely by serving its people.

Too often, the inertia and permanence of Whitehall have beaten back the attempts of passing ministers to make it more amenable to change. However, the kind of change being brought about at the moment by the government doesn’t bear thinking about. If the traditional job of the civil service was, in effect, to mediate the wilder ideas of the more ambitious political empire-builders, what has gone wrong with respect to this gung-ho coalition? Widespread privatisation in health; a creeping process of deprofessionalisation in education; the destruction of a legal aid ethos in principle and reality; the total victory of energy suppliers over customers; and the imposition of a bedroom tax on what is – in its vast majority – a constituency of the disabled, which has been all carried out and implemented under the supposedly restraining eyes of the British civil service.

In truth, all these matters and more show that even the civil service, as it currently stands, works only for the part of Britain that financially benefits from global corporatism – the rentier class. The already brazen sponsors of our elected representatives have also drilled their influences into the unelected civil service. A history of revolving doors between high-level business and high-level “public service” guarantees that the point of view of the rentier class is far better represented in government than rural citizens, the squeezed middle or the first-time southern buyers unable to keep their heads above coalition water.

I’m not suggesting that such a form of capitalism has no value at all. Even those of us who find ourselves in this fearful squeezed middle – in essence, the voters who will assign to Labour its future moral majority or not – understand that large companies provide essential services which smaller firms might not be able to provide as well, or at least with the same reliability.

However, when government begins to consistently fall down more on one side of the fence than the other, and when virtual monopolies can raise their prices in ways that bear little relation to their real costs, then it is probably time to start agreeing with Ed Miliband’s One Nation approach. And in particular when we talk about the South. As the Southern Taskforce document suggests: “In southern England, too many people and places aren’t sharing in the prosperity enjoyed by a few, and too many hard working people struggle to get a fair deal for themselves and their families.”

So what can Labour do to make its message work in southern England? The government and civil service should work to improve peoples’ living standards, because in times of poverty, we need more government intervention not less.  But it needs to be accurate and focussed.  The Tories have always been right on the rhetoric: there’s no point in Big Government throwing lots of taxpayer money at a problem. Politicians should behave as enablers of voters’ lives, rather than simply being interested in lining their own pockets. (In practice, of course, big governments led by centralising Tories have always thrown public-sector resources at the welcoming purses of their rentier capitalism sponsors, with the recent privatisation of Royal Mail an example.)

The challenge, then, is as follows: Labour must work out a way of achieving the kind of localising focus on the problems which face southern England.  This it must do in at least three ways: through a responsive government supported by a civil service which creates the right conditions for economic and cultural activity for all its citizens; through a culture of real service to the voters and taxpayers footing the bills; and through an unremitting pursuit and control of those who refuse to pay such bills. This latter example of fair play will attract the moral majority that Labour has within its grasp.

In addition to the above, I would suggest more than simply tinkering around at the edges of internal civil service productivity and processes. For the eighty per cent of civil servants who are probably struggling to give their best, we as a party would be better off looking to change the culture, opportunities and prejudices of the managerial class which – at present – is in the process of raiding the country’s coffers.

A huge programme of cultural readjustment would involve at the very least the following: firstly, legislation which prohibits any kind of revolving-door activities between elected government, unelected civil service and private industry; secondly, retraining and proper resourcing for all civil service employees – in order to allow them to recover a virtuous public-sector ethos; and thirdly, providing properly-funded and independent research facilities and resources for all MPs, so that lobbyists would lose their ability to try to control the agenda.

These measures might contribute to developing a government that works for all the country. Such decisions could lead to Labour not only winning the general election, but also the geographically wider argument and the grassroots discussions; while also governing behind the moral weight of the One Nation philosophy.

For it’s not enough for Labour to win the election outright. We must also win the country’s collaboration and belief too. And in order to achieve that, we have to restore a sense of civic responsibility, pride and behaviour. Only then will government and its support infrastructures have any chance of recovering a once traditional sense of service and fair play. Only then might our nation work for everyone.

Today I read something absolutely splendid from the Labour Press team here:

In the first proposed major reform of the civil service Labour will announce that it will take action to make Whitehall more diverse.

In a speech to the IPPR on Tuesday, Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Dugher will say that Whitehall has become like a ‘closed shop’ and will announce targets for BME young people and those from working class background to join the elite the Fast Stream programme for future civil service leaders.

Michael Dugher will cite figures showing that the civil service has become more unrepresentative and say that Labour’s One Nation outlook extends to the make-up of Whitehall.

The press release goes on to report:

Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Dugher said:

“Labour would make sure kids from working class backgrounds can help run the country by busting open Whitehall. We want ordinary kids with extraordinary talents to be able to go from the classroom to the corridors of power.

“Politics can often feel distant and remote from working people – Labour’s answer is to put them at the heart of our system. We want a One Nation civil service which looks more like those it is intended to serve.

“The civil service is like a closed shop, with fewer women, fewer ethnic minorities and fewer kids with working class parents. Labour will create a new generation of civil service leaders which will change the culture of government.

“A Labour government would be One Nation in outlook as well as make-up. One of the greatest ambitions must be to help run your country and this should never be confined to one region, class or gender.”

So from my original and perhaps rather dry treatise on a challenge specific to southern England to a magnificent intentionality and possible implementation across the whole of the country by a future Labour government, we have the kind of courageous policy proposals which can bring both a decently representative and efficient politicking back to the centre-stage of our public life.

This evening I’ve been tweeting about the difficulties of swinging between political despondency and hope – something that’s certainly affected me of late, and perhaps has affected you too, in a way.

But if this is the sort of thing Labour is planning to announce over the next few months, and coming on top of its well-timed promise at the end of last week to repeal the so-called gagging law (a law which limits the ability of a complex, rich and extra-parliamentary civil society – ranging from charities to protest groups to trades unions to new journalistic discourse – to properly organise and agitate in favour of those with least power in society), then perhaps hope rather than despondency will after all be ours to fight on behalf of.

Bust the establishment wide open from within?  This is lovely lovely stuff.

More please, dear Labour!  Much more of this …

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