New Labour, power and ‘egalitarian capitalism’


by Sunny
28th March, 2009 at 11:05 am    

Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society highlights a speech by cabinet minister James Purnell. Here’s an excerpt:

What would egalitarian capitalism mean for policy?

It means the left no longer needs to be shy about equality. But we should be smart about it. We can’t create equality in the old way. We can’t simply take money from one set of people and give it to another, and call that equality. That is a palliative. It is trying to compensate for an unequal society not trying to tackle its causes.

Instead, the left needs to remember that it started off as a movement about power. We need to recognise that income inequality is just part of a wider struggle against the inequality of power. The greatest injustice is when people cannot achieve their goals because someone else with power stops them. The credit crunch was a power failure. Too much power was invested in bankers and too little in regulators. Too much power went to the market and too little to democracy. We had the power all in the wrong place – too concentrated, too many bankers with monopoly power. So disperse the power and don’t allow one interest to predominate.

All this may be true, but Labour politicians have this amazing ability to say the right things in front of an audience and get them fired up, and then do the complete office opposite when back in their offices. I’ve seen Hazel Blears at close range talk about how she wanted the Labour party to get in touch with its grassroots!

Power. I love that word. The best book I ever read about ‘power’ is Rules For Radicals, by Saul Alinsky. His is a book aimed at people who want to understand power relationships and build people-movements that empower them to get their rights. You may not be surprised to hear that Saul Alinsky was a community organiser and was Obama’s inspiration. The book is excellent.

But a government committed to dispersing power would want to push through more decentralisation and give local people control over their own lives. It would be a government interested in building civil society institutions that can even challenge them. A Labour government committed to dispersing power would aim to strengthen the Trade Unions and would openly listen to NGOs (thus encouraging them to grow).

James Purnell has no record on this, other than making speeches that sound very centre-left but actually mean little in practice. The only way people can get power is to get themselves organised and run an insurgency campaign to pull power away from the government, whether it likes it or not. We can’t rely on politicians to hand it out.


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  1. pickles

    New blog post: New Labour, power and ‘egalitarian capitalism’ http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/3962


  2. Eh?

    [...] Sunder Katwala, Fabian Society. [...]




  1. Refresh — on 28th March, 2009 at 11:32 am  

    ‘A Labour government committed to dispersing power would aim to strengthen the Trade Unions and would openly listen to NGOs (thus encouraging them to grow).’

    Agreed. What we have had is a government centralising power by co-opting the Trade Unions, the NGOs and beyond. The problem is they even attempted to hijack the leadership of these organisations. You might recall the attempts to shoo-in Jack Dromie as leader of his union so that it would not resist any changes Blair had planned.

    This attempt at coercing the MCB to fall in line with Blears, is simply an attempt to force through changes in everybody else so it covers the government’s own failings.

  2. Riz Din — on 28th March, 2009 at 11:58 am  

    “The only way people can get power is to get themselves organised and run an insurgency campaign to pull power away from the government, whether it likes it or not.”

    I refer you to my earlier picture: http://i39.tinypic.com/10n7vus.jpg

    Purnell seems to be talking general political mumbo with no substance … again! The idea of dispersing the power and not allowing one interest to predominate is great but as Sunny says the record does not suggest this is happening. That he calls the financial crisis a power failure is woefully inadequate and it suggests that if you fix you power failure the crisis wouldn’t have happened. While power issues and regulatory issues need to be addressed I would argue that problems that should be focussed are the common themes that occur through other bubbles such as informational assymmetaries and low costs of financing.

    More generally, if you read the speech, there are no specifics about how power is or will be devolved, but I can give examples of our freedoms being taken away. It is just wish-wash.

  3. billericaydicky — on 28th March, 2009 at 1:11 pm  

    This is just more of the “third way” of 1997, whatever happened to that? One of the first things Gordon Brown did was to let the Bank of England set interest rates.

    What Labour are doing is panicking. They have alienated their core vote over a number of things some which are asylum, immigration and Islam and, like Livingstone, are now paying the price. They haven’t got time to do any reconnecting with those people and all they are doing now is rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

    What you will also see are a lot of Labour Mps who are going to be unemployed in about a year looking for cushy consultancies in think tanks where they can earn loads of money peddling snake oil cures and ju ju medicine.

  4. Sunny — on 28th March, 2009 at 1:23 pm  

    Riz you genius! lol!

  5. Riz Din — on 28th March, 2009 at 1:53 pm  

    hah, glad you like…I kept the more compromising one’s aside for blackmailing purposes when you rise through the ranks of power!

  6. David Jones — on 28th March, 2009 at 4:12 pm  

    Removed my post? Because I twittered that you had never heard of the Central Limit Theorem?

    Ha ha ha. Oh dear.

  7. dave bones — on 28th March, 2009 at 5:10 pm  

    Another way of course is to make change in Politicians interests to be associated with.

  8. douglas clark — on 28th March, 2009 at 8:39 pm  

    Sunny,

    The only way people can get power is to get themselves organised and run an insurgency campaign to pull power away from the government, whether it likes it or not. We can’t rely on politicians to hand it out.

    Me, and that nice Mr Anthony Barnett both loved the idea of an insurgency. But what sort of insurgency do you want to run, and how?

    There are a lot of people alienated from the Westminster village formulaic politics that might, I say might deliberately, be willing to help upset the apple cart, but it isn’t a gimme.

  9. qidniz — on 28th March, 2009 at 10:27 pm  

    …and then do the complete office when back in their offices.

    Should that be “complete opposite” or is it an idiom of which I’m not aware? (“No one expected Sunny to do the complete office…”)

  10. MaidMarian — on 29th March, 2009 at 12:32 am  

    ‘But a government committed to dispersing power would want to push through more decentralisation and give local people control over their own lives.’

    That is working on the assumption that government exists in s a vacuum and is not subject to the real-world pressures that demand that, ‘something must be done.’

    Decentralisation is the promotion of inequality. Nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but without a mindset geared to there being regional winners and losers it is a recipe for gripes.

    Show me a national newspaper that will not rant and rave about, ‘postcode lotteries,’ or who will not cover a popular cause done over by localism.

    Crikey, Thatcher was big on localism right up to the point that the GLA elections went the wrong way.

    Forget localism Sunny, it is a busted flush that appeals to no one but the internet chatterati. Everyone loves localism right up to the point that it works in a way they don’t like. Beating up the minister (and I see the mandatory dig at Blears makes it inane way into the article) over local issues is the worst of all worlds. You are aiming at totally the wrong target here – you can not legislate a mindset. What do you want government to do – decry the public for appealing to it? Get real.

    Forget the naive Alinsky, for a real discussion of power read Robert Michels

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Michels

  11. dave bones — on 29th March, 2009 at 2:19 am  

    Really. What about transition towns? Surely that is localism straight from the “grassroots”.

  12. Tim Worstall — on 29th March, 2009 at 11:42 am  

    “But a government committed to dispersing power would want to push through more decentralisation and give local people control over their own lives.”

    Quite. Give the power back to the people in fact. Each autonomous individual decides how to live their own life, constrained only by the necessity of not tramplping on the rights of others to do the same.

    There’s even a code word we use to describe those who advocate such policies. “Liberal”. As in JS Mill, the classical liberals. You know, get the State out of the way and let people get on with things.

    Laissez faire even.

    Glad to see you modern liberals are coming around the the one true faith at last.

  13. piggy — on 29th March, 2009 at 12:08 pm  

    Strangely, I don’t completely hate what Purnell is saying which is a first. Although this:

    “We can’t simply take money from one set of people and give it to another, and call that equality. That is a palliative. It is trying to compensate for an unequal society not trying to tackle its causes.”

    is bullshit. If you give people more money, you give them greater control over their lives. There’s a bunch of other stuff that needs to be done as well, but if you’re talking about equality and not serious about redistribution of wealth, you’re just flapping your gums.

    The other thing is, and it’s not something I feel particularly comfortable about, you won’t get much done in terms of proper reforms without quite a bit of centralised power. This is true for both right and left: It doesn’t really matter whether you want to dismantle or strengthen the welfare state or whether you’re taking on the NUM or the city of London. If you don’t have the governmental tools to push your reforms through, all those closely argued think-tank pamphlets are basically overly elaborate chip wrappers.

  14. Riz Din — on 29th March, 2009 at 12:22 pm  

    Tim, sounds kind of close to libertarianism, which I guess old school liberalism used to be largely indistinguishable from.

    ‘That government is best which governs least.’ – Thomas Jefferson

  15. Sunny — on 29th March, 2009 at 2:13 pm  

    Quite. Give the power back to the people in fact. Each autonomous individual decides how to live their own life, constrained only by the necessity of not tramplping on the rights of others to do the same.

    Partly, Tim. The danger with the autonomous individual narrative is that it raises the concerns that MaidMarian raises above.

    It’s not the vision I have in mind. In fact I envision a society which is chock-full of civic society orgs that people get involved in, to decide their local future and make decisions through democratic process.

    There is this rather absurd paranoia on the left that any sort of decentralisation will lead to local councils being dominated by Trots or right-wing nutjobs. I don’t think that is necessarily the case – as long as insitutions are genuinely open and accessible.

    Nevertheless, I’m in favour of decentralisation and local community participation as a way of making decisions – rather than leaving central authorities to decide one-size-fits-all solutions.

  16. MaidMarian — on 29th March, 2009 at 2:40 pm  

    Sunny – ‘There is this rather absurd paranoia on the left that any sort of decentralisation will lead to local councils being dominated by Trots or right-wing nutjobs.’

    Sort of – but it goes a bit wider than that. One reason for example that I am against proportional representation is that I don’t much like the thought of Revd Ian Paisley’s 1.5% of the vote holding the balance of power.

    You are correct that open and accessible institutions are a big part of the answer, but so long as the public look to the national level once open and accessible institutions go against them, localism is a busted flush.

    It’s not just things like race-relations either. Take banking. Suppose that Northern Rock style queues formed at a local credit union – the minister would surely have to step in. That is, localism works to the point that it fails.

    Civil society is no doubt the answer to many of the problems we face today, but I am not 100% sure that localism is the way to stimulate it.

  17. Tim Worstall — on 29th March, 2009 at 6:06 pm  

    “In fact I envision a society which is chock-full of civic society orgs that people get involved in, to decide their local future and make decisions through democratic process.”

    Absolutely fine by me. In fact, that’s what actually happened from about 1690 onwards (that was the first time you could set up a club or an organisation without having to get permission). That’s where sports clubs, drinking ones, mutuals, provident societies, the Co Op, etc etc came from.

    All fine by me, all what Burke called the “little platoons” which make up society.

    However, I fear that there might well be one difference between my ecstatic approach to such organisations and yours.

    If people want to get together to do something it’s called freedom of association. Excellent stuff, just as important to a free society as freedom of speech. However, those groups only get to decide what goes on for those who have voluntarily joined and by doing so submitted to that democracy, that group decision making.

    I have the horrible feeling that your type of civil society gets to decide what everyone does. Is able to impose their “democratic will” upon those wo have not volunteered to join the group.

    Which just ain’t very liberal to my mind.

  18. Sunny — on 29th March, 2009 at 6:13 pm  

    I have the horrible feeling that your type of civil society gets to decide what everyone does. Is able to impose their “democratic will” upon those wo have not volunteered to join the group.

    Well, that applies to national voting too right? After all, anyone can register to vote and make a choice. If they don’t choose to, then they can’t complain that they didn’t get involved in the decision making process.

    Why shouldn’t that apply to more local decision making?

  19. Shamit — on 29th March, 2009 at 7:58 pm  

    Blair was pro localism and those days in education, local administration — there was a lot o power passed down and even Tories admit that.

    But since people like Balls and Brown finally got their levers on power things went radically opposite. And Balls is a famous son of the Fabian Society.

    So, this post attacking blears and purnell is a bit hypocritical — why is Balls name not there?

    Is it Fabian brotherhood at work? Just asking

  20. Refresh — on 30th March, 2009 at 8:50 am  

    ‘If they don’t choose to, then they can’t complain that they didn’t get involved in the decision making process.

    Why shouldn’t that apply to more local decision making?’

    I completely disagree with the notion that you have to have gone and participated in ballots to have played your part. Abstention is a crucial element as are ‘none of the above’ and ‘spoilt’ ballots.

    Policies would ordinarily come out of small groups, percolated through communities and into the political mainstream via the constituency political parties and other affiliates.

    Think tanks and ‘institutes’ of ideas are a problem in as much as they are part of the lobby system and do not have any foundations within local communities.

  21. MaidMarian — on 30th March, 2009 at 11:34 am  

    Refresh – Sorry, I don’t buy this line about, ‘think tanks and ‘institutes’ of ideas are a problem in as much as they are part of the lobby system and do not have any foundations within local communities.’

    Lobbying may take on a different form on a localised basis, but one of my big problems with localism is that it is very easy for smaller units of governance to be held hostage by powerful lobby groups.

    Suppose, say, a localised NHS decision-making process decided to make cancer treatment a lower priority. The powerful cancer charities and their mates in the media would be down so hard and so fast the NHS decision-maker would not know what had hit him/her.

    A system of localism would give high-profile interests and their lobbying operation enormous power. Indeed, see the local opposition groups to wind-farms for an example of how quickly such interests can form and operate.

    It is the nature of politics as power relations that lobbies and interests exist. That governance is localised does not somehow change that.

    I have no problem with localism as such, but to think that localism diminishes the power of lobbying is fanciful.

    Here’s one – how about a local group that lobbies the council planning authority to enforce a rule that all mosques must not have a minaret. Such anti-Islam interest groups are big in German localism and the first thing that always happens is an appeal to a higher level of government. Might is right or democratic local purity? You do not always get these things at the same time.

    Localism is a double edged sword and one that has never convinced me.

  22. The Queen of Fiddlesticks — on 30th March, 2009 at 6:57 pm  

    everything just goes from one extreme to the next.
    I imagine if you go back to the beginning it started with a family that became a tribe then a monarchy into some establishment (mostly religious) – which lead to a centralized government … I know there a massive differences in US – UK, everything… but to me the only people who would want to radically change the government to give power back to people in a localized fashion… are ones who love power …. but you did say you love that word, sorry but so do millions of other people.
    some pros and cons of what you see as a solution .. http://tinyurl.com/d5lash
    haha things always sound so good, and even start well most times, but it is in no way “progressive”.
    Maybe it is me but I thought you already had local governments .. though I agree there is no one size fits all. But sometimes what people WANT is the opposite of what they actually NEED. I’m sorry but there is no lack of community service out there either ….
    I know there was a balanced attempt to think here .. but in this quest for equality, has anyone considered the competition this creates in society?
    A right to education once ment simple things like reading writing and arithmetic … now it gives the entire world a bachelors degree.
    People used to start at the bottom and work their way up …
    I give up today

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