Friday, January 29, 2010

More Red Tory Rubbish

Leading "Red Tories" Philip Blond and John Milbank were responsible for an utterly bizzare article in yesterday's Guardian (No equality in opportunity 28/1/10) in which they argued that a synthesis of old Tory and traditional left ideas was the only way to achieve a "genuinely egalitarian society". Their response to the National Equality Panel's report was to question the whole basis of "equality of opportunity". According to them the "rhetoric of egalitarian opportunity means that everyone who doesn't succeed is defined as a failure. Such contempt reinforces inequality". But who is it who is defining people as failures in this way? The authors assert this without any argument and then go onto argue the even more bizarre premise that "equality of opportunity is ... wholly synonymous with a market without morals and a meritocracy without merit". They then make weird Platonic appeals to "virtue" as their key concept (but of course they fail to say what they mean by it): "the more we seek to link social and economic prestige with virtue, then the more we can hope for good financial and political leaders possessed of compassion and integrity". A circular argument if ever there was one. But what they fail to remember is that it is precisely those "masters of the .universe" who recently wrecked our economy who are best at linking their own riches - their social and economic prestige - with their own virtue. Indeed this is effectively what "greed is good" actually means in the modern era. The Red Tories, instead of challenging this , actually end up by celebrating "a hierarchy of excellence" which looks uncommonly like Britain's current class structure. I can't understand why anyone takes them seriously!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Right on target
‘It may be unfashionable to say so, but targets have repeatedly been shown in fact to work’. So says Peter Preston (Guardian 25/1/10 "In defence of box ticking"). So targets and regulations do work in some situations - horror of horrors! Yes of course some targets can introduce perverse incentives (taking the wheels off trolleys and calling them beds, keeping snowed-in schools closed because of Ofsted etc.) Targets also need to capture quality as well as quantity and serious damage can be caused when they don't or when they set one against another. Yes box ticking and bureaucracy can be a pain in the arse but actually it is almost always a great deal better than nothing. Indeed sometimes it is the only sensible way of recording and then describing what you are doing so that you can improve it.

There is such a reaction by the Tories to the notion of regulations and centrally decided targets and the "target driven approach" that we should smell a rat and look for the ideological prejudice that is making such a smell under the floorboards. This suspicion of targets and “box-ticking” has become a central part of the current Zeitgeist. Actually I think it is part of an overall attack on public services as a whole. As Peter Preston points out cutting this kind of red tape is the Tories holy grail (and like the grail it is of course wholly unobtainable). This drive "against bureaucracy" as Preston says comes from a world 'where painless cuts may somehow magically be made as control potters down from Whitehall and nestles in the snug heart of "community"' As he goes on to say: ''nobody meaningful anywhere on the political spectrum dissents from community sanctification these days' (this blog is I hope an honourable exception!) and yet the evidence from a substantial study conducted by the Economic and Social Research Council shows that yes, in fact targets do often work. The recent Nuffield Trust's report showed that where there is more target-setting (England and Wales) NHS services are measurably more effective than they are where such targets are less prevalent (Scotland)

Where targets are sensible and designed to produce strong performance management, measure real quality and promote success they are an indispensable tool. The increasing Tory (and sadly New Labour) rhetoric against central government and the state has as a core project the attempt to get us to deny this and to seek solace in "the community" and local “choice”. Targets are seen as centralised and bureaucratic obstacles to "choice" and "flexibility". But on further analysis much of this choice and flexibility is only for the rich and results in a growing post code lottery for everyone else (which actually is deeply unpopular). One reason the Police don't like keeping records and "would rather be out on the beat" could also be that the data not only shows little that is reassuring about their performance but also pinpoints many of their biases for all to see - differential stop and search across ethnic groups for example. Record keeping confirms that some Police authorities are very much better at clearing up certain types of crime than others. This box ticking provides vital information if good practice is to take root – and in my view is time and money much better spent then Police officers cruising around aimlessly in squad cars or carrying out stop and searches on hundreds of thousands of people resulting in only a few arrests.

As Peter Preston says 'communities aren't much of a help when hard decisions have to be made'. And this is especially the case when “communities” are allowed to make crucial decisions and judgements about their own performance. Prison Officers, Police, newspaper proprietors and bankers all spring to mind as “communities” who seem incapable of sensible self-regulation. Without an external regulating mechanism that has access to real, targeted and accurate information we know how things are bound to turn out and who will end up in charge again! Of course we all would like good services to be provided for local people and we would like them provided equitably and effectively. However, the answer to this is not just radical localism and choice but rather it is targets and standards that can be enforced. Service providers will only work effectively in the long run where there is an active civil society to call them to account and a strong state to regulate them and redistribute resources between them.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Why don't we see the state as "good"

Tony Judt is quite right (Guardian 9/1/10), over the last 40 years western democracies have forgotten the positive virtues of collective action. "We've lost the ability to talk about the state in positive terms". We have privatised the notion of change and have lost the notion of social solidarity: "This is the second generation of people who can't imagine change except in their own lives, who have no sense of social collective public goods or services, who are just isolated individuals desperately striving to better themselves above everybody else."

I think that a key part of this privatisation process has been the promotion of a spurious and nostalgic sense of "community" as a core organising principle, the primary mode of description for how people associate with each other within the confines of the market. It is only in this attenuated world of "community" (which characteristically rules out social or state action) where any kind of mutuality or cooperation is held to operate. Rather than a dynamic and collective notion of the state and a wider society acting as a redistributive and regulatory check on the worst excesses of individualism, we end up with a quasi-religious intermediate realm of nuclearised and marketised community that acts to discourage real change and social or international solidarity. This is not to try to reinstate a kind of Stalinism. It is merely to point out that local activity based on neighbourhood, locality or "community of interest or identity" is only going to be effective in achieving real change in partnership with an enabling, active and redistributive state. An active and vibrant civil society is a necessary but not sufficient condition for progress. Even if we are no longer "bowling alone" but associating actively with others in our localities and neighbourhoods does not mean that we are doing so in ways that produce positive change. After all this is what a gang does - associating with others is as likely to be destructive or ineffectual as it is to be constructive and progressive. It is the social purpose of these associations - what they are for, what they do - that make them productive or not. Without a supportive state many forms of association will either continue to exhibit a desire to keep things just as they are or exhibit all the worst aspects of powerless oppositionalism.