New Labour’s out-of-control freakery

Yes, the UK government under Blair, and now Brown, has tried to micro-manage our daily lives. But it is Labour's outsourcing of political responsibility, rather than its control-freakery, that has killed politics.

James Heartfield

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Chris Dillow’s book The End of Politics scores some notable hits in its spirited assault on what he calls (not-so) New Labour’s ‘managerialism’. Dillow is on the button when he says that under Tony Blair Labour’s hymns to change represented the death of politics – though Dillow’s idea of what politics is has its own limitations.

Dillow makes a good case that ex-Prime Minister Blair’s single-minded elevation of change shows a disturbingly closed idea of what political choice could mean. Change in the Blair lexicon is a mechanical process that people are supposed to get used to, rather than something that they themselves make. As Dillow points out, what Blair meant was that the outcome of change was beyond debate.

This is what Dillow means when he accuses Labour of managerialism. He is arguing that for this government, political questions are not open-ended, or debatable, but simply concern expert management. Dillow unpicks the meaning of the New Labour rhetoric to show that what is left out of the equation is just what politics is – debate over what choices are to be made.

Here, though, Dillow’s criticisms smuggle in a long-standing Tory prejudice. In attacking ‘managerialism’, he makes it stand for overweaning rationalism – such as we find in the caricatures of rationalism crafted by the likes of Thomas Carlyle or Jonathan Swift. Those high-Tory humanists were scathing about the hubris of the rationalists, who imagined that they could see into the future and shape human destiny.

Dillow did not learn the Tory criticism of rationalism firsthand, but read it as it was smuggled into the Cold War liberalism of Isaiah Berlin, Wilfredo Pareto and Friedrich Hayek. For, though those free-market ideologues posed as liberals, their hostility to big government led them to argue that all attempts to steer society would end in disaster.

Of course, the Tory critique of the conceits of government is often right, just not fundamentally so. It is definitely true, as Dillow remarks, that wiser heads would have understood that it was not possible to make a secular liberal government in Iraq by force. But relatively right about the limitations of elite-based administrations in economically decentred societies, the Tory critique is at root a prejudice against the human potential for self-government.

So Dillow is right that Labour is hiding behind rhetoric when it says that we can have both (market) efficiency and egalitarian outcomes. Dillow’s point is that politics means exactly the difficult (‘tragic’, he says) choices that one has to make – that is, if you want efficient markets, then you must put up with some inequality. But if the point is well-made in the moment, Dillow is still making a fetish out of present-day conditions, without understanding how economic growth takes us on to a new place, where these old oppositions that seemed so unavoidable simply fall away.

Dillow’s writing has an attractively pedantic style, an eclectic mix of rational choice economics that he seems to have honed writing for the Investors’ Chronicle along with some more eclectic reading on right and left. He makes many good points along the way. In particular, his account of how Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 General Election by winning over the unskilled ‘C2’ voters, just as she was losing the wealthier AB professionals, is striking, showing as it does that Old Labour had singularly failed to generate egalitarian outcomes. Dillow is sharp, too, to notice that the welfare state, too often seen by defenders and critics alike as a subsidy to the poor, in fact gave out much more to the middle classes.

Unfortunately for him, though, Dillow’s most closely argued illustrations of New Labour’s failures are not so compelling. He is good when he explains that the integration of the global market is overstated and so a poor explanation for the limitations of government, and astute, too on the credentialism of education. But he is less sharp when he tries to argue that, despite evidence to the contrary, the minimum wage really did price people out of work (the error here is to take the form of the thing too literally: instead of pushing wages up, the real effect of the minimum wage was to hold them down, part and parcel of the containment of wages that did indeed lead to an expansion of the workforce). Worse still, it is difficult to get worked up about the mismanagement of the economy when it has delivered 10 years of steady growth.

More to the point, there is something not quite right about Dillow’s fixation on New Labour’s ‘control freakery’. Of course it is true that they have got a bit overexcited about targets for health and children’s play (although Dillow does not seem to have picked up that the Downing Street policy unit went so far as to draw up a paper on how to change people’s behaviour).

But still, Labour’s determination to attend to every detail of personal behaviour runs alongside an even greater trend to retreat from political control. So just as ‘control-freakery’ in questions of health and social welfare seems to be overbearing, the real threat to politics is somewhat different. It was well illustrated in a speech by the constitutional affairs minister Lord Falconer a few years ago, which is worth quoting at length:

‘What governs our approach is a clear desire to place power where it should be: increasingly not with politicians, but with those best fitted… to deploy it. Interest rates are not set by politicians in the Treasury, but by the Bank of England. Minimum wages are not determined by the Department of Trade and Industry, but by the Low Pay Commission. Membership of the House of Lords will be determined not in Downing Street, but in an independent Appointments Commission. This depoliticising of key decision-making is a vital element in bringing power closer to the people.’

Colin Hay, who quotes this passage in a book reviewed previously on spiked by David Chandler, writes ‘there is something strangely perverse about politicians, like Lord Falconer … effectively pronouncing themselves unfit to govern and declaring enthusiastically their commitment to depoliticisation’ (see Why does Gordon Brown hate politics?, by David Chandler). Hay’s is in the end a better account of the end of politics, because he understands that Labour’s managerialism is not just crowding politics out; rather it is what fills the vacuum when politics is in abeyance. Hay is sharp to notice that the way that the ruling class rules is by, perversely, denying that it is ruling, and by outsourcing responsibilities to expert managers. That, rather than the control-freakery that Dillow fixes on, is a better explanation of Labour’s managerialism, and of what is really killing politics today.

James Heartfield is a writer and researcher based in London. Visit his website here.

The End of Politics: New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism by Chris Dillow is published by Harriman House. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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