What really is new about this Government's 'New Politics'?
Richard Wilson examines what really is new about this Government’s ‘New Politics’, and identifies three opportunities and three threats to making it deliver real change this time.
‘Today the new Prime Minister promised to champion a “new type of politics” where people got more involved’ and he would seek to “rebuild trust in politics”.’ Sound familiar? This is how the BBC reported Brown’s nomination to succeed Tony Blair on 17 May 2007.
Almost exactly three years on and we have seen another new Prime Minister, offering another ‘new politics’. Though this time it feels a lot fresher. On Tuesday 18 May 2010, Clegg and Cameron launched the Big Society in their first joint public engagement since the initial press conference last week. Cameron said, “It’s about decentralising power, about empowering communities.” Clegg promised, “the most significant programme of empowerment by a British government since the great reforms of the 19th Century.” And finally yesterday The Coalition programme for government was published with a section (27) dedicated to ‘Social Action’.
Many of the ideas are not new, but much of their framing is – and this makes all the difference. For all this talk of ‘new politics’, what counts is what works.
I have identified three successes that need to be maintained as things solidify over coming weeks and months, and three challenges that the new political alliance must address soon if this new politics is to deliver.
Fresh people & approach – simply bringing in new personnel, such as Nat Wei, head of the Big Society, creates a freshness and openness. It ensures all of us, myself included, breakout of our historic prejudices and perceptions. For too long civil society organisations (new and old) have made assumptions about what community development really means, or how to conduct empowerment. Mind-set inertia sets in fast, and there’s no better example of this than UK civic social media, obsessed with tools and ‘doing one thing well’ – a mantra that is old hat in Barcelona and San Francisco.
Commitment to decentralisation – the most needed change is the commitment to decentralisation. We know that many of Labours’ projects were hampered by excessive targets and over prescription. Local government needs to be more local and assigned more power to govern. Eric Pickles and Cameron do seem totally committed to this agenda; and the signs I get from the GLA is that Boris Johnson’s reign, though not trouble-free, has been liberating in terms of a less top-down management style.
Constitutional change – the comprehensive commitment to constitutional change is also vital and impressive. This however leads me on to perhaps my most fundamental concern.
Tackling social trends – if there’s one thing we know about building a ‘big society,’ it’s that serious challenges are not about institution building, that’s the easy part, they’re about tackling corrosive social trends. Trends like poverty, community breakdown, deep disempowerment and low self esteem. A major failure of the Labour Government on this agenda was focusing too much on why institutions needed community involvement, not why the community wanted to be involved.
Learn from mistakes – the evaluations of patient forums, a £100m failed experiment in ‘new politics’, found that they didn’t work because they didn’t give community members the opportunity to speak about matters they cared about. So, in our dash to build a shiny new ‘big society,’ let’s base our approach on the extensive learning’s we’ve made over recent years, not repeat the failures of the previous government.
New does not always mean better – my final challenge is that not everything needs to be new. I know it’s simpler to build new programmes, with new money and new people. We have a rich and in many ways unrivalled civil society in the UK that has benefited a great deal from Labour Government funding. Some of it has become bloated and ineffective, but there are many areas of excellent practice and thinking. Envision and Patient Opinion are very different examples of effectively empowering people.
We also have a wealth of people like Belinda Pratten, Head of Policy at NCVO, and Professor Gerry Stoker from the Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, who ensure we take the long view, and that we learn from our mistakes and build upon our existing intellectual and civic foundations.
The shine of this new government and its new politics will fade, but its effectiveness need not. We must therefore focus not so much on building new programmes or institutions but on projects which work.