Thursday, 26 March 2009

Public Sector Blues & New Labour as a Personal Development Cult

It's almost always a mistake to believe that people who say stupid things are stupid. Generally they're not. Generally they're just incapable of seeing why they're so wrong because to do so would involve examining some deeply held, perhaps even unconsciously held, set of assumptions.

I take as my case in point David Blunkett who today tackles the phenomenon of opinion polls shows public sector workers preferring to vote Tory. How can this be he asks, when Labour have poured so many millions into the public sector? Briefly he considers whether this can be put down to,

".. the uncertainty arising out of radical reform of public services; a feeling of insecurity about whether the workforce is valued; and the general instability that comes with rapid change."

But, no, this doesn't make sense to the sage of Sheffield: privatisation worries might be ten fold more pertinent under the Tories. So Blunkett thinks it's because they're they're simple, frightened folk who don't really understand what is going on:

"The pressure to improve services and to overcome outdated practices has led to workers feeling that the devil they don't know is better than the devil they do. ....The simple fact is that they are expressing an instinctive opposition to those who are currently in charge - the present "establishment". It's not possible to believe that rational men and women would want to vote away their jobs, to undermine the public services to which they have devoted their lives. It has, therefore, to be much more about lashing out, expressing a feeling of insecurity and of fear."

Insecurity? Fear?I shall resist the temptation to refer Mr.Blunkett to the title of a book expressing the traditional Labour creed called, ahem, in Place of Fear. Because I don't believe that is the real reason why Labour are losing the loyalty of the public sector.

Quite apart from the fact many public sector workers can see that much of the so called 'massive' investment in public services has flowed straight out again in the form of exploitative PFI contracts, I think the real reason is that the Blairite 'modernisation' of public service has done the exact opposite of what it set out to do. In theory, it is all about dismantling unhelpful bureaucracy, focusing on the service user and breaking from 'provider capture'. In practice it has been experienced as the crushing of a strong, if inchoate, older ethos of public service, the imposition of huge new bureaucracies (especially around procurement and 'joint working') to achieve more and more marketisation of public services and a top down target driven regime. In short it has been about not trusting the public sector.

Thanks to the Fatman, I see some in academia are comparing this to Stalinism. & Mark Harrison, a genuine expert on Soviet economics, writes extremely entertainingly on this theme.

But for me it's the wrong analogy. New Labour aren't so much Stalinist as like one of those creepy Californian personal development cults: when they face criticism from public sector employees one can almost hear them muttering 'get with the programme' under their breathe. Change on the preset lines offered by the 'personal development' is self evidently good and resistance to change is obviously a sign of a lack of responsibility for one's own failings. The idea that the preset objectives of the course itself might be open for discussion is simply unthinkable. To raise such a possibility is threatening - after all, if these objectives are questionable why have so many people paid so much money to sit in a room doing the course in the first place?

I think what the opinion polls are saying is that the public sector workforce are silently slipping from the seminar room without waiting for the motivational personal development speaker to finish. Cult devotees like Blunkett may pursue them down the corridor haranguing them to come back and 'have the courage to change' but there is a grim determination in the stride of the staff as they head away from that softly intimidating atmosphere.

12 comments:

  1. "the public sector workforce are silently slipping from the seminar room without waiting for the motivational personal development speaker to finish". Good stuff, Charlie.

    "Cult devotees like Blunkett may pursue them down the corridor haranguing them to come back and 'have the courage to change' but there is a grim determination in the stride of the staff as they head away from that softly intimidating atmosphere".

    Unfortunately they appear determined to march through the door into the room where Dr. Cameron will be trying out his waterboarding experiments on the public sector.

    The mindset we need to change is that of both Blunkett and the workers, that it's a binary choice, Tory or Labour.

    Looking at the actual polling data, which CiF doesn't link to (presumably because it was The Times http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article5877365.ece ), I get the following figures:

    Sector - Tory - Lab - LibDem - Other
    Private 45-29-17-9
    Public 38-26-23-13

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  2. Hi Strategist. Perhaps this is me clutching at straws, but I am interested in the breakdown of those 13% (public sector) or 9% (private sector) 'others'. I wonder how many of them in Scotland and Wales might be Plaid or SNP voters? Since I regard both of these groups as to the Left of New Labour - Plaid is genuinely social democratic, the SNP is simply to the left of Labour, which isn't necessarily very hard - I would see this as a positive development.

    In England, though, I fear that most of these 'others' can be accounted for by growth in BNP support amongst, especially, manual workers and, to a lesser extent, Green support amongst white collar workers, especially in the public and voluntary sectors. I hope I'm wrong about this.

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  3. "I am interested in the breakdown of those 13% (public sector) or 9% (private sector) 'others'."

    Me too! But they never tell you. That the others exist rarely rates a mention and even more rarely an analysis. If we had PR they surely would, because in both public & private sectors the others hold the balance of power between Tory and Lab+Lib.

    If this poll has been done correctly then the others attributable to SNP and Plaid should be fairly small, Scotland+Wales amounting to about 12% of the GB population.

    My guess is that others split about 50/50 left of Labour/right of Tory. And it's not just about the BNP and the Greens, others like UKIP and Respect remain of some significance (above 1%). Odd parties like the Christian Alliance also poll surprisingly well for their zero mainstream profile.

    The Euro election battle in North West England is a race for fourth place between the BNP and the Greens, some good stuff on Peter Cranie's blog about this.

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  4. Remember also these are General Election voting intentions, which therefore include intended tactical voting. Real support for "others" is far higher. There is of course an unspoken conspiracy not to draw attention to that.

    At the London elections last year others were well above that figure - at 26% in the London-wide Assembly seats.

    In London in 2008 the Greens got 8.4% out of a total 12.1% for "left of Labour" parties and the BNP 5.4% out of 14.1% for "right of Tory" parties (categorising Christians and Congestion Charge Abolishers as right of Tory).

    At the 2004 Euros, "In fact, one-third - 33.4% - of all votes cast in Britain in 2004 went to minor parties." says http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/ukfs_news/hi/newsid_7940000/newsid_7948600/7948612.stm

    ...although I can't find the nationwide share of vote on a quick look in Google.

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  5. Wikipedia is a surprisingly reliable source for most election results.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Parliament_election,_2004_(United_Kingdom)

    2004 : UKIP 16.1%/ Greens 6.3%/BHP 4.9%/Respect 1.5%

    My gut feeling is that the UKIP vote has significantly declined, but I could be wrong.

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  6. Surely the UKIP vote will, must collapse from 16%. I guess with the Euro issue off the boil much of that will return to the Tories, but some will go to the Irishman's Eu democracy party, and some presumably must go to the BNP, who may well pick up some of UKIP's seats.

    I'd love to see the Greens pick up seats in NW & SW England, but I guess I'd be relieved if they just held on to what they already have in SE England and London.

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  7. "My gut feeling is that the UKIP vote has significantly declined, but I could be wrong."

    It's been drawn to my attention that the UKIP vote might or might not have declined, but the basic motivation behind such a vote hasn't. 55% of people want to withdraw from the EU in the latest opinion poll. http://tinyurl.com/d4r2cw

    I'm fairly depressed now.

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