Published on April 26, 2010

What(s) a State? …election manifestos examined

The election manifestos are out! Involve examines the three party’s manifestos and the future citizen-state settlement…

The relationship between citizen and state. It’s a complex relationship of dependency and necessity weighted down in centuries of lofty political theory. It is worth recognising that an entire field of state actors, quangos and NGOs claiming to change the way citizens interact with the state – of which Involve is part – has developed during the last 13 years of Labour government and the long period of economic growth. This field has inevitably been shaped to some extent by the values of the government in power. So at Involve, it is with intrigue that we’ve poured through the various party manifestos that have appeared over the last few days.

And, we aren’t disappointed! All the parties have made this election one in which the future of the citizen-state settlement is at stake. The Conservative Party, in particular, has built its entire election manifesto around this theme. The title alone – Invitation to join the Government of Britain – leaves no doubt about where the lines of battle are drawn.

So, is this focus simply cosmetic; a contest of political rhetoric? Having spent an afternoon examining the three main party’s manifestos we’ve tried to come to some comparison on where these parties stand on the citizen-state settlement 2010.

Of all the manifestos, the Conservative’s gives perhaps the clearest vision in sound-bite form:

“We believe that the more responsibility you give people, the more responsibly they behave. That is why we are so determined to give people much more power and control over their lives. Citizens themselves should have a direct say over how they are governed – but not through bureaucratic consultations or phoney citizens juries, which never change anything. We need a totally different approach to governing, one that involves people in making the decisions that affect them. This is what we call collaborative democracy – people taking the kind of powers that until now have been exercised only by governments. So we want to pass power down to people – to individuals where we can. But it is not always possible to give power to individuals, and in those cases we need to push power down to the most appropriate local level: neighbourhood, community and local government.”

The Liberals too adopt a similar emphasis to the Conservatives but focus on formal devolution of power to collectives and institutions over the giving power to individuals:

“Liberal Democrats are the only party which believes in radical political reform to reinvent the way our country is run and put power back where it belongs: into the hands of people. We want to see a fair and open political system, with power devolved to all the nations, communities, neighbourhoods and peoples of Britain.”

Meanwhile, the Labour manifesto centres its focus on reviving trust in state institutions and extending its philosophy of empowerment:

“To forge a new constitutional and political settlement in Britain so that we restore trust in politics, and our political institutions are properly held to account by the people. The Tories oppose any real reform of the political system that has let the public down. Their policies would result in a postcode lottery based on ‘free-for-all’ localism rather than genuine empowerment and a future fair for all.

So, the rhetoric is similar – all parties talk about giving power to people and communities. This might give the appearance of a converging trend within mainstream political opinion, however there are quite clear and distinct differences between the approaches of each party, linked in main to their respective ideologies and values.

Early in Labour’s term in government there was a vogue for big show-piece deliberative events (often called Citizens’ Juries) on big questions ranging from health care to GM foods and nuclear power. The Government’s Communities in Control White Paper (2008) advanced what was termed the empowerment agenda. This agenda focused heavily on enabling people to have their say in the policy making process at the local level through techniques such as participatory budgeting and enshrined in legislation like the duty to involve. The emphasis came from the traditional collectivism and communitarianism of the left; advocating that the state should work with citizens in creating policy and delivering services. However, critics argued that this focus depoliticised the citizens’ relationship with the state. By putting the emphasis on public servants to “engage” citizens, the empowerment agenda is in many ways an extension of public sector management. While this does not detract from the potential value of citizens input into policy, it has led the term “empowerment” to be dismissed by critics as yet another piece of public sector jargon.

The Conservative’s have been critical of Labour’s use of big show-piece deliberative events to engage the public and have consistently asked questions in parliament about the cost and value of these. The Conservative’s green paper Control Shift (2009) outlined the party’s plans to devolve power to citizens – and like Labour focused on local government and communities. Unlike the focus of Communities in Control, this green paper advocated the introduction of a number of direct democracy initiatives such as vetoes on council tax rises, referenda on local issues to empower citizens. Underwriting this paper are traditional libertarian, conservative values encouraging non-state institutions, Burke’s “little platoons”, to self-organise against local government policies they oppose. Ultimately, the Conservative’s see the ballot box as the final arbiter in the relationship between citizen and state. Critics are likely to see the new Conservative emphasis on direct democracy as in some cases simply populism, such as potential referenda on membership of the EU. Others will question whether an emphasis on direct democracy risks being hijacked by small groups of well-organised extremists (as, for example, many argued would happen if directly policing representatives were introduced). Those supporters of deliberative democracy will also question the extent to which choices made through direct democracy mechanisms are informed by popular prejudices.

The Liberal Democrats have until recently given little indication of a clear agenda in the way the Conservatives or Labour have. The Party has historically had a strong ambition to reform the formal political mechanisms, focusing on the voting system, the House of Lords, and a written constitution. A heavy focus on shifting to a more proportional voting system, they argue, would make all votes meaningful unlike the current first-past-the-post system which discounts all votes not cast for the winner. The Conservatives counter, in their manifesto in fact, that the first-past-the post-system gives voters the opportunity “to kick out a government they are fed up with.” Other critics would note that these reforms would of course benefit the Liberals more than any other party.

But despite these differences in tradition, there are both trends and points of agreement in all party manifestos which highlight areas of where change will occur regardless of who is in power. All party manifestos emphasise the potential power of the internet to open up public information to citizens. By making data more open to the public the parties hope to stimulate innovation in the economy and find savings in state expenditure. All parties also propose to further democratise the health system by extending patient choice and giving communities greater control over local health services. For the Conservatives and Labour this is through extending Foundation Trusts while for the Liberals this would be achieved through the creation of local health boards. The final, and perhaps a surprising, area of agreement is in the emphasis of all parties on the importance of mutuals and co-operatives in local service provision. However, the limited detail of manifestos leaves us guessing to some extent about how these play out in practice.

Clearly there is both consensus and divide in the parties about how best to reconfigure the way we think about citizenship and the nation state in 2010. In looking for a common thread between all three parties it is perhaps useful to refer back to William Beveridge’s observation in the Beveridge report (1942), on which the modern welfare state was founded, in which he wrote: “social security must be achieved by the co-operation between the state and the individual.” We’ll have to wait until May to see which of these visions voters find most persuasive.

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