I was asked that question recently when I was arguing against some proposition which I found logically untenable but which my opponent considered a badge of belonging to “the left”. It’s a valid, though dauntingly huge question, and I’ll try to begin to answer it here with reference to one subject which has been in my mind recently. But first some history…
I’ve spent the last ten years grappling with civil law-suits and arbitrations brought by or defended by companies, non-corporate organisations or governments. Anyone who used to know a person who became a corporate lawyer will be aware that these unfortunates don’t have much time to spare. In my case what little free time I did have was all too often invaded by work. I often used to lie in my bed and dream about the other side’s witnesses and lawyers (and not in a good way either). Freewheeling philosophising always seemed too much of a luxury when there were so many things to do, and there always were. It was a bit like being in the SWP….
When I first became a lawyer John Major had just won his first general election, Yugoslavia was only beginning to unravel and Al Qaeda were pretty much unknown in the West. Much of the political events which took place in 1990’s passed me by without me being able to get as much of a grip on them as I would have liked. The civil war in Bosnia made as much sense to me as the civil war in the Lebanon and I still can’t give you much useful analysis on either event.
Now that I’ve finally cut loose from the City to pursue my own path I’ve got the time to reflect on what it might mean to be a progressive in 2003. The ten year “break” from politics may also be helpful in any attempt to begin to answer the question because I don’t have any rigid positions to defend and I’m in the enviable position of having 20/20 vision.
So how has my thinking changed ? Here’s one example which concerns the provision of public services .
Compared with my attitude in the past when I was an orthodox “statist” who believed that the state was the best body to resolve contradictions in society I am much more critical of the ability of the state to provide effective social services to the right target than I used to be. There is a distressing amount of evidence to show that provision of such services by central government via local councils generates, as a by-product, enormous waste of what should be considered communal funds. This waste takes many forms but includes a huge amount of money spent on fraudulant claimants and services which do little to improve the lives of those it is meant to help. To give just one example the amount of people who claim to have suffered incapacity at work and now live by generous state-handout has increased by three times since 1982. This should strike anyone as strange since we practically don’t have any heavy-industry left in the country and the scheme was set up to alleviate the suffering of those who worked in mines and blast-furnaces.
Of course, as soon as you say to a typical Guardian reader that enormous waste exists in any part of the state-sector and that waste should be minimised as far as possible you are automatically assumed to be arguing from a “right-wing” position and therefore your argument is dismissed. What the Guardian reader should do at this point, rather than turn away smugly, is to leave the wine bar and take a trip to the Working Men’s Club. He’ll find that the beer drinker there is much more interested in what happens to his tax once the state has got hold of it than the Guardian reader might have imagined. The beer-drinker may also be able to point out in person those who accept money from the state due to their so-called incapacitating illness but who manages to dig their garden without apparant problem. The average working-class person is generally pretty intolerant of money being wasted. This is shown by the popularity of the Sun’s campaigns against benefit cheats and loony behaviour by local councils which strike a poweful chord. We shouldn’t imagine that we can ignore this, nor should we.
Local councils also seem to spend as much money “training” their staff to think in the same blinkered way as they do on alleviating real distress. It wouldn’t be so bad if all this training made council-staff better at their jobs but, to give one example, even a cursory examination of the facts disclosed in of the recent Victoria Climbie case will show that the social work department which should have acted to protect Victoria Climbie and save her life was incapable of seeing the appalling abuse she suffered before she died. Thanks to the so-called training undertaken by everyone in the department those who examined Victoria were able to explain away her injuries to their own satisfaction as the result of “cultural differences” in the way that Afro-Carribeans brought up their children. It didn’t seem to occur to them that cigarette burns on a six year old were way beyond normal discipline or that Africa has never been part of the Carribean. That case is sadly by no means unique. Speak to any social worker for further examples.
So where is this leading ? So what if there is some waste and incompetence in the provision of social services ? It happens in the private sector too. If you criticise the way social services are provided aren’t you making an attack on the idea that the government should fund social services ?
To answer the last question first, no I’m not. I also agree that waste and incompetence exist in the private sector too, but having worked in both sectors I have to say it’s much more of a problem in the public sector. The sums are also much bigger in the public-sector as it consumes such a large proportion of our GDP.
What I think is needed is an honest debate about the way our money, and it is our money, is being spent by the state and a radical restructuring to eliminate as much waste as is possible. Even if only a small proportion of wrongly-claimed money could be diverted to those who really needed it this would make an enormous difference. My thinking is that devolving the power to award money should be done to a body as close as possible to the potential claimant and that having that body supervised by locally-elected representatives of the community might also be a useful method of cutting-out some of the more obvious frauds but I’m sure there are plenty of other proposals which would also help. If that sounds too Daily Mail to you then that might go some way to illuminating what the difference between a progressive and a reactionary in 2003 is. In my view a progressive believes that social services are a neccessary recipient of funds and wants to spend as much money as possible on those who most need help but proposes bringing this about by cutting-off aid to those who are claiming it fraudulantly. A reactionary will find ways of arguing things are just fine as they are and that any proposed change is to be avoided.
Unfortunately the Labour government seem to be running out of ideological steam and I fear any restructuring of social spending is beyond it at the moment. I also suspect that even if proposals for reform were put forward they would be opposed by some of the more reactionary back-benchers. As a result I can’t see much being done to change things in the short term. Despite this it is the duty of progressives to point out the problems in the system we have and work towards a solution which diverts money from those who don’t to those who do actually need it.
What was it that Karl Marx said ? “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need….”