Taking Back Control | Lord Tony Greaves
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Most people agreed that the referendum result showed a country that was starkly divided. But divided how? People have identified lots of different categories of division, though most of them are binary (as we now say) since that’s how a referendum works and that’s how we are now supposed to think.
So we have Remainers and Leavers (remoaners and loathers) who have to be categorised in other ways that “explain” that voting divide. Young and old, graduates and the uneducated, metropolitans and provincials, Scotland and England, south and north, cities and small towns, cosmopolitan towns and whites-only places, liberals and conservatives, the white working class and the metro-elite, migrants and natives. All lazily summed up as the Global Get-Onners and the Left Behind.
Just to list these overlapping and conflicting divisions shows how shallow such analysis really is. It’s also a rather illiberal way of looking at things. People are more complex than this and the days of clearly defined social classes are over. It’s all a way for the geographically ignorant Bubble-based media and party hacks to make (not much) sense of a world that is diverse beyond their understand
Of course, all such insights have an academic interest and may lead to useful policy proposals. But for Liberals with our political philosophy based on the central importance of the individual, not the category, it is surely to the personal level that we should look for the sources of societal unrest. And here I am writing about economic and governmental relationships, not the post-modern issues of identity which are important but, for Liberals, not central to the questions of personal power and influence.
There are three areas where individuals and family groups of all diversities are often under the control of other people in ways that lead them to feel helpless.
(1) Employment. Employment for many people is a one-sided relationship: the concept of the employment “contract” has always been flawed. At worse it is the imposition of terms and conditions by the employer, take it or leave it. The idea of a negotiation between equals at an individual level is for the privileged. This is why employment law exists and why employment contracts, terms and conditions have been heavily regulated. It is why trade unions were set up and grew in strength. Yet the changes in trade union and employment legislation in the past thirty years have resulted in a significant change in the balance of power in favour of employers and against individual employees.
The growth of the flexible labour market in all its forms has made things worse. Zero-hour contracts, part-time contracts, temporary contracts (often two or even three being juggled by one worker), agency labour (including gangmaster teams), bogus “self-employment” (the old “lump” writ large), genuine self-employment following redundancy, massive cuts in public sector staff. The fragmentation of the labour force and the accompanying shrinking of trade union membership and activity have gone together.
The old world was very far from perfect. But the mills provided lifetime jobs and often a house (sometimes even, as in Saltaire, lots of community facilities). The “new” pit villages in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire provided lifetime jobs for the men and modern NCB owned housing estates for their families (and indeed the Miners Welfare). Lots of working class men and in many areas women too had specialist lifetime skills that gave their lives security and status. There were strong social structures, not always benign but usually supportive, and extended families for support. And local services were at a human scale (bobby on the beat, street sweeper with his bin on wheels, parks staff, meals on wheels, doctors and district nurses who were there for decades, teachers who had taught your mum and dad).
(2) Housing. The dramatic growth of the private rented sector has taken place at a time when security of tenure has become a joke, with “assured shorthold tenancies” on a six-month basis becoming the norm. Like the employer-employee “contract”, the landlord-tenant relationship is fundamentally one-sided. Individual tenants are at the mercy of landlords who can effectively charge as much as the market will bear (bearing in mind the prevailing local level of housing benefit). As with employment law there is a large amount of regulation, notably of the condition of housing, but it’s been relaxed considerable in the past 30-40 years with the deregulation of rents and the removal of effective security of tenure beyond the short term. For most of the last century the proportion of housing in the private rented sector fell. It is now rising again.
Again, there are many people renting in the luxury sector who are capable of looking after themselves. That is not the case in the vast majority of older “cheaper” privately rented housing, including the scandal of former right-to-buy houses and flats on present and former council estates. Tenants are often afraid to report defects to landlords or “complain” to local authorities for fear of eviction. The Councils have reduced their housing standards staff in the face of austerity cutbacks in their funding.
By contrast most owner-occupiers control the housing in which they live (some lease-holders have problems). Council housing grew in quantity between the wars and up to the 1980s as a replacement for the private sector, and in spite of some problems caused by the imposition of centralised design “solutions” by central government was in general a huge success. The landlords were accountable public bodies and, while many were not perfect (!), the new estates transformed the quality of life for millions of families and gave them financial and physical security.
Most funding streams for new developments, together with the Labour Government bullying and bribing Councils to carry out “large-scale stock transfers”, have resulted in much social housing (as it is now unfortunately called) being taken under the ownership of housing associations. Originally conceived as locally controlled human-scale schemes, housing associations have grown and grown and most HA property is now controlled by a relatively few bodies which are effectively large non-profit-making housing companies. Often there is less control for tenants though they still have public sector levels of security of tenancy, themselves now in decline.
(3) Bureaucracy. As jobs and housing for life (or at least for rearing families) have become increasingly rare, and social change has resulted in the fragmentation and repeated reorganisation of families during people’s lifetimes (in terms of both partners and extended family support) people have had to cope with more and more interactions with state and other bureaucracies. For instance, systems of benefits and employment support that were set up with the best of intentions result in people being trapped in ever more complex regulations and the threat of sanctions at the hands of officials driven by malign targets.
At the same time national austerity drives have resulted in huge cuts to funding of local authorities and other service-providing bodies, now including supposedly protected sectors such as the NHS, schools and the police. This results in people’s reasonable expectations being blocked and local services such as libraries and bus services closing down, not to mention social care and physical support, with no apparent means of affecting the outcomes. The bodies simply say “Sorry but it’s all due to government cuts in our funding” and the old local democracy in which elected persons assessed one provision against another falls by the wayside.
More democratic decay has followed the progressive increase in size of local authorities with amalgamations into huge unitary councils and elected mayors imposed for impossibly large and often arbitrary “city regions” and now even far-flung counties. Bureaucracies such as the NHS see a procession of reorganisations taking place in obscurity and with again no real means by which 99.9% of citizens can exercise any influence or control of any kind.
All this means there are fewer local Councillors. Council offices and call-in centres are being closed down and replaced by digital services in which process is all and discussion impossible, and the numbers of people operating on the ground (neighbourhood police, information centres, parks attendants, town centre staff, care workers, vicars) are shrinking year by year. The people in the system that individuals know and can talk to about things get fewer and fewer and the organisations physically more and more remote. And “proper” local newspapers are becoming a thing of the past.
This kind of picture, of the increasing powerlessness of individual people, is true in many varying ways in all kinds of areas. Big cities, large and smaller towns, industrial and rural villages. The scale of the decay of protections and the dismantling of local democracy varies from place to place, from industry to industry and community to community. But the direction of change is all-pervasive. And while the systems were the systems, and only changed radically as a result of decisions made by the people running them, local and national politicians and departments, and the occasional upheaval (notably the two world wars and some really big changes such as the NHS, big planning decisions such as the New Towns, slum clearance and redevelopment…) individual people were able to relate to the new circumstances in ways that gave them a real feeling of control over their own individual lives and those of their families.
Now a lot more young people can escape as individuals and pursue their lives through the education system and beyond. In lots of working class areas, smaller towns and rural communities, a majority of the most successful students have always gone away to pursue their careers and lives. What has happened in the past 60 years is that the number of young people able to do this has progressively increased. The grammar schools of the 1950s liberated perhaps 5% of such pupils. Now it may be around a third to a half in some places. The left behind really are left behind.
Of course everyone now has access to electronic wizardry that, it is pretended, liberates their lives. But it’s becoming ever more clear that the big internet companies are about control rather than liberation. And from the back streets of Liverpool to the African steppes the new “devices” show people how their more successful peers are supposedly living – even if it’s not all true! Inequality has increased in many ways: the real change is that it is much more obvious to everyone.
It seems to me that if Liberals and the Liberal Democrats have a new role to play in line with our historic mission, it is to tackle these unequal power relationships. To develop policies and build a political movement which sets out to tackle and reform these fundamental inequalities; to work with people to gain the real freedoms within communities which are at the heart of our party constitution.
Article appeared in Liberator magazine. Please subscribe at https://liberatormagazine.org.uk