There was a terrific article by Jenni Russell in the 14h of July edition of The Guardian in which she examined why measuring-by-statistic-mad new Labour are still failing to understand why the electorate are ungrateful, even when all the statistics show that it’s spending on schools and the hearth service is higher than it ever was, its commitment to economic regeneration demonstrably serious, its commitment to reducing crime figures unquestionable.
The conversations I have had recently with senior civil servants, advisers and Labour ministers have often had a plaintive tone. Why, these people want to know, aren’t the electorate more grateful for what’s been done for them? Where’s the political reward for all the money spent on schools and hospitals and economic regeneration? Why doesn’t the country appreciate the fall in crime figures? How could voters be flirting with the cost-cutting Conservatives, when Labour’s statistics show that spending money produces measurable and improved results?
These sound like the right questions, but they aren’t. What the questioners really mean is not “Where did we go wrong?” but “What’s wrong with all of you?” And what’s wrong with us is that we’re not the automatons New Labour thought we were. We’re not remote and dispassionate observers of our society, making cool calculations about its success or failure on the basis of government-generated numbers. We’re complicated, vulnerable, emotional creatures, and we live with the consequences of official decision-making every day of our lives. What matters to us aren’t the figures we’re fed, or the targets that get hit, but what the experience feels like to us. Yet that part of the process has been almost completely neglected in official eyes….
As one reads this article, one realises that big lesson that Labour did not was the lesson Simon Caulkin was, but is no longer, preaching Sunday after Sunday in his column for The Guardian‘s sister paper, The Observer, and that is that Labour has, since it came to power, insisted on using the wrong measures.
It thought it was being modern and innovative by treating the country as if it were a business, where all outcomes could be measured by putting money in and getting targets out. It made the false assumption that building a school or a sports complex was automatically an investment, just as it would be if the government were in the business of mechanising chicken factories or building car plants. It thought it could close police stations or post offices in the name of cost-cutting, with as little effect as if it were Coffee Republic shutting down some unprofitable shops. It didn’t stop to remember that the business of all public services is dealing with the needs of people, and that those are never just mechanical, but social and emotional too.
Governments cannot afford to take a business’s narrow and mechanistic view of people’s requirements, because it’s not just a collection of service providers. A government’s wider duty is to frame and structure the society in which we live. Rebuilding society was one of Labour’s explicit aims, in contrast to Mrs Thatcher’s infamous reference to there being no such thing. Yet our encounters with the state are profoundly important in shaping our culture, and every time we run up against the wooden indifference, public lies or robotic responses of officialdom we shrink into ourselves, and the bonds between all of us are weakened a little more.
Labour thought that what we prized above all else was economic efficiency. Clumsily, it tried to give it to us and, even when the evidence showed it wasn’t delivering, it went on attempting to give us statistics instead. But the priorities were wrong. What we all prize in our encounters with others is a sense of our value. We are social animals, alarmed by the uncertain world in which we live, with a profound need to be recognised, respected and responded to. We want public services to respond to us as people, and to give us the sense that we matter. It is the deepest human need, and yet this government has been oblivious to it.
When it wonders why we’re not grateful to it, the answer’s really simple. It’s the experience, stupid.
Yes indeed we do “want public services to respond to us as people, and to give us the sense that we matter”, and as an adjunct to that we want our newspapers and periodicals to employ and retain people who will articulate those wants in forceful ways. What we do not want is influential newspapers to rid themselves of our most eloquent spokespersons at the very moment we need them most in the way that The Observer rid itself of Simon Caulkin