Customers of the State

Ross McKibbin on the Citizen’s Charters

The two major parties approach their annual conferences and the new political season in anything but confident mood. For the Government – as for any British government – there is the usual ‘problem of the economy’, which will never go away and so is of no immediate importance: situation desperate but not serious. More unusually there is a sense, which the Maastricht debates heightened, if only by their impenetrability, that the country’s constitutional arrangements no longer work. Over the last couple of months there has been an ebullition of often bizarre constitutional argument, with most of the actors seeming to take the wrong parts. The Speaker warns the judiciary not to intrude on Parliamentary privilege and quotes the Bill of Rights; Tony Benn warns the judges likewise and also quotes the Bill of Rights. The Evening Standard eulogises the same Tony Benn as the ‘last of the radicals’, while Lord Rees-Mogg takes the Government to court for abusing the royal prerogative. The judges, for their part, dismiss a particularly brazen attempt by the Government to assert that its ministers cannot be sued in law on the ground that to admit this would be to admit that the Civil War never occurred. The Conservative Party’s Euro-haters, who would die in the last ditch to defend the rights of Parliament, turn into pussy-cats the moment the word ‘confidence’ is mentioned.

Neither the Conservative nor the Labour Party has risen to the moment. Both were clearly surprised by the extent to which the Monarchy’s standing has fallen; both have seen that in some way our relationship to the EC has modified the Constitution, without knowing exactly how. The Labour Party has remained officially silent, apart from the odd hint that something of importance will soon be disclosed. The Conservative Party, however, and the Prime Minister in particular, is increasingly promoting the citizen’s charters as constitutional reforms in themselves.

The charters must be seen as the successors to Next Steps, the 1988 report of the Government’s Efficiency Unit which launched the privatisation of much of the Civil Service. The justification for the creation of nominally autonomous agencies – the Employment Service, for example – was to increase efficiency by giving ‘management’ greater freedom of movement and by exposing civil servants to something like market pressures. This was not in itself a despicable ambition and it may lead to greater flexibility and efficiency. But the most important result of the reform will be (already has been) to distance the agencies even further from those they are supposed to serve. Severing their already exiguous connection to Parliament makes them even less accountable than they were before. Since, however, the agencies’ autonomy is only administrative, they act as a powerful shield to protect the Cabinet from the political consequences of its own actions. The agencies, or more particularly the clerical staff who have to deal with irate ‘customers’, will bear the odium when government policies go wrong – though not, I suspect, receive the credit when they go right.

There is a strong temptation for any government to create barriers between itself and potentially unpopular decisions, and this is not the first time a Conservative government has done so. In 1934 the Government tried to ‘depoliticise’ unemployment benefit, the most sensitive of all inter-war issues, by establishing an Unemployment Assistance Board of six ‘non-political’ members who were given responsibility for overseeing all benefit payments. The Board’s first act – the so-called Standstill Crisis – nearly brought the system to its knees and compelled the Government to intervene. The crisis arose because the Board’s autonomy was largely cosmetic; that this was exposed so quickly was not, of course, the Government’s intention but it meant that both it and succeeding Conservative governments were less willing to undertake similar ventures elsewhere. The present Conservative government is thus the only one to have attempted to devolve so many of its functions in this way. If it succeeds it will be because it has shielded itself against almost all unhappy consequences. If it fails we will have ‘standstill crises’ every month of the year.

The citizen’s charters fit the same pattern. The institutions which issue them concede ‘rights’ to their users which they are in no position to guarantee. There is, for example, a rail passenger’s charter but British Rail cannot possibly hold to it: only the Government can do that – and, of course, it won’t. Unlike the rights a citizen normally enjoys from the state the charters are not negotiated: they are true chartes octroyées, bestowed by a gracious government, and the citizen plays no part in their formulation. The ‘rights’ they incorporate are decided by the state or the state’s (nominally autonomous) agents. In fact, the charters are more important for what they do not allow than for what they do. The concerned parent, for instance, cannot demand as a right that his or her child shall be taught in a smaller class at school: that is a right which only the Government can guarantee and, since it is a spending question, the Government will not guarantee it. The charters, therefore, usually take the form of pious expressions of intent with all the interesting bits left out. They deny the citizen any access to power and refuse him or her any statutory rights. They are rather like the statement concerning freedom of information made by Mr Waldegrave (yes, he of the poll tax): the Government will let people see what it thinks it safe for them to see. Its freedom of discretion is in no way modified: charters can be qualified or withdrawn at will.

The concept of the charter is, furthermore, based on an analogy with the operations of the market which is almost wholly false. The relationship between the citizen and the state is (or should be) quite different from that between a customer and Marks and Spencer, and the attempt to make them like each other demeans both state and citizen. It is hard to find a public service in which there could be a competitive market. There is and can be none in education, as the Government’s behaviour over the National Curriculum and testing shows it fully understands; even the idea of a Parent’s Charter, a charter based as it is on an assumption that there is such a market, must be largely meaningless. There may be a benefit claimant’s charter – if there isn’t, no doubt there soon will be – but it would only be effective were there a competing social security office down the road offering higher payments.

It would be wrong, though justifiable, to dismiss the charters as petty and dishonest. To the present government they have real significance and it is easy to see why. Society is now regarded by much of the Conservative electorate as it appears in the charters: in many parts of England the normally complicated relationships between the citizen and the state have been so narrowed that people think of themselves only as the state’s ‘customers’ or ‘clients’. Society is not thought to have any structural or power-political character – all relationships occur between individuals. Customer A contracts with official B for the discharge of some service, and the qualities demanded of the official are courtesy or politeness. These qualities are indeed important – and often absent in public services – but they are only expressions of social reality, not the reality itself. Marx wrote that bourgeois politics is ‘essentialist’ – as in ‘essentially Genghis Khan was a good man’ – and there is something of that essentialism in the charters, as there is in conservatism more generally: a belief that rights can somehow be torn from their social or political context and made effective at the level of individual relationships.

The charters, furthermore, like the autonomous agencies, greatly strengthen the authority of central government, which is what matters to a party with strong authoritarian impulses and a belief that the state is our one defence against national ruin. A consistent aim of the Thatcher and Major Governments has been to replace powerful, elected intermediate bodies, like local education authorities, with weak, unelected intermediate bodies whose members are appointed by central government and whose qualifications are less ones of expertise than of presumed party loyalty. The charters act, so their authors hope, as figleaves which, by emphasising customer-rights as against civil rights, conceal the political illegitimacy of the new quangos.

Above all, the charters have an ideological function. They serve to promote a form of politics which not only hides its own operations from the electorate but hides them also from the politicians. The role of an ideology – and the charters are ideological documents – is to deceive the governors as well as the governed; to convince them of the ideological and moral neutrality of what they are doing. Much that the Conservatives have done since 1979 lies outside the boundaries of what was once thought acceptable in this country – presumably even members of the present government wonder why so many 16-year-olds now beg in the streets. By purporting to enshrine citizens’ rights, the charters are doing under Mr Major what Marx said political economy did in the 19th century, or what the ‘free market’ did under Mrs Thatcher: they are allowing the ruling élites to live with untroubled consciences.

This is a bold but risky strategy. A rhetoric of rights or accountability could well be turned against the Government; sooner or later someone is going to suggest that the criteria by which the Government insists we judge all public authorities should be adopted to judge it also. If so, the Cabinet will need more than a fig-leaf. There is also the danger of reality breaking in, as it has with that current ideological construct, ‘parents’. In modern Conservative thinking parents are indignant, self-confident, active proponents of a no-nonsense (probably Christian) education; are, in fact, rather like Baroness Blatch. Parents are, therefore, allowed to be elected as school governors and to make decisions. But most parents are not like Baroness Blatch; despite all we are told they bear little resemblance to the construct ‘parents’, as their reaction to testing in schools shows. The Government, therefore, has no way of coping when they do not behave according to type. What do you do when all-knowing parents are ‘wrong’? One response is to bluster, to dismiss them in one of the Jurassic metaphors so popular with ministers (‘dinosaurs’ etc); the other is to give in. Either way, the Government looks foolish. So the charters as embodiments of rights are not risk-free. But to Mr Major they are analogous to constitutional rights and are at the moment the Conservative Party’s only response to the country’s constitutional impasse. That as political rights they are spurious goes without saying.

In some ways the position of the Labour Party is easier than that of the Government: it can contemplate the possibility of real constitutional reform with less aversion – though not much less. In other ways its position is more intractable, for the Labour Party cannot tackle the reform of the national constitution until it has settled the reform of its own. And it cannot do that until it establishes the nature of its relations with the trade unions. The Labour Party’s ‘friends’ have long argued that it cannot expect to govern until it jettisons the unions. No one much disputes that now; it has become a kind of settled truth. Precisely because the unions are thought by so many to be a wasting asset they have become a wasting asset. Their numbers have fallen drastically; they are regarded with hostility and suspicion by much of the electorate, including many of their own members; and their constitutional place within the Labour Party is hardly democratic. Indeed, to defend their existing constitutional status is like defending the unreformed House of Commons. Furthermore, the unions are widely held responsible for the country’s relative economic decline, for the horrors of corporatism, and for much else besides. That the Labour Party should get rid of this incubus seems self-evident. Those who think this way, however, would do well to look more closely at the argument.

There is no reason why the block vote should not go and the unions are being tactically foolish in trying to defend it. The block vote was introduced in circumstances so different from today’s – it was forced on the Labour Party in 1917 as a way of weakening antiwar pacifists and socialists – that the unions gain little and lose much by trying to preserve it. ‘One man one vote’ as a uniform principle, however, sounds fine until we consider its possible consequences. The individual membership of the Labour Party has not only been historically more left-wing than the unions, its collective political judgment has frequently been much less good. Any party that lived through the early Eighties should contemplate untrammelled democracy with deep foreboding. The unions have no doubt made many mistakes in their policies towards the Labour Party but more often than not they have kept it within the bounds of the electorally possible. I would trust the Party’s MPs to elect a Parliamentary leader, as used to be and should again be the case. I would not trust the individual members to do so. The electoral college that elects the leader at present is a mess; to replace it, however, by the individual membership would be a cure hardly better than the disease.

Furthermore, whether it likes it nor not, a Labour government is going to have to live with the unions. They occupy a powerful quasi-constitutional position within society and Labour could not (and should not) follow the Conservative practice of pretending they do not exist. There is a widely-held view that the unions and their members are two different things; that their membership would be sensible and docile if only the leadership did not stir it up. Historically, there is little truth in this proposition. With only a few exceptions union leaders have never liked strikes and done their best to avoid them, nor have they been particularly unreasonable over work practices. This cannot be said of all their members. Indeed, within the unions the leadership has usually been criticised for being too timid rather than too radical, for being over-friendly with management – ‘pissing in the same pot’ used to be the phrase – rather than too hostile. When, as in 1978-9, the system of industrial relations breaks down, this has usually been the result of the leadership losing control of its members. The Labour Party should be very suspicious of the argument, which usually comes from its opponents, that the unions induce their members to behave in ways they would not otherwise do. Rarely is this so. The problems a Labour government might have with the unionised workforce – over wage settlements, for instance – they would have with them qua workers not just as union members.

The unions have also had to carry most responsibility for the ‘failure’ of corporatism. That corporatism – the attempts by government, management and unions to determine in a loose way the overall development of the economy – failed, indeed not only failed but was positively harmful to the economy, was one of the most powerful justifications for Thatcherite policies and is now presented as an unquestioned truth. I do not know how many times I have heard Conservative ministers dismiss this or that sensible policy on the ground that it would be a return to ‘the failed policy of corporatism’. But corporatism was a consequence not a cause of relative economic decline. To be blunt, it was a result of the failure of the country’s managerial and financial middle classes to compete – an attempt by governments of both parties to force them to do better. The unions, like the governments themselves, undeniably bear some of the responsibility for this competitive failure, but there is no doubt where the main responsibility lies, as (so it is said) all prime ministers since the Sixties, except for the present one, appear to have concluded.

The corporatism of the Sixties and Seventies cannot now be revived. The social and economic conditions that underpinned it have largely been destroyed, primarily by Conservative governments. Yet a Labour government must restore some sort of representative body like the NEDC, if only to give coherence and stability to economic policy. The argument that corporatism ‘failed’ would be more convincing if its successor had worked any better, but no one can seriously say it has. This, however, is a constitutional as well as an economic issue. One of the more respectable criticisms of corporatism was that it ceded an unacceptably large degree of political power to unelected authorities; though this, again, is an argument the actions of Conservative Governments since 1979 have tended to discredit. If corporatism and the institutions which embodied it are now more or less defunct, but some sort of representative body or bodies has to take their place, the country’s existing political institutions are themselves too unrepresentative and too undemocratic to do so. Even if the Labour Party is unready to accept constitutional reform on grounds of principle, as is likely, it should do so on practical grounds – as the only way it can secure legitimacy for a new form of corporatism. Whichever way it turns constitutional reform becomes inescapable, and not simply to enthusiasts like Tony Benn. If the Party tries to wriggle out of it, that will leave the way open for the charters. False though these are, they are the only alternative.