Modernising Governance: New Labour, Policy and Society

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Janet Newman

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    Foreword

    Writing a book about the politics and policies of new Labour that goes to the printers around the time of a general election is a hazardous process. By the time you read it, many things will have changed. If Labour is returned to power, its approach will move on – it will have drawn some lessons from its experiences of government, new ministers will be in office, and new crises or events will be requiring government attention. As the parties line up for the 2001 election some changes are already evident. Labour has begun to loosen the reins on public expenditure now that it assumes it has won the confidence of both the electorate and the financial markets as a prudent guardian of the economy. It has begun to allow the language of poverty and redistribution to re-enter its political lexicon. There is less focus on policy experimentation than in the early years of the 1997 Labour government, and more assurance in its handling of the long-term policy agenda. The latest round of health reforms (bringing greater delegation of decisionmaking) was presented by Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, as part of a critique of creeping centralisation, though evidence that this is a critique shared by others in government has yet to emerge. There is now less talk of the Third Way – the battle to establish a centre left against the strong forces of both the ‘old’ left and the new right are assumed to have been won – though Blair returned to this concept in setting out his stall for a second term of office (Blair, 2001). The preoccupations with retaining the support of the urban electorate while winning over ‘middle England’ have been partially sidelined by deepening crises in the rural economy.

    These shifts mean that many of the policies and practices described in this book may rapidly become old news. But the book is intended to be much more than a description of specific policies or an assessment of government successes and failures. My story is of the way in which Labour attempted to respond to the challenges of governing a complex and differentiated society in the aftermath of two decades of neo-liberal reforms. At the centre of its response to these challenges was an attempt to transform the policy process and to modernise the public sector. These changes can be set in the context of deeper shifts in governance based on a re-imagination of the relationship between state and citizen, a new emphasis on the values of community and the role of civil society, the remaking of key areas of social policy, and the introduction of fundamental changes in the state itself through constitutional reform. My story also concerns a government increasingly frustrated by its power to make things happen and engaged in a struggle to exert tighter and tighter control from the centre. The tensions between these different narratives – on the one hand of renewal, transformation and innovation, and on the other of centralisation and the ratcheting up of control measures – forms a central thread in my account of the 1997 Labour government in office. The book also traces the lines of fracture and conflict which have repeatedly undermined Blair's attempt to install an image of Britain as a consensual nation, a nation in which old conflicts, and the inequalities on which they are based, have been resolved. Such tensions and conflicts are fundamental to the process of making public and social policy, and will continue to shape the experience of those responsible for delivering it, long after the life of this government. They are fundamental to the contemporary process of governance in modern societies.

    To understand these processes the book draws on different strands of governance theory that help illuminate current shifts in the role and power of the state. But the insights offered by governance theory only take us so far. My own theoretical background has been shaped by cultural studies and feminist theory as well as social and public policy. The experience of working at the interfaces between theory, policy and practice has also led me to become fascinated by the processes of cultural and institutional change. My analysis has been based in part on the experience of those who have been actively involved in shaping, delivering and interpreting change: civil servants, health professionals, police and probation officers, local government managers and staff, those working in the voluntary sector and in community-based organisations, researchers and academics. I have drawn on these different resources to both critique and develop governance theory. The foundations of my analysis are set out in chapters 1 and 2, and I return to them in the conclusion. Those keen to get on and read about new Labour may want to skip lightly over these, but are encouraged to linger briefly over their propositions and frameworks (figures 1.1, 2.1. and 2.2) since these will help situate the arguments of later chapters.

    Whatever the political shifts and policy changes that may continue to characterise Labour in government, it is clear that the fate and fortunes of the public sector will be at the centre of its struggle to retain public legitimacy and continued electoral success. As David Marquand has commented, ‘Social democracy and the public realm are inextricably intertwined’ (Guardian, 20 March 2001: 19). The renewal of the public services, and the culture that sustains them, will, Marquand suggests, be a crucial part of the process of embedding social democratic norms in the public culture and the structures of the state in order to resist any threat of a resurgence of the right. The public sector is becoming better at evaluating its success in delivering policy goals and objectives. But the success or failure of specific reforms has to be set in the wider programme of political and institutional change with which this book is concerned.

    Acknowledgements

    Thanks to all those who have helped me to understand the politics and policies of the Labour government and how these are being interpreted and enacted on the ground. They include those who have given their time to be interviewed as part of research programmes, and delegates on management and leadership programmes I have run within organisations and at the School of Public Policy at the University of Birmingham. Special thanks are due to the delegates on the Public Leadership Programme, Public Service MBA and MSc programmes in the autumn of 2000, who commented on earlier versions of the models included in the book.

    My thanks also to colleagues John Stewart and Chris Skelcher who read early drafts; to Sue Richards who shared her knowledge and insights; and to John Clarke, my co-author on The Managerial State and my continuing collaborator and critic.

    List of Abbreviations

    CCTCompulsory Competitive Tendering
    DETRDepartment of the Environment, Transport and the Regions
    ESRCEconomic and Social Research Council
    EUEuropean Union
    GOsGovernment Offices of the Regions
    GPGeneral practitioner
    HImPHealth Improvement Programmes
    ICTInformation and Communication Technology
    LEAsLocal Education Authorities
    NHSNational Health Service
    NICENational Institute for Clinical Excellence
    NPMNew Public Management
    OFSTEDOffices for Standards in Education
    PCGsPrimary Care Groups
    PIsPerformance indicators
    QuangoQuasi-autonomous non-government organisation
    RDAsRegional Development Agencies
    SEUSocial Exclusion Unit
    SRBSingle Regeneration Budget
    SSISocial Services Inspectorate
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