The Politics of Empowerment and ‘Let It Go’

Published on Progress on 23 March 2015.

This week, Labour’s progressives convened in parliament, to discuss an emerging political agenda that is rising on the horizon – the politics of empowerment and ‘let it go’.

‘Let it Go: Power to the people in public services’ came on the back of a pamphlet of the same name co-authored by Liz Kendall, shadow minister for care and older people, and Steve Reed, shadow minister for crime prevention. The pamphlet is an attempt to lay out a new and radical vision, where government trusts and empowers people to make their own choices in public services.

Lessons of the Big Society

Every government talks about ‘power to the people’ and often falls short of this grand objective.

But none is as farcical as David Cameron’s ‘big society’. The temporarily ‘compassionate’ Conservatives flirted with the flagship programme, before ruthlessly sinking the ship in the early years of the coalition government.

The attempt to substitute ‘professionals with volunteers,’ as Steve pointed out, was an ideologically driven project to roll back the state. And as Lisa Nandy, shadow cabinet office minister argued, empowerment is a ‘huge challenge’ and a simplistic solution in the shape of big society was merely inadequate.

Ultimately, while the Tories wanted to utilise every opportunity to scale down the state, Labour’s progressives envisage a smarter state that is actively empowering people. Whereas the last Labour government enabled choice in the public sector, the next Labour government will need to empower people to make choices that shape services.

Start small, think big

We need to start small and think big. As Josh MacAlister, chief executive of Frontline, reminded us: change in public services will only come along with the ‘concentration of great ideas and great people.’ The academy programme only started with three schools, after all. Should we just take politics out of it all together, and let private and third sectors get on then?

No, said Hilary Cottam, founder of Participate. Although Hilary is a social entrepreneur, she does not believe politicians should just get out of the way, as the Tories claim. Instead, she argues that moving resources to where they need cannot be done without politics, and leadership from government is essential in order ‘to make change happen.’

Changing politics to change public services

In the end, politics needs to change in order for public services to change. For too long, we thought we could deliver orders down the pipeline, and the bureaucrats would transform the country accordingly. But unless we understand the centrality of politics of delivering big changes, ‘[Parliament] is full of levers with no strings attached. This cannot go on, and outside politics is changing,’ said Lisa, who was part of the 2010 parliamentary intake.

The politics of empowerment is therefore also about bringing politics to the contemporary world, where real people live and work, where they have no time for ancient parliamentary procedures. It is, as John Prescott would say, putting ‘traditional values in a modern setting.’ Both politicians and professionals need to learn to ‘let it go’ and let people make choices that fit their needs. That is the new politics of empowerment.

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