‘What Works’ vs Ideology: a False Dichotomy

To my mind, one of New Labour’s masterstrokes was to ostensibly drop a commitment to ideology in favour of embracing ‘what works’. This has been discussed to death in the academic literature, and has been a constant talking point in certain corners of the media. A recent example of this appeared on the Guardian website this Monday. John Quiggin opens thus:

Following a long series of unsuccessful attempts at developing a workable lightbulb, Thomas Edison is supposed to have said, “I’ve not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This quote comes irresistibly to mind when thinking about Tony Blair’s famous commitment to “what works”, as opposed to ideology, in public policy.

In retrospect, it seems that Blair, and like-minded reformers throughout the English-speaking world, have delivered an Edison in reverse. Edison experimented with many things that didn’t work, but ended up with a light bulb. Market-oriented reforms, particularly in the provision of human services like health, education and public safety, have begun with a working system and replaced it with a string of failed experiments.

The article provides a number of examples of failed initiatives within the broad approach of New Public Management; the organisational belief that private sector principles will deliver public sector success and efficiency. With this, I have no qualms – like Quiggin, I firmly believe that public services should not be run according to the profit motive. Indeed, his examples and arguments chime with the idea that there is essentially a convergence towards neoliberalism in politics and policy – something that can be seen very clearly in welfare state developments and bureaucratic politics more generally.

What I thnk should be highlighted more clearly, however, is the notion that ‘what works’ was ever favoured over ideology. The implication that is picked up in this kind of critique is, I’m sure, one New Labour bods would be more than happy to perpetuate – that instead of sticking slavishly to dogma, and favouring outdated grand narratives of how the world should be instead of how it is and ignoring (so-called) evidence, New Labour bravely (or foolishly, depending on your position) acted without such constraints. For proponents of this course of action, it means that you can react quickly to current events, instigate modernisation projects, and at the most fundamental level, truly govern. For detractors, the lack of an ideological framework makes political and policy decisions inconsistent, in need of constant change – which is destabilising and costly – and at the most fundamental level simply managerial, doing no more than administrating existing structures .

Although both these arguments open an important debate, they both miss a fundamental point that obscures important points about New Labour’s – and those currently on the party right who see themselves as the heirs to, or the development of, New Labour – style of governance.

Explicitly Ideological

Embracing ‘what works’ was at the core of New Labour’s ideology. This is because it makes a series of assumptions,  and provides a theoretical framework on which to base decision-making. Ideology is a framework of ideals that governs political and social action. It is normative: ideologies do not describe the world as they are, but as how they should be according to that value-system. Alongside this they provide a guide to political decision-making. (e.g. at a crude level conservatism argues for a small state and less public intervention, whilst socialism argues for a larger state and greater intervention, based on what they understand as the defecits of the current political/organisational system and the optimum outcome to be developed).

Perhaps more relevant to the argument in this post is the various Marxist understandings of ideology, crudely defined here as the state in which the ideas of the ruling class become the ideas of society-at-large. (It is of course much more complex than all this, but for this post, the important take-away point is that if the ruling class were not able to have their value-system and understanding of the world freely accepted by the majority of society, the system would not be stable enough to represent only the interests of the ruling class, therefore threatening the very existence of that class).

So based on this, how can ‘what works’ be seen as ideological? Firsly, embracing ‘what works’ does not happen in an historical vacuum. Rather, one is embracing ‘what works’ in the current organisational system (i.e. capitalism), the current political and social climate and under certain electoral conditions. Accepting rather than working to change some or all of these elements means that there is tacit (and sometimes explicit) acceptance that the current system is desirable and/or optimal. Of course, this may be the case for particular classes and social groupings. New Labour exerted a lot of effort in visibly breaking with the Labour Party’s previous ideological commitments in the name of ‘what works’ and electability. This unavoidably included changing the class the party represented, or at least the conditions under which the party was prepared to represent that class. In the best case scenario, New Labour represented the working class and progressively minded middle classes within a system that could not be changed, but marginally amelorated. In the worst case scenario, New Labour ceased to represent the working class, instead allying with social liberals from the middle classes – those people who saw the excesses of inequality, poverty and social immobility as unacceptable, but who otherwise were prepared – and equipped – to compete in the marketplace.

For some, this is an entirely legitimate development of social democracy in the late 20th and early 21st century, and represents simply the next stage of the ideology’s evolution. For others, it is a corruption of social democracy (and clearly incompatible with other ideologies traditionally associated with Labour, such as Democratic Socialism – which admittedly has multiple definitions). Fundamentally, this ideological turn in the Labour Party caused significant tensions, which are being played out in the party currently. Embacing ‘what works’ caused tensions because it is a fundamentally conservative position. It seeks to change nothing. It cannot redefine the ‘what’ in ‘what works’ because accepting this premise is accepting the already-existing definition. This definition is set by those in political power and elite positions – those who have the most to lose in the process of progressive social and political change. In a nutshell, then, embracing ‘what works’ is embracing the status quo.

The ideology of what works is inherently linked to TINA (‘There Is No Alternative’), a logic promoted persistently by Thatcher and then Blair. In such a scenario, the best progressives can hope for in politics is incremental change sanctioned by the forces of capital. This is moreso in a traditionally conservative country such as the UK. The advent of Corbynism, regardless of one’s analysis of Corbyn and the movement, has problematised and destabilised this logic. It has not disappeared, but it is no longer hegemonic. It is this instability that the various wings of the Labour Party are fighting over. The ‘hard left’ of Corbynism, and the ‘soft left’ in Labour are attempting to demonstrate and realise the notion that there is an alternative (though what this alternative is is still not entirely clear from either group/faction). Somewhat ironically, the Labour right are fighting to sustain the status quo. Not necessarily because they believe that it is the optimal scenaro (although I suspect a number do believe this), but because they truly believe that there is no alternative – even if we want radical change (whatever that may look like), it simply isn’t possible. The poverty of this position is that there are simply no attempts to even engage with the idea that there is an alternative.

Returning to Quiggin’s article, globally there are obviously vested interests in keeping New Public Management alive. A failure and a massive debt bill for the public sector is profit for the private sector and various shareholders. Perhaps the clearest indication that ‘what works’ is ideology writ large is simply the fact that despite evidence, programmes such as Private Finance Initiatives, government streamlining and efficiency drives continue around the world at pace. For a non-ideological, evidence-informed, results-driven, dogma-free approach to governance and bureaucracy, when they want to proponents of it certainly can turn a blind eye and convince many of us that all is well, whilst Rome burns around us.




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