A bit confused perhaps?
With less than week to go, there is still time to examine key issues related to the Labour manifesto. As an overall document, a fair summary might be to describe it a ‘mixed bag’. It includes some genuinely radical ideas. Others that have the germ of a good idea buried within them but the proposal itself is clumsy at best and at worst counter-productive. While other proposals are just not possible. For example, as-long-as Labour believes it can have an economic relationship with the EU essentially like the current one i.e. engaged with the EU’s Single Internal Market (SIM) on essentially the same terms as it is now, it will find it very difficult to implement some of the more ambitious economic proposals e.g. around public ownership (Nicol, 2015).
Not high on the policy agenda
One of the biggest ‘gaps’ in the manifesto is its lack of interest in and radical proposals to sustain the very foundations of a functioning i.e. free, peaceable and egalitarian society, in the face of the many challenges that the UK, and indeed the world, is facing now and going to face over the next few decades.
The manifesto fails to undertake any extensive analysis of both:
The significant changes that have challenged and weakened vital social institutions to date; and
The fundamental changes that are going to impact all societies and their social institutions over the next thirty to fifty years as a result of trends in technology, politics, culture and economics.
By only touching upon some of these trends in the manifesto and not providing much in the way of understanding their causes and consequences the document displays a degree of ‘issues myopia’. Sure, it proposes a shopping list of economic reforms and hints at useful changes in other areas too. It states how important the rule of law is to democratic society and how it has been undermined by recent changes to court fees etc. All reasonable things to say. However, these do not appear to indicate any agenda to substantially repair the key institutional bedrock on which a free and just (i.e. functioning) society is built.
Those ‘key institutions’ are what sociologists call ‘social institutions’. A ‘social institution’ is:
‘…a complex of positions, roles, norms and values lodged in particular types of social structures and organising relatively stable patterns of human activity with respect to fundamental problems in producing life-sustaining resources, in reproducing individuals, and in sustaining viable societal structures within a given environment’ (Turner, 1997).
Social institutions are intermediate or ‘meso’ institutions sitting and mediating between individual behaviours, social norms, rituals and conventions on the one hand and the national culture and society on the other. Whatever their classification or categorisation, they are indispensable constitutive elements in any society. While their influence is often subtle, hidden deep below the surface of day-to-day social interaction, they are an essential ‘social glue’ binding individuals, groups and organisations together and making life live-able.
There are numerous social institutions which have been observed to exist, in some form, across all human societies and times. Others are epoch specific. All need to be tended, nurtured and encouraged. Not least because a-number-of factors are likely to be buffeting them at any one time. These factors include:
The effects of the functioning of the other social institutions. Changes in one or more social institution inevitably impacts the others as each is part of the whole.
The social forces of technology and/ or economic advantage.
Decisions and actions by people, groups and organisations which can incidentally or deliberately have consequences for them.
Further, as with all human institutions there is a natural entropy which results from an inherent tendency to degradation in the ability of human institutions to reproduce themselves. This tendency has to be fought against through deliberate efforts by societies to sustain or re-new them.
Whatever the reasons for their reduction in effectiveness over time, no one should be under any illusion about the central importance of social institutions to a free, peaceful and egalitarian society. Not least because the social capital they build is essential for the construction and maintenance of many desirable policies which achieve important ends such as a welfare state, and thus, all citizens in that society can:
Have better life chances.
Be more protected against the vicissitudes of capitalistic political economy.
More harmoniously and effectively work together to identify and undertake collective endeavours.
Some current challenges to social institutions
A number of factors have provided an almost continuous challenge to many of the UK’s most important social institutions over the last forty years. Some of the most prominent include:
The politics and policies of neo-liberalism.
The infiltration and subsequent spreading of ‘political cosmopolitanism’ ideas through society’s key structures (e.g. politics, law, big-charity, academia etc); and
Other parallel societal changes in norms and practices e.g. media consumption, family structure etc.
In the frontline, negatively impacted by these ‘winds’, have been the principles of community and solidarity. So too have once deeply embedded ideas of freedom, based on democratic government, and liberty (for the individual and organisations) of conscience and action. The challenge has been so profound that the UK has passed the point where these principles and ideas, once thought inviolable and immovable as-a-result-of their embedding and reproduction by social institutions, are now shrunken and fragile. The causes of the disruption are unlikely to ease anytime soon. If anything, they are becoming more pronounced. Instead of a ‘call to arms’ for the kind of wide-ranging structural strengthening of the UK’s social institutions, the Labour manifesto takes many of them for granted and outlines a shopping list of policies with little thought for how they can be effective with the foundations, which need to be in place for them to be effective, eroding bit-by-bit.
The social institution of ‘governing’ or government
The social institution of ‘governing’ describes the structures (formal and informal) for the allocation and exercise of authority (i.e. the term Max Weber used to describe ‘legitimate power’ in society) and the mechanisms of accountability for those structures. Specifically, within the category of ‘governing’ there are, in broad terms, three main constitutive elements:
Together these elements play an important role in facilitating, mediating and reproducing functional social relations and provide the framework for:
Sustaining community and solidarity and re-building them where necessary;
Pursuing collective endeavours through democratic government and society-wide effort; and
Protecting the liberty of conscience and action of everyone by, where necessary, balancing one person’s or group’s interests or activities against others and ensuring redress where there are ‘wrongs’.
The political and legal elements of the UK’s governing structures have, over the last four decades or so, borne the brunt of much of the challenge from the factors described earlier. Although on the face of it the British political and legal structures appear to have altered little for a long time, they have, in-reality, been changed and eroded in numerous subtle and sometimes obvious ways such that their social functionality has reduced. The most visible consequences of the decline in the UK’s political and legal structures can be seen in:
The consistently poor electoral turnout figures since the early 1990s;
The decline in trust in political institutions among the public and the wider disenchantment with politics across all social categories;
The reduction in the quality of the legal framework i.e. the law, that governs social and commercial activity (Clarke, et al, 2017);
The reduction in access to the justice system and subsequently obtaining a resolution from it, for both individuals and smaller businesses.
These are only some of the most visible consequences of the more decline in quality and functionality. Without substantial efforts to renew them, they are going to face more degradation. In the end, the risk is that they become entirely hollowed out to the point where they are impossibly weak and consequently unable to play their vital role in providing the ‘social glue’ that they used to and that a successful society needs.
What it would have been good to see in the manifesto: political reform
As an illustration of the wider point being made by this post, this section will briefly touch upon the Labour manifesto’s proposals for political reform. This example is enough to offer a flavour of the kind of ambition that the Labour Party should have shown in their manifesto, if it wants to build a free and fair society that is resilient to the slings and arrows of the kinds of challenges the 21st century is going to continue to throw up.
The manifesto does discuss political reform in a vague and aspirational way rather than with a blue print for strengthening the UK’s political structures as part of a wider plan to improve the health of all those three elements that make up the ‘governing’ social institution. For example, it promises:
Some tweaking of the House of Lords.
A junior Minister for England to do something that isn’t quite clear.
Consider the ‘option’ of a more federalised country.
Establish a Constitutional Convention to ‘discuss’ bigger changes but with no commitment to any particular ones.
These are just too unambitious. The UK’s political structures have taken a battering over the last forty years with powers given away to Brussels, a steady trickle of political scandals, the rise of the ‘professional political class’ and numerous broken promises all eroding belief in the usefulness of politics and its associated structures. Leaving the EU provides the foundation, with sufficient public debate, for an extensive strengthening through a renewal of those political structures. The opportunity however, if the evidence of the Labour manifesto is anything to go by, runs the risk of being squandered.
Rather than consider the option of a more federalised governmental structure, the manifesto could have proposed a blueprint for one, to be put to the people in a referendum. A Constitutional Convention will, almost inevitably, involve different parts of what C Wright Mills calls the ‘power elite’ talking to each other about how the different parts of the political state’s structures can be tweaked to better achieve objectives that their aims and objectives. For example, it is easy to envisage that a powerful legal lobby in the Convention will be the judiciary and lawyers. It is likely, given the trends in recent decades for ‘the law’ to become more assertive in the exercise of power, they will push for more powers to oversee and restrict the autonomy of democratically elected politicians and the scope for more direct democracy. The result will be a further hollowing-out of democracy and damage to the standing of the law and judiciary. Indeed, it is worth noting that more power in the hands of the judiciary and legal profession does not lead, as is often assumed, to more democratic socialist outcomes (Hirschl, 2004). Rather it can entrench existing and powerful interests.
Labour could have suggested a significant decentralisation of power across the UK, creating a symmetrical devolution framework for all four nations of the UK. This is the kind of ambition that would truly revitalise the political element of the social institution of ‘governing’ in the UK.
Within England further symmetrical decentralisation could have been proposed. The current metro-mayor model is incoherent and risks undermining the arguments for decentralisation by being an inadequate and asymmetrical policy. A coherent and consistent shift back to an extensive degree of local autonomy would be preferable. As Maurice Glasman has suggested: ‘…restoring the counties and cities of England as self-governing polities’ is a better model to follow (Glasman, 2017). Not least because they are administrative boundaries that people identify with and understand. Similar to the development of a fair UK-wide devolution settlement would likely rejuvenate the UK’s political structures and practices, so too would the kind of changes suggested above do with England.
Worrying indifference to vital social institutions
The limited interest in renewing important elements in the social institution of ‘governing’ in the Labour manifesto is indicative of a wider pattern that has prevailed on the left for a long time. This pattern has seen a strong focus on issues of political economy, social policy (construed narrowly as welfare state issues) and problem-lifestyles etc and how technical fixes can be developed to solve the numerous problems identified with these areas. There has been a relative (though not complete) neglect of other issues i.e. the fundamentals underpinning a functioning (i.e. free and just) society. Which, if focussed upon with as much (if not more) energy as issues of political economy, would in-fact help resolve some of those same problems. Not least because these ‘fundamentals’ (i.e. social institutions) are necessarily prior to policy issues of political economy and welfare. For example, without the social capital to build solidarity among the citizenry it would be very difficult to put in place a strong welfare state. This certainly wasn’t always the case. The democracy issue for example was once a vital strand in Left thought. Such that one of the primary objectives of democratic socialist politics was an: ‘…active democracy…[with]…an informed citizenry’ (Halsey, 2016). Thinkers and researchers such as: A H Halsey, R H Tawney, Frank Field, Norman Dennis, George Erdos and T H Marshall among others, have looked at various aspects of social institutions and how their quality and focus impacts the functionality of society. This tradition is in urgent need of revival.
Clarke, H. D., Goodwin, M. and Whitely, P. ‘Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union’. (2017).
Glasman, M. ‘Why Brexit is a chance for national renewal: The deplorables fight back’. (2017). Available at: https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/why-brexit-is-a-chance-for-national-renewal
Halsey, A. H. ‘The Sociology of a Life’. Leaders in Educational Studies pp 101-114. (2016).
Hirschl, R. ‘Towards Juristocracy: The Origins and Consequences of the New Constitutionalism’. (2004).
Macionis. J. J. and Plummer, K. ‘Sociology: a global introduction’. (1997).
Nicol, D. ‘EU membership means no renationalisation’. (2015). Available at: http://www.leftfutures.org/2015/09/eu-membership-means-no-renationalisation/
Turner, J. The Institutional Order. (1997) cited in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ‘Social Institutions’. (2011).