Labour and the vision thing

“Some of my best friends are spads. But it may be that they are just not suited to leadership. Spads are great at schmoozing and PR. Some may even be good at policy. But it’s rare that at any time in their career they will need to have vision. Because that’s their bosses’ job. So it’s understandable that a Labour party that has for years been run by a cabal of ex-spads — a ‘spadocracy’ perhaps — had no vision.”

So said Diane Abbott MP in yesterday’s Guardian. (‘Spads’ are special advisers, if you’re wondering: political advisers to Ministers.)

To be fair, she doesn’t acknowledge that there are some big exceptions to her rule (Geoff Mulgan and Matthew Taylor come to mind, for instance). Or that some people who she does admire — like Jon Cruddas, one of the most visionary minds in Labour politics — may not have been spads, but have even so worked for most of their careers in and around the Party.

But these are the exceptions, I concede — and I write this as a former special adviser myself, to Hilary Benn and before him Valerie Amos at the Department for International Development.

Being a spad (or a Labour policy officer, or a researcher for an MP) is, after all, first and foremost about the art of the possible. Tony Blair’s former speechwriter Peter Hyman captured this nicely in a five part typology of different kinds of special adviser in his book 1 out of 10: policy wonks; spin doctors; fixers; ‘comfort blankets’; and — rarest of all — political strategists.

Special advisers who are visionaries can also discover that they fit awkwardly into government, or find themselves at the receiving end of a powerful immune response from a system predisposed to write them off as dreamers or regard them as trouble makers: look at Dominic Cummings. (It’s a similar story with civil servants: only very rarely does a visionary like John Ashton make it to the highest levels, and even then generally only in an unusual role like John’s as the Foreign Office’s climate envoy.)

All of which leads in turn to a larger question that we too often overlook: how and where progressive politics incubates and nurtures visionary thinking.

It’s not as though the unions are generating these big visions. Once upon a time they were powerhouses for imagining and then demanding the institutions of the future. These days, they more often come across as defensive or backward-looking, or as being voices for vested interests.

Nor are most NGOs built for this task. They may be visionary on the single issues they work on — development, housing, environment — but by and large they tend to stay within their silos. When they do start speaking to a broader agenda— as Amnesty did under Irene Khan, or Oxfam under Barbara Stocking — it often proves controversial with members, who may see it as mission creep and take their donations elsewhere.

Think tanks, too, are hampered by fragmentation. Most funding, after all, is earmarked for specific policy areas; rare is the donor who wants to fund ‘core’ work. So they too tend to be fractured into individual programs, with only a few (like IPPR) that consistently try to connect the dots.

Nor, finally, have protest movements like Occupy managed to set out compelling visions for the future; instead, they’ve tended to agree only on what they dislike. (In fairness, this has been a conscious decision; as David Graeber puts it in his book The Democracy Project,

Asking why Occupy Wall Street refuses to create a leadership structure, and asking why we don’t come up with concrete policy statements, is of course two ways of asking the same thing: Why don’t we engage with the existing political structure so as to ultimately become a part of it? If one were compiling a scrapbook of worst advice ever given, this sort of thing might well merit an honourable place…)

But all this still leaves us with the question: where is the vision supposed to come from? There was, once, a time when we thought much more than we do today about the institutions we wanted to build, about the future we wanted for our grandchildren, about the City on the Hill that we were all marching towards. Where is that still happening, and how can we get back into the habit?

Start with today’s sources of visionary progressive thinking — five of which seem to me to be especially important.

First and perhaps most obviously, there are public intellectuals: the kinds of people you find on the annual lists of global thinkers produced by Prospect or Foreign Policy. (I like, by the way, how the latter list is divided into categories that highlight the diversity of the kinds of vision and leadership that exist: from agitators to decision makers, from innovators to advocates, and from artists to ‘chroniclers’.)

I think it’s significant that these are all individuals, not organisations. Individuals who are free to say what they think will always have an edge in thought leadership and agenda-setting terms over organisations that have to spend energy on agreeing internally on a ‘line to take’. (And it’s also interesting to see some organisations intentionally starting to create niches for thought leadership. For all that I cringe whenever I see Oxfam’s Byzantine federation structure at work, it’s also been a model in creating platforms for innovative and challenging big picture thinkers like Kate Raworth or Duncan Green.)

Second, I think we’re still seeing just the beginning stages of what member-led movements like Citizens UK, Avaaz, or Change.org can do. For all the differences between a community organising operation like Citizens UK and a 41 million strong global giant like Avaaz, both are obsessive about what’s on their members’ minds. And that puts them in a very different category from more traditional NGOs that ask little more of their members than a fiver a month and the odd signature on a postcard — while keeping decisions over campaign priorities or policy positions firmly in the hands of staffers at headquarters.

Admittedly, these kinds of movements have to date tended to concentrate more on specific campaigns (albeit not all in one single issue silo) rather than entire political platforms. But I suspect that too may be starting to change. Citizens UK set out a detailed manifesto for the last election, which was notable for starting each policy section with pledges on what Citizens UK itself would do, and only then turning to what it would like to see from the government. Avaaz, too, frames its mission in terms of closing “the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want” — pointing implicitly towards a unified big picture vision, and keeping the space open to become increasingly explicit about that vision in the future.

Third, I think we’re witnessing a deeply interesting trend towards visionary (and progressive) thinking from faith communities. Of course, a lot of what faith groups have had to say about politics in recent decades has been anything but progressive, which is the major reason why millennials are leaving churches in droves in the US and Europe. But this is shifting. Pope Francis is the most obvious example, with his message on poverty, justice, and climate change proving hugely resonant far beyond Catholics or even Christians— and all this before his encyclical on climate change and development is even published.

But he’s by no means the only example. In the UK, for instance, Church of England bishops published a ‘pastoral letter’ in the run-up to the general election, that led on the theme of the common good and arguably had significantly more vision than most manifestos. Among faith-based NGOs and think tanks, too, I think the fact that they can be so upfront about the values that motivate them can also make them more comfortable than most with big picture thinking about a radically different kind of economy. This was certainly my experience of working with the Christian NGO Tearfund as co-author of their recent report The Restorative Economy (summary pdf); and you can see a similar willingness to explore big agendas in Theos’s 2014 report Just Money (pdf).

Fourth, there’s the point that the most important innovations usually come from the edges — in other words, the last places that people in the Westminster bubble will tend to look. My friend and colleague David Steven captured this nicely in a presentation he did for the British Council on the world in 2020 that observed that,

In uncertain times, new designs for living will come from the margins … New developments will come from places that don’t yet exist (new virtual spaces; towns and cities that are yet to be built; fresh fault lines in existing societies, organisations and groups); as well as from a re-imagining of traditional movements and ideologies (nationalism, charismatic religion, etc.)

Being attentive to what’s happening on the edges is a habit of mind, and one that probably doesn’t come naturally to political parties (or at least, not the mainstream ones). But it’s a habit that can be cultivated, and might lead to some interesting and powerful new directions.

Fifth and finally — and for me most importantly — there are stories. I’m thinking here not of those limp, etiolated offerings that politicians call ‘narratives’, but of something altogether grander, of stories that begin to approximate myth in setting out fundamental framings about where we are, how we got here, where we might be trying to go, how to get there, and who ‘we’ are. Rich Gower and I put it like this in The Restorative Economy:

Stories … define our worldview, and have the potential to create our reality as much as they describe it. Stories like Jesus’ parables or the ones that Churchill told Britain in 1940, stories that marry unflinching realism, a profoundly hopeful vision of the future and, above all, a deeply energising view of what people are capable of.
Today, we need stories that help us to think in terms of a larger us — one that moves from ‘people like us’ to just ‘people — like us’. A longer future — beyond the next news cycle, the next financial quarter, the next election, looking out instead for generations to come. And a better good life — an understanding that security, consumption and well-being are not three words that all mean the same thing.

Just like the other four examples discussed above of where progressive political visions may come from, it’s far from clear that these kinds of stories will come from politicians. To come back to Diane Abbott’s point, we don’t really have those kinds of leaders these days; even if we did, I’m not sure that most people are looking to politicians for that kind of leadership.

Instead, I think that part of what Labour needs to do now is to recognise and embrace the fact that the most compelling and resonant progressive political visions will probably come from outside its ranks.

If that’s right, then what we most need as a party is to be porous and outward facing: a party that doesn’t just make a few noises about ‘listening’ in the wake of a catastrophic defeat, but that genuinely builds this in as a core design principle, above all recognising that walking this walk means letting go of control.

The seeds of this kind of approach are out there. This LabourList piece of Paul Hilder’s from last year — which argued for a People’s Campaign built on the same kind of design principles as Change.org or 38 Degrees — is one of them. The kinds of thing Jon Cruddas was saying about decentralisation of power in the run-up to the election are another (and see also this piece of Patrick Diamond’s). Will Straw’s proposal from a few years back for primaries for selecting Labour candidates is a third. Whether we’ll actually plant and water these seeds is another question entirely.

I have no idea at this stage who I’ll be voting for as leader. But as a former spad who also recognises the limitations of my former trade, the intention to take us in this direction is the key criterion on which I’ll be voting.