According to legend, Winston Churchill once sent back a pudding he was served with the following critique: “it has no theme”. As I watched BBC Parliament last night, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this story. If the election is comparable to a pudding, it is admittedly a bland, soggy one that appears to be more syrup than sponge, and it is definitely lacking a clear motif. The BBC is apparently bored; yesterday, a reporter felt the need to illustrate the tedium by playing a clip of Nick Clegg, flanked by two of his PPCs, discussing local architecture and school holidays. This was apparently how the Liberal Democrat leader felt he should use a prime-time opportunity for greater publicity. Worse, and more important, the first week has been dominated by a series of arguments about relatively minor changes in taxation; the £12 billion in “efficiency savings” that the Conservatives are talking about are unlikely to be achieved, thus their proposed tax cuts have an inadequate provision behind them. However, in the grand scheme of the challenges facing the nation, these arguments are very small beer. The big ideas are apparently confined to only a few constituencies like Cambridge and Brighton Pavillion; for the vast majority, the present ideological recipe yields only a very thin gruel.
Contrary to what Francis Fukuyama’s diminishing band of followers might think, we are definitely not at “the end of history”, and thus dull politics are not something we should accept as being “normal”. For example, it is very clear that the balance between labour and management in this country is terribly broken and steps should be taken to start afresh.
I speak with some experience in this regard as I have worked in both private industry and in the academic sector; I also hold a position of responsibility within the local chapter of my trade union. Based upon what I have seen, I suggest there exists a pernicious management culture in the United Kingdom which demands absolute deference to whomever is “the boss”. Furthermore, the trade union movement, which prior to the Eighties was a counterbalance, has largely been emasculated. According to a recent report in the Economist, trade union membership which reached a high of 53% of the working population in 1979, has dropped to 27% now. Worse, the concentration of that membership is now largely in public sector jobs; this has led to problems for many unions who want to engage in industrial action. Whereas in the Sixties and Seventies there was a substantial segment of the population that might be in sympathy, nowadays, it is a pocket of inconvenience; only when the service in question tugs on the wider public’s heart-strings, such as the fire service, is this barrier overcome.
There is a new role for unions, however. The future may lie in replicating how labour and management work together in Germany: the structure there is that of a partnership, as both sides treat their company as a social, as well as economic organisation, and both sides are interested in the enterprise’s long-term viability. The continued success of Germany as an exporting nation and the relative strength of its economy is indicative of how well this approach has worked. However, my reading of management in Britain is that it is not ready to accept that it doesn’t know everything: the pervasive business culture, exemplified by the television programme Dragons’ Den and the salaries accrued by the head of banks, is still that of reliance on individual, all-knowing, all-seeing “heroes”. But business is not meant to be heroic, it it is meant to serve the public and be sane. When I was in private industry, I used to laugh at the projected annual targets that were cooked up by Finance Directors, as the “heroes” at the top demanded ever more growth built into the figures. Such things, in my opinion, were largely unknowable, and thus difficult to plan: I later found I was expressing a quasi-Keynesian thought about “irreducible uncertainty”. Never mind: egotism and force of will were supposed to overcome all difficulties and make ethereal hopes concrete.
We can say conclusively that this approach hasn’t worked, largely because knowledge in any organisation is diffuse, not concentrated. It is usually the people who work “on the ground” who tend to have a better idea about the “irreducible uncertainties” as well as current problems than the “heroic” leaders. Ignorance and a lack of understanding of human nature at the top are the leading causes of our present problems. Trade Unions can step up to the role of ensuring management doesn’t cut its own throat and in the process wreck the lives of their staff. Providing the political and legal structures to empower unions in this manner is not a big ticket item on the political agenda; it appears that Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are relatively satisfied with the post-Thatcher “settlement”. Indeed, I can only imagine that Gordon Brown was relieved that the proposed industrial action by the RMT was struck down by judicial fiat. Of course, a vocal minority within the union movement adds to its burdens by indulging in Trotskyite fantasies; I suggest the “permanent revolution” they should be more concerned with has to do with the changes that come every time a chief executive is replaced and staff numbers are reviewed. I also suggest that trade unions should be pointing out the real waste in government and business, which usually has more to do with processes than staff: changing systems such as procurement, usually takes longer to implement and thus is less popular with politicians and business leaders alike, but generally speaking most worthwhile and enduring changes take time to implement.
As has been demonstrated, the structure of British labour relations is just one theme among many that could be addressed and could generate genuine debate. The pudding could be rich in flavour rather than insipid; if the “big three” politicians wonder why they’re failing to engender enthusiasm, they might well want to consider this point. While leaders need not themselves be heroic in order to create inspiration, the ideas they espouse need to be bracing. Otherwise the electorate will find it difficult to swallow, or at worst, send the confection back to the symbolic kitchen.