The state has an important role to play in building a good society and we should defend it. Of course it cannot be an uncritical defence; there’s much that is wrong with how the state functions. Hence the notion of ‘remaking the state’. The vital functions of the state for the left can be summed up under the four (sometimes overlapping) ‘r’s of: regulation, redistribution, risk protection and rights guarantor.
The state has to regulate the market. It has to temper the power of capital and protect the wages, working hours and conditions and employment rights of labour. The deliberate weakening of this function, starting with the Thatcher government, is an important factor in today’s massively unequal labour market and the stagnation of living standards among low and middle income earners. The minimum wage, enforced by the state, has been an important but insufficient countervailing factor. And where public services have been marketised, the state must still regulate them.
Redistribution is the ‘r’ word that New Labour did not dare speak; instead it effected significant redistribution by stealth, but without ever really making the case so as to carry the public with it. And the result was a clear falling away in public support for redistribution, which a number of analysts of public opinion attribute at least in part to New Labour’s stance. Of course, redistribution through the tax and benefits system cannot carry the full strain of creating a more equal society and that’s where ‘predistribution’ comes in – though we need to find a more voter-friendly term for it. But even predistribution – through a more equal distribution of wages and the removal of obstacles to the labour market especially for marginalised groups – won’t happen by itself. It requires the state to intervene.
Risk protection is another vital function of the state. The state is more efficient and effective at protecting against risks – and in an equitable and comprehensive way – than private insurance, be it through the NHS or social insurance. The state has a crucial role to play in protecting against or averting new risks such as climate change. And, as the Chief Medical Officer warned recently, the failure of the drugs companies to develop new antibiotics in the face of growing antibiotic resistance, may require state action if we are to avoid the resurgence of a life-threatening old risk.
Finally, the state acts as a guarantor of citizenship and human rights – civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights and the specific rights enjoyed by marginalised groups such as disabled people and children. One danger with the increasingly fashionable notion of the relational state when applied to social security is that it implies greater reliance on discretion. Over the years welfare rights campaigners have sought to reduce discretion so as to remove variability and subjectivity from decision-making because it all too often spelled discrimination and unfairness and made it difficult to challenge unfair decisions.
The idea of the relational state or relational welfare places valuable emphasis on the quality of the human relationships involved when each of us has dealings with the state face-to-face. As Frances O’ Grady observes in a recent Fabian piece: “the phrase ‘the relational state’ is unlikely to gain much traction when talking with public service workers in the canteen or voters on the doorstep. But it does contain the seeds of a simple and powerful idea: public services are essentially about human beings and human relationships”.
Another way of approaching this, which places an emphasis on the quality of relationships involved in state transactions without sacrificing the value to the citizen of rights, is through a human rights approach to public services. An enquiry conducted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission concluded that “a human rights approach can provide an ethical framework for the actions of public authorities. Properly understood and applied, it can have a transformative function”. At the heart of a human rights approach is recognition of the inherent dignity of the person (be they service user or provider). This translates into respectful treatment, recognition of the subjective self of each service-user and according value to their views, particularly those from marginalised groups such as people living in poverty. Too often this is not how state agencies work at present.
A human rights approach also chimes with Jon Wilson’s argument in Letting Go: that the state we remake has to be a more participatory state. He argues that ‘equality depends on participation, because equality is participation’. Conversely genuine participation also depends on equality because at present the obstacles to marginalised groups participating effectively are too great. If we want to create a genuinely participatory state, we must address these obstacles, otherwise we risk simply reinforcing rather than challenging inequality in its various forms.