The future of the left since 1884

How do you value a library?

Here is a question I encounter all too often as Shadow Minister for Culture: how do you value a library? There are a few ways of doing it. You can look at profit and loss: by that measure libraries, along with...


Here is a question I encounter all too often as Shadow Minister for Culture: how do you value a library?

There are a few ways of doing it. You can look at profit and loss: by that measure libraries, along with many other public services, are a dead weight. You can widen the criteria to look at all the indirect economic impacts, like the value of their impact on literacy.

That’s more sensible. But most people would agree that an important part of the impact of a library is something which is hard, and in some cases almost impossible, to measure, to do with their role as a focus for the community and as a symbol of trust and service. They are a place which exists for the aspirations of its users, who control the experience and are helped by experts to pursue their interests. A place everyone has an equal right to use, and that is trusted in a way which makes it an ideal location for everything from job clubs to MPs’ surgeries.

People value these things, often even if they themselves do not actually use libraries – they value it because what it says about us as a society. To some extent you can put a number on that, with clever metrics and surveys. That’s worthwhile, but it only goes so far: in the end there has to be an appeal to values of a different sort, a judgement about the sort of society we want.

My point here is not to start a debate on libraries, though it is not hard to make a case for them purely from the economic costs of illiteracy. But it is important to remind ourselves that any compelling vision for the society we want to see cannot just be defined in narrow economic terms. And that has some big implications.

Labour is founded on universal principles that apply to society as a whole, but in practice we have often defined progress in terms of numbers: the transfer of resources to particular individuals or to particular institutions like the NHS, targets on things like child poverty or waiting lists.

Of course those things matter enormously – you only need to look at the consequences of the current cuts to see that – but they are always proxies for our core values. And they are not always good enough as such. This is part of what Ed Miliband was talking about when he said Labour had sometimes lost sight of people as individuals, and warned against the perception of Labour as statist and top-down managerial. Our real aim was never to be just the party that spent the most, but the one that made the most difference to people’s lives.

At the same time, as Ed also noted, we’ve often been too much in thrall to a narrow vision of the market – one that does not adequately reflect values and relationships. We’ve often made markets an end and not just a tool. Of course they are powerful, but they are far from infallible in generating the best outcome for society: the banking crisis demonstrates that beyond doubt. For a start they tend to only value financial gain – and that is very far from the reality of what is actually good for either individuals or society. It is not only the price of carbon that is an externality but the value of well-being and sustainability more generally.

The fallibility of markets has infected our very definition of progress. Government and opposition spend a fair amount of time obsessing about GDP, a measure that ignores sustainability, equality, and community – what John Ruskin would have called true wealth. That is not at all to say that GDP or economic growth are irrelevant. But even Simon Kuznets, the economist who first refined GDP as a tool back in the 1930s, warned that “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.” Alternatives sometimes struggle with how to value concepts like happiness – but arguably anything is better than a measure which assigns them a value of zero.

The common thread here is that neither markets nor targets signify anything if they miss what matters for real-life wellbeing of people. My constituents in Barnsley are pleased we spent more on the NHS, but they will write about a nurse who really took the time to care for a sick relative. They will be happy to hear GDP is up, but care more about whether they have a steady and rewarding job, a healthy community around them – a chance for a decent life. The two are linked, but they are not the same.

To my mind this is an argument for a deeper, more nuanced approach – one that ties our progressive mission closer to the individual level, and bases it on a fuller definition of wellbeing. We need greater flexibility and intelligence about the society we want to build and the way we build it, not to compromise our principles but precisely as the best way to stay true to them, because it brings them closer to the interests of the people we are here to serve.

That is not politician-speak for giving up on society, or indeed the mission of the state as its servant. It perhaps means a less statist approach, but not in the sense of a retreat by so much as an inch from the overall responsibility and ambition to help tackle the great challenges and create a better society: rather a greater imagination and openness in the way that is done, and a greater recognition that society is made up of individuals.

It means a willingness to use the state where needed, but also to partner with other actors in any number of other innovative arrangements, with councils, local communities, civil society – and in the right circumstances, and under certain limits, the private sector. And where the state is used, an equally openness to innovation in its own practices.

Let a thousand flowers bloom, but with at least three conditions: first, real rigour about results and oversight, and a limit on profit in public service: the G4S Olympic experience should be a stark lesson to us. Secondly, no devolution of democratic accountability: no ministers blaming contracts when the buck stops with them. Thirdly, the openness to different options cuts both ways: there should be no shyness about using a public or mutual option where it makes sense. Our first instinct should be to make public services better, not a short-term grab for the market.

One key aspect of this approach is the devolution of power. To a good degree what constitutes well-being is best defined by individuals and communities themselves. And a sense of autonomy and control are usually part of that definition, as well as good democratic principles we should be championing in their own right.

These are all arguments not just for greater power for users, but for localism more generally. Of course, in this there is a careful balance to be struck. We have to genuinely loosen control, but autonomy needs to be balanced by accountability, and there are limits to how far it can be allowed to clash with fundamental values of equality, fairness and social justice.

Negotiating where to draw the line in each circumstance will be the key task. But the old debate between localism and the postcode lottery in some ways over-simplifies the issue. It is not a simple choice between uniformity and inequality. Rather we have to make a case-by-case judgment about what works, about what things need to be universal or prescribed and what can be local or individual. And in making that judgment there are many alternatives to the poles of pure localism and central control.

There is a link here to the idea of the relational state, which a number of colleagues including Jacqui Smith have discussed. Deeper relationships between services and those they serve are valuable as an end in themselves, but also as a means – a way to harness the power of coalitions of users and providers to find solutions for personal and social problems, with government creating the right conditions and providing oversight rather than dictating the outcome. It’s not just the NHS that could benefit from this more relational approach – job centre staff, for example might be more empowered to work with their “clients” to address the whole range of problems holding them back, rather than, as sometimes happens, just treating them as boxes to be ticked.
This might lead to a wider cultural change – and it could actually challenge the sense that government is something that just happens to you. We could not just engage people in the services they use, but also engage them in ‘politics’ generally.

Clearly, there is a lot of work yet to do on how new approaches like this could work in practice – and again, a careful balance needs to be struck between autonomy and equality. But I think this is the direction we should be taking, it would be in the truest traditions of Labour.

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