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Fabians consider their role

Duncan Bowie on a floundering think tank

125 years after its foundation, the Fabian Society, the UK's oldest socialist think tank, has been reviewing their objectives and priorities. The original plan of reviewing the Fabians overall vision, as set out in the Fabian basis, appears to have been dropped, despite a decision at the last annual meeting to undertake a wide-ranging review instead there have been a series of discussions as what themes the Society should adopt for future research and publications. For the last couple of years, the Society has focussed on the themes of equality and life chances. However the last year has been somewhat dominated by a commemoration of the centenary of Beatrice Webb's 1909 minority report on the Poor Law, rather forgetting other significant radical events such as Lloyd George's 1909 budget and even the first Town Planning Act.

Members of the Fabian executive were asked to draft notes setting out their ideas. The EC includes a number of MPs, including one cabinet Minister, one member of the House of Lords, and a number of think takers and academics. However only two EC members, myself and Brian Keegan from Peterborough, both representatives of local Fabian societies, actually made written contributions to the session held in July with a selection of invited think tankers. My contribution was as follows:

1. The relationship between public and market sectors

In the light of the changing economic context and the inability of the private sector to make a substantive contribution to the cost of public services provision, there is a need to re-examine the relationship between public and private sectors. This should cover both structural and financial relationships, including adjusting current public/private partnerships and arrangements for joint venture companies to ensure protection of long- term public sector interests. The study should examine the role of public sector investment and the potential contribution of private finance to achieving public policy objectives and the lessons to be learnt from over-dependence on private sector finance and market ideology. The project however needs to focus on options and new frameworks for future public/private sector rather than limit itself to being an audit of past failures.

2. Managing public services collectivism, mutualism and associationism

Research should focus on alternative options for management of public services, comparing state centralist forms of provision, with regionally and locally public sector initiatives including municipal projects, together with the role of mutual and co-operative initiatives and voluntarist and associationist principles. Each approach should be assessed in terms of a common set of criteria. The study should cover both historical examples of each tradition and contemporary projects and should also set out a framework for a pluralist approach to public sector service provision which protects both public sector investment and ensures minimum standards of provision and equality of access.

3. Parliamentary democracy, citizenship and civil society

There is an urgent need for a re-examination of the relationship between parliament and the electorate, in terms of the basic principles of parliamentary democracy. The study would need to examine the relationship between governance agencies at national, regional and local level, the relationship between legislative and the civil service, and the accountability to both parliament and the electorate of directly managed, indirectly managed agencies and services provided on a contractual basis. This will lead to a set of proposals on reforms necessary for these principles to be deliverable, both in terms of restoring the credibility of parliamentary democracy, enhancing the role of the individual citizen and removing those corrupting elements which obstruct the appropriate relationship between citizen, representative and the process of governance and political decision making.

The response to this paper, and the parallel paper from Brian Keegan, was disappointing. What is interesting is that the special meeting was dominated by Fabian staff, including the secretary Sunder Katwala, and the invited think tankers. It was chaired by Jessica Asato, who chairs the Fabian research and publications committee as well as being acting director of the think tank Progress. In fact the think tankers all know each other and seem to live in a closed world. Without appearing ageist, they are all relatively young and seem to have little experience outside the Westminster village.

Apologists

Many are also apologists for Blairism, having in many cases had a role in the inner circles, or at least on the margins and completely fail to understand that there was a Labour Party and at least some socialist policies within Government before new Labour and that this had some positive aspects- that public intervention and collectivism were not all bad. Moreover there was a complete failure to understand the implications of both market failure and the collapse in the public credibility of the UK parliamentary system and politicians in general.

Moreover there was no recognition that as a socialist think tank, the Fabians perhaps should be doing something different from Demos or Progress or the IPPR, who are in different degrees moving to the right. Talk of a 'progressive' alliance seems to be moving further from socialism towards a modified Blairism.

Many local Fabians are not only socialists but actually have some practical and political experience which predates Thatcher and Blair and which may still have some relevance. As the only membership think tank, it is time for Fabian members to set out the society's priorities and vision for a socialist future. We cannot leave it to the professional thinktankers.