Managerial Politics

Politics is currently infested with a breed of managerialism. We can see the sort of thing on social media, with people crying out for the Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, to ‘make Boris stop lying’ as if he were some sort of manager that could compel Johnson to speak the truth.

This reflects people’s experience of living in a society where ‘calling someone’s manager’ is a way to get satisfaction as a consumer, or to resolve a dispute between colleagues at work. Everything can be fixed by an appeal to authority.

The role of such managers, by definition, is to keep the shop, restaurant or office running smoothly and performing its function. Their intervention is meant to stop disputes getting in the way of the mission of the organisation.

For workers who find themselves trapped in these workplaces, it means grievance processes, investigations and the whole soul-sapping rigmarole of official-ese whenever they fall out with someone they can’t simply get away from, because they are also stuck in the same office.

Grievance procedures were legislated for by New Labour under the Blair government, and are part and parcel of how they view the world and politics: about fairness and process. There’s no intrinsic harm in them, but they are a part of the system that’s meant to slot humans into precise functions of a working machine, rather than promote human happiness, and are more about keeping a lid on relations, rather than making people happy or resolving the underlying problems.

This is the problem with managerialism as politics, it is about containing or smoothing over disputes as part of a permanent hegemony, rather than taking sides. The reality of politics is precisely about taking sides and picking winners in disputes. The only political question is: who rules? In managerialism, that question is effaced, there’s no dispute about taking sides, no deliberate picking of winners, only the continuation of the management is on the table, with no capacity to re-write the rules or relationships being allowed.

Wes Streeting

For example, Wes Streeting (seen as a rising star of the Labour Party right) got in trouble for stating that if he were in the RMT he would vote to strike, but if he were in government, he would be about trying to avert the strikes and bringing the two sides together, as a neutral. The trouble he got in was for going as far as saying if he were a union member he’d support strikes, but in the latter half of his comment he was clearly annunciating the Labour Party’s ideological position: they will not take sides, and will try to manage the dispute to stop it causing trouble in the overall mission of the organisation.

The problem is, in the world, there are sides to disputes, and any resolution will inevitably mean one side has won and one side has lost, refusing to take sides and ‘representing everyone’s interest’ means, objectively, that when they are not siding with tenants versus landlords, employees versus employers, the weak against the powerful, they are actually batting for the other side.

This leaves Labour trying to win the election through the appearance of competence and responsibility, avoiding any big picture or ideological discussion. They cannot oppose the Tories on any major point of principle, just on personal integrity and ethics. Hence why they are focussing on the Prime Minister’s personal behaviour (as reprehensible as it is: it does not fundamentally question the structures of our society or government).

Whether by design or coincidence, the press are able to effectively reward them for this decision to not question the structures and relations of power in our society, by suddenly discovering a string of apolitical scandals that they have known about for ages, to give an alternative management the chance to show that they can run the machinery of state just as well. Even if they don’t go so far as to actively campaign against the Tories, they can use the threat of Labour to discipline them, and keep them in line as well, on behalf of their wealthy friends and backers.

Labour, for their part, are hoping that the Tories will lose the election through their in-fighting. For their own part, they are quietly using managerial/bureaucratic techniques to sideline people associated with the leadership of Corbyn and quietly crush any rival internal factions: again, had this happened under the previous leader, the press would have been in full cry, but as the cause is bringing the machinery of the Labour Party to heel, their silence is now deafening.

As with the Wakefield by-election, they seem to be preferring that people don’t turn out for the Tories, and they can win by default, rather than trying, as Corbyn did, to activate new voters and build a new electoral coalition. If some of the Tory vote goes to the Liberal Democrats, then the managerialists will achieve their Nirvana, of ensuring that a change of government can occur without any appreciable change in society.

How long such an approach can keep a lid on things is anyone’s guess. But over the Channel, in France, Emmanuel Macron has been trying something similar for five years, using the threat of the old Front National as a means of disciplining the voters into accepting his managerialist bloc, and there are signs that that may be beginning to backfire, with the successor of the FN getting its highest ever number of Parliamentary seats.


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