1The scope and ambitions of this article are limited. It is very much a discussion of how the notion of “governance” to begin with, and how the paradigm of “narratives of governance” offered by Bevir and Rhodes in their seminal 2003 book, may illuminate the study of recent developments in industrial relations and labour politics in Britain. The starting point will be what may be called a “substantial”, all-encompassing understanding of governance, namely the idea that public policy in Britain, over the past thirty to forty years, has been marked by a progressive but general shift from government to governance, from extensive direct state intervention through state and local administrations to limited, indirect state guiding of policy through agencies and networks. Such a substantial understanding of the development of governance will be assessed against the recent trajectory of industrial relations in Britain.
2Following Bevir and Rhodes’ highlighting of the more fruitful aspects of the notion of “governance”, the second section of this article will shift towards an “epistemological” understanding of governance, in so far as this notion of “governance” encourages scholars to decentre their approach of institutions from the traditional top-down Westminster model of policy-making to a more complex, dynamic approach. A parallel with Foucault’s project of studying “governmentality” – “la gouvernementalité” – will be suggested, and reflections offered again on how this may bear on our understanding of industrial relations reform and its impact.
3The final section of the article will explore the notion of “narratives of governance”, and how it may provide a means of understanding changes in labour politics and in the Labour Party’s positioning. As a complement to Mark Bevir’s compelling understanding of the New Labour project as resulting from the dilemmas that the socialist tradition embodied in the Labour Party was faced with, a slightly divergent understanding of the development of labour politics over the past thirty years will be offered.
4Bevir and Rhodes take as a starting point the standard, substantial definition of governance.
- 1 Bevir, M., Rhodes, R.A.W., Interpreting British Governance, Oxon, Routledge, 2003, p. 6.
First, we take as our starting point the claim there has been a shift from government by a unitary state to governance by and through networks. In this period the boundary between state and civil society changed. It can be understood as a shift from hierarchies, or the bureaucracies of the welfare state, through the marketization reforms of the Conservative governments of Thatcher and Major to networks.”1
5What this first section of the article discusses and disputes is not Bevir and Rhodes’ account of the dominant understanding of the shift from government to governance, but rather this dominant understanding, which is a linear, all-encompassing, substantial understanding of governance. If one adopts such a vision of the development of governance, the pre-1979 period is conceived as a period of big government and all-encompassing central state intervention, and the post-1979 period as a period of rolling-back and fragmentation of state power, although the development of governance took different forms under the pro-market Thatcherite Conservatives and under pro-network, pro-civil society New Labour. These differences within the governance paradigm actually matter, and indeed contradict the substantial, linear understanding of the development of governance when a longer period of time is considered.
- 2 Hyman, R., Strikes, London, Fontana, 1972.
6On the basis of such differences, an alternative framework, and therefore an alternative chronology may actually be suggested : not government versus governance, but rather unitary state versus pluralist polity2. In such a unitary versus pluralist framework, the postwar, pre-1979 period was marked by a progressive accommodation of the traditionally unitary-state Conservatives to the more liberal notion of pluralist polity, in the social, economic and industrial context brought about by the policies of the 1945 Labour government and by the requirements of the compromise with the labour movement. Between 1945 and 1979, Conservatives and Labour alike presided over the development of a pluralist framework of institutions for the regulation of social and economic policy and industrial relations. From manpower training commissions to the National Economic Development Council, trade unions and employers participated, albeit imperfectly, in policy-making.
- 3 Howell, C., Trade Unions and the State: The Construction of Industrial Relations Institutions in Br (...)
7If there was ever, in industrial relations, an era of substantial governance, that is to say of civil society participation in policy-making and policy-implementation through intermediate institutions and voluntary organisations, it was under the pluralist, corporatist social-democratic state of the 1960s and 1970s. One of central themes of the Conservative rhetoric in the late 1970s was indeed what they deemed to be the unacceptable devolution or surrender of state power over to the trade unions through the social contract. As a consequence, in the field of industrial relations, the central thrust of government policy in the 1980s and 1990s was the dismantling of pluralist, tripartite, intermediate institutions which had allowed for the relatively autonomous regulation of industrial relations ever since trade unions were granted immunity from the law for actions taken in furtherance of industrial disputes in 1906. With the Thatcher government, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) no longer enjoyed any privileged access to ministers and departments, and the full weight of state power was used against the trade unions which resisted the new state interventionism in industrial relations. The objective of the Conservatives was certainly the revival of managerial prerogative and the devolution of the management of industrial relations to individual employers and employees, but decollectivisation was imposed against the reluctance of business leaders and managers – always fearful of the impact of industrial strife on production and trade –, against trade unions and against existing mechanisms of autonomous regulation of industrial relations3.
8By contrast, the Labour governments of the period 1997-2010 resurrected a degree of pluralism and acknowledgment of the role of intermediate institutions, although they stopped short of any form of reassertion of union rights and industrial relations autonomy. Union “modernisation” was no longer the excuse for union-bashing and union-busting through legislation, but rather supported the state funding of union initiatives through the Union Learning Fund set up in 1998, and the Union Modernisation Fund, created in 2005. Trade unionists, rather than trade unions – and this supports the thesis of networks of individuals as central to New Labour policy-making – were drafted into various governmental and quasi-governmental bodies, demonstrating renewed acceptance of and reliance on civil society organisations in policy-making, while commissions like the Low Pay Commission could be seen as the revival of tripartite, pluralist policy-making under the general heading of “social partnership” promoted by New Labour.
9The return to power of the Conservatives in 2010 has marked the return to unitary state policy-making in the field of industrial relations, in spite of the presence of the ideologically liberal, progressive-sounding Liberal-Democrats in the Coalition government. Conservative MPs and ministers keep making noise about the need to further curtail trade union activities, the TUC and trade unionists are again cut off from access to ministers and departments, state-funded union initiatives have been scrapped, and a whole raft of policy-making and advisory bodies established by New Labour, on which trade unionists and representatives of voluntary organisations were sitting, have been disestablished as part of the general policy of cuts. The experience of the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s and of the present Coalition government suggested that the so-called “lean” or “small” government does not mean limited government. Conservative governments have been happy to use the full force of unitary state power, while the so-called “fat” or “big” government of post-war social democracy and New Labour was happy to accept limitations to state power by devolving it to intermediate institutions, national governments and relatively autonomous spheres in society.
10The recent trajectory of industrial relations in Britain, characterised by regular shifts between a social-democratic, pluralist-polity conception of government and a right-wing, unitary-state conception of government, therefore tends to contradict any linear, all-encompassing, substantial understanding of the development of “governance”. However, this does not mean that the notion of governance cannot provide a useful tool for understanding the recent history of industrial relations, to the extent that it has challenged a number of assumptions about policy-making and policy-implementation in Britain.
11The idea of a “decentred approach”, which is central to the epistemological shift brought about by the introduction of the theories and analyses of governance, may be illustrated with two quotes from Bevir and Rhodes.
- 4 Bevir, M., Rhodes, R.A.W., op. cit., 63-64.
“A decentred approach to institutions changes our approach to governance in two more ways. For a start, a decentred approach encourages us to examine the ways in which our social life, institutions and policies are created, sustained and modified by individuals. Institutions do not fix the beliefs that spur individual actions. They arise as individuals adapt traditions in response to dilemmas. Because we cannot read off people’s beliefs from knowledge of objective social facts about them, we have to explore both how traditions prompt them to adopt certain meanings and how dilemmas prompt them to modify these traditions.”4
- 5 Rorty, R., Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Oxford, Blackwell, 1980, 360.
- 6 Bevir, M., Rhodes, R.A.W., op. cit., 199.
“The governance narrative is a valuable corrective to the traditional Westminster model. We compare the two as an exercise in ‘edification’. The governance narrative offers the hope of finding ‘new, better, more interesting, more fruitful ways of speaking about’ British government5. It does so by decentring networks and exploring how their informal authority supplements and supplants the more formal authority of government. We use the notion of governance to develop a more diverse view of state authority in relationship to civil society.”6
12A central debate in industrial relations studies over the past 30 years has been the role played by the whole raft of Conservative anti-union laws in the numerical, economic and political decline of British trade unions7. The debate has revolved around a series of conflicting theses, all trying to identify a central factor of the decline : this central factor being anti-union laws for a large number of authors, but others have pointed respectively to the global economic context, changing management practices, trade union failure to adapt, labour politics, and so on. So there is the legal thesis versus the economic thesis versus the globalisation thesis versus the modernisation failure thesis versus the political thesis. What the decentred approach offered by Bevir and Rhodes in their discussion of governance strongly suggests, is that adhering to the Westminster model of understanding British politics as top-down policy-making constitutes an obstacle to the proper understanding of actual policy-making and policy-implementation in Britain, as does any model that reifies institutions and policy-making processes, or understands social and political change as produced by push and pull causal mechanisms. This is where a parallel in the form of Michel Foucault’s writings on governmentality, “la gouvernementalité”, may be suggested. The following quote is from Foucault’s 1977-1978 classes at the Collège de France, published posthumously as Sécurité, territoire, population :
- 8 Foucault, M. Sécurité, territoire, population. Cours au Collège de France. 1977-1978, Paris, Gallim (...)
« [P]ourquoi vouloir étudier ce domaine finalement inconsistant, brumeux, recouvert par une notion aussi problématique et artificielle que celle de « gouvernementalité » ? […] Premièrement, passer à l’extérieur de l’institution, se décentrer par rapport à la problématique de l’institution, à ce qu’on pourrait appeler l’ « institutionnalocentrisme ». […] Une méthode comme celle-là consiste à passer derrière l’institution pour essayer de retrouver, derrière elle plus globalement qu’elle, en gros ce qu’on peut appeler une technologie de pouvoir. […] Deuxièmement, deuxième décalage, deuxième passage à l’extérieur, par rapport à la fonction. […] Donc : substituer au point de vue intérieur de la fonction le point de vue extérieur des stratégies et tactiques. Enfin, troisième décentrement, troisième passage à l’extérieur, c’est par rapport à l’objet. […] Il s’agissait au contraire de saisir le mouvement par lequel se constituait, au travers de ces technologies mouvantes, un champ de vérité avec des objets de savoir. »8
- 9 Bevir, M., ‘Foucault and Critique: Deploying Agency against Autonomy’, Political Theory, 1999, 27 ( (...)
- 10 Bevir, M., ‘Rethinking Governmentality: Towards Genealogies of Governance’, European Journal of Soc (...)
13There is clearly here, in Foucault’s project, an attempt that is quite similar to that of Bevir and Rhodes, of moving away from a static, functionalist, reifying model of understanding politics towards a constructionist, dynamic, contested understanding of the state and politics. This was acknowledged by Bevir, already a keen Foucault reader9, in an article which detailed the lessons that may be drawn by state and governance scholars from the agenda and concepts developed by Foucault in his later writings on “genealogy”10.
14The reason why I bring Foucault into the discussion at this point is to introduce a specific concept developed by Foucault as part of this new approach of institutions and power : the concept of “dispositif”, which does not translate satisfactorily either as “apparatus” or as “machinery”. The following quote is from an interview called “Le jeu de Michel Foucault”, republished in Dits et écrits :
- 11 Foucault, M., « Le jeu de Michel Foucault », Dits et écrits 1954-1988, Tome II, 1976-1988, Paris, G (...)
« Ce que j’essaie de repérer sous ce nom [de dispositif], c’est, premièrement, un ensemble résolument hétérogène, comportant des discours, des institutions, des aménagements architecturaux, des décisions réglementaires, des lois, des mesures administratives, des énoncés scientifiques, des propositions philosophiques, morales, philanthropiques, bref : du dit, aussi bien que du non dit, voilà les éléments du dispositif. Le dispositif lui-même, c’est le réseau qu’on peut établir entre ces éléments. »11
- 12 Bevir, M., Rhodes, R.A.W., op. cit.
15This concept of “dispositif”, which fits perfectly with the decentred approach of governance advocated by Bevir and Rhodes12, suggests how illuminating the decentred approach can be. Indeed, instead of arguing about what was the central factor of union decline or about what the intentions of the Conservatives really were, we now have a general decentred approach and a specific concept of “dispositif” which connect all the threads of union decline together in a more complex narrative that resists attempts at identifying a central factor : the anti-union laws were decisive in weakening the power of unions and unionists in workplaces, but only when both employers and employees became convinced that the Conservatives were here to stay, that Labour would not immediately scrap all anti-union laws, and that the unions were on the defensive in the context of the recessions of the early 1980s and early 1990s ; the repression of trade union resistance by the use of state power proved successful for the Conservatives because the Labour leadership and the General Council of the TUC had already retreated from outright opposition to the Conservative government’s policies towards moderation and modernisation, probably because Labour itself was threatened on its right by the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). What appears decisive here really, as much as if not more than the actual policies of the Conservative governments of the 1980s, is the interpretations that various individuals and groups made of these policies, their beliefs in the likely outcomes of these policies. Much the same could be said of the impact that New Labour’s 1997 landslide victory and its determination to both uphold the anti-union laws and promote an atmosphere of “social partnership” had on the strategies of employers and trade unions in the period until 2010.
16The political strength of the Conservative governments of the 1980s and of the New Labour government between 1997 and the mid-2000s produced beliefs in a relatively stable trajectory of industrial relations. By contrast, although the resurgent Conservatives now in power have raised the possibility of a new anti-union offensive, as was suggested earlier, the fact that the Conservatives were unable to win an outright majority in 2010 and that the Lib-Dems occasionally make more conciliatory noises towards the trade unions, has prevented the formation of the sort of strong beliefs in a stable, coherent trajectory of industrial relations that might have heralded a new offensive by employers. Moreover, with devolution since 1997, the Westminster government is faced with alternative sources of authority and with potentially alternative political agendas. To sum up, the internal and external pressures on the Coalition government have certainly had a moderating impact on government policies in the field of industrial relations.
17The exploration of the role of beliefs and interpretations in social and political change may finally be taken a step further, through a discussion of Bevir and Rhodes’ example of New Labour as an illustration of their thesis about “narratives of governance”.
- 13 Bevir, M., Rhodes, R.A.W., op. cit., p.119.
“What links the different constructions of Thatcherism is not an agreement about the phenomena to be explained, but rather a recognition of the peculiar salience of certain dilemmas for British government since 1973. Proponents of all the traditions considered here [Toryism, Liberalism, Whiggism, Socialism] understand Thatcherism as a response to certain dilemmas and feel pushed by Thatcherism to search for solutions to them. The legacy of Thatcherism consists, therefore, not in a monolithic set of institutions, practices or beliefs but rather in the diverse ways in which people inspired by different traditions have responded to these dilemmas.”13
18Perhaps the most lasting, most decisive impact of Thatcherism has lain in the ideological and organisational transformation of the Labour Party into New Labour over the course of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a transformation which has not been reversed since in any meaningful way, in spite of Ed Miliband’s distancing himself from the brand and from the phraseology of New Labour. This is what ultimately sealed and entrenched the radical transformation of industrial relations in Britain initiated by the Conservatives. However, the idea that New Labour was the response and solution arrived at within the socialist tradition represented by the Labour Party, which is Bevir and Rhodes’ understanding of New Labour, may be disputed. The actions of individuals and groups are influenced by the way they interpret situations and changes. However, there is no reason to assume that all individuals and groups within a set tradition will interpret situations and changes in the same way, especially when the set tradition, as is the case of British socialism or British labourism as one may also call it, is and has long been divided between left-wing, centrist and right-wing tendencies and factions – a division which reached new heights in the late 1970s and 1980s. This division both produced and was the product of conflicts of interpretation over the meaning of Thatcherism – a notion which may be unpacked as encompassing debates about the global and economic context, the social and ideological situation of the working-class or working-classes, the results of successive general elections and the location of the political middle ground in Britain, and so on. It is one of the most illuminating aspects of the interpretive approach developed by Bevir and Rhodes to point that what social scientists need to establish, and what is actually decisive in the evolution of policies and politics, is the meanings ascribed to situations and changes by various groups and individuals. In a non-foundational approach, which is wary of the claims to fact-based truth usually made by social scientists, there is no objective basis against which one might assess the correctness of these meanings. What ultimately matters, and all that we have got to work on, are the meanings themselves.
19Indeed, the whole history of the Labour Party over the past 30 years – but this could equally apply to the previous periods – revolves around the conflicts of interpretation between left and right : the successive Conservative Party victories between 1979 and 1992 and the changing social, economic and ideological landscape that Thatcherism produced were taken by the right of the Labour Party to mean that the Party should “modernise”, “modernisation” being a byword for the abandonment notably of the mixed economy, the trade-union link and pacifism. The Labour victories between 1997 and 2005 were actually taken to demonstrate exactly the same thing, and so did the rather inconclusive results of the 2010 general elections. By contrast, these very same events were taken to mean the exact opposite by the left of the Party : that Labour should move to the left, revive nationalisation policies and refrain from imperialistic foreign policies. This conflict of interpretations was played out within the parliamentary Labour Party, at conferences, within the trade unions, in the media and in various forums of the labour movement. As it had during most of the twentieth century, the centre-right bloc ultimately prevailed. It still does, although the trade unions, by their very presence inside the Party and because of the dominance of left-leaning leaderships in the larger trade unions, continue to offer, within Party structures, alternative interpretations of the social and economic situation and alternative ways forward for the Labour Party. The 2010 election of the new Party leader and the regular displays of union unhappiness with Labour strategy and policy, beyond their theatrical artificiality, actually do suggest that the conflict of interpretation over the legacy of Thatcherism has only been temporarily resolved to the advantage of the right of the party.
20This is simply to suggest that New Labour was maybe not the solution arrived at within the socialist tradition, but rather the solution which prevailed within this tradition. This is not contradictory with Bevir and Rhodes’ emphasis on “narratives of governance”. On the contrary, this complements and clarifies how political change results from responses to dilemmas which are arrived at dynamically and are continuously challenged within broad, non-entirely homogeneous traditions.
- 14 Bevir, M., Rhodes, R.A.W., op. cit., 197.
“In an important sense, therefore, there is no such thing as governance, but only the differing constructions of the several traditions. That is to say, there is no necessary logical or structural process determining the form governance takes, neither a process based on the intrinsic rationality of markets nor one based on the path dependency of institutions. In an equally important sense, however, governance consists of the diverse actions and political struggles informed by the beliefs of the agents as they in turn arise against a backcloth of traditions and dilemmas.”14
21So governance matters, and is a key concept to understand the recent trajectory of industrial relations and labour politics. However, its relevance has little to do with any descriptive, substantial qualities. It is better understood as an ideological category – not ideological in the common sense notion that it would be essentially false or obfuscating, but rather in the sense that it prescribes a certain understanding of the evolution of policy over the past 30 years. However, disputing or refuting the relevance of a substantial understanding of “governance” does not mean that the emergence of the concept has not been fruitful for social scientists and observers of British government and politics. The dynamic, fragmented, deflationary understanding of institutions underlying the concept of “governance” has led, through the work of Bevir and Rhodes especially, to the development of a decentred approach to institutions and to an emphasis on how political change is always mediated by the meanings ascribed to situations by individuals and groups. Contested and conflicting “narratives of governance” and interpretations of the Thatcherite legacy have accompanied the public policy reforms of the past 30 years in many fields, and ultimately been their key facilitators or obstacles. The evolution of Labour Party organisation, policy and ideology over the past 30 years is a case in point, resulting as it did from a conflict of interpretations between left and right over the rationales and impacts of globalisation, Conservative economic policy and reform of industrial relations, and new models of management in the public and private sector. These reforms and changes only have a lasting impact insofar as they become part of a consensus understanding of reality, and insofar as groups and individuals are willing to believe in their relative stability and the likelihood of their continuation.