Tuesday 19 January 2021

A Party for Management Consultants

Chatting to a stats guy at a meeting down Stoke Council's Civic Centre many years ago, we got round to the subject of consultants. This was always a hot button topic for the local authority. There seemed an unerring coincidence between the appointment of new executive-level officers and the consultation firms who were subsequently contracted in to do some work. And this was in the thick of the government's swingeing cuts to local government where hiring consultants was always politically problematic. To cut the story short, said stats guys said all one group did for a £15k job were tap him up for some figures in the Council's database and re-present them in a PowerPoint to the chief officers. Nice work if you can get it.

Interesting then when news filtered out about Labour's decision to hire management consultants to oversee 'Organise to Win 2024', a review of party structures and what organisation steps it will take to, well, win the 2024 general election. A bit strange for the self-styled election winning specialists to put one of their core competencies out to tender, but perhaps not when politics is just managerialism to these people. As for the consultants themselves, Q5 bill themselves as a "nimble" business who offer bespoke solutions for the challenges facing business. Or, as they put it, they are "award-winning experts in organisation change" and try hooking in potential customers with "deep in the Q5 DNA, was the assurance that each project would bring change that really sticks." As an example of their wares, this report on the "connective organisation" - what business has to look like in the 2020s to survive and thrive - is freely available. Call me a miserable old grumble, but there doesn't appear anything in here that post-Fordist and Italian autonomist writers weren't scribbling about in the 1980s and early 90s. I suppose yesterday's insights can look profound with a few zippy slides and the heavy deployment of management speak, particularly among Labour Party tops ignorant of the most elementary social theory.

Let's strip away the bullshit and call Q5 what they are: restructure specialists. And, readers might be interested to learn, their resume lists them as previously working with the Home Office at some unspecified point in time. Were they called in to ease the passage of cuts to that department? It certainly wasn't for helping Priti Patel develop a sensitive ear to the needs of the "stakeholders". And so what are they for? What possibly can their review of the Labour Party tell the leadership that neither the critical No Holding Back nor the soft soapy Labour Together reports were able to?

It's difficult to say, because the remit of the Organise to Win review is not public. We can only piece it together from clues, such as Labour's job advert for Executive Director - Elections and Field Delivery. This is interesting because not only does this job require "Leadership of Field and elections centric function" (what language is this?) but also responsibility for "delivering the transformation programme needed to win the 2024 General Election (Organise to Win 2024)." Additional to the usual gubbins about "strategic direction" and "building an organising culture", we learn the focus of O2W (as it is officially christened) is the implementation of the review, "focusing on how data is used and communicated across the organisation to deliver the operational objectives." Is that it? Seriously? Party full-timers, MPs bag carriers, and constituency officials were getting this sort of stuff fed to them 10 years ago. Why reinvent the wheel when most of these people are still in the party, still tilt more to the right (and so from Keir Starmer's perspective, are "safe"), and have actual campaigning experience? Or even the Labour leader could take a chance and speak to current and ex-Momentum cadre, who know a thing or two about using data to aid campaigning. Doesn't the party already possess the wit, knowledge, and resource to do this itself?

Which begs the question. Why? It might be tempting to search for some sort of family link or cronyism to provide an explanation for why the Labour leadership, or the "Senior Leadership Team" as they now style themselves, are wasting yet more members' money, but this is not it. The "SLT" are approaching the institutional disadvantages Labour suffers vis a vis the Tories' considerable advantages as a managerial as opposed to a political problem. Knowing David Evans's circulation in the strategy and comms universe, and Keir Starmer's previous life as the boss of the Crown Prosecution Service, the preference for organisational solutions would appear natural to them. Labour is a severely dysfunctional outfit in which senior employees have a habit of going off-piste if they don't like the leader. It is also a largely voluntary organisation peopled by, well, people who happen to have minds of their own. And as we saw in 2019 and 2017, the actual party organisation of the election was a complete mess with little strategic allocation of resources, if not actual sabotage. Why a gunslinging firm of hip consultants are attractive to Keir and chums is how they can propose recommendations independently of political pressure and without factional interference. Save the factional interference and preconceptions of the SLT, of course. There won't be any challenges to hierarchical thinking here.

The second is the messaging Q5's hire sends out to the consultation community. One of the ways New Labour were able to, for a time, bind some sections of capital to their fate was by building on John Major's marketisation of public service provision and use the Treasury's largesse to buy loyalty through juicy procurement and public-private partnership contracts. A practice the Tories have happily carried on, gifting us, among other things, the disasters of test and trace and the meagre food parcels. Getting the consultants in to effectively determine the vote-catching function of the Labour Party signals to the market that under a Keir Starmer government, there will still be plenty of opportunities for them. Perhaps it might encourage some to play nice and sign a few round robin letters when the time comes. As with Keir's courting of the media, it's about sending a business as usual message.

The obvious problem is you can't solve political problems by organisational means. Improving on a data-driven infrastructure is a must for any modern party, but if "campaigning" is defined in narrow, voter ID terms designed for data collection, it woefully falls short. If the eventual O2W recommendations are imposed, which they will be, in a top down fashion, it will surely alienate members, turn activists off, and canvassing teams will be stretched. Just like the old times. And even worse if this comes bound up with a managerial as opposed to a political vision, and one in which the left are considered a matter of no consequence, this is going to cause serious problems and put torpedoes in the water pointing at Labour's electoral hopes.

Relying on management consultants shows yet again the way Labour under Keir Starmer is heading. And that direction is away from the interests of our movement, of working people and their families, and most problematic for him, in a direction progressively further from victory.

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

Hiring a restructure specialist is like having a personal stylist. It sounds impressive, but really their job is to find professional ways of validating things that you mostly want to do/be anyway. It's not all that pedagogical a relationship. There's a far bigger feedback-loop involved than most people suspect.

Unknown said...

Best laugh I've had in ages!

david walsh said...

Thanks for providing the link to Q5's THE FIVE TRAITS OF A
CONNECTIVE ORGANISATION. It is the best laid out and analytical template for a game of Bullshit Bingo I have ever seen ! A winner for everyone !

John Griffin said...

Given Evans previous utterances and involvement with Croydons crash, my guess is cut off the member to conference link and crank up centralise, believing that CLPs can be run regionally and feet on the deck can have mailshots and media replacing them.

Dipper said...

The post contains the reasons why Starmer is doing this, even if in a back-handed kind of way.

Most large organisations are a carefully balanced assembly of competing departmental interests. No matter how smart and perceptive the staff are, it is a guaranteed certainty their bright ideas will amount to giving their department more power, and any merit in the ideas will be lost in consequent inter-departmental fighting. Much better to bring in external independent people, have them trawl through the organisation for ideas and perceptions, and have them presented independent of the department who thought of them.

So, given that Labour appears to have more inclination than most organisations to descend into in-fighting, getting some folks from outside to give you a view makes sense.

BCFG said...

What dipshit, sorry dipper, is missing here is the fact that the external 'independent people' also have their own interests and this can also colour their conclusions, as well as the risk that their lack of knowledge of the organisation can result in incorrect assumptions!

So maybe have 2 external groups, then compare the conclusions of both external groups and implement where they agree!

Or maybe just improve compliance and the culture within the organisation and ensure no individuals have so much power as to put the narrow interests of the department first. So at the next company meeting get every speaker to stress that they are working for the company and not the department.

For example in an organisation where I worked the company decided to centralise all reserves, which meant departments could no longer use reserves to hide losses or to move funds into the following year. Simple steps like that were cheaper than external advice.

Though when it comes to a political party they are not working for the organisation but the principles of that organisation (ha ha)!

Blissex said...

«politics is just managerialism to these people»

More precisely, managerialism is just politics to these people: because managerialism is a political ideology, not a way to avoid politics. It is the neo-"whig" ideology that "progress" through history has reached the "end of history", that the neoliberal/neocon is the supreme realisation of history, and therefore the only role of politics is to manage it.

«Party full-timers, MPs bag carriers, and constituency officials were getting this sort of stuff fed to them 10 years ago.»

Well before that, here is Tony Benn, 24/3/1986:

The Party's Campaign Strategy committee, where four men and a woman from something called the Shadow Agency made a presentation.
They flashed onto a screen quotes which were supposed to be typical of Labour voters, for example: “IT'S NICE TO HAVE A SOCIAL CONSCIENCE BUT IT'S YOUR FAMILY THAT COUNTS.”
What we were being told, quite frankly, was what you can read every day in the Sun, the Mail, the Daily Express, and the Telegraph. It was an absolute waste of money.
Labour was associated with the poor, the unemployed, the old, the sick, the disabled, pacifists, immigrants, minorities and the unions, and this was deeply worrying.
The Tories were seen to have the interests of everyone at heart including the rich. Labour was seen as yesterday's party.
I came out feeling physically sick.

Another topical Tony Benn quote, from 8/9/1993:

I think the British Establishment is looking for a Lib-Lab arrangement, and of course that’s what the Labour Party’s all about, breaking the links with the unions, getting rid of the left, going for proportional representation, paving the way for a Lib-lab Government, which the Establishment would then support to the hilt in getting the cuts that they want to the Welfare State.

Part of the difference between left and right is that they are persistent in different ways: some people on the left have spent the past 40 years dreaming fondly of the General Strike that will result in the People's Socialist Paradise, most people on the right have been spending the past 40 years working hard to push forward their policies, whether about EU membership, or about reverting to victorian-style liberalism.

Blissex said...

«it will surely alienate members, turn activists off, and canvassing teams will be stretched. Just like the old times. [...] and put torpedoes in the water pointing at Labour's electoral hopes.»

The model here, like for the "modernizers" in the 1990s, is the Conservative party, whose membership and "movement" have pretty much ceased to exist, and which has turned itself for elections into a pure media marketing machine for some "great" products (property inflation, lower taxes and benefits, english supremacy). Same for old New Labour, even if in their case it was not so much their marketing skills that mattered, as they won 3 elections despite being quite unpopular, by default because the Conservatives had failed on the critical product (property inflation).

For those who have seen consultant driven reorgs like this the goal seems pretty obvious: mass redundancies, to purge the New, New Labour structure of the dozens/hundreds of thousands of "trot" (Labour) officials and activists that in mandelsonian mythology have infiltrated New, New Labour and are sure to work hard to undermine New, New Labour's "inevitable" victory at the next elections; this purge will get New, New Labour much nearer to the ideal of pure media marketing machine.

david walsh said...

Benn's 1986 comments on the work of the Party's Campaign Strategy committee mirrors the reactions of the late lamented John Smith, a few years later Invited by some eager beavers at HQ to view from behind a one way glass screen
the work of a focus group made up of some random racists and loundmouths there for the lunch and the £20 reward he stayed for a half hour before walking out after stressing that he never ever again was to be invited to such events.

Blissex said...

Benn's 1986 comments on the work of the Party's Campaign Strategy committee

There is a fuller quote here:


And here there is a very interesting discussion of the same here, which shows that very little has changed since 1986 in the ideas of New, New Labour:


Which starts with the unsurprising detail that “The SCA and their ‘client’ representative Peter Mandelson provided the impetus behind the re-launch of Labour in 1986. In contrast to previous initiatives, the campaigns that followed were highly disciplined exercises. As Mandelson admitted: ‘Communications means throwing your net much wider than publicity. It means deciding what we say, how we say it, and which spokesmen and women we choose to say it’.”.

Dipper said...

@ Blissex "And here there is a very interesting discussion of the same here, which shows that very little has changed since 1986 in the ideas of New, New Labour:"

just to remind you, borrowing a comment on here somewhere I think, the record of Labour since 1979 has been

Lost, lost, lost, lost, Blair, Blair, Blair, Lost, lost, lost, lost heavily.

Anonymous said...

A comment which is no less meaningless now than it was the first time.