This theme is an interesting challenge for me. Politics is of course focused on power- not just who will win the election and take over the power of the State, but who will be the candidate, the junior minister, a member of the cabinet etc. There is a famous saying in the House of Commons, that your enemies are behind you not in front, i.e within your own party rather than with the opposition. I never used to understand this, but I do now, it refers to intense competition for position and power, all fuelled by ego. So inevitably there is lots of conflict in politics, both with the opposition and within one’s own party.
And there is of course, cooperation. People stand together for election on an agreed manifesto. All work to win. All try to make the government work, agree on priorities etc.
But the story I want to tell you is to contrast two different approaches to “power”. When John Smith was leader of the Labour Party, he loved open discussion and would listen carefully to all arguments before a decision was made. In contrast, Blair disliked open discussion, if he thought there would be a disagreement, he would see you before hand and try to buy it off. Cabinet ministers soon learnt that discussion was not wanted or valued and meetings were very short. Blair made decisions with a small in-group in his office.
My preference is very much for the John Smith style of exercising power. I followed this model when I managed the Department for International Development (DfID) for six years. It is a more pleasant way to work but, more importantly, better decisions are made if everyone has a chance to make proposals or express opinions.
There is another point about power, it is elusive. Aneurin Bevan said that he set out to get his hands on power and was first a local councillor, then a county councillor, then an MP and then a member of the cabinet. The lesson he learnt of course was that no one has full power, except perhaps a dictator and even then, they cannot control events.
Conflict is of course normal. There will be differences of views, preferences and priorities. this should not be a problem if we respect each other’s views and agree on a fair way of making decisions. Cooperation is based on respect for the aims held in common and the fairness of decision-making.
In DfID our inclusive style of decision-making lead to high morale and enthusiasm and a very effective organisation. But of course nothing is perfect, I was shocked to find the sickness rate was as bad as other government departments and when I looked into it, I concluded that kind people tend to be bad at managing poor performance!
Currently, I chair the Board of Cities Alliance, an alliance of organisations working to improve life in cities in the developing world where large parts of the housing stock and employment are created informally by people themselves with no government provision of organisation or services. And thus, there are vast slums in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.I have come to enormously admire the organisation known as Slum Dwellers International. It brings together slum dwellers in saving groups. ( The poor tend to be great savers because life is so uncertain and no institution will provide them with credit). They elect their own officers and their organisation tends to be very tight and well-structured because people are trusting each other with precious money. They then work together to persuade local government to allocate some land so that they can build toilet blocks and washing facilities. In the longer term they work to persuade government to bring them to the table to discuss the best way of developing the city. In this power is created by cooperation out of powerlessness.
In conclusion, I would ask you to remember the John Smith vs Tony Blair style of leadership and management. One is undoubtedly more enjoyable to work with and in my view produces better decisions. I do not believe that the UK would have joined the US in invading Iraq if we had proper systems of decision making in place.
My second conclusion is to remember that conflict is natural and inevitable and that we therefore need agreed ways of reaching conclusions and agreements.
My third conclusion is to invite you to remember Slum Dwellers International. Cooperation can create power.