Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Neo-corporatism in the UK

Another question showed up in my mail.

What's all this about corporatism and neo-corporatism in the UK?

I had to scratch my head. In the UK?

The clue was that the questioner was using Patrick O'Neil's textbooks, Essentials of Comparative Politics and Cases in Comparative Politics. Corporatism is discussed there while distinctions are drawn between liberal and social democratic regimes.

I defined (p. 37) coporatism as a system in which groups (not individuals) within society are represented in a government in ways that may or may not be democratic.

What comes to my mind immediately when someone says, "corporatism" is Mussolini's Italy. The regime claimed to represent "corporate" groups in society: workers, peasants, land owners, religious communities, military leaders. etc. Of course, it carefully selected and organized those groups. Then there's the PRI corporatism, which organized groups of workers, peasants, etc. and made the groups part of the party. Corporatism.

The second thing I thought of were the arrangements in Germany and Japan to provide representation of peak groups in decision making. Unions in Germany legally have seats on corporate boards of directors. Neo-corporatism?

The UK? The pre-Blair Labour Party was sort of a corporatist party -- it represented the unionized working class. But it was also sort of an ideological party. And maybe the pre-WWII Tories were a class-based party. Did that make them corporatist?

Blair's "New Labour" really was a "catch-all" party aiming to win majority support, not just the working class or the democratic socialists.

The Conservative Party had begun that transition to a "catch-all" party during and after WWII (the collectivist consensus), as it sought to win votes from middle and working classes.

My next thought was, "Aha, quangos!" Quangos (quasi-nongovernmental orgainzations) have been around for awhile, but Thatcher really expanded their use. Here's neo-corporatism, perhaps.

The expanded use of quangos was, in part, one of Thatcher's methods for reducing the open conflict in British society. I think she also hoped to break the power of the TUC, by giving specific unions seats at decision-making tables on narrow issues involving them. In addition, Thatcher hoped that the use of quangos would reduce the size of government.

The Labour government prefers now to call these organizations, "non-departmental public bodies," which makes an unpronounceable acronym and much less fun to talk about. They are controversial and have not reduced the size of government (as Conservative critics will tell you), but they have made decision makers less accountable (as Labour critics will tell you).

A quango is intended to put the major "stakeholders" together on the same committee to actually make policy. However, since the government creates quangos, the make up of the represented interests can be manipulated to favor some policies over others.

O'Neil and his co-authors discuss corporatism and neo-corporatism as part of distinguishing between liberal regimes and social democracy. Most other textbooks do not. Corporatism is unavoidable when studying about Mexico, Japan, Germany and some other regimes, and that's where most authors include the topics.

Corporatism, neo-corporatism, liberal regime, and social democracy are all basic concepts students should be familiar with and be able to discuss. Like democratic centralism and patron-client systems. I'm an advocate for including basic ideas in the course where they make the most sense to you. I think you'll do a better job of teaching it in a context you understand.

I also think that students need to deal with ideas like these more than once.

So it's a matter of allocating classroom time and student reading time in ways that work best for you and your students in your institution. Discussing corporatism while learning about the UK can become a great preview of a study of Mexico and Calderón's attempts at reform and privatization.

Keep those questions coming in.

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At 2:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

SO is the UK government now still in the neo-corporatism state?

At 8:06 AM, Blogger Ken Wedding said...

Simplistic answer: yes.

Realistic answer: maybe, but becoming less so.

Quangos are still real actors. Devolution may make them more important. Parties are becoming less and less corporate bodies. Voters are even "asking politely" that MPs live in the constituencies from which they are elected. Issues, like the funding and role of the NHS are cutting across old cleavages.


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