Jack Whitehead, Department of Education, University of Bath

13th June 2002.

"The challenge is to be open to new ideas and to examine whether our policies are working…. My belief that our party is up to this task comes from my experience of our shared values. We share a fundamental belief in creating a fraternal community based on the values of equality, freedom, fairness and diversity. Pursued without dogma, these are also the values of the British people." (Tony Blair, 'I have learned the limits of government', Independent Newspaper, p. 15, 20th May, 2002).

"New Labour was founded on the desire to align progressive values with the forces of modernity. But it can only shape those forces by building systems of order capable of renewing themselves without central direction" Tom Bentley, Renewal, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2002.

The last time I felt the need to write to Labour Party M.Ps was in 1996. I'm sure you will recall our desperation at the effects of 17 years of Conservative Government! I wrote to members of the Shadow Cabinet to urge them to focus their political speeches and practices on values . All my research into education had taught me that enquiring into how we are learning to live our values of humanity as fully as we can, stimulates an energising hope in the present and a constantly renewable faith that we are also contributing to a future worth living for.

I was inspired by Tony Blair's speech to the 1996 Labour Party Conference and shared the delight of millions with our victory in 1997.

I then watched with some dismay as our policies focused on the centralised definition and imposition of 'targets'. All my work in education has taught me that this would not connect with the values, passions and creativity of people in the workplace and wider society.

It is clear from living labour values that people need to feel connected to their own self-set values-based standards, in improving their practice. They need to feel part of a process that pays attention to the stories of their own learning. While believing that our policies on 'targets' needed to change to emphasise a process of accountability in relation to self-set, values-based standards, I watched the implementation of our earlier policies with some dismay, knowing that efforts to modify the policies could not succeed in such an early phases of a new administration with such a large majority.

I am writing now because I think we need to arrest and transform the decline in the electorate's perception that politicians in our Government are not concerned with truth or learning from their own experience. I think we have the time to change this perception before the next election. What I now urging you to do is to focus on making public, accounts of your own learning as you explore the implications of asking, 'How do I improve what I am doing?'

I don't think the electorate wants to hear stories about 'mistakes' that are not connected to learning and values . They do want to hear about learning that is focused on improving the quality of a politician's influence in his area of responsibility. Learning from mistakes is important, but not as important as communicating what one is learning about living values more fully in practice.

For an elegantly simple introduction on how you could undertake such action research into your learning, through studying your influence in your political practices, see the booklet on action research for professional development by Jean McNiff from

I don't want to be misunderstood in terms of the focus on my concern. I understand the need for accountability. I welcome it in my own practice. What I insist on is the right to participate in the creation of my own self-set standards in accounting for myself and to others. A serious mistake is in 'target setting' by politicians acting as external agents and imposing these 'targets' on the 'system'. There's nothing wrong with politicians setting targets as long as they are for evaluating the politician's own learning. Centralised imposition does not tend to support the creativity of individuals and groups in being accountable to their self-set targets. I am thinking of accountability in terms of publicly validated explanations of learning how to live the values of humanity more fully in practice. What you could do is to lead by example with accounts of your own learning as you seek to extend your influence in your area of concern and responsibility.

If you go into Jean McNiff's website or the living theory section of you will see accounts, such as that by Erica Holley, Head of Greendown Upper School in Swindon, that demonstrates the process I am advocating. I am recommending this to you in the hope and belief that your accounts of your own learning, as politician action researchers, will inspire other individuals and groups to become more focused on learning how to live their values of humanity more fully in their practice.

Warmest Regards