At the start of Labour’s penultimate conference before the 2015 General Election – one of the chief criticims of the Party is “you’ve got no policies”.
Well here’s a snapshot of what’s wrong with Cameron – and more importantly what Labour would do to make Britain better (and fairer).
Under David Cameron Britain’s families are facing a cost of living crisis…
- Prices have risen faster than wages in 38 of the 39 months that David Cameron has been in Downing Street
- Working people are an average of almost £1500 a year worse off under this Government
…and with a Government putting a privileged few before working people this doesn’t feel like a recovery for most people.
• David Cameron has cut tax for people on over £150,000 a year while raising it for everyone else
• Energy companies have been allowed to hike bills by more than £300 whilst making record profits
• They’ve wasted three years whilst prices have risen, wages have stagnated and borrowing has hardly come down
• While small businesses struggle to get credit, bankers’ bonuses are up 82%
One Nation Labour will tackle the cost of living crisis by building an economy that works for working people…
• Cut income tax for people on average incomes, with a new 10p starting rate of tax paid for by asking for a bit more from those with homes worth over £2m.
• End the abuse of zero hour contracts and strengthen the minimum wage, because Britain can’t compete on ever greater insecurity and lower wages. The fine for breaking the minimum wage law will rise from a derisory £5000 to £50,000.
• Dramatically increase the number of high quality apprenticeships by making them a requirement of every big company the government buys from
* Require medium and large companies to train one British worker for every non-EU foreign worker that they take on, so that where there are shortages requiring foreign staff they are addressed for the future. And we will ban recruitment agencies that only recruit overseas workers
… and as we deal with the cost of living crisis, the next Labour government will be different from the last.
• In tougher times, we will make tougher choices on spending. We will scrap winter-fuel payments for the wealthiest pensioners
• Our plans for day-to-day spending do not involve any additional borrowing, with fully funded plans to reverse David Cameron’s unfair Bedroom Tax.
Labour will introduce a ‘primary childcare guarantee’ giving all parents of primary school children the guarantee of childcare availability through their school from 8am-6pm.
Families are facing a cost of living crisis under David Cameron. By 2015 the Government will have taken up to £7 billion a year of support away from families with children.
Childcare is a key part of this cost-of-living crisis. For school-age children, childcare can become a logistical nightmare. David Cameron abandoned Labour’s programme to support school-age childcare, leaving many parents struggling to juggle work and family life
Today, while in many areas extended schools have survived, in other areas after-school clubs have been closing: last year Labour FOIs found that 37% of Local Authorities reported a cut in the number of after-school clubs and 44% reported that breakfast clubs had closed in their area.
62% of parents of school-age children say that they need some form of before-and-after school or holiday care in order to combine family and work but of these, nearly three in ten were unable to find it.
To give parents of primary-aged children peace of mind, Labour will guarantee in law that they can access wraparound (8am-6pm) childcare through their local school if they want it.
Parents of primary age children will benefit most from a new guarantee as this is when families most require childcare support.
Parents will still have to pay for this wraparound childcare, just as they do at the moment, but the guaranteed availability will make things that little bit easier. Those who qualify for childcare support will get help with the costs through tax credits and childcare vouchers.
Schools and local areas will be given discretion over how best to organise the guarantee locally, dependent on the facilities available. Primary schools would be encouraged to develop partnerships to deliver high quality childcare and a range of pre-and-after-school activities to local parents.
Scrapping the Bedroom Tax
Ed Miliband has today announced that Labour will repeal David Cameron’s bedroom tax, with a fully funded plan to do so without additional borrowing.
The Bedroom Tax is a cruel and unfair measure that hits over 400,000 disabled people. For the vast majority of those affected, there is nowhere smaller to move to, hitting vulnerable people through no fault of their own. See
for an example of the sort of dilemma that results.
There is now a real risk that the Bedroom Tax will cost more money than it saves.
The next Labour government will repeal the Bedroom Tax.
But we are clear that there cannot be extra borrowing to pay for social security changes. So to ensure that it can be reversed without any additional borrowing funds have been earmarked from:
· Reversing George Osborne’s recent tax cut for hedge funds announced in Budget 2013;
· Reversing George Osborne’s shares for rights scheme which has been rejected by businesses, has opened up a tax loophole and will lead to £1bn being lost to the Exchequer according to the Office for Budget Responsibility;
· Tackling tax and national insurance avoidance in the construction industry.
These measures will more than cover the maximum £470m cost of repealing the Bedroom Tax.
Labour will deal with under-occupation by funding local authorities who are able to help people with the costs of moving to suitable accommodation, using the funding set aside by the Government through Discretionary Housing Payments for dealing with the problems caused by the Bedroom Tax.
This essay is written by my good friend John Milbank, Professor of Religion, Politics and Ethics at Nottingham University
To contact John: email@example.com
The Blue Labour Dream
Within the British Labour party, ‘Blue Labour’ is the crucial factor in the emergence of ‘One-Nation Labour’.
Such paradoxical combinations are characteristic of the new ‘postliberal’ politics in the United Kingdom, which seeks to combine greater economic justice with individual virtue and public honour. It rejects the double liberal impersonalism of economic contract between strangers, and individual entitlement in relation to the bureaucratic machine. Instead of the combination of contract without gift, plus the unilateral gift from nowhere that is state welfare, it proposes gift-exchange or reciprocity as the ultimate principle to govern both the economic and the political realms. This would restore in a new version the ancient and medieval idea of the political as ultimately an extension of friendship within a shared ethos.
But an ethos can only develop over time, and so postliberal advocates like David Goodhart have called for a new recognition of the role of tradition and the contract between the generations. The Labour party is grounded in the notion of solidarity amongst labour and it sees all human beings as workers, because, as Maurice Glasman has said, in line with Catholic social teaching, it is with respect to work that we see the personal origin of all of human society and culture. Yet work also takes time: it requires learning from the past, induction into inherited lineages of good craft and relating to fellow workers; an initial submitting to leadership if one is eventually to lead in one’s turn. It is for this reason that Labour affirmation of civil society in terms of solidarity and mutuality requires a linkage with certain Burkean thematics if is not simply to fade back into the current hegemony of liberal notions of isolated freedom of choice.
The same consideration applies to notions of equality. How can we decide to own some things in common and to divide up other goods equitably if we do not know what constitutes a good and what broad ends of flourishing human beings should agree to pursue? Of course we have no fixed or final knowledge of such things – but tradition gives us some intimation of their nature and education allows us to refine and debate this intimation. Without a concern for formation and virtue which is not in itself democratic — because the genuine good remains the good even if all vote against it — we lack the precondition for democracy and for democratic discussion which will further refine our sense of what it is that renders us human.
And without the possession of virtue whose key mark is Aristotelian phronesis or a kind of moral art or tact, we will remove social judgement from the hands of humans as workers or craftsman and assume that everything must be precisely legislated. Soon we will suppose that right and wrong can be precisely defined and that all that is wrong must be legally outlawed, while all that is not outlawed must be not only permissible but valuable. Soon after that we will imagine that we should only be allowed to do that for which we have a legal licence. These drifts can be readily seen to be at work in the recent debates over gay marriage and also in those over surveillance, whistleblowing and the indictment of military decisions before courts of human rights. All of this witnesses to the bankruptcy of the liberal rights perspective and the lack of attention to non-formalisable, non-legal judgement. For example, governments have no absolute right in the name of security to know everything, but neither are rights of privacy absolute in relation to the public good. Soldiers who reveal injustice in battle should not be treated as mere breakers of a contract, but neither can army commanders treat protection of their troops’ lives as an absolute (given that a soldier, by definition, has signed-up to possible sacrificial death) in the face of other considerations, like not alienating a civilian population.
These are some summary indications of what postliberalism might mean and why, in my view, the Labour tradition is naturally aligned with it. But to understand more deeply what this new politics involves, it is necessary to attend closely to the intended sense of both ‘post’ and ‘liberal’.
‘Post’ is different from ‘pre’ and implies not that liberalism is all bad, but that it has inherent limits and problems.
‘Liberal’ may immediately suggest to many an easygoing and optimistic outlook. Yet to the contrary, at the core of a searching critique of liberalism lies the accusation that it is a far too gloomy political philosophy.
For liberalism assumes that we are basically self-interested, fearful, greedy and egotistic creatures, unable to see beyond our own selfish needs and instincts. This is the founding assumption of the individualistic liberal creed, derived from Grotius, Hobbes and Locke in the 17th C.
Such a position sounds, as it is, secular and materialistic. However, another important root of modern liberalism, traceable for example in Adam Smith, derives from Calvinistic and Jansenistic theologies. For this theological outlook original sin is so extreme that human beings must be considered to be ‘totally depraved’ and incapable by nature of acting out of virtue to produce economic, social or political order. Instead, in a kind of proxy operation, divine providence must manipulate our egotistic wills and even our vices behind our backs, in such a way as to make will balance will and vice balance vice to produce a kind of economic and political harmony, even though this had never been originally intended by self-obsessed individuals. Here is the ideological root of Smith’s ‘hidden hand’.
In this way we can see how liberalism has been doubly promoted by both hedonists and puritans. Today the British Conservative Party, which has long since abandoned toryism for liberalism, remains something of an uneasy alliance between these two different character traits, even if the puritans are fast losing ground.
However, neither label would exactly seem to apply to the Guardian-reader type granola-eating liberal, whom we more usually take today to define liberalism as such. Why does the fit appear so poor?
The answer is that there is another, ‘romantic’ variant of liberalism that was invented in the late 18th C by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He inverted Thomas Hobbes by arguing that the isolated, natural individual is ‘good’, lost in contemplative delight at the world around him, satisfied with simple pleasures and provisions. She is not yet egotistic, because that vice arises from rivalry and comparison. However, Rousseau took the latter to be endemic once the individual is placed in a social context. Accordingly he transferred pessimism about the individual into a new pessimism about human association.
This encouraged scepticism about the role of corporate bodies beneath the level of the state: for it is only the state that can lead us to sacrifice all our petty rivalries for the sake of the common purpose or general will which will return to us, at a higher level, our natural isolated innocence.
The problem with this vision is that the state will not really stand above the interests of faction and sectional intrigue. And meanwhile the concentration of all power in the centre will just as effectively undermine the immediate bonds of trust between people as does the operation of impersonal market forces. Recent British governments have apparently exulted in this erosion of trust because it tends to increase their power to control individuals both directly and en masse. Accordingly they have increased the power of the market, decreased the power of local government and voluntary associations, and, as David Goodhart has related, permitted immigration without integration in such a way as tends to make the inhabitants of these islands more and more strangers to each other.
The invocation of Rousseau allows us more easily to locate the Guardian reader. While the Financial Times sort of ‘right wing’ liberal takes a basically gloomy view of the individual, the Guardian reader takes a basically gloomy view of society.
This verdict seems to have things back to front. Isn’t the political right suspicious of anything public and the political left unwilling to trust individual liberty very far?
But at the deepest level the contrast is the other way round: right-wing liberalism is so cynical about individual motivation that it entrusts social order to the public mechanism of the market and to an inflexible legal protection of property by the state. The liberal left, on the other hand, so distrusts shared tradition and consensus that it endlessly seeks to release chaotically-various individual desire from any sort of generally-shared requirements, which it always tends to view as arbitrary.
This is most of all shown by the ‘new left’, which ever since the 1960’s has pursued a politics not of solidarity but of emancipation. Such a politics endlessly seeks to show that an overlooked ‘exception’ – of gender, sexuality, race, disability, religion or culture – does not and cannot conform to a shared norm and therefore that its specificity (regarded at once and incoherently as arising both from given nature and pure preference) must be released. Equally, this politics misreads the necessity of hierarchically-organised care that is intrinsic to our temporality (as even Marx affirmed in the Critique of the Gotha Programme) and variety of formation and talents, as unacceptable patriarchal domination. But by doing so it cannot promote an extreme libertarianism (crossed with and confused by multiculturalism) without at the same time reinforcing and assisting the cause of rightwing liberalism which it claims to oppose.
In this instance, as in others, right and left liberals converge far more than they imagine. For in either case what is basically celebrated is random individual desire. And in either case human association or relationship is distrusted, since it is held that it is bound to be perversely motivated. The right holds that the remedy for warped relationships is the hidden hand of the marketplace; the left the manifest hand of the state. But in either case ‘society’ is bypassed and human beings are mediated indirectly, by a third pole standing over against them.
We can contrast this liberalism with George Orwell’s genuinely socialist trust in ‘common decency’. People have always lived through practices of reciprocity, though giving, gratitude and giving again in turn. By way of this process people achieve, in a simple way, mutual recognition and relationality. Most people pursue association, and the honour and dignity of being recognised in significant ways, however lowly, as their main goals, and are relatively unconcerned with becoming much richer than their fellows or achieving great power over them. Indeed, most people wisely realise that such things will only increase their anxiety and insecurity – they prefer a less spectacular but quieter life. They are basically hobbits. Nevertheless, the temptation to pursue the goals of pride at the expense of danger is there in all of us; in some more than others and in some to an overwhelming degree that can threaten the social fabric. Deep down people are ‘decent’ and rejoice in relationality, yet in all of us a destructive imp of the perverse always lurks.
Orwell suggested that a good society is one which erects safeguards against such perversity and especially against the overweening, reckless individual, and he pointed out that most tribal structures are built on just this ‘warding off of danger’. Inversely, the positive structures of a social order should seek to build upon our natural and given practices of reciprocity – not destroying, but augmenting our natural capacity for association.
For Orwell this more prevailing human instinct was the root of socialism.
But liberalism does just the opposite to what Orwell recommended: it tries to remove intermediate social practices of mutual assistance, while augmenting our tendencies to pursue wealth and prestige instead of human and divine love. It ignores the fact that human life as such depends upon a bedrock of gift-exchange and that it develops in time through the astonishing and gratuitous irruption of new charisms.
In the 19th C working people and some intellectuals started to grasp this. They were inspired by a spontaneous sense that something was missing from liberal modernity.
What was lacking was relationality, creative fulfilment in work, festivity and joy. They did not, like some conservatives of ‘the right’, wish to return to the bastard feudalism of the ancien regime, but they also rejected the individualism of the modern liberal ‘left’.
Now to pursue above all relationality is to risk being wounded by the other: thus the mood is often going to be indeed ‘blue’. The market and the state encourage us to think that we can be insulated from such hurt by the impersonality of economic and bureaucratic or legal transactions. But without embracing the likelihood of some or even much sorrow, there can be no openness to real joy either. Through a bland buffering, participatory power is removed from ordinary people.
A further problem with specifically statist buffering is that it is resigned to treating the market as an evil monster that can be partially tamed but never rendered benign and docile. This is one crucial manifestation of the liberal idea of the priority of evil to which I have already alluded. Within the terms of this assumption it is thought that the main instrument of social justice must be government redistribution. But that can only realistically be carried out in a period of guaranteed economic growth — for otherwise, within the norms of capitalist operation, it will tend to damage profits and so national productivity. Partly because strong, if any, growth is not in prospect in the UK for the foreseeable future, Ed Miliband is rightly abandoning this view for notions of ‘predistribution’ – or in other words attempts to produce a just economy in the first place as the major vehicle of material equity.
But only in part, because predistribution makes more radical sense in any case. An inherently just economy would provide more stable financial security for most people, providing stronger incentives to work effectively, and at the same time it would escape the logic whereby the social goals of the state and the supposedly amoral, wealth-increasing goals of the market are seen to be in inherent tension with each other. A further good consequence would be the removal of many people from welfare dependence — something that neoliberal policies only create.
What is more, ever since the 1890’s statist solutions have often been just as committed to the marginalist ideology of neoclassical economics as have those of the ‘free market’. According to this ideology human beings exercise ‘rational choice’ in terms of their calculation of utilities. Beyond Jeremy Bentham it is allowed that humans’ ideas of what makes them happy can be incredibly various, but it is still thought that in order to fulfil our desires we make a cold calculation of gains and losses. Inevitably this means that the typical object of desire is still thought of as a commodity consumable by the individual in isolation.
Such objects were deemed by the marginalists to be subject to the ‘law of diminishing returns’ — over time we get less satisfaction from consumer durables and their rarity value diminishes as other consumers catch up with us.
To propose this notion was to ignore those goods which are ‘relational’ in character – family, friendship, erotic unions, warm communities. Equally it was to fail to distinguish the enjoyment that we get from high-quality goods like works of art or literature or the exercise of artistic talents from other objects of consumption. High quality goods and the realisation of skill through long practice tend to deliver a more solid kind of happiness and also the kind of happiness in others which we most tend to admire and want to emulate. This ‘higher’ happiness Greeks like Plato and Aristotle dubbed eudaimonia or ‘flourishing’.
So, as Jon Cruddas has recently argued, perhaps the crucial question in contemporary British politics is whether the main aim of government should be to increase people’s freedom of market choice, largely in the sphere of measurable material happiness, or whether its main aim should be to seek to encourage human eudaimonia.
If this diagnosis is correct, then the real issue of contention is no longer ‘state versus market’. The central theory of neoclassicism is that when the individual calculators of utility are acting rationally, then markets will achieve perfect equilibrium, balance or clearance. To the degree that they fail to act rationally, then the state can make adjustments. This much is common to marginalists of both the right and the left – the difference arises in terms of how far it is supposed that the conditions for perfect market operation arise automatically through market processes themselves and how far they have to be engineered by the state.
Thus both the invisible hand of ‘providence’ and the visible hand of the state is deemed by this outlook to be seeking the same goal of perfect rational equilibrium, that coordinates egoistic wishes, without any mutual agreement as to the common good
But can a new emphasis on the common good and the promotion of human flourishing be truly relevant to hard economic questions? It can, because liberalism itself, as Adair Turner has hinted, is subject to that very law of diminishing returns which it has itself articulated. We can see this especially with respect to finance.
At first, as the history of the modern world attests, liberalisation of financial markets leads to growth, but in the long run, as we now see, too much financial liberty tends to anarchy. The components of this condition are over-abstraction from the real economy, self-interest that can truly (contra marginalism) be aligned to market failure rather than market success, the non-constraint of capital by labour and a multitude of transactions that are only about shifting around the existing monetary symbols of wealth, not about creating new wealth.
Generalising this point about finance to the whole history of liberalism, one can say that while, to begin with in history, the release of individual negative freedom removes many oppressions and allows for new manifestations of creative talent, in the long run it too much tends to stifle the exercise of trust that is crucial to all human association, while eroding belief in the objective values that creativity might seek to instantiate. A lack of trust and belief in objective metaphysical truth and goodness then engenders high-level criminality, greater inequality and fear-driven rivalry. Such an atmosphere actually starts to inhibit people’s inventiveness and entrepreneurship and therefore their capacity for freedom – even for freedom of choice.
In the same way the spirit of greed tends to replace small businesses with large and monopolising ones which are reluctant to pursue innovations for fear of damaging existing products.
Here one can note something that usually goes entirely overlooked. Anglo-Saxon capitalism is essentially passive and not dynamic, because it is built upon an enlightenment philosophy which only acknowledges the reality of impersonal givens like material reality and human reasoning power. It can only acknowledge the gift of human creativity as an abstract and valueless power of will. The primacy of capital over labour follows from this: it exalts an economy perversely driven by the willed stockpiling of the mere means of production in land, technology and finance. Eventually this leads to stasis, lack of products to invest in, excessive speculation and a cycle of debt – reinforced by the lack of grounding of money in any objective standard or disinterested legal system ever since 1944.
By contrast, two of the most successful economies in the last half-century – those of Germany and Italy (despite the recent problems of both) which tend to define our lifestyles in terms of automobiles, machinery, food, cafes and clothing – are not really the products of the Enlightenment but of a Renaissance that remained in continuity with the Middle Ages. What I mean by this is that they combine a Renaissance exaltation of the creativity of human labour with a medieval sense of constitutional corporatism that is neither statist nor merely free-market in character. Worker participation in management, control of entry conditions to labour by voluntary associations and high-status technical education are all predicated on the relative primacy of labour with respect to capital. And labour, not capital is the dynamic factor, because it is to do with release of personal, creative human power. This is quite different from the negative freedom of the Anglo-Saxon will – for creativity goes along with the power to judge and discern the aesthetic and social value of one’s product. This is exactly the difference between Italian cars, food and design compared to the American equivalents. Of course many American products are excellent – but then the Middle Ages and the Renaissance survive even in the United States.
So without trust and the primacy of labour it turns out that the economy as a whole cannot function. This is true also because an economy is comprised not only of markets, but also of firms which are inherently cooperative exercises. Recent attempts to run them on internally agonistic lines, setting employees at each others’ throats, have not proved a great economic success – least of all in universities.
So could it be that a more ethical economy, like a more creative and aesthetic economy, is also a more stable economy, more viable in the long term?
A crucial argument here is that this has in some degree always been the case. Anglo-Saxon and French economic theory has largely followed liberal presuppositions. But Italian economists, standing in a more classically humanist and Christian tradition, unbroken since the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, have often, ever since the 18thC, thought in much more associationist terms for which an economic contract itself can be a sympathetic negotiation about shared value and community benefit as well as self-interest – which is itself more socially and so realistically construed.
In terms of this more reciprocal model of contract it is arguable that much of the actual market economy of the modern world has operated more like the Italian theorised ‘civil economy’ than like the Anglo-Saxon fantasised ‘political economy’. This means that perhaps we have never been as ‘capitalist’ as we imagine, and in fact the more the market economy becomes dominated by capital the less functional it is shown to be.
It follows that the challenge now is to move away from neoclassicist utility in either its neoliberal or statist versions, towards a specifically recognised and deliberately augmented civil economy based upon reciprocal exchange and the virtuous pursuit of a true economic wealth that contributes to human flourishing. Such an economy will also be a more stable one, relatively freed from cyclical fluctuations that are ultimately to do with a clash of interests between capital and worker, producer and consumer, supply and demand. These clashes can be avoided or mitigated where economic contracts are the subject of ethical and sometimes legal negotiation and all parties feel that they have been fairly dealt with and share a common stake and pride in the success of an enterprise and the quality of its products. Human beings want recognition for excellence and social contribution much more than wish to pursue primal hoarding. This is a much more fundamental Anglo-Saxon truth, first articulated in the great Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf.
Moves towards such a civil economy need to include amongst other things: 1. The sharing of risk in all financial transactions – including house mortgages — between lenders and borrowers, investors and owners, shareholders and managers, employers and employees; 2. The rewriting of company law to demand statement of social purpose and profit-sharing as conditions of trading; 3. A new public institutional ‘trust’ for the pooling of technological knowledge to replace the current patenting system; 4. Ethical as well as economic negotiation of wages, prices and share-values amongst owners, workers, shareholders and consumers who would all be given real political and economic stakes in every enterprise. Such practices would be encouraged by legal and taxation arrangements, while disputes over such matters would come more within the purview of the courts of justice; 5. Passing through vocational training and membership of various recognised but not-monopolistic professional vocational associations encouraging an honourable ethos being made conditions of entry to business practice. 6. A contributory welfare system whose mutualism would preclude any need for means-testing to ensure a safety net. Such a system would again enshrine reciprocity and have the further merit of encouraging people to take greater risks in business, in the knowledge that, if they failed, not all their gains would be lost.
To propose such things is to suggest a new ‘civil economy socialism’. And in this way, the Labour Party could start to reinvent the socialist and cooperative tradition itself. (Incidentally I cannot resist saying that this would undo the undoing of the misunderstood-as-necessarily-Fabian and nationalising old Clause Four.)
Of course such true economic equilibrium cannot be achieved by one country alone, because international capitalist forces would tend to undercut it. For this reason, the adoption by Labour of a civil economy approach would imply an unprecedented and more creative foreign policy. Such a policy would regard London’s geopolitical and geo-economic situation as a vortex of meeting and competing forces as an advantage rather than a drawback. With the EU and with the Commonwealth and the former French (and perhaps also Spanish) dominions together we could try to craft an alternative international network of expanded ‘fair-trade’ and legal guarantee whose ability and success could eventually bring even the United States and other countries into its orbit. If the EU could abandon its current commitments to neoliberalism and to formal regulation and absolute rights and support at an inter-state level the communitarian and constitutionally corporatist practices of Germany and Italy, then it could find the courage to cancel its own internal and external debts, fund more adequately its own scientific leadership and assume genuine power in the world for the good. Instead of an absolute free trade in capital and labour it could substitute reciprocal agreements for mutually beneficial protectionisms for certain things in certain nations and regions. Such a politics of shared sovereignty would be the international equivalent of subsidiarity within nations and could form the nucleus of a governing network that is potentially global.
In my view ‘One Nation Labour’ will fail unless it has this truly bold scope. As David Goodhart has argued, it needs a vision for Britain if everything is not to fall apart in the face of now extreme divisions between the British nations, between north and south, between secular and religious, between young and old, between men and women, between town and countryside, between culture and culture and between the EU and its constituent nations. I have already tried to indicate aspects of what this vision might be.
More controversially, I do not think that that vision can be simply a version of the American dream or an essentially postimperial ‘Little Britain’ one. For this would be to misunderstand who we are and how we have come to be – which is not out of a big revolutionary explosion, as David Goodhart has rightly noted. Rather, our slow-burning genius, as both English and Celtic, since before the Norman conquest (but always of a part-Christian inspiration) is political, it is to know how to govern, based on a flexible rule of law and on constitutional free association at many different levels. It is this long legacy of interweaving consent with leadership and freedom with community that has most of all given to the world modern democracy – and by comparison the revolutionary legacies are rather inadequate parodies, on which what is best in France and the United States does not really depend.
Therefore we have to tell a longterm story about ourselves – not simply a whiggish and capitalist recent story that is superficial and misleading. Part of this story is the strange truth that we have never been a nation state – have never been based on a narrow ethnicity, but also lacked for a long time and never completely acquired, as Carl Schmitt noted, the crucial marks of modern statehood – ‘police’ control by the state, juridical formalism, state-administered finance and civil politeness: this is why we are still so rude and robust in debate. Instead, the British Atlantic empire, like the Spanish one, arose in continuity with its medieval empire, where a group of diverse local territories, ethnicities and cultures was already held together by a common set of symbolic loyalties , values and acceptance of a certain jurisprudential horizon which was rather different from that, for example of France.
There is therefore a historic sense in which empire can be more benign, plural and inclusive a reality than that of ‘nation state’. Of course the British empire was overwhelmingly to do with capitalist expropriation and it eventually tried to impose precisely ‘statist’ features on a global scale. However, it also from the outset mitigated through politics, diplomacy and cultural negotiation a more naked exploitation on the part of freebooting entrepreneurs. Equally, given the limits of its military and personnel resources, it perforce had to encourage the emergence of more plural and indigenous modes of political control, while also fostering a certain cross-cultural and international modulation of an originally merely British ethos. This should be inversely contrasted with the fact that every nation state is as much the upshot of originally violent seizure as is every empire, while the obsession since the mid 19th C (thanks to the decadence of romanticism, which had originally, with Herder and Novalis, favoured regionalism rather than nationalism) with matching state boundaries to linguistic and cultural ones has led to all too familiar and bloody mischief both in Europe and in the Near East.
For this reason it is shallow to think that the legacy of empire has no positive and equitable potential, or cannot naturally be turned towards mutual and cooperative notions of international commonwealth – and in fact there are historical links between the emergence of the British Commonwealth, of Francophonia and of the European Community (originally envisaged in some ways as a substitute for recently lost Habsburg control in the East and a attempt to restore an ancient Carolingian unity of France and Germany in the west.) It is assumed that our international influence must necessarily wain, but those who assumed this in the 1960’s would be staggered by the degree to which it still persists today. Empire is always about finally to end and yet interestingly never does so and in certain modes – like the underwriting of foreign business by British law — reinvents itself in some positive new ways in contrast to the post-imperial corporate and oligarchic ravages which we have disgracefully supported. Indeed the most penetrating historians have argued that much of our loss of influence was down to miscalulations, loss of nerve and absence of vision on the part of a decadent establishment and not to historical inevitability. Today we are likely to be the most populous country in Western Europe by mid-century and the increasingly culture-dominated character of international politics considerably favours our global legacy and current global strengths.
Equally, it is shallow to suppose that the break-up of the UK follows automatically upon the end of empire. For a British and even a British Isles dimension in both culture and politics stretches right back to the early Middle Ages — as historians rather than Hollywood-made movies so clearly attest.
If British identity has tended to lapse in favour of Celtic and now English ones with the rise of UKIP, then this is not, I submit, inevitable, but rather the result of a southern English failure to offer a vision of British identity which has to include a new version of our looking outwards to seek to help others and ourselves towards political and economic equity in their own and our own unique terms, respectively – because without this maritime destiny we are just not being ourselves, in contrast perhaps to the Americans. That this destiny has often been pursued with brutality and was abandoned so recklessly and irresponsibly – with dire consequences in the Near East — only precludes us trying to pursue it in future more charitably and cooperatively if we act out of guilt, which is always to act in bad faith. Outside western Europe (which is itself not immune) the world now exhibits a general slide into corruption, criminality, state and corporate tyranny, the collapse of equity and the rule of law. To retreat to an insular powerlessness in the face of these things would be to betray our own identity and incidentally threaten our own longterm security.
It is here notable that Celtic articulations of the common good, such as that found in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter sequence or Bill Forsyth’s film Local Hero, tend to update an essentially conservative vision of virtue and the pursuit of the common good. They cling to older British values which the metropolis has abandoned. And traditionally the Celtic countries have if anything looked yet more outwards than England, and while they all require home rule, to cut themselves off from England and London would be to risk cutting themselves off from this vital part of their own legacy. For they could only then only pursue a futile liberal internationalism like Sweden or Eire, not a culturally-dense, virtue-orientated and therefore more effective one.
The reasons then for sustaining the UK are the same reasons for remaining in the EU, and yet for not abandoning our links to international Anglophonia (including with the United States). Here, as elsewhere, Blue Labour should call us to abandon false and dysfunctional either-ors in favour of strangely possible paradoxes. Not state or market, religion or the secular, Anglophonia or Europe, or nation versus the global. Instead, intimate reciprocities in ever-widening circles from your street to the planet, fusing economic, political and ecological purpose in the name of the flourishing of each and every person and their combination as workers to erect a shared and beautiful cosmopolis.
My good friend John Milbank, Research Professor of Religious, Politics & Ethics at Nottingham University has written the following essay below.
To contact John: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more reading on Blue Labour themes see
Contact: 1) Adrian Pabst, http://www.kent.ac.uk/politics/about-us/staff/members/pabst.html
2) David Landrum, http://www.eauk.org/connect/about-us/whos-who/staff.cfm
3) Ian Geary, email@example.com
4) Paul Bickley, http://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/about/theos-team
Every bit as Red as Blue: The New Story Told by Blue Labour
Over the last forty years or so, the left has been in retreat. In part that is because it has not had a very convincing story to tell. The story told by the so-called right, but actually by economic liberals, has been much more believable.
What is this story? It is that capitalism has been the biggest success in the whole of human history. It has delivered untold wealth, got rid of disease, lengthened human life. But it is also admitted by the right that capitalism is amoral. So if it has succeeded this has been the result of a kind of Faustian pact with the devil, as Robert Skidelsky suggests.
How does that pact work? It works by the idea that if each of us pursue selfishly our own interests, calculating rationally what will make us most happy and content, in terms of our own private objectives, then the market mechanism, matching supply to demand, can operate smoothly to harmonise all outcomes. Out of egotistic chaos, social harmony and untold wealth will magically arise.
The updated application of this story says that up till the 1970’s unions extracted excessively high wages and made workers too unproductive. Meanwhile governments extracted too much tax, spent too much on welfare and interfered too much in industry. Once that was corrected by Mrs Thatcher, unprofitable industry vanished, profitable industry survived and the city of London boomed.
What has the left had to offer in place of this story? Only a modified version of it. Even Karl Marx thought that capitalism, with all its evils, was a stage society had to go through on its way to progress. That’s what they still think in China today. Social democrats and the Labour Party since Anthony Crossland go further: capitalism will always be with us, the pact with the devil has to remain in place. Capitalism is a great evil monster and we need it in all perpetuity. However, it can be domesticated; it can be tamed. When there is an economic crisis, governments can intervene with work programmes to generate demand. And in general governments can intervene all the time tactically with various devices like valuing or devaluing the currency, setting interest rates, subsidising some industries, operating prices and incomes policies.
In the later New Labour version most of this was backed away from and the liberal argument of leaving the market alone was largely accepted. However, through tax and spend, the evil consequences of capitalism were now to be modified by the redistribution of wealth and provision of welfare. In addition, housing and education policies could ensure that everyone had an equal opportunity to play the market game.
However, we can now see that, at least in the short term, these two stories have both started to look less plausible.
Let’s look at the main, rightwing liberal story first. Over recent years, months and now even days, capitalism and especially finance capitalism has started to look ever more sordid. Perhaps that should not surprise us. But much more significantly it now looks as if in some ways it’s not even working very well in pragmatic terms. Is the devil finally letting us down; not keeping his side of the bargain? Aspects of capitalism now look incompetent as well as semi-criminal. What is more, their immorality is often the very thing that renders them unworkable. For it now appears to be the case that sometimes self-interested behaviour just serves the self-interested individual and doesn’t serve society at large, not even economically. Moreover it often only serves individual interest taken in the short-term.
It was supposed to be true that massive wealth for a few would trickle down to the many. Well, the opposite has occurred: inequality under neoliberalism has got massively wider. Moreover, the generating of profits by defeating worker’s demands in the 1970’s didn’t last long. Quite quickly, a lot of capital had nowhere to go and there was a need to boost demand again. The contradictory cycles of capitalism noted by Marx seemed to be speeding up. But instead of turning back to Keynes, the system we live under invented a new sort of bastard Keynesianism which increased demand by increasing the indebtedness of almost everyone at every level. This has the enormous advantage that those in debt are disempowered and politically weakened.
However, just as high wage demand tends to eat into profits, so, in the end, does debt-demand. It’s as simple as that: someone has to pay up sometime, debts can’t be endlessly passed on into more and more fictional vehicles. Sooner or later people start to get panicky; you can’t really do without the final securitisation of the abstract on the concrete.
So that’s where we seem to be at present. Belief in the hidden hand as the only economic and social bond has left us with rampant individualism and excessive abstraction. If people are told that selfishness is good, then they won’t always obey the rules out of calculated self-interest. They’ll sometimes gamble that they can get away with breaking them. And they increasingly do. And if we deny that we have anything concrete in common then the common good will reduce to an unreal and idea of wealth – just a big pile of numbers, with most of us assigned very few of them.
But now all this egotism and virtuality isn’t delivering the economic goods. It turns out that even capitalism needed more cooperation and reciprocity than liberals thought. If you don’t trust your colleagues even within your own firm or bank, then a kind of anarchy ensues. To contain that anarchy in private and public corporations – including universities – we get increased top-down impersonal management of individuals. But that kills co-operation, tacit interactive process and creativity. And disgruntled individuals try to exploit the bodies they work for.
What we’re seeing here is increased de-professionalisation or the abolition of any true reality of vocation. Working people have faced this for centuries: their guilds, self-regulating bodies and ownership of their own means of production, homes and workplaces, plus the right to organise their own time and labour were removed long ago. But now that’s hitting the middle classes also. It’s even hitting politicians.
But it’s no longer clear that this deprofessionalisation, this removal of self-regulation and an ethical ethos governing work is a reliable means of wealth-generation, never mind any reasonable degree of wealth distribution. That’s what the current crisis is really all about.
So what about the left’s softer version of the same big story? What about social democracy? The idea that capitalism is a big hungry fire-breathing dragon that can be successfully chained up and made to work for you? Well that’s in just as much trouble. Fifty years of attempted redistribution through welfare policies have only led to an ever more unequal society. And the whole idea is unstable. It depends on endless economic growth in order to be able to redistribute without damaging the capitalist mechanism. And such growth will not be consistently delivered. Just at present we could instead be entering a long period of stagnation in the West.
Indeed, the liberals are this far right: excessive state intervention can be one factor in eventually over-inflating demand and so inhibiting profit. Hence Keynesiansim as a sufficient alternative to neoliberalism is a huge delusion. Sure, Ed Balls is quite right for the moment: in depressed circumstances you apply demand-stimulation remedies from the top. Hayek and Milton Friedman thought so too. But inversely Keynes’s view of happier capitalist times is scarcely different, if a little bit more interventionist than theirs. He mostly lies within the paradigm of neoclassical economics which assumes the isolated, rational, utility-maximing economic actor. Certainly we can agree that we should today we should substitute the real demand of more money in people’s pockets for the draining-degrading demand of debt. But that just takes us back into the cycling treadmill. Sooner or later excessive benign demand would eat into profits, and even Keynesians would recommend lower taxes, less government expenditure and wage restraint.
Above all the mantra of ‘more state, less market’ cannot deal with the disease of a market system which is increasingly criminal, unequal and incapable of generating wealth, at least in the UK. In a globalised world it is this system which dominates, leaving the state very little room for manoeuvre at the tactical level.
So far in the face of the global economic crisis we have seen little more than impotent anger from various protestors, with not all that much analysis. Why should capitalism in certain ways no longer be working? Any notion of final crisis is implausible because, although it is always chronically crisis-ridden, capitalism has infinite resources to readjust and recover. That’s the very beauty of its indifferent abstraction. And there is absolutely no sign of anyone inventing a new variant of socialism to replace a tottering system.
It’s here that Blue Labour wants to offer an altogether different story. A powerful new story that can challenge not just the story told by the right since the 1970’s, but the story told by the right about the whole of modernity. A story that could propel the left back to long-term power.
Quite simply, is the success of the market economy really the same as the success of the capitalist economy? Historians and the subtler economists increasingly say no. The market economy stretches back at least to the 12th C. It means the division of labour, the freedom to work and to trade and the attempt to increase wealth in the real sense of improve human life – make it more comfortable, exciting, various and fulfilling. It was this economy which was responsible for the growth of free cities unique in the history of the world and for the first industrial revolution in the West. But it wasn’t a capitalist economy? Why not?
A capitalist economy, as Stefano Zamagni explains, does not pursue the common good but ‘the total good’. That means the sum total of individual utilitarian happiness in the aggregate. People counted one by one, not in their real relationships. But an abstract sum means a sum of numbers, the total wealth of a community, which may accrue to some more than to others, to a small minority rather than to the vast majority. The British GDP is evidently not the common good of the British people.
But the older market economy can be described, after Zamagni, as a ‘civil economy’. That really does pursue the common good: the good of each and every one of us as we concretely are in our families, workplaces, communities. But how can we do that by labouring and trading in the market? The answer is that one can be both pursuing a reasonable profit for oneself, and at the same time trying to offer to other people a social benefit – in return for a social benefit that they are offering you. One can trade in real human goals as well as in hard cash. Likewise a contract can be a reciprocally agreement about a shared goal and value, not just the joint meeting of two entirely separate individual goals. The latter applies when I take a cab: I want to get to the station, the cabbie need to feed his kids. But it doesn’t apply if I and my neighbour agree to put up a hedge between our gardens that we both want, or better a shared tennis court at the bottom of both our gardens. It doesn’t even apply if you know the cabbie or if you offer him an unnecessarily generous tip.
So what historians have shown is that well into the 16th century a civil economy operated according to ideas of contract that were not purely competitive. The price mechanism was determined to a degree co-operatively as well as competitively. So, for example, it was not assumed that you would always charge the highest possible price that the market would tolerate. You might lower that price to help your neighbour because you did not want to destroy your neighbour and it would not even make economic sense to do so. Now even tough-minded economists are rediscovering this idea that so-called ‘shared benefit’ can make economic sense.
If you withheld charging the full possible price from your neighbour, then it was explicitly seen that you were offering him a gift. Or if you paid your worker rather more than you needed to. Or if you offered your debtor a lower rate of interest than you might have extorted. All these things were seen as gift and there was no absolute distinction of gift from contract. This fact formed the operative basis for notions of just prices, just wages, just rates of interest and the restriction of usury.
Alongside this, civil economy was a vocational economy. People served apprenticeships and there were conditions of entry to professional associations or guilds. These guilds tried to govern quality, treatment of customers and protection of workers. They conferred dignity and even an aura of religious mystery about craft. Let’s remember that in the pagan world labour enjoyed no such status: its sacred importance was invented by Christian – especially Benedictine — monks and then communicated to the laity.
But surely, you’ll be perhaps thinking, it was the distinction of contract from gift and abolition of guilds and protective corporations, along with enclosure and the removal from the worker of the ownership of the means of production that lead to the great capitalist take-off? But it is just this view that may not be so clear. There could be a sense in which – to echo Bruno Latour – ‘we have never been capitalist’.
A few crucial points here: 1. The take-off had to an extent already began with the civil economy. 2. Its deviation into a capitalist economy was the result of peculiar contingencies: the influx of overseas trade from the New World and American gold which unbalanced things towards the power of liquid wealth and the owners of that wealth. Also the Protestant ethos which took a gloomy view of life in this world and so reduced notions of the common good and the possibility of prudential rather than purely selfish judgement in everyday life. 3. Outside the Protestant world and even the Anglo-Saxon world, the civil economy continued in a modified form. Indeed many elements of it are still there in contemporary Italy and Germany. The latter’s economic success is not then purely a capitalistic success. 4. To a large degree the enlightenment reacted against the individualism of contract. Thus Adam Smith’s economist contemporaries in Naples and Milan tried to revive the civil economy and they thought that when you bought meat from your butcher you did do so partly out of benevolence, because he was you’re your friend and you needed his shop still to be there. Actually we still think like that in my small town Southwell in Nottinghamshire, despite the attempts of Tory Newark Town Council to make us join their version of modernity. But even Adam Smith wanted the market economy to be embedded in networks of social sympathy.
And what about Victorian England? OK we had the Benthamite influence which led to fully fledged utility maximising economic theory. But meanwhile back in complex reality we also had Quaker manufactures trying to care for their workers, we had regional banks operating in partnerships with cities, we had a fusion of heritage and economic effort that combined cultural and economic flourishing. Despite all the Dickensian horrors, there was a certain motor of trust and common purpose and quite soon people tried to amend those horrors through extraordinary efforts of philanthropy. In that atmosphere of mutual help the Labour party was first born — in tune with the real story of western economic success and not in opposition to it.
So what if both the liberal and the Marxist or Social Democratic stories are myths? What if we did not need the bargain with the devil? What if even the factory system and enclosure were not entirely necessary to economic success and after all they do not seem to have been so in the same degree outside the UK – by no means in France for example. What if the Nottinghamshire Luddites of the clothing trade, heir of that hero of vanishing fraternity, Robin Hood, were right, and one did not need to sacrifice quality of work to levels of production? For it was that sacrifice which they opposed and not machines as such.
It’s of course possible to say that the bad practice of capitalism, the abandonment of the common good, has produced an awful lot of wealth in its own terms and that it has indeed produced material benefits for many as well as exploitation, impoverishment, uglification and lack of meaning in work. One can argue about how far it could all have happened differently.
But what is for certain is that now a more extreme form of capitalism, totally removed from the norms of civil economy isn’t working very well any more. For a very long time now growth has increasingly slowed and inequality and unemployment has vastly increased.
So maybe we need to try a pact or better covenant with God instead. Maybe virtuous practice can also achieve more stable and sustainable economic prosperity.
This is the big new story that Blue Labour wants to tell. And the end of the story is a new mode of action such as Lord Glasman has started to chart. At the centre of this new mode of action lies a linking of the renewal of our culture and of pride in our regions with economic recovery. For if we’re still sick in the UK it’s a psychological and not just an economic sickness. We need to recall who we are as a nation: the people who invented constitutional government and gave it to the world and should continue to help to do so, freed from the shackles of excessive US influence. We also need to recall who we are in our localities. In Nottingham a place of free manufacturing all the way from medieval alabaster statues supplying the whole of Europe through lace-making to modern bicycles and drugs to the world market. A place of craft, skill and greenwood fraternity and sorority, Without that kind of pride and self-belief we won’t want to work in the future to any purpose.
And instead of relying mainly on state redistribution we need to forge an economy that operates justly and fairly in the first place: both through the internal ethos of firms and professional associations and through a new legal framework that demands that every business deliver social benefit as well as reasonable profit.
But this does not mean that the state has no role. Alongside ideas of the big society we need a new notion of the ‘public’ that slides between the social and state-direction or answerability. It is here that, following the ideas of Lord Glasman, at the centre of the merging Blue Labour programme stands the idea not of tactical government intervention but of the strategic shaping of new economic institutions: of systems of apprenticeships; of entry conditions to work through the operation of professional bodies, of new polytechnics, more visionary business schools, regional banks and partnerships between such banks, local business and new city-based parliaments.
We can renew our country if we renew our love for each other and for our common purpose. And by rejoining gift to contract we can recover at once our ancient English festivity and our spirit of genuine economic enterprise.
The banking crisis at Barclays seems set to morph into a pandemic and spread its poisonous tentacles on a scale perhaps not witnessed since the Great Plague of 1665.
Three hundred and forty-seven years on – July 2012 in Bankers vs the people are the people really powerless and really have no scope to fight back?
At the third of my Citizens Focus Group meetings at the Nelson & Railway in Kimberley, Nottingham tonight, starting at 7 30pm we’ll be looking at whether people power can affect the banks? Should we the citizens move our funds to Mutual Societies, Coop, Credit Unions and rip up our cards and accounts with the major banks?
This is politics at the grassroots – politics down the pub. Do join in the conversation.
The next Citizens Focus Group in Kimberley – will meet on Monday 30 April at 7 30pm – Nelson & Railway Inn Kimberley, all welcome.
The most popular choice from members of the public for a discussion this time was Housing.
I have therefore arranged for a planning expert from Broxtowe Borough Council to come to our session, who will outline the background to housing allocations, localism, core strategies, government guidance, local authority requirements etc – all in an understandable way (cutting out the “local gvt speak!!).
We have previously had excellent discussions on Elected Police Commissioners, E Petitions, Citizenship and fuel prices.
I’m sure this Monday’s debate and discussion will prove just as informative, and stimulate excellent discussion, debate and dialogue.
What’s more I hope that the general public will gain a better idea of the pressures and difficult decisions having to be taken by locally elected representatives. Also it’s a great chance for the public to be better informed and have their say.
Let dialogue commence, jaw-jaw is better than war war
On Tuesday 21 February this week we held in Kimberley, our first Citizens Focus Group. I’ve written about this before at: http://richardsrobinson.org.uk/2012/02/dawn-of-a-new-way-of-doing-politics-citizens-focus-group-power-to-the-people/
Essentially I wanted to help create a forum whereby members of the public who are predominantly members of no political party, could get together and have their say on “big issues” facing them, the local communities and our country.
Well, we met in the Nelson & Railway Inn in Kimberley where the beer is second to none. As a good councillor very early on in the week, and having to drive later, it was strictly fizzy water for me though.
We had an encouraging turn out at the meeting plus we were joined by two politics students from Nottingham Trent University.
The topic chosen was that of police commissioners and their pending elections in Nottinghamshire on November 15 this year.
Whilst somehow we managed in the first 10 minutes to bring into the conversation the Stockholm Syndrome (don’t ask me now how this was relevant), as people became more confident (most had not met before), the conversation really started to flow. What I’ve done below is to bullet point the salient points that people made as follows:
- how really would elected police commissioners directly feed into our communities in Nottinghamshire?
- should ex-MPs really being standing as candidates – how can they be impartial?
- surely under this new system one person would have ultimate power – is this right?
- As young people often feel disengaged from politics, how can 1 elected police commissioner in Nottinghamshire encourage wider participation?
- Good work that has been done in particular communities – like Awsworth & Cossall where only 4-5 years ago there were major problems with anti social behaviour – the local police have done a brilliant job in building good relationships with local communities. The advent of one elected police commissioner possibly with different local neighbourhood policing focus could undermine all of this.
- The whole idea of an elected police commissioner is based on a flawed concept, imported from America where there is little if any proof of any long-term benign results for local communities.
- Particularly if the elected police commissioner is an ex MP they would follow a ‘party line’ as opposed to what’s best for that particular county.
What do do?
Instead of having elected police commissioners we should instead:
- encourage greater connectivity between local schools, police local communities
- have a much clearer and stronger focus on citizenship in schools – this would include work on respect, fostering closer relations between youngsters and police, attack on poverty, emphasis on restorative justice etc.
- encourage youngsters to participate in community activities – such as Party on the Park in Awsworth
- Reverse the austerity measures being pursued by the Coalition, particularly with regards to early intervention, cutting back of youth centres and provision.
- Sure Start, mentors and extra investment in education and early years is of paramount importance
At our next session (date to be arranged – either March or April) – we will be discussing practical steps as to how political parties and local communities can really help build “respect”. We’ll also look at inviting a guest speaker to address us on this issue to provoke further debate and discussion!
Watch this space for more details.
Lying on a sunbed in Pefkos Greece last August after catching up with a batch of e mails from constituents on a whole range of issues my mind wandered. Yes I am very sad. “Wouldn’t it be great I though if we could do a bit more of grassroots politics and find a way for a range of voters from all persuasions, but not members of political parties to come together and not just debate in a mature way, but actually suggest ways that our body politic back home could be improved”?
So the idea was birthed – in Greece of all places – where its debt crisis of course is causing political and economic turmoil on a scale unimaginable several years ago, with news today that a bailout worth £110bn being loaned, and having around £107bn of its debt written off.
From Greece to back to Broxtowe, from Broxtowe and the East Midlands to parliament and from parliament back to the people
So for voters back home in Broxtowe and the East Midlands, what do they really think on some of the Big Questions facing us in society today like:
- what’s wrong with politics and society in Britain?
- what would a better Britain look like in 2015?
- how can we tackle in the long-term such wicked issues of growing obesity and alcoholism?
- is there any alternative to mass unemployment?
- will a Directly Elected Mayor in the city of Nottingham do anything for communities throughout the rest of the County?
- Should workfare be compulsory to try to reduce youth unemployment?
- Should certain health care be rationed?
- Is Scottish independence good for the whole of the UK?
- Is Christianity a spent force amongst the multi ethnic make up of Britain?
- If you don’t vote currently, what would urge you to do so?
These topics and hundreds of others of course can be debated via e-mail, blogs, get a cursory hearing on Question Time and on university campuses.
But what about the ordinary citizen, voter, not at university, not particularly engaged with politics – what about their views, how do get them re-connected?
This week sees the first meeting of my Citizens Focus Group – where a group of voters (members of no political party) have volunteered to come together to discuss their views on what’s wrong, and what we can possibly do to build a better Britain.
It might be raw, maybe controversial at times, but what I want to do is tease out some of the best ideas – directly from the voter, encourage them to engage and get involved. Most of all though – to put some people power back into politics.
Watch this space for further details!
Copious ink is being spilt in the social networks and newspapers of the land on the Tories’ NHS reforms. Rightly so. They remind us of not only the gut wrenching impotence of opposition, but of the dangers of on the one hand mindless, on the other purely ideologically driven (and hatred of) public services, and race for profit in the increasing privatisation of precious public services.
It is easy in these circumstances to enter into a mind-set of opposition to all Coalition policies, regardless of their merits. While this may appear tempting, particularly in light of some of the disastrous decisions being made, it would be ill-advised.
Does this mean I am in any remote way an apologist or have a modicum of sympathy for Her Majesty’s Government? Unequivocally not. However as Rafael Behr rightly reminded us last week; both David Cameron and Ed Miliband have yet to clearly define a benign remedy for the nation’s ills.
Canvassing voter’s opinions on the doorstep is proving informative with four particular aspects that stand out. First I am not finding an endemic love of the Tories, second there is a widespread mirth and hilarity should the words “Clegg” or “Lib Dems” be brought into the conversation.
Unsurprisingly (and thirdly) voters are wanting Labour to offer viable and credible specific alternatives, but what fourthly is increasingly being said in the doorstep is “stop squabbling and sort this mess out, stop blaming each other, and where a Coalition policy is ok, don’t simply oppose”.
One coalition policy that I would argue merits deeper consideration is that of social impact bonds. The idea takes the very best aspects of the private sector, with social enterprises providing advance funding to support schemes created and administered by organisations such as prisons and local councils.
In Merseyside, Triodos Bank, Greater Merseyside Connexions Partnership (GMCP) and Business in the Community (BITC) are working together to help young people who are facing social disadvantage. While ventures such as this may end up costing the taxpayer more money if they prove successful, they provide an excellent barometer of success while helping eliminate waste.
But this is about more than saving money and improving efficiency. Early intervention works. The Coalition is stealing our clothes here. We know this from Labour’s achievements on Sure Start, investment in nursery provision, Child Trust Funds and other progressive measures the Coalition are busy dismantling. Recipients of early intervention enjoy not only better opportunities, but more of them. It prevents crime, raises education standards and eases pressure on public services that would have had to attempt to deal with the issues that may have befallen those who are most in need.
Not only do social impact bonds help those most in need, they also fit comfortably into Labour’s attempt to reclaim the localism agenda. And it is in this manner that the party can differentiate itself over the policy. Currently, it is local organisations, such as social enterprises and philanthropists that provide the funding. But what if we were to be brave, and encourage local business to carry some of the burden. The policy could be tweaked so that targets were more short term and rewarded with tax breaks. Businesses would be allowed to use the schemes as ways of engaging with the local community (and therefore their customers), creating an advertising space that was potentially profitable even before a scheme was a success.
This step would have the advantage of easing the burden on the relatively narrow, and already heavily called upon, sector of social enterprise. It would also lower the schemes’ costs, with tax breaks requiring less administrative duties than a repayment through other means.
This idea, of reward for positive social behaviour, can already be seen in carbon trading and in proposals for tax breaks for employers who may a living wage. While the relative merits of these policies are widely debated, offering financial incentive for positive social conduct is a proven tool.
The NHS Bill struggles on, and we will continue to fight it with every last sinew. But not everything this government will do will be as toxic, with the party or the people. We must learn to compartmentalise our vitriol and encourage those policies we know may do some good, improving them, and claiming the credit along the way. It may be the only way we salvage our good work previously in government. Then indeed we start to outline our vision of a Good Society, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Let’s hear it for a Living Wage – again, again and again
Driving home from the train station on the way back from work last Friday night, I nearly crashed. Not because of any obstruction in the road, but because I attempted to throw something at the car radio, so cross was I about seemingly everyone who had an excuse for Stephen Hestor’s (then) £970,000 bonus.
Now don’t let’s hear all this baloney about how much tax he would have paid on this and how this payment would have been good value for money for UK tax payers. We as a Labour movement have to say bank bonuses, or indeed any other bonus when you already earn £1,000,000 a year is grotesque and totally unnecessary. That we haven’t spelt this out emphatically before, well the sinner repenteth and this applies whatever our strand of Labour is blue, purple, old or new.
End of story? No. On Monday this week we now read that RBS executives will be allowed to pocket huge bonuses, despite Hestor’s munificent gesture. Contrast this position with thousands of low paid workers on minimum wage with no pension and a seemingly endless pay freeze. Or to the thousands of carers, heroes each in their own right, working endless hours week after week unnoticed. It is impossible to calculate a price for the immense value they bring, but the bonus they will receive? I know not of one.
So what to do? Canvassing on the doorstep every weekend, I hear voters opining for Labour to break with a Tory consensus. In a compelling article by Medhi Hasan he offers an alternative to fiscal conservatism, promoting growth and the creation of jobs. Additionally we must also fight to improve the lives of those who struggle on far less than Mr Hester and his RBS executive colleagues. A living wage would be the ideal way to achieve this, building on but braver than the minimum wage achievement.
For all those who say a Living Wage is unaffordable for business, then I seem to recall they said the same about the minimum wage – I can’t now remember the last time I heard anyone in business decry the minimum wage.
Currently, the living wage is £8.30 an hour in London and £7.20 an hour for the rest of the country. This is comfortably more than the £6.08 minimum wage currently set and for many people will be the difference between choosing between heating or food, and providing their families with these two most basic human rights.
The living wage is a Labour idea in the most classic sense. It rewards hard work, encourages ethical business, and helps reduce the gap between the top and the bottom. What’s more, the party does not need to be in government to successfully campaign for its widespread implementation. Legislation, such as a cut in corporation tax for participatory companies, would be a strong incentive, but figures showing that 70% of companies feel the living wage increases consumer awareness of their ethical practices and 80% reporting that the it had enhanced the quality of work by their staff provide more than enough evidence to encourage the campaign’s take up without government intervention.
If the opposition’s purpose is to do just that, oppose, then Labour have rightly had a promising week. But if it is to inspire debate, challenge the stale status quo and campaign for a better tomorrow, even without the pulpit of government, a Living Wage is even better; positive and practical and most importantly it offers hope to thousands of people the Coalition are battering. They might even be tempted to vote Labour too.
In the 3rd of my articles for 2012 I look at why HS2 is good for commuters and non commuters alike, East Midlands and across the country
Labour must reclaim its rightful place as the champion of elected mayors
After the electoral massacre of the AV referendum last year, constitutional reform may seem like the last thing on voters’ minds right now. However, despite the crumbling state of the UK economy in the face of savage Tory cuts, the structure of democracy has again come to the fore in the early days of 2012. Plenty has been written on what is fast becoming a constitutional crisis in Scotland. This is allowing a different kind of reform, one that may affect and improve the lives of the average citizen far more, to slip under the radar; that of elected mayors.
It is vital to claim this territory back as a Labour policy. It was Labour that introduced the very idea of directly elected mayors through the Greater Authority London Act of 1999. This was followed by the Local Government Act of 2000, which for the first time allowed the option of directly elected mayors for councils around the country. For all the coalition’s talk of decentralising power, it was Labour that pioneered this proud tradition.
The position of London mayor has proved a huge success. Whoever has held the post has acted as a figurehead for the city, bringing both accountability and publicity that has been good for democracy and tourism. However, in the spirit of the current media narrative, the party must accept its failings with elected mayors. The largest authorities to boast mayors outside London are currently Leicester and Middlesbrough. Major cities such as Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds have never even held referendums on the issue.
That is all about to change. On the 3rd May this year, these four cities, along with seven others, will hold referendums on whether to elect mayors. Labour should wholeheartedly embrace and support these campaigns. It may be a coalition policy, but elected mayors allow the party to consolidate its support in areas which regularly send numerous Labour MPs to Westminster. The opportunity to present candidates that can be figure heads for the cities forgotten by an increasingly southern-centric Tory party cannot be missed.
It is not only to the advantage of the party and the voters to have a directly elected mayor for their city. London has undoubtedly benefited from the status a mayor provides, further sharpening its image as the beacon of British culture and prosperity. Our cities in the Midlands and the North have much to offer. The regeneration of Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester has been a joy to witness over the past decade, and the history and culture they boast is comparable to that of the capital. However, with the Tories in power, these cities need more to maintain their impressive rise.
Constitutional reform, as we saw with glaring clarity last year, may not be ‘sexy’ or high on voters’ priorities. However, mayoral elections allow citizens a greater say while giving Labour a chance to solidify support in the country’s great cities. One of Britain’s crowning glories is its healthy democracy. And more of that can only help make Britain even better.