How to build the good society

A "good society" can only be achieved if there is an acceptance of the need to tame capitalism.

These are painful times. The huge financial crisis of 2008 shook the world economy but it is ordinary people who are paying the price. Across Europe working people's living standards are stagnant. Unemployment is rising. In Greece, Ireland and Portugal huge cuts in public-sector pay and services are imposed by the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. Yet, the architects of the crisis -- the banks, hedge funds, credit rating agencies -- emerge scot-free, able to carry on their activities and pick up their bonuses regardless.

Politically, it has been the right which has benefited from the insecurity which the crisis has generated. Following recent victories in the UK, Sweden, Hungary and Portugal, today the left remains in office in just five EU countries. Even more alarmingly, it is not just orthodox Christian-democratic parties which are gaining ground but new racist, nationalistic and xenophobic parties, as in Finland, Sweden, Holland and Hungary. These parties are now making inroads into government or shifting the mainstream right on to their ground.

This is a dangerous moment for the left and all concerned with the principles of justice, democracy and racial equality. That is why we think the long article just published by Compass entitled "Building The Good Society: A New Form of Progressive Politics" is important. It analyses how we reached where we are and how to break out of the impasse. The argument is based on several overarching themes.

First, it is guided by a belief in the goal of a "good society", where each individual can aspire to fulfil their potential and where manual labour is valued as much as mental labour. Our thinking is informed by the marriage of the ideals of liberty, equality and solidarity but fused with a 21st-century concern for the environment and the legacy we leave to future generations. Furthermore, it is a philosophy which sees politics as the way to fight for and guarantee the security and therefore the freedom of each and every citizen.

This thinking is in sharp contrast to the philosophy of the current government. Here we see "Thatcherism with a public school face", a government which believes that competition is the only value. This is a government which is using the financial crisis as the lever for a concerted drive to establish not just a market economy but a market society. It wants to sell off forests and woodlands. It makes entrance to universities dependent not on academic ability but on the ability to pay. It strives to open up the NHS and indeed all public services to any private provider. In a phrase, this is a government that wants to create a world fit for Southern Cross to thrive in.

Secondly, we argue that a "good society" can only be achieved if there is an acceptance of the need to tame capitalism and strictly regulate it. The financial crisis has exposed the fatal flaws of 'New' Labour's love affair with globalisation and the City of London. Blairites have been most reluctant to acknowledge that they got the economics of modern capitalism wrong. Patrick Diamond (Guardian 6 June 2011) has been the first to acknowledge this and to argue, as we do, that social democracy has to give voice to people's anger with City recklessness and show that there are alternatives.

Thirdly, citizenship is not just about voting once every few years but a sustained engagement in all walks of life. This paper argues strongly for the importance of citizen participation but emphasises that a strong civil society emerges and goes hand in hand with a strong state.

Fourthly, the whole spirit of this paper is avowedly pluralist. Some diehard Labour MPs may cling to their tribalist traditions but "Ourselves alone", the old politics of monolithic parties, has had its day. A good society will be constructed from many alliances and interests as well as the continuing importance of class. For Labour that means working with a wide range of popular movements, pressures groups and trade unions, as well as with other parties on the progressive wing of politics.,

Flowing from these key themes we present individual policy suggestions in a number of areas. They are symbolic of the transformational policies we need to build a good society.

The world need not be like this. There is an alternative to the 1930s-style deflation on offer from George Osborne and the European Central Bank and to the nasty, narrow-minded nationalism of the racist and xenophobic right. A progressive alliance can galvanise public anger and tap into human optimism about the potential for a better future. This paper sets out a route map for that progressive alliance to engender a 'good society'.

New Statesman is sponsoring this Saturday's annual Compass conference Building the Good Society - details at http://compassonline.org.uk/conference/

Robin Wilson is a former magazine editor and think tank director and currently independent researcher based in Belfast.

Jon Bloomfield is currently an honorary research fellow at Birmingham University specializing in European issues.

Getty
Show Hide image

Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.