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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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