In search of the "Responsibility Society"

Can we give substance to Ed Miliband's vision?

Two events defined this summer's politics. The shocking revelations of phone hacking at News International and the riots in English cities. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has tried relentlessly to connect the two, arguing that both reveal a cuture of social irresponsibility that neither the current government nor their New Labour predecessors have done anything near enough to challenge. Britain needs a new ethic, Miliband has argued, one focused on mutual responsibility and shared concern, and the only way it can be fostered is through a politics that is not afraid to tackle the vast powers of vested interest.

Ed Miliband is surely right in essence. But, as he is only too aware, both his diagnosis and his prescribed remedy requires more detailed development if it is to provide British left politics with a genuinely new direction. In my essay for the IPPR, "Everyday Democracy: Taking the Centre-Left Beyond State and Market", I aim to start this development.

We need to begin by understanding the root problem that Miliband is striving to identify. This problem lies, I believe, in the dominance of an overly "transactional" mindset in British society. Too many of us, in too many settings, look on our fellow citizens either as problems to be avoided or as instruments to our own gain. Big businesses talk about their workforce as "human resources". Civil servants in Whitehall prepare projects and "initiatives" with no attempt to consult with the people their plans will affect. Even in our families, the pressures and stresses of work sometimes make us look at our partners, parents and children more as things to be managed rather than people to be treasured.

It is this mindset that rips at the core of our society. Sometimes, it can make us aggressive and excessively independent, believing that we owe nothing to our neighbours, co-workers or families. In this way, we pursue our own good relentlessly and ruthlessly. At other times, it can make us feel isolated and vulnerable, with no-one to turn to in times of need, no network of support to draw on. Loneliness is already closely related to the dramatic rise in chronic mental health problems across our society.

The only effective response to this mindset is the development of new cross-community relationships in our everyday lives. That is the way that people can begin to deepen an ethic of mutual responsibility that challenges the transactional outlook. Such relationships themselves will only emerge when we radically expand the opportunities we have to interact with each other in a constructive way, in the workplace, our communities and in our own homes. That means protecting and enriching our common spaces, providing people with the living wages they need to be able to spend time with their families and friends, and transforming our public services so that they draw the users and producers of services into continual dialogue with each other.

This is the reason that so many centre-left politicians, including Miliband himself, were so engaged by the academic arguments of so-called Blue Labour earlier this year. Its appeal for Miliband is not just intellectual, though. It also lies in the fact that this is the kind of politics that he actually lives. I have known Ed for over twenty years, and I know that he is never happier than when he is building connections between people from all walks of life, drawing diverse people together into a politics of the common good.

However crucial his personal role, Ed Miliband did not invent this kind of politics. It has long roots in the Labour tradition, and in aspects of the liberal and conservative traditions too. The key now is to draw intelligently from those historic predecessors, while not giving in to a nostalgic vision of the past. What the centre-left desperately needs, therefore, is a resolutely modern account of how an everyday relational politics can be built. It needs, in other words, policies that are immediately appropriate for our current conditions but which challenge not reinforce the transactional spirit of the age. That is what New Labour failed to find. That is what I try to present in the essay. Argument will no doubt rage about individual suggestions, but it is increasingly clear that this is the agenda that brings new focus to centre-left thinking in Britain today.

Marc Stears is Visiting Fellow at IPPR and Professor of Political Theory at Oxford.

Marc Stears is fellow in politics, University College, Oxford and visiting fellow at IPPR.

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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.