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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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era