Will the left focus on what money can't buy, or on what money shouldn't buy?

Alex Hern speaks to Michael Sandel about morality in politics and the markets.

Once acquired, stereotypes can be hard to overturn, and it's hard to think of a more enduring stereotype of the British political divide than a hard-headed Conservative making "difficult decisions" which the left decry as immoral. Those of us on the left, we are told over and over, must fight the stereotype by pushing for policy which is efficient on its own terms, and not just "moral". So the argument against forced unpaid work cannot just ride on the obvious truth that that is an unpalatable policy for 21st (or 18th) century Britain; it must also address whether such work succeeds in getting people jobs.

But, argues Michael Sandel, Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University and author of What Money Can't Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets, the can pendulum swing too far the other way. "I think that left-wing politics is diminished and impoverished when it tries to limit itself to efficiency arguments alone," he tells me when we sequester ourselves inside the New Statesman's offices on a sunny bank holiday Monday. "The result is a managerial, technocratic kind of public discourse that ultimately fails to inspire."

Sandel knows about inspiring people. What Money Can't Buy has made a splash in the British political scene since its publication: After the Guardian said it should be "the bedside companion of every Miliband aide", the Labour leader himself pronounced it "a powerful argument for change", and invited the philosopher to speak at the party conference last autumn.

The strength of its message comes from linking arguments about what money can't buy – the ones the left grudgingly feels it ought to make – with arguments about what money shouldn't buy. One of the book's case-studies is of some Israeli nurseries which introduced cash penalties for late pick-ups; counter-intuitively, the number of tardy parents actually increased as a result. But even if it hadn't, it would still have turned late pick-ups from something parents felt guilty about to something they could treat as a service they bought.

"So there are these two separate, overlapping arguments," Sandel explains. "One is that the the cash incentives may backfire as a practical matter; the other is, even if they don't backfire in terms of producing less of the behaviour being sought, they may crowd out attitudes and norms, non-market values, worth caring about."

Sandel blames this crowding out on the tendency in social sciences, all across the spectrum, to seize on things that can be weighed and measured, to the exclusion of other areas on import. "When economics was invented by Adam Smith, he conceived it, rightly I think, as a branch of moral and political philosophy. In the 20th Century economics and the social sciences tried to establish themselves as autonomous disciplines, as value-neutral sciences, and I think much has been lost as a result."

"One of the ways I've tried to challenge economistic ways of thinking about social life is to show how, even within efficiency terms, ignoring norms ignores something important."

But doesn't bringing morality into the debate risk being seen as a capitulation? After all, we've spent so long fighting political battles on the basis of narrow claims of efficiency that to abandon them now might be seen as an admission of defeat.

"I disagree," Sandel says when I put it to him. "I think one of the reasons that there is such wide-spread frustration with the existing terms of public discourse, and with the alternatives on offer from the major parties, in democracies around the world, is that there's too much focus on managerial and technocratic concerns, and too little vision."

The left has seized on that message, but there's another nut for Sandel to crack before he can claim victory. "Some strands of Conservative political thought want to bring ethical questions to bear on politics. And so I was hoping to connect with that strand as well." Has he? "I think it remains to be seen."

A woman gives blood in Germany. Research has found that paying for blood can lower the amount offered. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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