Steve Hilton is offering energetic ideas with a liberal twist. Photo: Sarah Lee/Guardian News & Media
Show Hide image

Kind of blue: why Steve Hilton's manifesto is a challenge to the left

Where is the equivalent to Hilton on the left? We have not even touched on the questions of human fulfilment, power and radical democracy that are offered up by modern technological change.

More Human: Designing a World Where People Come First
Steve Hilton
W H Allen, 384pp, £18.99

Identifying tensions across the Republican right in 2012, the American columnist David  Brooks wrote: “Economic conservatives . . . have taken control. Traditional conservatism has gone into eclipse.” This illustrates a periodic right-wing self-awareness which concedes that economic reductionism could destroy conservatism, in its proper sense of valuing and conserving the nature and institutions of a country. As such, the modern Tory party can appear a strangely fragile and brittle thing even when it wins elections.

In the last parliament hostility to the Liberal Democrats was simple transference; in private, the economic absolutists directed their worst venom at Cameron. Since their surprisingly easy victory, we see the leadership response: a pragmatic “One Nation” reset and an attempt to give a grittier and more regional, working-class voice to modern conservatism, built around “the northern powerhouse”. George Osborne, Robert Halfon and Tim Montgomerie are the main players behind this neat post-election pivot.

Other, earlier responses had been given a less successful test drive. We had compassionate Conservatism and the “big society”; nudge units and happiness indexes; even a bit of “Red Tory” humanism and a return to Edmund Burke, the philosophical founder of conservatism. Naively, I had always assumed that this revisionism was a general (and welcome) political project to push back against the economic crazies. It turns out that it was way more complicated than that.

I had assumed that the proper Tory response to economic liberalism would be a return to questions of virtue and ethics; of subsidiarity and the promotion of “the good life” – a phrase used by Cameron at his manifesto launch in April – to reclaim a deeper conception of humanity, in contrast to the cold calculus of right-wing economics. I came to Steve Hilton’s book assuming that this was his point of departure: a contribution that would be anchored in classical conceptions of justice. I was totally wrong. But it is still intriguing.

Hilton’s More Human is box-office: he and his T-shirts have dominated our newspapers and airwaves for the past few weeks. Previously he was Cameron’s “big society” guy, wrote the 2010 manifesto and for two years bounced around Whitehall detonating ideas and departments – think of the post-bureaucratic age, the Nudge Unit and the Government Digital Service. Yet even by the end of his introduction it becomes clear that Hilton’s humanism is that of the behaviourist and nothing at all to do with Aristotle. This is depressing. Here, politics is about psychology, not philosophy. It does not ask deeper questions about who and what we are. It is libertarian with a few ­paternalistic nudges.

It is tempting to link this to the hi-tech, West Coast hippie-chic wave that he rides. But that lets the left off the hook, big time. Because the volume of policy in this book is staggering and challenging. Hilton has policies on public-service reform, especially around rebuilding family life, on public spaces and environmental change, on redesigning business, and much more. On page after page the ideas fly. This is not someone ground down by the inertia of political parties or Whitehall – Hilton has game.

The left response to date has been predictable. We have called out his personalisation of the Jobcentre regime as inhumane. We have equated his notion of being human with being entrepreneurial. We have painted him as capitalism’s Californian design guy: the mindfulness-trained, modern-day version of an 1870s Austrian economist, backfilled with a bit of Ayn Rand. We on the self-righteous left can then tread water and wait for the voters to realise just how terribly wrong they got it. Alternatively, we can see what light it shines on us.

Hilton’s conception of freedom – he calls the book More Human, but in fact it should be called More Freedom – shames modern social democrats when he takes aim at top pay, unaccountable chief executives and corporate power. As does his environmentalism and his focus on devolution. More­over, some of his thinking around preventative social policy – in early-years education, in mental health, in prison reform – is way ahead of the cold, remedial fiscal transfers overseen by the remote central state of much left thinking. The ease with which Hilton can align himself with great, left-wing social innovators such as the Community Links founder David Robinson speaks volumes about what the representative left has lost and the space vacated.

Admittedly Hilton does not bother much with questions of distributional justice; his thing is epochal technological change, collapsing hierarchy and bureaucracy. His decentralisation can only be driven by a very strong centre, necessary for reasons of what he calls “sequencing”. His route through our democratic crisis and need for political reform equates to little more than good people offering themselves up to serve as mayors. His anti-poverty strategy can bend into blaming the poor and at times suggests a eugenic undertow – not surprising, given his behaviourist bent. And his marketing background allows us to call him out as that trade’s modern shaman, a psychologist. But a lot of this misses the point; the book has energy and great political vitality.

It shows agency on the right. Where is the equivalent on the left? We have not even touched on the questions of human fulfilment, power and radical democracy that are offered up by modern technological change.

I’d have preferred Hilton to drill deeper into the human condition and how we help create good citizens, above and beyond a minor reference to National Citizen Service. But this is a modern guidebook to innovative public policy, not philosophy. Hilton will probably make a shedload of money with his present tech start-up in Palo Alto, but will then feel compelled to return to the world of politics as the Tory candidate for a trendy English city. And good luck to him.

This fascinating book does not really resolve the outstanding tension at the heart of conservatism: it falls on the libertarian side of that divide and then spices up the terrain with a bit of modern psychospeak. Unlike Tory thinkers such as Brooks or Jesse Norman, Hilton is not conservative enough for me. He is a liberal with some great occasional ideas. His vision is limited. My guess, though, is that, compared to anything else on offer, it could prove to be the future.

Jon Cruddas is the MP for Dagenham and Rainham. He was Labour’s policy co-ordinator under Ed Miliband

Jon Cruddas is Labour's policy review coordinator and MP for Dagenham

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496