In 2010, as Marc Stears moved from academia into politics, he was struck by an opinion poll finding: what people most wanted was to have rewarding time with close friends and family. He asked Labour’s pollster James Morris why the party hadn’t drawn on this insight in its policymaking and campaigning. “It is just not the kind of thing that politics is about,” came the reply.
A decade later, Stears, who served as Ed Miliband’s speechwriter in the 2015 general election, has published a book on why “everyday life” should define our politics. Out of the Ordinary invokes the work of writers such as George Orwell, Dylan Thomas and JB Priestley who “were convinced that people going about their daily lives possess all the insight, virtue and determination required to build a good society”.
To some, this assertion will appear platitudinous or idealistic. How does it relate to politics today? “The first big motivating idea was that there’s not a trade-off between big systemic transformation and community-led local change,” Stears, 49, told me when we spoke by video call. “The second impulse is that there are so many people, even on the progressive side of politics, who remain extraordinarily disdainful or contemptuous of the people they claim to want to represent.”
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Stears, who was professor of political theory at the University of Oxford from 2010 to 2015, added: “That’s just a cultural fact: you see it in academia, you see it in the top levels of politics… Covid-19 is a perfect example of that, the gall of the government blaming people’s everyday behaviour for the spread of the virus when they’ve messed up at every possible opportunity.”
In the book, Stears sardonically recalls his time as chief executive of the New Economics Foundation (from 2016 to 2017), where staffers frowned upon those who bought their lunch at “one of the major supermarkets” or drank from “the occasional plastic bottle of water”. He concludes: “They are precisely what makes so many ordinary people so hostile to the woke.”
What is his response to those who say this is one of the false binaries he complains of? Is a politician such as Democratic representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez not both “ordinary” and “woke”?
“I’m sympathetic to progressive positions,” Stears replied. “But what I was always upset with in that period was the racing to a solution or racing to certainty. As soon as we’ve made the moral judgement that this is bad and that is good, then legislating for that, either in a Westminster sense or in terms of moral expectations in a workplace, just strikes me as the wrong way to bring about social change.”
Stears’ philosophy was shaped by his upbringing in south Wales. “It had this incredibly strong communitarian ethos at a time when people thought that had gone out of fashion… I was brought up in the 1980s, which was the prime time of Thatcherite individualism, but south Wales didn’t have that, it still had neighbours who looked out for each other.”
Since 2017, however, Stears has watched the tumultuous events in the UK from afar in Australia (his wife’s native country), where he is now director of the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney.
Australia is often lionised politically by the British right but Stears cited the lessons progressives can learn from it. “Here in New South Wales we’ve had the most extraordinary public health response to the pandemic, which has been grounded in the absolute opposite of Operation Moonshot – no big private companies arriving to turn everything around, just everything based in local health responses, track and trace systems that work.”
For Stears, Labour’s general election defeat in 2015 was more painful than for most. He had been close friends with Miliband since the pair studied together at Oxford in the early 1990s. “It was an enormous opportunity missed in the sense that Ed would have been a wonderful prime minister,” Stears said. “His agenda is now globally accepted. I had a call this morning with a conservative politician in Canada and she said, ‘We used to read Ed’s speeches and think oh my God, this guy is onto something.’”
As Stears knows, the years since 2015 have been grave: the UK has left the EU, Boris Johnson has become Prime Minister and Britain has one of the world’s highest recorded excess death rates of the Covid-19 crisis. “It was a really bad election to lose.”
What would he do differently if he had the chance? “The party machine ran according to an electoral logic that had been designed by Tony Blair and his campaign team and we didn’t break with that enough. We weren’t bold enough with the cultural changes we made in the party or in the policy positions that we offered to the country.”
George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) is once again a bestseller (albeit after being invoked by Trumpites and Covid-deniers), but it is his older novel, Coming Up for Air (1939), from which Stears today draws hope. “It’s an enormous celebration of trying to rekindle the magic of childhood from middle age. The answer wasn’t going to lie in dogmatism, absolutism and certainty, the answer was going to lie in celebrating the beautiful things in life.
“There is something incredibly moving about realising that people before us have grappled with exactly the same problems and have tried to come up with answers.”
This article appears in the 27 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost