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2 October 2011

In search of the “Responsibility Society“

Can we give substance to Ed Miliband's vision?

By Marc Stears

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.

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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.