Why Prudence needs Justice

Labour could again become the party of justice, but not while inequality is on the increase and soci

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Over the summer, as new Labour's "Prosecco plotters" plan the overthrow of Gordon Brown from their Tuscan villas, they could do worse than plan a day trip to nearby Siena to visit the city's town hall, a symbol of civic autonomy since the 14th century. There, spread across three walls of the so-called Sala della Pace (Room of Peace), is a magnificent fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti known as the Allegory of Good and Bad Government.

The central wall depicts in female form the six characteristics of a well-run government: Peace, Fortitude, Magnanimity, Temperance and Justice are all there. And so, naturally, is Prudence. Hovering above them are the Christian virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity. Siena's "Commune", a council of city elders, would enter under the fresco and sit on a raised platform in front of it to remind themselves constantly of the principles by which they were to rule the independent city state. An inscription in Latin translates as: "Love Justice, you who judge the earth."

On the right-hand wall, the fresco depicts a utopian vision of the well-run state, where it is always spring and summer. The people work at commerce or in agriculture and live in harmony with each other and the natural world. In this land, reads an inscription: "Every man can travel freely without fear and can till and sow so long as the Commune keeps this lady [Justice] as sovereign, for she has stripped the wicked of all power."

Understanding

In the portrayal of the wintry, blighted land of the ill-governed city, Justice is bound and her scales broken. A wolf-like figure, Fear, flies across the city with a scroll bearing the words: "Because each seeks only his own good, in this city Justice is subject to Tyranny; nobody passes along this road without Fear."

A devilish Tyranny is flanked by Cruelty and Deceit. Fraud, Fury, Division, War, Avarice, Pride and Vainglory also have walk-on parts. The only industry in the city is the armoury.

The profound political understanding expressed in the fresco is that peace and the good life are the products of justice and not the other way round. From justice all good things flow.

Fourteenth-century Siena is not a model for 21st-century Britain. The city was, in effect, run by an oligarchy of bankers, continually at threat of war with neighbours such as Florence and facing the imminent risk of plague, which wiped out half the population shortly after this masterpiece was completed.

Yet there is something to be learned from the idealised concept of justice and its centrality to the functioning of a "good society". The fresco provides a simple and compelling political narrative, precisely what the Brown government is lacking at present.

The answer for those plotters who may gaze at the fresco is not to replace Gordon Brown as leader (or at least not that alone), but to create policies which indicate that the Labour Party has a vision of a better life for the people of Britain. Justice, not simply in Lorenzetti's sense of "fairness under the law", but in its widest sense of social justice and equality, should be put at the centre of this new vision.

Perhaps that was what David Miliband was getting at when he wrote in his controversial Guardian article: "Every member of the Labour Party carries with them a simple guiding mission on the membership card: to put power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many, not the few."

But if he really wants to lead the government into the next election he needs to be more explicit.

One more slip

There are many in the parliamentary party who know this. "If we don't get the policies right, it doesn't matter who's at the head," said one backbencher. "We want leadership around the principles of fairness, equality of opportunity and social justice, not just tacking and triangulating at every breeze. People just don't know what we stand for."

Labour is not yet in open rebellion and with some exceptions has remained remarkably loyal in public. But it would take just one more slip to push the Brown government over the edge. One minister close to Miliband said: "Either Gordon has to step up to the plate or someone else will have to. It's as simple as that. On any analysis, this is just not sustainable."

Ministers are now vying to come up with a vision for the way forward. Plotters returning from Tuscany in the autumn may hanker after a continuity Blairite candidate, but that is not the answer. They would be better to take home some postcards of the fresco from Siena's town hall to pass around the cabinet table and initiate a discussion about the six virtues of good government.

The Labour Party could once again become the party of justice, but not while it plans to press ahead with 42-day detention without charge and to build "titan" prisons, or continues to incarcerate the children of failed asylum-seekers. Not while inequality is on the increase and social mobility stalled. Until someone has the imagination to construct a new set of progressive policies, the landscape looks a lot like the bleak devastation in Lorenzetti's depiction of a badly governed city.

This article appears in the 11 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Spies for hire

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