In search of the good society

Jonathan Timbers skirted the fringes of Labour Party conference in September listening to versions of the good society

The Good Society is the first of three short books from Compass following its consultations with members, left-wing academics and experts on policy priorities for radical social democrats in Britain today.

I perused its 100-or-so pages the day before its launch in September 2006 at a fringe event not far from the G-Mex in Manchester where the Labour Party conference was being held, and was struck by how easy it was to read. Every chapter is clearly themed and follows a set pattern, asking what’s wrong with an aspect of contemporary life or policy and what the big picture should look like; and suggesting some practical policies for getting there.

Central to the approach is the research of Professor Layard and others on happiness and equality, which contains the refreshingly simple message that the more equal a society is, the happier it is (presupposing, I guess, that it is also an open and free society based on markets with a state limited by individual rights).

About 55 people turned up to hear Hetan Shah, policy director of Compass, Ruth Lister, a distinguished academic who writes on poverty, Jon Trickett MP, chair of the Compass group of Labour MPs, Ed Miliband, minister for the third sector, and Polly Toynbee of the Guardian. The audience was lively and engaged but, under the circumstances, the turnout was disappointing. Perhaps Labour Party members aren’t really interested in theoretical or conceptual politics, even when it’s in the form of a manifesto or programme.

Hetan Shah set the scene by outlining the themes of The Good Society, namely: well being, social justice and environmental sustainability. The book will be part of a trilogy setting out a programme for ‘renewal’ (ie. government after Blair). The other books are entitled A New Political Economy and Democracy and the Public Realm. Shah introduced the speakers, who had been given eight minutes each to speak about the kind of society they want to see.

Professor Lister asked us to imagine a more equal and just society where there was no poverty or discrimination, decent rates of benefit, and where all had the means to live a dignified life. At the moment there was a depressing gap between the top and bottom earners, she said. She would like to see a more reasonable spread of incomes and recognition of equal worth. Taxes, she stated, (ie. higher taxes) would be the price we paid for this society, with top earners contributing a fairer share of their incomes to the public good.

Ethic of care

The dominant social value should be an ethic of care. Being human is about the ties of interdependency and it followed that there should be a fairer distribution of caring responsibilities. She also referred to the politics of time and said that there should be a fairer distribution of time to avoid social exclusion. Children should enjoy a good childhood and they should be seen as child citizens who had a say. We should all look forward to a good old age and live in a responsible society that takes its obligations seriously in respect of global policy, environment, immigration and asylum.

Equality abandoned

Trickett said that policy making in the Labour Party should be more inclusive and honest. We have abandoned equality in favour of meritocracy. We should get away from managerialism and look to be value driven, as new Labour was when it first emerged. Social democrats should challenge and confront the orthodoxies of the flexible labour market and the prevalence of US interests.

Miliband made a somewhat Oedipal speech which began with the statement: ‘My Dad would have agreed with Jon, but would have disagreed with what I am about to say!’ He praised the record of the Labour government by pointing to a significant drop in child poverty. New Labour had outperformed his expectations and created a more progressive ethos, he said, the proof of that being David Cameron (‘Even though he doesn’t believe it!’).

Miliband conceded that he agreed with 80 per cent of the contents of The Good Society and the question really was how to implement it. We had to be honest about the failings of public services (eg. children in care) and confront worries about migration, some of which had ‘merit’. He referred to Tony Crosland and the need to understand people’s aspirations.

Remembering his own father sneering from his big north London house at those who wanted to buy their council homes, Miliband went on to assert that successful politics embraced the majority. A good example of this was tax credits which linked people on lower and middle incomes. It was this sort of policy that would ‘buy’ people in to progressive policies (I am assuming the term ‘buying in’ was used figuratively).

He referred positively (although without specific commitment) to the universal benefits enjoyed in Sweden. Empowerment should be based on an egalitarian ethos so when services were poor, people would have a right to do something about it. Also, the benefits system should show more respect in its treatment of claimants. We needed to win many elections to hard wire social democracy, as they did in Sweden.

Toynbee was late and so the panel took questions before her contribution. The first round was dominated by a Labour MP who asked what the panel would say to the trade unionists on the picket line protesting about NHS privatisation (ie. at NHS logistics) and the sacking of employees before they qualify for unfair dismissal rights.

Trickett spoke about new Labour’s accommodation with market liberalisation. Miliband said that NHS logistics would be better as a result of privatisation, that full TUPE will be applied and more jobs will be created. But he expressed concern about employers wanting to sack staff to avoid legal duties. Lister spoke out against meritocracy and for egalitarianism. She pointed out that new Labour outperformed because it promised nothing when it came to power. She wanted more spent on child benefit and other child-related benefits.

Another member of the audience pointed out that The Good Society was rather light on references to disabled people and where they did appear they tended to reflect the medical model of disability rather than the social model (ie. that it is society which disables, not the individual’s impairment). If poverty was to be tackled effectively, the exclusion of disabled people has to be addressed. Shah acknowledged that the comments were fair and invited the person who had made them to contribute a critique to Compass. Of all the speakers, only Lister was able to address the point and she did so by agreeing completely with the person who made it.

Living wages

By that time Toynbee had dashed into the room and was invited to speak. She pointed out that poor people were often in two or three jobs and that the minimum wage was less than a living wage. We had to recognise that people who work in the service industry, such as care assistants, can’t move up and they need to be better rewarded for what they do. She spoke movingly and in graphic terms about the experience of poverty in contemporary society from primary school onwards, pointing out that the highest earners now earn 127 times what the lowest earners do, and that, as a result, there are whole classes of people who have absolutely no idea how the rest of us live.

She told a funny story to illustrate her point. She was at a dinner party sitting next to a merchant banker, who was evidently uncomfortable talking to ‘that woman from the Guardian’. The unfortunate man was duly engaged in a conversation about inequality. Toynbee asked him what he thought the median wage was. Apparently, he struggled for a few seconds realising that he had to pitch it as low as possible, and replied, ‘Oh, about £44,000 pa, I’d guess.’

Following Toynbee’s speech members of the audience asked the panel about subjects ranging from age discrimination in the minimum wage to top up fees and trade union rights. Toynbee said that she was more worried about the 50 per cent not going to university than the 50 per cent who were. It was still a privilege to go and the poorest third don’t pay anyway, a point that needs to be made more clearly so students from poor families are not put off. She agreed that the differential rate for young workers should be removed, and supported TUPE.


Lister expressed concerns about top up fees and agreed with Toynbee that differential rates in the minimum wage should be abolished. She acknowledged that workers’ rights were weak and disagreed with the view that new Labour has moved the political centre of gravity to the left. In fact, because new Labour has only made the arguments about increasing taxes once (for NI), public surveys reveal that people are less open now than in 1997 to arguments in favour of redistribution through the taxation system.

Miliband spoke about inheritance tax and defended the 40 per cent rate on a threshold of £300,000, while Trickett told us that he had voted against top up fees. He also spoke movingly about his father’s death during the summer and the care that he had received. While praising care workers, he said that the services, particularly the supply of oxygen to his Dad’s home, was worse because it was profit-driven.

There were further questions but the meeting was drawing to a close and not much of substance was said about issues such as the status and funding of community education. However, Toynbee finished the evening by saying that the Labour Party needed to find a leader who was willing to draw out unity rather than explore divisions.

Downstairs Ed’s brother, David Miliband, was at a reception hosted by Peter Mandelson. They were speaking from a raised dais surrounded by the busts of Manchester’s eminent Victorian politicians, free traders to a man. In such circles the wine is free, so I stayed for a while. David’s first words were to declare his support for meritocracy.

The Good Society is available from A New Political Economy and Democracy and the Public Realm will be published in coming months.