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Deciding the ‘common good’ by committee

At the Compass conference in London, elitist conservatism marched under the banner of the old left.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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On Saturday, Compass, a leftist pressure group, amassed intellectuals, unions, campaign groups and activists under the dome of Central Hall in Westminster, London, to debate a new ‘direction for the democratic left’.

Such an initiative reflects the widespread disenchantment with Blairism. At the conference, speaker after speaker argued that politics needs to go ‘beyond soundbites’, and that debate needs to be about more than management-speak and PR.

The intention here – to break out of the deadlock and strike a new direction – is a good one. But the content of the conference raises questions about whether the future could (or should) belong to this leftist alliance.

A number of speakers talked vaguely about the need for ‘new vision’ and ‘new ideas’. Others appealed to building ‘networks’ or creating ‘dialogue’, as if lots of connections between different kinds of people would yield the sought-after ideas. This is a modern brand of alchemy: the notion that bringing people together to talk will transform the base matter of today’s politics into bright gleaming gold. Then there were those who called for a ‘new language’, as if we only had to change the terms and politics would leap into life.

The real problem with the conference, though, was not the vague references to the new, but the harking back to the past.

A number of speakers sought to reclaim notions such as ‘equality’, ‘society’ and the ‘common good’ as political rallying cries. References to the heritage of collective action came thick and fast. Compass head Neal Lawson nodded to the previous occupants of Central Hall, such as the Suffragettes: ‘They believed the world was theirs to make.’ Geoff Mulgan, former policy adviser in Downing Street and now director of the Young Foundation, quoted Marx’s aphorism, ‘Philosophers have merely interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it.’

This is a radical legacy indeed, but it is being betrayed now. Today it is often an elitist and conservative agenda that shuffles under the banner of ‘society’.

Lawson talked about the need to put the interests of ‘society’ above the narrow interests of ‘the market’. It’s certainly the case that the market is neither a just nor rational way of distributing resources, and different visions of the common good have in the past been pushed forward in the streets and workplaces of Britain. But who are the representatives of ‘society’ now? Who decides what is the ‘common good’?

In the absence of popular mobilisation, social interests generally get decided by committee. This often amounts to little more than reining in individuals’ aspirations to bring them into line with what the committee thinks best. Lawson talks about the problems of consumerism – but rather than offering something better than shopping, he merely tells people not to shop, with proposals such as restrictions on advertising and campaigns against supermarkets.

A War on Want stall at the Compass conference had a leaflet criticising the ‘Tescopoly’, which was also supported by organisations such as Friends of the Earth and the New Economics Foundation. Certainly, there are problems with Tesco, but at least its success is in part the outcome of real individuals choosing what they want to buy. Far better this than an alliance of the great and the green deciding what kinds of local shops are in our interests.

The bigger the words get, the narrower the concerns that lie behind them. Ed Balls, Gordon Brown’s economics adviser, sung the praises of new social values such as ‘internationalism’, ‘justice for everybody’, ‘collective responsibility’, and talked about the importance of ‘acting collectively as a community’. (If they talk about ‘global citizens’ or ‘unborn global citizens’, you’re really in trouble.) When the elite talks about ‘collective responsibility’ it generally means an appeal for individuals to do what it wants them to do. Attacks on the selfishness of individuals mean getting us to keep our heads down and discouraging us from being too aspirational or disorderly.

The term ‘equality’ has been stripped of nearly all its radical impetus. This battle cry from the French revolution was about people asserting their dignity and demanding their due. Now it’s used in the dry manner of a supermarket manager checking that there are no gluts in supply and demand: it’s about making sure that everybody gets their share of the pie, and that there are no disturbances. A speaker from the Fabian Society even talked about the ‘problem’ of public attitudes about equality, and the need for re-education.

People are the passive objects of inequality policies, never the subjects driving policy. That’s why the main concern is with child poverty, the model of the passive and needy being, rather than with the working men and women who feed those children.

The desire to start politics off on a new footing is a good one. So is the desire to draw what inspiration we can from the struggles of the past. But today we need to beware those speaking on behalf of society and the common good, for they could be a Trojan Horse.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club.

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Topics Politics

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