Towards a new politics of wellbeing

Contemporary political debate so often seems to have a rather staged quality.

The rhetoric of political exchange is sharp, spiky, often abusive. Yet the ferocity of debate is so often incommensurate with the material differences of policy at issue, different in degree rather than kind: whether or not to adjust income tax by a few percent, to run a budget surplus for an extra year or two, to set the minimum wage a pound or two higher. Rival party platforms ask us to choose between differing interpretations of the same symphony rather than radically different works.

Fountain of Hygiena, Greek goddess of health, Hamburg (Image: Daniel Schwen, Wikipedia)

The substance of our political debate is essentially technocratic rather than philosophical: less concerned with clashing worldviews than differences of emphasis. And the essential elements of the worldview that has set the tone for British political discourse have been in place for more than 35 years now, when neoliberalism displaced the prevailing Keynesianism of the post-war settlement. I summarise crudely, because I know that it's a complicated story, but I think it's fair to say that all British governments since some time in the mid-to-late 1970s have in practice, whatever their rhetoric, shaped policy in accord with the fundamental tenets of neoliberalism: pursuit of economic growth as the overriding objective of government policy; faith in the primacy of the market over the state as the most powerful engine of that growth; concern that high rates of taxation and state provision impede enterprise; and the gradual privatisation of welfare through transfer of responsibility for personal economic security from state provision to the individual.

Improving Wellbeing

So Beyond the Referendum: Improving Wellbeing, a seminar organised last week by the Scottish Fabians had an intriguing premise, inviting us to imagine what politics might look like if the vestigial hold that neoliberalism retains on British politics was broken, if the framework setting the parameters for policy was redesigned around a new criterion for success: 'wellbeing' rather than economic growth. What would happen if people were asked what was really important to their quality of life, and if policy objectives were reframed in response to the answers they gave?

Appropriately the first speaker was Francis Stewart of Oxfam Scotland, which has undertaken a study asking exactly that question. Their findings informed the charity's Humankind Index, a set of measurements for personal and societal wellbeing that go beyond the mainstream political focus with stark mathematical economic indicators of wealth: economic growth, GDP per head et al. The project found that people were overwhelmingly concerned with security: they wanted secure employment that earned a decent wage, a reasonable work/life balance, affordable housing, and a pleasant environment. Economic prosperity was important, but as a means for generating a certain level of wealth for allowing for a decent quality of life, not as an abstract end unto itself.

The importance of this sense of security was echoed by the next contributor, Lynn Williams of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), who said that those with whom her organisation worked simply wanted stability, the assurance that community and social services were there to support them through the vicissitudes of economic life. She noted that a narrow concern with paid employment as a measure of individual worth did not recognise the essential work done by those who dedicated their labour to the care of family with long term disabilities. Much valuable work is done by people who cannot command a price for it.

The final speaker, Professor Mike Danson, a contributor both to the Humankind Index and the Reid Foundation's Common Weal campaign for an independent Scotland inspired by Nordic-style social democracy, stressed the damage done to our collective wellbeing by widening levels of economic inequality. The chasm now separating rich and poor effectively disenfranchises a significant proportion of the population to the ultimate detriment of us all. People trapped in unskilled, insecure, poorly paid jobs cannot partake of or contribute to economic wealth. The state is burdened with the cost of topping up incomes that don't even provide the means of subsistence, and low incomes shrink the potential consumer base for goods and services.

As one might have expected of a seminar organised by the Fabians, the perspectives offered on the nature of wellbeing were from the left, the good society characterised as concerned with equality, economic security, social justice, tolerance of diversity, and environmental sustainability. But, as one questioner put it, how can agendas such as the Humankind Index speak to those with very different understandings of wellbeing? What, for example, are business leaders to make of the suggestion that traditional hard-edged indicators of economic progress like GDP should be expanded to cover a range of softer, more nebulous concerns? And how can politicians of whatever party, ever mindful of the need to offer sceptical recession weary electorates proof that things-really-are-getting-better, be persuaded to look beyond a narrow focus on economic growth as the cardinal criterion for the success of their policies?

The language of wellbeing seems to stand in opposition to the language of growth. The former is associated with words and metaphor signifying stability: wellbeing, security, equality, fairness, kindness, protection. The latter emphasises dynamism: competitiveness, productivity, flexibility, efficiency, challenge, change. The language of wellbeing suggests concern with just distribution of the proceeds of wealth, the language of growth with the prior concern of generating it in the first place. This is the essential issue. Talk of prioritising the objective of wellbeing - as conceived by the Humankind Index - will seem indulgent if it is perceived as taking the generation of wealth for granted, the generation of which is a condition for any politics of wellbeing.

Two challenges

The fundamental challenge then, I think, is twofold.

First, as Mike Danson argued, policy makers and business must be convinced that an egalitarian politics is consistent with, indeed conducive to, prosperity. And the evidence is there: international indicators of economic performance show that more equal societies are not only healthier in social terms, but more prosperous, ensuring, as they do, a greater pool of skilled labour for business draw upon, and a wider consumer base.

But to make the case for a politics of wellbeing on economic terms is to fight, so to speak, on enemy turf: to adopt the utilitarian language of neoliberalism, of calculus, costs and benefits, economic expediency. If something like the Humankind Index is to displace raw economic growth as the governing principle for policy making then the argument must ultimately go beyond pragmatic economic considerations, to a higher plane: the realm of ideas, of political philosophy, of, to put it in classical terms, the concept of the common good. This is the second, and more difficult challenge.

It may well be that policies inspired by a holistic understanding of wellbeing yield pragmatic economic benefits. And that a future Labour government would be able to legislate to further such an agenda. Some of the policies developed by Labour in opposition would certainly help: progress towards a living wage; extension of vocational training opportunities; a job guarantee for the long-term unemployed; a measure of redistribution through restoration of the 50% top rate of income tax; reversal of, at least, the most regressive aspects of the Coalition's austerity programme.

But such gains could be promptly destroyed by a succeeding, less sympathetic government. The wellbeing agenda must be grounded in deeper soil than legislation. It needs to take possession of our collective political imagination, a realm dominated for so long by neoliberal philosophy, a realm where ideas that take hold can be dislodged only with great difficulty. We need to imagine, develop and embed a politics of wellbeing in which it seems as natural to calibrate policy according to measurements of equality, justice, security and sustainability as it does today to hold them accountable to notions of growth, efficiency, productivity and flexibility.

Planting the seeds

Nothing less than a paradigm shift in the terms of political debate is required, as took place during the 1940s when the foundations for the post-war social democratic settlement were laid, and again during the 1970s when faith in untrammelled markets replaced faith in state intervention.

At its deepest level this is a battle of ideas, a clash of visions. Proponents of a new politics of wellbeing must make unashamed appeal to the imagination, of our sense of possibilities. If the argument is fought exclusively on the utilitarian fields of economics any steps forward could be easily reversed. In the end, insubstantial as they seem, ideas are hard to uproot, if planted securely.