Democracy, Participation and the Common Good
I’m Labour by inheritance and the Labour tradition is an important part of my identity. I think it was a modern miracle that in the face of their dispossession from the common land by the enclosures and exploitation by the factory system in the industrial revolution, the people of our country combined together in a democratic way to campaign for their rights.
They wanted a seat at the common table and to play a part in the governing of their country. They insisted that the voice of labour should be heard and that those who work were part of a society which should no longer be dominated by the already rich and powerful. The Labour approach has always been both democratic and focused on the lives and rights of working people.
A concern for the preservation of social relationships when everything, including human beings and their natural environment, is available at a price is an inspiring ideal. It was a principle which was put into practice by the early labour movement as workers came together to create burial societies, building societies and trade unions. Labour principles grew out of this culture of collective self help and the value of reciprocity. In a world dominated by the great power of vested interests, they found strength and dignity in each other. I still find that amazing.
Work and its value are important concepts in themselves. Liberal economists and reformers attach little real value to labour or the labourer. We have got to the point where everything other than work generates value: capital, technology, risk taking, innovation, anything other than accomplished work and skilful co-operation. The preservation of the dignity and social value of work is one of Labour’s great achievements in the British polity.
Then there is democracy. Labour campaigned hard for the vote for workers - both men and women - and for the idea that politics matter and that there is a common good that can be secured through participation and negotiation between competing interests.
There is tradition too. British Conservatives since Burke have had a tin ear for the disruptive power of markets and their tendency to destroy as well as create. To view individuals simply as economic units has degraded not just their earnings but also their sense of belonging and their cultural inheritance. So Labour has also been a force for retrieving lost status and with it pride and dignity. That is important too.
So my vision is of a democratic nation in which people participate in their governance and turn their individual fate into a shared destiny. A key feature of that vision is the sense of a common good which includes rich and poor, religious and atheist, immigrants and locals, workers and bosses.
These ideas of relationships, democracy and devolving and sharing power have permeated the Labour Party’s policy review which has been built around three themes; family, work and place. These are what matter to people but they are threatened when the market, and particularly financial markets, become too powerful.
These themes will be part of the mix going into May’s election along with a recognition that in the past Labour has had too much of a love affair with the state which at times could undermine democracy, relationships and labour value every bit as much as the market.
It is the historic understanding of the enclosures and the poor laws that underpins the difference between the Conservatives and Labour. The working poor have had to confront debt and exploitation by payday lenders as well as increased demands on their time both at work and at home.
Labour is trying to find a way to address problems which affect the daily lives of millions and which I don’t think the Conservative Party – which has lost its one nation roots in tradition and community - really understands.