Moral reform: what it should mean for Labour

by Jonathan Todd

The moral reform that I see as vital to Labour would not abandon the traditions of mechanical reform that politicians like Roy Hattersley upheld. It would, however, recognise and adapt to the limitations of this mechanical approach. Matthew Taylor’s concept of pro-social behaviour and Marc Stears’ of active equality could be crucial to this adaptation.

But what is not needed is preachy piety. Moral reform might conjure notions of Labour politicians reaching for self-appointed hallows and demanding that others do as they say. There may be latter day Beatrice and Sidney Webbs who think they know best what people really want. This isn’t how I see Labour’s future. Nor I do hanker for my political leadership to come from the “moral arbiter of the nation”.

I do, though, think it matters that parents support their children in doing their homework and take seriously their other family responsibilities; that we take sufficient exercise and eat well enough to be physically well; that we take the actions needed to be mentally well; that we take up employment when we are physically and mentally able to do so; that instead of littering we reuse and recycle where possible; and that we avoid anti-social behaviour and destructive drink and drug taking.

It matters, in sum, that we adopt pro-social behaviour, which might be thought of as behaviour that minimises or eliminates where possible the social costs of our behaviour (“the negative externalities”) and maximises the social benefits (“the positive externalities”). The blunt truth is that we will not have the thriving schools or safer neighbourhoods or any of the things that voters say they want until more of these voters or citizens themselves behave pro-socially and become the change that they profess to want.

To recognise the responsibilities that we all have to build change is not to extricate the state of its responsibilities. Roy Hattersley noted Douglas Alexander’s praise for the minimum wage when reviewing The Purple Book, while claiming that the minimum wage is “a product of the ‘heavy-handed centralist approach’ that many other contributors to The Purple Book excoriate”. But would any of these contributors favour the abandonment of the minimum wage?

No. They would, though, recognise it is an example of what Marc Stears has called passive equality: “secured for citizens through the wisdom of the state. It is an equality associated with the direct provision of services or the regulation and standardisation of broader sets of experience and opportunity”. Stears, like contributors to The Purple Book, does not deny the necessity of some modicum of this mechanical form of reform.

This reform in isolation, however, is inadequate, as it requires nothing from citizens: not pro-social behaviour; not engaged citizenship; only passive receipt. Some degree of active equality, which is a much more moral form of reform, is also needed.

Active equality is, according to Stears, “more comfortable with decentralisation and democratisation, even contingency and chance”. He is right to argue that Labour must “say to all British citizens, including the most vulnerable, ‘we need you to be active partners in the creation of a more equal society’, even if that means having to be willing to take the chance that the response that comes back will be a less than fully satisfactory one or that the eventual outcomes will leave certain kinds of inequality untouched”.

If this is not said – and, clearly, it is not an easy message – then there are limits to the change that Labour can deliver. Nonetheless, there are a myriad of ways in which this can be communicated. Some of which would be counterproductive. We must not expect or implore that our bread will come from the benevolence of the baker – which, as well as a tone that grates with many, is what we risk when we seem to preach.

While openly acknowledging the centrality of pro-social behaviour to securing Labour’s ends, we should not expect appeals to the greater good alone to deliver such behaviour. As much as we should want citizens to be more aware of and keen to fulfil their social responsibilities, we should also think harder about how we can make it in their interests for them to do so.

This brings us to the interface between mechanical and moral reform. The policy levers available to Labour politicians of the future should be much less used to mechanically bequeath passive equality than was the case for such politicians of the past. They should be much more used to encourage, incentivise and require pro-social behaviour from citizens and unleash a new era of active equality.

What should be encouraged? What should be incentivised? What should be required? And how? These are the questions to which I turn to next.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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