How does Labour build social solidarity?

by Jonathan Todd

“High-quality government institutions will increase the level of social trust, which will make reciprocity translate into solidarity, which in turn will increase the possibilities for establishing policy for increased equality.”

This is an important conclusion from the political scientist Bo Rothstein. His research suggests that a society that strives for active equality and cultivates pro-social behaviour begins with such institutions. The creation of these institutions is an act of mechanical reform. But their purpose is to catalyse moral reform.

Unlike William Guest, the main character in William Morris’ News from Nowhere (1890), we cannot hope, sadly, to fall asleep and find such mechanical reform complete. Labour must seek to deliver this reform in the somewhere that we find ourselves: Britain in the here and now.

This is a place of brittle social trust, as support for tough welfare and immigration policies attests. The wide popularity of Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony spoke of a country increasingly at ease with its past and eager to imbibe occasions of shared meaning. Yet we can be quick to assume that our fellow citizens are free riding on our hard work.

To some extent these sentiments can be assuaged by applying conditionality to welfare and immigration. We need to feel confident that those who can work are doing so or taking steps to do so and those who come to the UK are contributing to our economic and social wellbeing. But the anxieties around welfare and immigration perhaps speak to a wider sense of malaise and mistrust than that which can be wholly explained exclusively in terms of these issues themselves.

It might reward a society so lacking in confidence that its members will contribute fairly to ask: What are the duties that should be required of all?

We all have a duty to obey the law and pay our taxes. Trust has been corroded by senses that a privileged few don’t play by the same rules or tax codes as the rest of us. These senses urgently need to be tackled and are one reason in favour of simpler, more transparent taxes: the less opaque the system the less scope for evasion or avoidance. But obeying the law and paying tax seem a relatively undemanding set of common duties.

Recovering a stronger sense of shared citizenship might also require compulsory voting and some form of mandatory national service. Spoiling the ballot paper should be legitimate, as we cannot demand that anyone necessarily support the options put before them, but we cannot hope to be any more than a society of them-and-us if politics, the method for addressing issues of mutual concern, is only ever for them.

Mandatory national service has recently been advocated in the US in the following terms:

“A program of national service would instill the American ethic of service to country as a ritual of attaining adulthood … From the sons and daughters of truck drivers and tycoons, all would serve. We would all benefit both personally and as a country.”

While these sons and daughters are likely to enjoy more trust than their mothers and fathers, and this argument applies as much to the UK as the US, not all of the new institutions and trust that we seek in the UK should be built upon compulsion. Some should be built on incentives.

Policy could be used much more imaginatively and widely to reward pro-social behaviour. For example, carbon taxation would tax the environmentally responsible less than others; water meters would discourage wasteful water use; and fatty foods could be taxed more heavily than healthy foods.

Such incentives would not be the stuff of passive equality. Citizens would need to respond to these incentives for their social benefit to be generated. But these responses would, of course, be conditioned by the social benefit sought by the policy. More purely active equality is more spontaneous and open-ended than this.

Active equality does not, though, play out in a vacuum. It must be encouraged by the right institutional settings. Where the present government engaged in Maoist desecration and hoped the Big Society would somehow emerge, the next Labour government should carefully design and build institutional contexts that will allow active equality to flower.

These institutions won’t fall from the sky. Building them will be the stuff of rebuilding Britain. But only certain flora and fauna can possibly take root in this climate: well summarised by David Miliband as being characterised by an over powerful central state and underpowered communities. While active equality would be supported by much greater devolution of power, the devolutions sought should reflect the traditions and instincts of people and localities to which we seek to devolve power.

The nature of this devolution is the question to which I turn next.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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8 Responses to “How does Labour build social solidarity?”

  1. Amber Star says:

    Policy could be used much more imaginatively and widely to reward pro-social behaviour. For example, carbon taxation would tax the environmentally responsible less than others; water meters would discourage wasteful water use; and fatty foods could be taxed more heavily than healthy foods.
    You think this is imaginative! Let’s tax bad behaviour so that only rich people can afford to behave badly. Let’s turn fatty foods & electricity & water (!!!!) into luxury commodities of which the wealthy can enjoy as much of as they like but which are rationed via (regressive) taxes for the less well off.

    Jonathan, Are you actually a member of the Labour Party? Is the paragraph which I quoted a ‘troll’ to wind us up?

  2. Nick says:

    This is a place of brittle social trust, as support for tough welfare and immigration policies attests

    This is just the symptom of elected dictatorships. You imposed lax welfare (172,000 a year for some claimants), and never asked the electorate of immigration. Even on immigration, you allowed in huge numbers of low skilled poor migrants who’ve ended up on welfare in different forms from subsidised housing to outright payments (eg 172K a year to live in Knightsbridge)

    We all have a duty to obey the law and pay our taxes.

    Look at Greece. The flip side of paying taxes is receiving services. No services, no tax.

    Similarly with fraud. There is a major fraud in government. Ask the treasury why the state pension isn’t a debt and they say we can change the law not to pay it, so its not a debt. Unfortunately, if you have to change the law to default, it means as it stands it is a debt. It’t not on the books. That’s fraud under current law.

    So with no intentions of paying out in full you are demanding full payment. That’s fraud. Why should people pay taxes when the intention is to defraud them?

    What duty is there to carry on paying someone who is defrauding you?

  3. Nick says:

    The nature of this devolution is the question to which I turn next.


    Lets see. It’s devolve to little fiefdoms, and no power goes to the voters to decide on issues.

  4. Robin Thorpe says:

    Jonathan – I’ve been very interested to read your opinions over the last few days; in general I agree with your point of view and it is good to see a few suggestions about practical application rather than mere ideology. Increased participation in society is at the root of many of these issues surrounding solidarity or the paucity of it. I would agree that the detachment people feel as a result of excessive centralisation (propagated, let us not forget, by a Conservative government in the 1980’s) of services and power is a significant factor in the divisions in society, which is exacerbated by the flouting of regulations and tax rules by the wealthiest 5%.
    I agree that it is not in the interests of any government to piously insist on people taking a more active role in society but should instead create an environment in which people feel more able to do so. One bad example of this is the legal situation pertaining to governors of Academy schools. Governors of community schools are jointly liable as a governing body; that is to say no invidual can be found personally liable (providing they are acting in good faith). Governors of Academy schools are Directors and therefore have to comply with the provisions of the Companies Act (2006) and the Charities Act (2006). This means they can be individually liable and without adequate insurance could be personally liable for financial costs. This sort of arrangement is not going to encourage active participation. Note: Approx 1% of the population are school governors and as such make up the largest body of volunteers.

  5. Robin Thorpe says:

    @Amber Star; I’m afraid I don’t agree with you on this. Excessive consumption of fatty foods cause health problems – fact. Repricing these foods so that an additional levy directs funds towards towards health care and health education services is not regressive. Whether you are rich or poor fatty foods are a choice not a necessity.
    Water is underpriced and as such is undervalued; increasing charges on water will encourage all people to be more careful with water. Potable water is a precious resource and should therefore be metered; people should pay for how much they use. Some people may need help to meet these costs but that does not mean that a majority should get cheap water. To suggest that people are going to be in water poverty by introducing metering is frankly abusrd. In the UK we directly use 150litres of water a day (but embodied water use per person is closer to 5000litres/day). To drink, cook and maintain personal hygiene you really only need 50litres/day. To suggest that Labour must support cheap water is to ignore the wasteful attitude that Britons generally have towards water. If you were to suggest that the Labour Party should be supporting community ownership of water and sewerage supply then I wouuld agree with you. Jonathan doesn’t really mention this as he is perhaps keeping it concise but it would be irresponsible to allow private companies to take greater profits from increased water charges when they have failed to invest in the infrastructure. My opinion is that only community ownership can both decrease waste and ensure continuous supply of water to disadvantaged homes. The current privatised monopoly is regressive.
    Carbon taxation is perhaps mroe political then the other two, as people in general do need transport to find work. I would suggest that money should be directed from existing and proposed carbon taxation to increasing access to public transport. I would also state that the current privatised public transport system is maintained by vast public subsidy and in my view is not sustainable.

  6. paul barker says:

    Bring back national service ! And ID cards, Ration cards & detention without trial.
    T.H. White came up with the perfect slogan for labour -“Everything that is not forbidden is compulsory.”

  7. themadmullahofbricklane says:

    The title of this article should have included a lot of other Labour policy wonk think tank phrases such as inclusive, caring, cutting edge, edgy, multicultural, diverse and ” incorporated all other relevant and ongoing situational situations”. I think you get my drift.

    Once upon a time Labour MPs and councillors came from the shop floor and the building sites. Now it’s the think tanks. Like the author of this piece most have never had a proper job and wouldn’t know work if it punched them in the face and until the party changes things will remain the same, unelectable.

  8. wg says:

    Wow, are you people for real – there I was generally agreeing with the comments and I come across Robin Thorpe.

    The first thing to say is that Jonathan Todd, one of our political bubble class, can venture down from his ivory tower to lecture we plebs on the subject of how many times we bathe and eat cream doughnuts.

    The second thing to say is that I don’t want to be a “citizen” in his Utopian collective – I’m me, an individual, and I’m happy being so. If I don’t want to visit a polling station to vote for that appalling class of people known as politicians – then I bloody well won’t.

    But tell me, seeing as you are lecturing me on the cost of my obesity to the public purse, how much do consultants to socialist think tanks cost these days – do I pay towards one, do I need one, wouldn’t I and the British tax payer be better off without such a creature.

    In short, which one is Jonathan Todd, the “our” of “our fellow citizens” or the “our” of “our hard work” – because from where I’m standing Jonathan Todd seems to be typical of that section of “our fellow citizens” who are indeed “feeding off our hard work”.

    I’m old enough to have seen socialism of both hues – and Jonathan Todd exhibits the characteristics of both.

    @Robin Thorpe

    Tell me, are you going to ban football or people climbing mountains – both are costly to our health system when accidents occur because of such activities.

    As for your water and CO2 hysteria – there is plenty of water in Britain, this is more of the brain-washed, hair-shirt redistributionist crap that believes that people in Britain should suffer because unfortunates in other countries suffer.

    As for CO2, CO2 is a life giving plant food, there is no definite proof that CO2 is driving global warming, there is no conclusive proof that warming hasn’t been influenced cyclically by the Sun – but why deny those thousands of privileged individuals their flights to exotic locations in order that they can save the world from carbon poisoning; “The Process”, as I believe the Labour MP, Barry Gardiner, referred to it.

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