The more observant amongst you will recall a very similar headline to the one above, under which was an excellent article by Johnny LeVan Gilroy discussing Nick Clegg’s appeal to ‘Alarm Clock Britain.’
Although I found Johnny’s post really interesting, I must admit to feeling a twinge of disappointment – not at the vital discussion of the party’s positioning, but that the word ‘capabilities’ in Johnny’s title referred to those of our party, and not to those of the residents (constituents? stakeholders? members?) of Nick’s new target demographic.
My lament isn’t meant as a criticism of Johnny’s article, nor am I having a go at what I think may be a pretty smart move on Nick’s behalf – it’s just that if the Lib Dems are to focus on Alarm Clock Britain, I feel that it’s the capabilities of whoever this term refers to that we should be lifting, not just those of our party to win elections.
To elaborate: by ‘Alarm Clock Britain’ it’s understood that Nick means those who earn either side of the median salary and have to live by the alarm clock (i.e. work long hours) to achieve that modest standard of living; and by capabilities I mean the capacity and freedom to live the lives that we have reason to value, to use Amartya Sen’s framing.
Securing the role of a localised, democratically accountable State in lifting the capabilities of the most vulnerable in society isn’t just a side-issue for me – indeed, (to use an oft-repeated cliché), it’s why I became a Liberal Democrat. Nick is right to focus on those who have to run the treadmill of low- to middle-paying jobs – often two or three in parallel – just to keep up with the ever-increasing cost of living. Right not only from an electoral perspective as Johnny points out, but right too from a philosophical standpoint and as regards policy – and it’s the challenges posed by the latter I want to address here.
Most reasonable people, no matter their political persuasion, would agree that the capacity to determine one’s own outcomes is a valuable substantive freedom; where those on the left and right (as far as those distinctions are valid) tend to differ is on the extent to which markets and the State should be relied upon to enhance that capacity for the less fortunate members of society.
To my mind a capabilities approach to public policy is more philosophically rounded than that found under the old right-left dichotomy. Whereas the right tends to believe – if I may generalise somewhat – that markets left to their own devices are best at enhancing capability, and the left seeks to invoke a centralised State to make choices and take action on behalf of the less well-off, viewing government’s role as that of ‘capabilities guardian’ means neither of these viewpoints suffice; the right places too much emphasis on the freedom of market institutions and not on that enjoyed by individual citizens, the left too much on outcomes and not enough on process. Seeing people’s substantive capabilities, and not just aggregate economic growth or greater theoretical choice, as the index through which we measure social progress, shifts our goals and releases us from the drearily binary ‘Public = Bad vs Private = Good’ debate.
And so we come to how best to raise ‘Alarm Clock Britain’s’ capabilities, to the policies we should implement to ensure that low- and middle-earners see their freedom to live the lives they value enhanced and are not left behind as the economy recovers. Lifting income tax thresholds; working towards a Universal Credit and Universal Pension; the Pupil Premium; these Lib Dem contributions to the Coalition government can all legitimately be seen as policies aimed at raising the capabilities of the vulnerable. And yet they don’t go nearly far enough.
Hard though it is to argue the case in times of fiscal austerity, the State needs to provide world-class transport networks, universal high-speed communications infrastructure and high-quality and affordable childcare – to name but a few of the essentials – in order to raise people’s capabilities. Classically, liberals have seen the provision of these goods – tools without which one’s capacity and freedom to pursue one’s goals is greatly diminished – as a private-sector remit regulated by government oversight. Perhaps because of this laissez-faire attitude we now face either an aggregate shortfall, or massive inequalities of access, in many of the tools people need to raise their capabilities, and I would argue – as would a great many social liberals – that greater public investment and involvement in such areas should be our immediate priority once government finances are back under control.
For too long now liberalism has been seen exclusively as a ‘freedom-from’ movement – freedom from State surveillance, from over-regulation of business, from dependency on handouts and from bureaucracy. For too long we’ve wished only that the government would get out of the way to allow us to live our own lives without acknowledging the positive role government can play in helping us do just that. Enough with the negative framing – time to use Nick’s alarm clock as a wake-up call, to re-frame the liberal State as a champion of freedom-to – to live a healthy life, to work in a fulfilling job, to raise our children in a safe and prosperous nation. In short, freedom to live the lives we have reason to value.