Jo Swinson MP writes: Quality of Life – A New Purpose for Politics

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Decade on decade, the UK has been getting richer. For the most part, people today are materially considerably better off than they were back in the 1970s; however, statistics stretching back all those years show that our satisfaction with our lives has barely improved. We have more money and we’re pumping out more carbon emissions – but we don’t appear to be getting much pay-off for our own wellbeing.
 
Fortunately, the Liberal Democrats have recognised this problem.
 
For over two years, a working group has been studying the evidence to see whether Government can actually do anything to set us on a more definite upwards trend. It turns out that it can – and hence, at our autumn conference, delegates will be presented with a motion “A New Purpose for Politics: Quality of Life”. The paper draws on psychology, economics and political science to present a series of practical steps that can be taken to boost wellbeing – and applies the findings in a distinctly liberal way.
 
The heartening thing about much of the research is that it affirms long-held liberal principles. On an individual level, people tend to be happier when they have a greater sense of control over their own lives. On an international level, there is evidence that countries tend to be happier if they are freer, more democratic, do more to financially assist their most vulnerable members and have more progressive taxation systems.
 
However the paper goes further, and makes an important liberal point. Although there are well established trends in the research as to what makes people happy, and sometimes these trends are very strong – everyone remains an individual. There is evidence, for example, that gardening makes people happy – however, this won’t be true for everyone. Therefore, the paper prefers to empower people, and provide the context where individuals can flourish – not to mandate that they spend a fixed portion of their free time tending flowerbeds.
 
The paper is not, however, simply liberal self-congratulation and philosophy. It contains specifics.
Take commuting. We know that people who have moderately long commutes tend to be less happy than those who can commute quickly. This is especially true for those with childcare responsibilities. The paper proposes changing zoning policy to create mixes of business and residential land use could help cut commuting times for many people.

There is also the role of education and information. The research shows that people tend to be bad predictors of what will boost or diminish our wellbeing. Providing people with the evidence on what works should help to correct this, at least to an extent. For example, above a certain level, we quickly adapt to increases in our income; however, for most people working longer hours can have a lasting negative impact on people’s mental health. Simply having this information may allow people to make better choices about their work-life balance.

Another role of information is in the provision of parenting classes, which provide simple, practical and proven advice – which can sometimes be as simple as advising parents to spend time reading with their children each day. Certain parenting classes have not only been shown to significantly boost the measured wellbeing of the parent and the child, but also have a large positive impact on the child’s subsequent behaviour – something we should take heed of in the light of the recent riots.
 
The paper also looks at the structure of Government as a whole. Policies that affect wellbeing often cut across departments and budgetary silos. An intervention in schools to reduce depression in young people (for example, the UK Resilience Programme) may not lead to huge savings in the education budget – but could have significant impacts on the health budget. Although on a national level the policy makes sense, it may not be appealing for the Department of Education to make the investment. That’s why the paper suggests the creation of a Cabinet Champion for Wellbeing, supported by a small unit within the Cabinet Office (or equivalent) to knock heads together across departments.
 
I hope that Conference representatives will support the motion. Doing so may put more of a smile on their face than they think.

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5 Comments

  • iris walker 19th Sep '11 - 9:59pm

    Jo’s spot on and this ties in very well with yesterdays Q+A session about social mobility. The conservatives’ idea of social mobility is climbing the housing ladder and acquiring possessions and status; liberals should be proud to push for quality of life, not quantity.

  • I applaud the challenge to the Thatcherite idea of Happiness, and genuinely hope that something is achieved.

    I’m old enough to agree that we are all materially better off than we were in the 70s. Alas, this public sector worker, despite the myths peddled by the right wing toady press, is also considerably worse off than 5 years ago. 3 years of a pay freeze, spiralling household bills – oh, you all know the story, after all we’re all (more or less) in it together…. I think what I’m trying to say is that talking up happiness at a time of pinch may look, maybe, just a teeny bit cynical?

  • When the effects of the Welfare Reform Bill kick in, there will be many in misery. Not Mp’s though.

  • I posted a message supporting you on this, @Jo Swinson, which was not rude and did not break any rules. Yet the moderators saw fit to deny my the chance to interact with you here.

    The gist of it was that, as a disabled person who uses the NHS very frequently, things that matter to me are not accumulating possessions or getting rich. What matters to me is keeping my DLA so I can continue working, keeping the NHS so I can continue to receive care, being able to heat my home in winter (which I won’t be able to do as well this year since winter fuel help is gone). What matters to me is being able to help fellow disabled people access legal aid to appeal their rejections, yet this is being removed as well. What matters to me is not the latest gadgets or flash telly. Having loving friends and family and a good support network matters more to me than ever being rich. So many healthy people never understand this: that when your health is bad or you are sick/disabled, the little things mean so much more than the superficial. Which is why the benefit reforms, the cuts and the top-down reorganisation of the NHS (which we were promised wasn’t on the cards) mean so much to me. I’m facing an assault from several sides, as most disabled people are.

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