Opinion: Neal Lawson and the Good Society

On Comment is Free, Compass’ Chair Neal Lawson has outlined his ideas for the “good society” which he sees as a vision for the centre left. This follows on from an early December essay entitled “Welcome to New Socialism”  in the New Statesman penned with John Harris, which I reviewed previously on Lib Dem Voice.

In his CiF article, Neal Lawson fleshes out his philosophy for the “good society” mentioning Aristotle and the need for a more meaningful existence beyond what he succinctly sums up as our “learn-to-earn-to-spend culture”.

The philosophical bit is all very laudable and nothing with which most people would take issue. Indeed, Neal’s thoughts start moving beyond the grim world of politics to the sunlit uplands. It reminds me of those Communist posters of happy families bringing in the harvest in golden fields. It’s moving politics into the domain of philosophy and even, religion.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

But Neal Lawson’s piece presents one of those “motherhood and apple pie” ideals. Noone will disagree with it, but such a philosophy is relatively meaningless until it is under-pinned with specific practical steps. And when that happens, the wheels tend to fall off and we are back to reality.

In fairness, Neal mentions “the NHS in 1948” and “the minimum wage in 1998”. These are excellent specific examples of relatively undisputed leaps forward which have improved society to a vast extent, particularly in the case of the former. Neal’s “good society” philosophy really needs a specific practical initiative, like those two historic ones, to bring it into focus.

Where Neal actually mentions specifics he starts scaring me a bit.

For example take his suggestion of “a living wage for those at the bottom and income restrictions on those at the top”. That suggests a “maximum wage” of sorts, and smacks a little of a “command and control” society. OK, we need to crack down on tax avoidance and continue higher rate taxation. But there is a point where socialism and liberalism part company, and ‘restricting income’ is that point.

He also says, “the good society demands proper restrictions on the time we spend working so we can think, rest, play and have the space to be citizens”. This reminds me of once when I was at a LibDem conference and woke up to hear someone saying that the number of hours of citizens spend working, exercising and on leisure activities each day should be strictly dictated by government. I could see the Daily Mail headline being typed as the speech was made.

I’m sorry but we already have working time controls. Clamping down on that further flies in the face of a free economy and is, frankly, barking.

You can encourage people to balance their lives but if they want to work themselves silly and eat and drink unhealthily then, in a free society, that is their prerogative. Attempting to control lives is daft. It may be unfair, but there are undertones of over-control coming through Neal Lawson’s piece. I apologise if I have read too much into it.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • paul barker 8th Jan '11 - 8:01pm

    Theres a distinction between maximum wages & maximum incomes, the point is that people who want to become seriously rich should be taking some sort of risks with their time & money.
    For those who want the security of a Job a maximum wage set at, say ten times the minimum wage seems quite reasonable.

  • Neal Lawson is like an artist painting a vision of the future. I happen to agree with his vision on a superficial level, but I think such a vision needs builders and architects if it is ever going to be realised. Neal’s work tends to ignore the architecture of change, and focus too much on the outcomes.

    He has done some good work on electoral reform – certainly behind the scenes he spends a lot of time working in Labour circles to impress upon party activists the importance of voting reform to the “broad left”. Fairer voting systems = fairer democracies.

    But income (and wage) caps are pretty clumsy, and ignore the fact that there will always be people in any society who have a natural desire to earn enormous sums of money. The important thing is to make the lifestyle of the “good society” very much more accessible to those who don’t earn enormous sums of money.

    I think we should accept the existence of a wealthy elite, but limit their power in the following ways:

    * legislate to limit individual ownership of residential property
    * strengthen legislation surrounding party funding and donations
    * modernise Britain’s libel laws to something nearer the American model, so the rich aren’t protected from criticism by the courts
    * remove tax breaks from private schools

    I’m sure I could think of a few more, but these give you the general gist – simple measures which don’t really curtail people’s freedom, but still emphasise the importance of equal opportunities and a civilised society. We should accept the existence of an economic ladder, but we should promote measures that make that ladder easier to climb.

  • Simon McGrath 9th Jan '11 - 3:45pm

    @Sir Ivor
    *”legislate to limit individual ownership of residential property”
    how – once house per person – so a house in belgravia is the same as one in liverpool?
    or by price – a maximum figure, but to but a hosue in central london will cost enough to enavbke someone to but many houses in poor parts of the country
    how would you deal with a seperated couple?
    or one where one perosn lives in London during the week and somewhere else where their families live at wekends (like MPs)

    what an idiotic idea.

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