Opinion: the capabilities of ‘Alarm Clock Britain’

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.

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  • You are absolutely right, but Nick & co are IMHO still focusing too much on Lib Dem “dogwhistle” policies whilst giving free reign to some of the battier Tory policies (NHS changes, elected police commissioners, EMA, tuition fees etc)

    Being in the coalition was a pragmatic decision and we need to be equally pragmatic in the policies we are most closely aligned to; if you haven’t got a job, or a low paid job on zero hours contract, changes to maternity/paternity leave are at best a frippery and at worse an irrelevance.

    We keep hearing what is being abolished, why do we not hear about the replacement schemes at the same time (BSF EMA)

  • Reading Nick Clegg’s article in the Sun, it’s clear that Alarm Clock Britain doesn’t actually mean anything at all.

    “People, like Sun readers, who have to get up every morning and work hard to get on in life. People who want their kids to get ahead. People who don’t want to rely on state handouts. People who don’t need politicians to tell them what to think or how to live their lives. People who are not poor but struggle to stay out of the red.”

    Completely vapid. If the LD’s want to be taken seriously I suggest no one ever use this phrase in a sentence ever.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Jan '11 - 1:33pm

    The phrase “alarm clock Britain” has been thoroughly, and rightly, mocked in the press. The mockery has been by people doing it for comedic effect, but underneath their comedy has revealed what is so devastatingly wrong about this phrase and about those who coined it.

    It gives the impression that Liberal Democrats are some species of alien who look upon earth from a remote distance and at all these funny little creatures who have to go to work at a particular time and so need these “alarm clocks”.

    Hasn’t our leadership already done enough with the poor way it has handled the coalition to advertise the Liberal Democrats as fitting all the negative images ordinary people have of politicians? First of all it managed to portray our involvement in the coalition as demonstrating just what it is people most hate about politicians: “They say what they think will get them elected, but all they want is power, so once they’ve got it, they’ll ignore what they said in order to get it”. Now they actually want to advertise us as “people so out of touch with the way most people lead their lives, that they have to invent special labels for them”.

    If our party was led, not just by the person who was its leader but also by those he chooses to take advice from, by people whose social and cultural background was more like the norm for Britain, and by people who have a long background of practical local campaigning for our party, basic mistakes in presentation like this would not keep being made.

    We need to present ourselves as what we ought to be, a network of ORDINARY PEOPLE who by getting together can ensure government really does represent the needs and feelings of ordinary people. That is, not because we have done some research on what ordinary people think and do but because those who we present for government posts have come from a background where they instinctively know this already. That is what democracy essentially is, that is what mass membership political parties of which we are, or ought to be, one, ought to be about. Is this really such a difficult concept that these ad-men and PR-people who advise us just can’t get it?

    We managed to do this with our Focus-style campaigning, perhaps because that style originated with the ideas of ordinary activists and not with top-down ad-men and PR-people. Even when this style lost the grand ideas that were behind it (in some ways “big society”, but done in the days when commercialisation had not so taken hold that this was still workable, and done by people who could be trusted not to be doing it just so as to bring big business into running everything that used to be run democratically) it worked because it so broke the poor stereotypes people have of politicians, and so attracted to us people who had been put off from political involvement. We cam across as something different, not just another bunch of politicians on the make.

    It seems to me that politics has been so wrecked in our country by ad-men and PR-people at the top that many cannot even think of it as working in any other way. Is what I am saying, which used to be at the heart of what we were about, now so alien even to those who regularly read these columns that they think “Huh? what on earth is he on about?” and turn away? Because that’s the impression I get when I keep banging along with these sort of lines and see no-one else expressing any sort of interest in making politics work in this way rather than in the way of the ad-man and the PR-person.

  • “People who don’t want to rely on state handouts. People who don’t need politicians to tell them what to think or how to live their lives.”
    Err, isn’t that just about everyone as David Mitchell points out it in his elegant demolition of this latest slice of right wing demagogy – Alarm clock Britain, Mr Clegg? It’s about time you woke up to reality.

  • Alex is correct, the article is so vague that any politician could sign into it. A good test of whether an article (or a speech) means something is to turn it on its head. Has any politician ever said: “I believe in sticking up for lazy people who can’t get out of bed, want to live on state handouts and just do whatever the state tells me”?

    Meanwhile, the coalition is eroding or abolishing the institutions (childcare, libraries, the NHS, Educational Maintenance Allowance, access to higher education) which help people (and their children) get ahead and make something of their lives.

  • Ed Maxfield 18th Jan '11 - 3:24pm


    Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, you state that:

    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

    But isnt that just a list of things that are required to maintain the way the metropolitan middle classes live their lives rather than a set of enduring, universal essentials for public policy?

    For instance, the state subsidising public transport influences behaviour by cushioning the cost of suburban (or rural) living and commuting for the salaried middle class. Removing that subsidy would arguably not diminish people’s capability to determine the shape of their own lives. Rather, would it not just force a change in the nature of work and living patterns (moving work out of London for example, promoting home working, obliging people to live closer to where they work)?

    I’m not advocating that as a policy. Just suggesting we have to be careful not to confuse universal values with policies design to ‘keep things as they are’. Especially when it comes to deeply embedded and well hidden transfer payments to the middle class.

  • Black Triangle 18th Jan '11 - 5:11pm

    We disabled people (you know, those vulnerable types you guys used to but no longer care about) were particularly amused how Clegg used his “Alarm Clock Britain” article to have yet another go at those of us who are on benefits due to illness or disability. Basically saying that people who don’t want to live on “handouts” are better than people like me. As if I *want* to be disabled and live on benefits (which I contributed National Insurance towards when I was well). So while I need my O2 tank and my morphine just to be able to sit here and type, I can take comfort in knowing the most senior LD doesn’t care about me or people like me at all. We’re just to be used to make cheap political points.

    You guys do remember the sick and disabled, right? You used to be on our side before you had power. Nowadays you do nothing but keep silent while the press and Cameron and Osborne (and sometimes Clegg) vilify us. Your own LD minister at the DWP, Steven Webb, now parrots the party line that disabled people have to shoulder the burden from “Labour’s mistakes”. We disabled people are having our only lifelines (DLA and mobility) taken away from us because we are cheap and easy targets. People like me will be stuck in their homes and thrown onto JSA when these changes come in. Most of us cannot fight back. So I bet you all feel really good about making the disabled pay while bankers still get their bonuses and billions are wasted on killing people (wars and aircraft carriers). I bet you even tell yourselves it’s progressive as well.

    By the time this government is over, LD MPs will have nice corporate consulting jobs which pay nicely (or safe Tory seats). They won’t worry about the NHS being torn apart because they’ll have private insuance. They won’t worry about what happens if they become disabled, as they’ll have good salaries and backup plans. We’re all in this together, eh?!

  • What I object to most strongly is not the ill-judged, patronising phrase “alarm clock britain” but the description of benefits as “handouts”. The vast majority of people who receive some form of benefits have either paid into the system or have been unable to do so through no fault of their own. It’s nasty, divisive and dehumanising rhetoric like this that cast the Tory party into the political wilderness for the last decade.

  • Surely Nick Clegg didn’t pen that article in The Sun, who on earth authorised that claptrap?

  • Matthew – yes, I agree with the broad thrust of what you say here, as I usually do with your ideas. I haven’t read The Sun article yet, but the idea that “alarm clock Britain” could mean any particular group of people seems pretty stupid. Most people use alarm clocks some time or another! But I suppose it is no more stupid than Mondeo Man, Worcester Woman etc etc.

    BTW, anyone any information on James Doyle’s resignation in Worthing?

  • I see no Iceberg 19th Jan '11 - 8:38am

    The astonishing thing isn’t that some eccentric policy nerd came up with such a ludicrous and roundly mocked phrase. The astonishing thing is that Nick Clegg is now so embattled and out of touch that he is completely surrounded with yes men who did not once tell him silly this phrase was. People can hang whatever right wing anti welfare state idealogy they wish onto it, but it won’t make it any less vapid and amusing a phrase.
    Nick’s communication team must be as suicidal and tone deaf as he is these days if they are still pushing this white elephant of a phrase. This is the kind of nonsense we would hear from an idiot minister and his special advisors in the satirical comedy the thick of it.

  • “Alarm clock Britain” is clearly a divisive phrase. It is designed to encourage people to put themselves into two classes: those who work and should consider Clegg as their man, versus those who don’t and who should go off and find some other political party to champion their cause.

    Whatever happened to the idea that the Lib Dems were the party who hated class divisiveness, who belive in equal treatment for all?

    It is just the same as Osborne’s “lifestyle choices” phrase. It is designed to provide a pretentiously elegant way of saying that the undeserving poor are all a bunch of scrounging low-lifes and we can happily let them go to the wall.

  • Has anybody got a link for this article, please? I know it’s got to be pretty nerdish of me wanting to read it, but there…

  • kanttouchthis 20th Jan '11 - 6:15am

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