Opinion: The next big idea – humanity

The cacophony from Facebook, the blogosphere and all the rest of the Twitterati sometimes drives out what is most significant.  But every so often someone writes something that you know is important for the future.

Neal Lawson is an indefinable character.  His Compass campaign group is a fountain of new ideas designed to revitalise the Labour Party.  He is no friend of the Liberal Democrats, but neither is an enemy or party to the destructive game of name-calling and innuendo that characterises the Labour campaign in Oldham East and Saddleworth.

I also believe his article in the Guardian, with a slightly longer version on his Compass website, has sketched out a way forward – to coin a terrifying phrase – that really could result in a powerful realignment of the left.

He is absolutely right that the next direction for radicals is to use people’s humanity as a benchmark for what makes a society liveable.

So when he urges Ed Miliband to emphasise “what it means to be human and to lead a truly free life”, he is not just giving his leader excellent advice, he is – it seems to me – providing a new yardstick which could provide the basis for more than just a future coalition.

In fact, I am a Liberal for precisely that same reasons, though this is not articulated in the Lib Dem policy circles in quite those terms either.  I say that not as a piece of one-up-man-ship but to emphasise how it could provide the basis for co-operation – not just after the present coalition, but now.

I don’t agree with the whole of what Neal wrote.  I think he is unfair on the Big Society, which can be about very much more than individual volunteering – and will need to be if it is going to work.

I also believe the idea of a human yardstick applies much more widely than he suggested, as I’m sure he knows. Neal was referring to the way perverse kinds of market worship reduce human beings to an irrelevant bottom line.

He meant the way the financial system has cut itself loose from human utility and human control.  He was talking about the way of the consumer society has saddled us with lives of what he called “relentless slog”.

That is absolutely right.  But we also need to apply the same yardstick to our public services and our giant faceless institutions, whose sclerosis stems from the fact that they have been trying to minimise human care – and have dismissed human scale, human ingenuity and human relationships as somehow inefficient.

I hardly have it in my power to bind Lib Dem thinking along these lines, any more than Neal Lawson can bind Labour policy.  But there is room here for what I believe is the core idea for the next generation of policy-makers.

Just because I am trying to revive the battered idea of a realignment of the left does not mean that I am somehow criticising the current coalition.  Liberals exist to change society, and that change had become impossible under New Labour – and would have been impossible in alliance with them.

I am taking about the future, but also about the present.  Neal is absolutely right about his call for a ‘moral vision for a better world’ based on what it means to be human.  Some of his party will not follow him in this direction, nor will some of mine – that is what realignment is all about.

He will no doubt pursuing those ideas in the Labour party, and I will do the same in the Lib Dems – and to that extent in the current coalition.  The more we can make common cause with each other, it seems to me, the more we can lay the foundations of real transformation in the decades to come.

David Boyle is an elected member of the Lib Dem federal policy committee, a fellow of the New Economics Foundation and co-author of Eminent Corporations.

Paul Walter also responded to Neal Lawon’s piece over the weekend, as you can read here.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I agree with all Neal Lawson’s wishy-washy “wouldn’t it be lovely” type statements, although I deplore his rose-tinted view of Ed Miliband. Thankfully this was slapped down by the Guardian’s readers, 204 of whom recommended the perceptive comment saying; “Ed Miliband, He’s a nothing”. Neal Lawson is all very “visionary”, but the whole point is, how do you translate these ideas of greater humanity and a “nicer” world into the reality? That’s the problem. How do you actually do it?

    We Lib Dems, despite a pitiful 8% of MPs, are struggling to put this into practice through measures like greater democratic control of society despite tooth and claw opposition of entrenched special interest groups (e.g. bankers) and powerful individuals like Murdoch. Labour apparently thinks a better society can be created by denying there are any problems with the public finances and continuing to spray and pray government money without any responsibility.

    Labour took 13 years to fail miserably at the task of creating a better world. Why does Neal Lawson think that if they returned to power now, or in five years’ time, they would perform any better?

  • As a liberal party, we should be wary of defining what it ‘means’ to be human too far beyong Mill’s view of the liberty of the individual (educated, and supported, and enabled to be free) to define for themselves the purpose and meaning of their own life.

  • In that context the ‘relentless slog’ does offer an opportunity to work together on policy with Labour, but not on principle. Whilst from that perspective, it is about telling people that they cannot work for endless hours, from ours, it should be about supporting those who want to balance their work with other aspects of their lives. eg supporting part time students, part time workers (still discriminated against), flexible working etc… I don’t think this is about re-alignment though. It is about two different philosophical groups working together because on this issue, we have a shared end point, even if we have different reasons and difference philsophical drives.

  • paul barker 10th Jan '11 - 1:07pm

    Further to Henrys points, there is a long tradition of snobbish Anti-Materialism, often leading to Authoritarian attitudes. To take a Non-Political example, the influence of New-Age spirituality on the development of Modernist Architecture – ending in the conformity of “Shoe-Box” Tower blocks.

  • On the subject of humanity: what IS going on on employment law? Is there any truth at all about plans for the government to force workers to wait a two years before they have unfair dismissal protection? Or is this just a right wing Tory “spoiler”, like the “merger” stories?

  • Anyone expecting Ed Miliband to humanise anything will have a long wait!

  • @Robert C

    I too am waiting for the for any reply to this, no doubt the usual “this right wing policy is not right wing and it is fair and also, we didn’t win the election so we can’t do everything that we like and when it comes to employment this is much fairer than the older system etc. spin etc.”

  • Andrew Suffield 11th Jan '11 - 7:45pm

    Is there any truth at all about plans for the government to force workers to wait a two years before they have unfair dismissal protection?

    Not much.

    There is a rumour that Cameron (not the government) would like to increase the delay from one year to two, on those areas which are currently subject to a one year delay. That is the following list of things:

    * the business you work for having been taken over by a new owner
    * not declaring a spent conviction (where you have to declare it)
    * your employer says you are not capable of doing the job
    * your employer says you do not have the necessary qualifications to do the job
    * your employer says your conduct has been poor
    * your employer says you have done something illegal
    * your employer says you are redundant

    It also includes cases where the employer has not followed their written procedures for dismissal.

    There is no delay for unfair dismissal protection in other cases, such as discrimination, bullying, or safety, and no rumour of proposals to introduce one.

  • @ Henry

    “As a liberal party, we should be wary of defining what it ‘means’ to be human too far beyong Mill’s view of the liberty of the individual (educated, and supported, and enabled to be free) to define for themselves the purpose and meaning of their own life.”

    I believe it is unwise to rely on former Liberal giants, too much, without considering the circumstances of their time. Being greatly impressed by the work of CG Jung and his individuation process – which essentially likens us to acorns that can only be fulfilled by growing to be an oak [our true selves] – the lack of room to grow within the current global structures condemns the majority to unfulfilled lives. At the time of Mill, the global population was a fraction of what it is today and also in Britain. No doubt anyone would find an outlet for their talents, in that far simpler society.

    In truth, restrict the preachers [advertisers] of the Church of Consumerism and make products to last and few, certainly in Britain, would have to work more than four or five hours a day to provide for their needs – the remaining time could be used for creative activity and at the same time remove the immense pressures we are putting on the natural resources of the planet.

    This is not going to happen. However, by placing increasing power into the hands of global corporations whose greatly inflated role has been created by the belief in consumerism – things are going to get worse rather than better. Restricting their influence, which is in the power of government, is the way to start returning the possibility of being fully human to the people and their need to grow to their potential.

  • David Boyle 13th Jan '11 - 9:25pm

    I very much agree with John Roffey. Of course nobody wants the government – any government – to define what it means to be human. That’s true. But on the other hand, it is obvious without much analysis that many of the institutions that dominate our lives treat as as though we were not human – as if we were cogs in machines or bytes of data. They want to process us with as little relationship as possible, and – in fact – this dehumanising mistake lies behind the sheer intractability of so much government action. For me, it is increasingly the most important issue.

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