John Healey and Ivan Lewis: Only a new social contract will get Labour back on track

We rejected the 'no such thing as society' ideology but failed to give an alternative

Thursday 26 March 2009 01:00 GMT

As world leaders come together to fix the global financial system, it is also time to fix the values which have been so dominant since the Thatcher-Reagan years. Markets without limits or ethics should have no future and it is now time to rethink the society we want for our children and grandchildren.

A values stimulus is urgently required alongside the fiscal stimulus if we are to emerge better and stronger from the credit crunch tsunami. The depth of the global economic crisis offers Gordon Brown's Labour a new opportunity to define itself beyond the "ghosts" of old Labour and imperatives which shaped New Labour. People are ready for a challenge to some of the values which have shaped our lives and our society for two generations.

New Labour's policy programme has been radical in the pursuit of a better society through record investment in schools and the NHS, the minimum wage and tax credits, Sure Start, our commitment to eradicating child poverty and our support for the poorest people in the world. We inherited a "broken society" and much has been done to repair the damage. We rejected the consequences of the "no such thing as society" ideology but have failed to articulate consistent alternative values to underpin a good society.

Remaining firmly on the side of ambition and aspiration, which must always be integral to Labour's mission, is not the same as colluding with the "me now" culture which permeates and corrodes too much of our society. Executives who seek ever increasing rewards irrespective of performance; politicians who fail the test of openness; adults who assert status through the size of their car; kids who measure their happiness through iPods and Xboxes; parents who are indifferent to their children's whereabouts after dark or who host parties for young teenagers where alcohol flows freely; top earners who brand fair taxation as an attack on wealth creation, and the benefit recipients in good health who have never worked and expect the state to support them and their family.

So what kind of society should Labour stand for? We should use this historic moment of economic shock to make the case for a society where quality of life replaces standard of living as the new gold standard for our political mission, where aspiration means the pursuit of the common good alongside material well-being and where fairness for all and the responsibility of all are inextricably linked. As Gordon Brown and Barack Obama have argued, we must seize this moment because progressive values will never have a better chance to win the battle for the future.

This is our opportunity to define Labour in the image of a leader who has spent his entire political life championing the "good society" and to use a battle of values to shatter the illusion of a changed Conservative Party. They were the arch advocates of unfettered markets and laissez-faire government. Their ideology still demands a small state doing less and less at a time when people need more help.

A good society means opportunities to succeed based on talent and merit free of a social class "straitjacket"; a healthy work/life balance, a clean, green environment; the best start for every child; a tax-funded NHS free at the point of use which keeps people healthy as well as saves lives; personal, not conveyor belt, public services; fairness and respect at work; compassion and service to others valued and celebrated, and dignity for senior citizens.

It means a new settlement between the state, citizens and institutions, binding the right to expect a good quality of life with the responsibility to make a positive contribution to your community and society. And with these expectations applied equally to everyone from the banker to benefit recipient.

A good society has a contract for all with their government. A contract which incorporates fair taxation, quality public services, more local decision making, a duty for public sector efficiency and ethical institutional standards. It means NHS managers, head teachers and business leaders are freed from unnecessary bureaucracy but not from accountability to patients, parents and consumers in their communities of which they are a part.

This is the contract against which a progressive Labour government should be held to account and which defines the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a fair Britain.

As we face up to the challenges of the future at home and abroad there has never been a more important time to match the fiscal stimulus with a values stimulus.

At this time when progressive values echo the aspirations of the mainstream majority, our challenge is to make the connection so the British people know what a Labour future will mean.

John Healey is a minister for Local Government. Ivan Lewis is an International Development minister

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