Michael Sandel and the politics of the common good

Natan Doron

There has been a bit of excitement recently about the role that Michael Sandel will play at Labour party conference. It has even been suggested that Sandel is a new ‘guru’ for the leader of the party.

Sandel’s influence is, however, nothing new. Neither is Ed Miliband’s engagement with him. Miliband would have been well aware of Sandel during his time at Harvard where Sandel teaches the justice course, one of the most oversubscribed courses in the university’s history. You can also hear Ed commenting on Sandel’s 2009 Reith lectures whilst he was still secretary of state for energy and climate change. But what is Sandel’s contribution to the debate on the future of the Labour party?

Sandel’s insight is that, to its detriment, progressive politics has for too long ceded the space for moral reasoning to those on the right of the political spectrum. This will sound familiar to readers of George Lakoff (Don’t Think Of An Elephant) or Drew Westen (The Political Brain). Sandel’s approach however is couched in moral philosophy and he argues that in order to cultivate a new sense of citizenship, progressive politicians must be willing to reason about the good life and to make moral distinctions about the kind of economy we wish to have as well as the kind of society we wish to live in.

But this assumes that cultivating a new sense of citizenship is desirable in the first place. When it comes to Ed Miliband’s agenda though, this is a route that has already been committed to. For the kind of moral and responsible capitalism that Miliband has talked about to be forged, it has to be preceded by a public discussion about what kind of morals we want that capitalism to embrace. This is why the Bob Diamond case was such an important space for Ed to further the public debate on this. For such a discussion to develop, it asks for a more demanding idea of citizenship and public engagement in political debates. It is no surprise then that much of current Labour party economic messaging is about the kind of society we wish to live in.

Take for example the idea of predistribution: this is essentially about asking if we want to live in a society where people can’t afford energy, can’t get on the housing ladder etc. The ability to talk about the kind of society we wish to live in is also crucial to the issue of Labour’s ‘brand’. As the forthcoming conference edition of the Fabian Review rightfully points out, politicians have become divorced from voters partly through a language and a culture that do not resonate with ordinary people’s lives. Sandel’s politics of the common good provides a compelling framework through which Labour can talk about both why and how it wants to govern.

The fundamental point is that if the Labour party is to re-engage with the public it needs to offer a compelling vision of where it wants to take society. There is a sense on the left that this vision must extend beyond increasing the growth of GDP and instead looking at who benefits from our economy, what kind of lives our economy allows us to live and what we want the purpose of our national project to be. The work of Michael Sandel provides great inspiration for thinking through some of these questions. His presence at conference should help members of parliament and conference delegates to do just that.

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