There’s hope in our pragmatism

“The missing ingredient is hope,” commented The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley recently while discussing Labour’s “recipe for power”. He may have a point. At least, there is a perception that hope is not front and centre in our recipe. Why is this and what do we do about it?

No more dreamtime

To find out, we have to go back to basics. The founder of social democracy was Eduard Bernstein (died 1932). He was mates with Karl Marx. Karl said: “Revolution now, reform later”. And Ed said: “Reform now, revolution later.”

In this way, new-born social democrats back then had a hopeful vision – the hope of some future revolution. Over the decades, they downplayed that revolution and now they reject it because they realise that you cannot strengthen democracy by overthrowing it. Revolution was a dream – a bad dream. But social democratic parties have not yet offered electorates a new hopeful vision that fully breaks with the past. “New Labour, New Britain” was a good try but did not quite cut the mustard.

As reformers, we propose and implement (when in power) pragmatic policies to solve pressing problems. The trouble is that pragmatism is quite technical or managerial and most voters also want some vision.

Why we need the Health Society

Our party has a vision of course: we refer to it as “Labour values”. That is why Labour pragmatism differs from Tory pragmatism (albeit Tories today have abandoned pragmatism in favour of dogma). Yet our stated values – honesty, justice, equality, hard work, community, family, security – are too abstract to constitute a vision that voters can recognise.

However, there is, in fact, a vision hidden within our values and our pragmatism. What our values boil down to is the belief that every one of us should live under conditions that satisfy the needs that we have as human beings.

Those needs break down into vital, social and agency needs. Vital needs include nutrition; shelter; clothing; rest; exercise and social entertainment. Social needs include things like public transport. Agency needs refer to having control over our own lives, to being respected by others, to having outlets for active and creative expression. 

These needs change over time and place. Yet if there is one thing that all people want, it is the satisfaction of their needs. People may see each need in isolation from others but science – for example epidemiology – observes that optimal satisfaction of these needs contributes to lengthening our healthy lives, to preventing disease and disability. In other words, health is the satisfaction of needs and health is what we need. For a more complete discussion of this, see our book on the “Health Society”.

Here then is Labour’s: the vision of building the Health Society, of meeting human needs. It is a vision of hope.

“Yes, but,” some will say, “a LibDem or a sensible Tory – anyone – could have the same vision”. Indeed they could, and that is exactly the point: this vision is for everyone. The Health Society does not end politics, it transcends today’s politics.

A better politics, a better society

The vision of “needs-as-health” can change the terms of political debate. Out go the tired old disputes on, say, privatisation versus nationalisation. In come debates on prioritising needs, on how to satisfy them, on identifying new ones, on ensuring no one is side lined. Politics moves away from dogma toward pragmatism rooted in observing and reasoning about our actual needs. Politics becomes a debate over achieving sustainable, healthy and fulfilling lives.

Society then starts to structure itself explicitly to build and maintain the Health Society. This is not a matter for healthcare policy as such. It is a matter for the whole of public policy. To give a specific example, our vital need for shelter means not only ending homelessness and the squalour and disease that come with bad housing. The idea of “shelter” also includes the idea of security for residents, for communities and for our country. A sense of security helps prevent mental ill health. In other words, the need for shelter requires coordinated action on social, planning, transport, environmental, community and defence policy as well as housing policy.

Labour needs this vision of hope now. Not simply because there is an election looming but because our main opponents –the Tories – already have their own vision. It may be backward and borderline xenophobic with its national exceptionalism and disrespect for human rights. But it worked in 2019.

A realistic forward-looking vision can best challenge this Tory vision. That is what the vision of the Health Society is – pragmatism rooted in the observation of our needs and our desire to satisfy those needs.


To read more from Martin on the “Health Society” see Beyond the Welfare State: Building the Health Society.