The last few years have seen an explosion of new ideas on how to run society. The guiding principles of old – greed is good, inequality is inevitable, markets can solve everything – have been shaken to their core, as the effects of austerity become more visible and the impact of structural problems (like climate change and discrimination) become harder to ignore.
But what should take the place of these principles? A number of organisations have come up with good alternatives. For example, this project by NEON, NEF, and others asks how we can shift to a new economic system, while this Compass report explores solutions to socioeconomic insecurity that are shared across the political divide. And these are just the tip of the iceberg – a quick google search will throw up many others.
But as illuminating as many of these contributions are, they tend to be top-down approaches drawing on the views of professional experts. They also tend to focus on progressive principles. We wanted to ask a slightly different question: given a blank sheet of paper, what would ordinary people say a good society looks like?
To answer this, we recently held six discussion groups in Birmingham, engaging 49 people overall. Participants were those whose voices are rarely heard, such as those on low incomes, BME people, and young people. Participants were asked to identify the things that make them (un)happy on a day-to-day basis. From this, participants then reflected on common concerns within the group and weighed the relative importance of different claims.
Unsurprisingly, a very wide range of issues were raised. However, both within and across the sessions, six clear themes emerged:
People’s chief concern was economic security. Having a well-paying job is seen as important, and not just because it’s a way of getting the basics in life. Participants were almost unanimous in saying they want money in return for work (rather than relying on benefits), because they value the sense of accomplishment and self-worth that comes from productive employment. But this ideal often comes up against the reality of people’s experience of the labour market. This includes racial discrimination and the fact that low-wage jobs aren’t enough to provide the basics. In this respect, many people argued for a higher (National) Living Wage.
Participants also valued being loved and having someone who cares about them. They were concerned about how expectations created by the media can damage interpersonal relationships. Some also said their choice of partner is constrained by cultural or parental expectations.
Sadly, a lot of people said they feel ‘invisible’, meaning they rarely, if ever, see people like themselves in public debates in the media or politics. They also talked about how public organisations make assumptions about their views and question whether institutions even want to hear and understand them.
Participants clearly value the opportunity to develop new skills and broaden their cultural and social horizons. They were concerned that opportunities to do both these things are increasingly limited. This is partly because funding for common spaces where people from different backgrounds can come together on the basis of shared interests (be it sports, arts, or skills training) has become limited. And partly because people increasingly seem unwilling to talk to people from different backgrounds, perhaps caused by a toxic political climate where ‘others’ (Muslims, migrants, refugees) are demonised.
People value free education and healthcare, and would like to see more done to help older people and the homeless.
Underpinning all these values is a firm belief in being respected, regardless of background, age, ethnicity, or gender. To this extent, ‘respect’ means being treated as an individual and having individual needs and wants taken seriously by society.
How does all this translate into a picture of a good society? Here are five principles that encapsulate what people talked about in the discussion groups:
1. We won’t judge you because of who you are
A good society will take active steps to ensure people aren’t discriminated against in key areas of public life (education, employment, health, criminal justice, and so on). Discrimination can take many forms and can be on many grounds (including class). Simply obeying equality law isn’t enough: we need to go further, to change the whole way society favours particular people.
2. Your problems are our problems
Life is hard for a lot of people. They’re not academic, didn’t get much out of school, and are now finding it difficult to get a job. Perhaps they’re stuck living at home. Perhaps they have health problems and have no one to talk to. A good society shows compassion. It can’t help everyone and it won’t solve people’s problems for them. But it will say, ‘you’re worth investing in’. Because it recognises that people aren’t stupid, or too lazy to get a job, or that they need to go out and make some friends. It recognises people are part of a system whose rules they didn’t create.
3. We’ll make work worthwhile
People value work. It provides independence and a sense of self-reliance. Productive work gives people a sense of accomplishment. As such, work should provide people with the resources to ensure they can afford the basics in life and take part in the opportunities a fair society offers.
4. We’ll help you find a place where you feel accepted
A good society will help to connect people up who have similar interests by providing places and spaces where they can come together. It also wedges the door open on a range of opportunities. It is encouraging, helping people to expand their horizons and cultural perspectives.
5. We’re happy if you fulfil your dreams – whatever they might be
The only measure of success is whether people reach the goals they set themselves. A good society will certainly stretch people if they don’t think they’re capable of achieving all they’re capable of. But it won’t push particular narratives or agendas. It won’t reward only monetary success. It won’t idolise only the wealthy. It won’t portray society as a competition.
A full write-up of this research is available in the September 2018 edition of Local Economy: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0269094218801572