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What is the philosophy of Starmerism?

How can a new government make Britain better – and what does ‘better’ even mean nowadays?

Image: The New European/Getty

In a session of Prime Minister’s Questions in 2002, Labour MP Tony McWalter, formerly a university lecturer in philosophy, asked the prime minister, Tony Blair, to articulate his political philosophy. Normally such a fluent speaker, and said to have been influenced by the somewhat obscure religious philosopher John Macmurray, Blair had the chance to shine. But sadly, on this occasion, he was not at his most comfortable, stumbling out a few lines about the NHS.

Once upon a time, high-ranking politicians not only read books about political thought but also developed their own original ideas at book length. Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism (1956) is probably the leading example. Others who took academic political theory seriously included notoriously Margaret Thatcher, who was heavily influenced by the work of Friedrich von Hayek, and Keith Joseph, who distributed a reading list of 29 volumes – only eight of which he had written himself – to his staff. 

Keir Starmer is our new prime minister. Which weighty tomes of political philosophy should his aides sneak on to his nightstand?

Some will argue that they would do better just to pile up the novels of Labour supporter Ken Follett and keep grand theory away. Many in the Labour Party had felt hamstrung by the legacy of political theory, and in particular the Marxist theory behind the original Clause 4, drafted by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, which called for the common ownership of the means of production. 

Today’s Clause 4, reformed by Blair after a long and bitter struggle, is a type of “all things for all people” mix of community, liberalism, and responsibility, ruling nothing in and little out. The only objectionable thing about it is that there’s nothing objectionable about it.

In political opposition, and facing a hostile press, it is understandable that Labour needed to “keep the target as small as possible” by committing itself to little in advance of the election. Once in power though, one’s hand needs to be revealed, it seems. 

But does it? Currently there is a trend in political philosophy away from grand theory, encouraging us in the direction of what is commonly and unattractively called “non-ideal theory”. The thought is that, instead of laying out a theory for an ideal society, our task is to identify the most serious problems that confront people today and to take steps to solve or at least mitigate them. 

A key influence for this approach is the late American political philosopher Iris Marion Young, who in her inspirational book Justice and the Politics of Difference argued that we should confront what she called “the five faces of oppression”: exploitation, marginalisation, powerlessness, violence, and cultural imperialism. 

For Starmer right now the obvious particular targets include the crises in the benefits system, the care system and the NHS, as well as the housing shortage, and precarious work, though no doubt there are other issues of equal concern. But we don’t need to know what an ideally just system would be to know that we are not living in it right now. Taking the most serious problems one by one and making things better might be regarded as all the political philosophy we need.

And I have to admit that there are times when I have argued for exactly such an approach. But then I’m not the prime minister. 

And I don’t have to motivate people. And if I did, I don’t think the slogan “Making things a bit better, step by step” would get the juices flowing. 

More seriously, though, very often there’s more than one way of tackling a problem. Some would want to address unemployment by incentivising existing business to create more jobs, others by incentivising self-employment and small business generation, others still by cutting benefits. 

We need not only assess how effective each of these strategies are, but also to see how they would fit into a bigger, coherent pattern of change, and not produce a melange of policies that undermine each other. Even if now may not be the time to aim for utopia it would be rather nice to avoid dystopian chaos.

One obvious resource to turn to is the American philosopher John Rawls, who in 1971 published A Theory of Justice, which still dominates debates today. On publication, it was described by the British philosopher Stuart Hampshire as articulating the values of the Labour Party. This may be less surprising than it seems as Rawls had spent time in the UK and became influenced by thinkers such as the legal and political philosopher HLA Hart. 

Rawls put forward principles of justice that strongly defend liberty and opportunity, but, most distinctively, argued that in a just society, the worst-off group should be made as well off as possible. Though simple, this is a very radical principle, for while it permits inequalities in income and wealth it does so only if those inequalities are to the greatest advantage to the least advantaged. Here one’s thoughts naturally turn to highly progressive income tax and redistribution, but Rawls himself was more interested in the active development of all, and the creation of a vibrant economy full of opportunity, rather than focusing only on redistribution. 

In this context, Rawls expressed his sympathy for the capability view, as developed by Amartya Sen and further refined by Martha Nussbaum. Capability theorists argue that what matters is less what people have, or even how they feel, but what they are able to do and be, and hence is related to ideas of freedom and autonomy.

For example, on the capability view, a person with disabilities needs social and material change to society so that they live in an environment that allows them to flourish as others do, rather than simply being given cash (although cash to meet extra expenses is often needed too). The key, then, is to design social policies that give people the opportunity to develop themselves and take control of their own lives, rather than being passive recipients of goods and services.

The connection between Rawls and the ideas of the Labour Party is that the postwar party understood that a developing economy would be bound to develop inequalities, but argued that inequalities should only be regarded as acceptable if they were to the benefit of all. Economic growth, they thought, can and must be harnessed to mutual benefit. Rawls’s innovation was to crank up the dial a couple of notches. 

First, we need to concentrate in particular on the worst-off group. Second, we need to make members of that group as well off as possible. 

Although Rawls has come under fire from those, such as Young, Sen and Nussbaum mentioned above, who point out that he simply didn’t discuss vital questions such as race, gender, migration or even health and disability, it is hard to deny that a Rawlsian perspective, even if it isn’t everything, would make the world a better place. Even so, the pragmatics of politics might suggest that a retreat to the original Labour version would be a better choice.

Insisting that inequalities should be to the benefit of all would be a greater consensus point than the idea of making the worst off as well off as possible. That, at least, would avoid the dispiriting competition among groups for the prize of being (for now) the worst off.

I would urge Starmer to regularly recite the principle that economic growth needs to be to the benefit of all, where benefit is understood as addressing oppression and developing people’s capabilities. But even the simpler maxim that inequality must benefit all would problematise many of the practices of economic extraction and shameless profiteering that make up the unacceptable face of capitalism today.

To put a bit more flesh on the bones, I would also encourage Starmer to take a lesson from the development economist Arthur Lewis, who, alongside Derek Walcott, is one of two Nobel laureates from the Caribbean Island of St Lucia, and still the only Black man to have won a Nobel Prize in a category other than Peace or Literature. 

In his 1949 book The Principles of Economic Planning, Lewis set out what he regarded as the demands of the socialist movement:

“A society in which every child shall grow up in pleasant homes and attractive surroundings and with good educational opportunities; in which every adult shall be provided for in sickness and adversity; and in which the pensioner can take untroubled ease.”

As an aspiration for what society should aim for there is something hugely attractive about this idea. Lewis is not describing a life of luxury, and it doesn’t seem to be too much to ask. One strength of the picture is that it considers the entire life cycle: all children should be given a decent start; adults of working age should be given strong social protections; and pensioners “can take untroubled ease”.

The last is worth emphasising. In our world, inequalities of those beyond working age may be more significant than those of any other stage. People who have worked in low-paid, physically demanding jobs, having left school in their teenage years, and have never earned enough to buy a home, or to fund a pension plan, may find their retirement years a huge financial struggle, lived out in broken health. 

But we should also note the socialisation of risk in the picture, too. There is no suggestion that individuals should find their own unemployment or health insurance or private pension.

Yet looking at Lewis’s brief account, it is easy to see it’s rather incomplete; a sort of suburban idyll. There’s nothing about culture or even entertainment, or relations to nature. Even more striking, there’s nothing about relations with others, outside an (implied) family structure. Hence there’s reason to look for other sources.

It would be too presumptuous to suggest that Starmer browse through my own recent book, co-authored with philosopher Avner de Shalit, City of Equals (2024) where we explore what a secure sense of belonging means in the context of the city. Instead, I’d direct him to a book published as long ago as 1931: RH Tawney’s Equality

Tawney’s main concern is what he calls, after Matthew Arnold “the religion of inequality”, where social classes live such separate lives that the ruling class barely ever even mix with the people they rule over. Hence, Tawney takes pains to document how class privilege replicates itself over the generations. 

But in the sketch that he offers of a positive vision, he seems less concerned with ensuring material equality, but with developing the social relations of a society of equals. For Tawney, the arch enemies of equality are snobbery and servility. Obscurely, he urges us to consider the goods in life where “to divide is not to take away”. 

Here I understand him as opposing a type of crude economist’s view in which life consists of hard competition for scarce goods, and if I possess something you are excluded from it. Rather he wants us to understand that there are goods of mutual benefit we can create through our attitudes to each other: for instance friendliness, respect, solidarity, and community. 

Of course, without material goods we cannot survive, but if we have adequate material goods but no or poor social relations we will survive badly: in loneliness and anxiety. So I would add Tawney to the rich stew of progressive political philosophy I’ve been cooking here.

Where does this leave us? We have, in fact, come fairly close to Blair’s instinctive reaching for the NHS. It protects people through the life course, does not intrinsically make class distinctions, and socialises risk. There’s much more to add of course, but at bottom, we’ve also been on quite a journey to press home a simple and rather banal thought: the next government should, as a priority, use society’s resources to make people’s lives better. 

But “better” comes in many dimensions: material, developmental, social and psychological among them. It’s complicated, and it can be difficult to set priorities.

But wouldn’t it be wonderful if at the centre of political reflection and debate over the next few years was the question “what does it mean to improve lives, and how can we do it?”, rather than “what more can we squeeze out of public services to fund tax cuts for those already doing rather well?”

Jonathan Wolff is professor of Values and Public Policy at Wolfson College, Oxford

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