As economics ceases to dominate political debate, other things pop up to take its place. The security and identity themes have begun to lay claim to more space. Less noisily, but perhaps more benignly, the idea that public policy should seek to maximise happiness rather than income is also back in play.
Richard Layard’s full-throated endorsement of Benthamite utilitarianism will alarm some readers, with its apparent disregard for the sometimes conflicting claims of freedom, and its difficulty distinguishing between short and long-term happiness. A more subtle critique is that Layard is not a utilitarian at all, and instead elides two conflicting conceptions of the good life: one hedonistic, based on maximising pleasure; the other Aristotelian, based on the idea of a flourishing life in which meaning, purpose and aspiration—and so the possibility of failure—matter as much as pleasure.
The drift of his policy ideas heads elsewhere, in the direction of Michael Young’s attack on meritocracy. New Labour has been wary of embracing such views in the past, because it wanted to avoid association with old Labour’s perceived hostility to self-improvement. But now that no one believes the party is “anti-success,” it can afford to worry more about the effects of the rat race on the self-esteem of those below average ability. Indeed, the language of happiness and wellbeing, for all its woolliness, could provide a new idiom for the centre left. Writing in Prospect five years ago, Matthew Taylor wrote: “New Labour needs a humanistic agenda which refers to the quality of people’s lives… which helps us to balance work with the rest of our lives, where employment is not the only measure of worth.” Taylor is writing Labour’s election manifesto, so such views presumably now count.
His appeal for a less stressed life on behalf of busy professional couples sits awkwardly with Labour’s continuing concern to raise the aspiration—and thus potentially the stress—levels of many low-income families. But for all its tensions, a new kind of post-materialist politics is stirring. The New Economics Foundation has worked this seam for years, with its alternative GDP indicators, wellbeing manifestos and so on. Now it is being heard.