I’ve had the great honour in my life to be part of two institutions whose role in this country I hugely respect. The first is the British army, which I joined in 1996. The second is the Labour Party, which was the reason I left fifteen years later – when I became MP for Barnsley Central.
They are, of course, two very different bodies – though I’m sure Labour whips have at times longed for military discipline on the back benches. But they have one great thing in common. Both, at heart, are based on the idea of service.
When I joined the army the experience of service and of conflict taught me about the value of the team, and what could be achieved through collective effort even under extreme pressure.
When I took my first steps in politics it seemed natural that I should seek to serve the Labour Party, because I knew this idea of service was also at the heart of our party.We were founded on the idea that government should be the servant of the common good, that power and opportunity should not be restricted to the few, that democracy meant something more than the dominance of a small elite.
Labour is changing
In the past we concentrated on using the state, both to deliver services and to manage the economy. It was a powerful and in many ways effective tool, but it was also a blunt one. It helped people, but too often it also treated them like the subjects – it was something that did things to and for people, but not with them. And it focused very strongly on the material conditions of life.
Of course these ‘economistic’ concerns still matter, especially as living standards are being squeezed as never before. But as Ed Miliband said in his first speech as Labour leader, there is more to life than the bottom line. We need to develop a richer, more nuanced vision of the world we are working towards, one that better encompasses – for example – relationships, community and autonomy, and our own individual definition of our needs and aspirations.
Economists sometimes talk about ‘economic man’ – a homogenous, ‘rational’ clone, interested in nothing but maximising his own selfish interests, defined in economic terms – a mythical figure that is rarely seen in real life. I sometimes think Labour thinking has owed too much to this particular individual. One Nation Labour provides the opportunity to lay him to rest.
In practical terms that means a transition in our thinking about the state and its relationship with citizens and communities, finding ways in which it can more closely reflect what people want and need. This would involve the development of services in collaboration with the people who use them becoming the norm rather than a think-tank talking point. Steve Reed a fellow contributor to the One Nation book sets out this approach in more detail.
It means a greater concern for some of the more intangible sinews of community – including preserving and improving our public spaces – parks, leisure centres and libraries. It means, in short, working with a richer, more nuanced, vision of progress, built on a more human scale.
The politics of the common good
Community innovation and engagement – a politics of the common good in which everyone takes part – is at the heart of One Nation Labour policy-making, and central to the way we will seek to govern.
Our politics is one of democratic practice, where there is a negotiation between different interests looking for common ground. Our form of service is more responsive, because it is based on giving people the power to shape their lives.
One Nation Labour is moving on from the straitjacket of seeing the market as the only innovative alternative to the state. While the market can be a powerful tool, it remains a tool, not a panacea.
We will not abandon the market, but we will leave the starry devotion to the Tories, because the test for One Nation Labour is the public interest. We will try to make state services more responsive to communities, more innovative and more efficient, by involving users – looking for inspiration and alternatives to civil society and the cooperative movement.
We should delight in the opportunities this offers us. With our roots in cooperatives, in trade unions, in the movement for worker dignity, this agenda belongs at the core of Labour’s identity. An unresponsive, leviathan state was never part of our founding vision. And embracing this new spirit is revitalising us as a party and as a movement. It is helping to bring us closer to the people and countering the growing disillusionment with politics and government. And it is giving us a measured response to the needs of the many, underpinned by our core values, not a project dreamed up by the few.
Dan Jarvis is Labour MP for Barnsley Central. This article is an edited version taken from One Nation power hope community which can be downloaded here.