Let's Talk About Values

This article was orginally published by LabourList on 8th October 2012.

A Murdoch may not be the first person Labour people might turn to in seeking guidance to help revive and rebuild the party, but Rupert’s independent-minded daughter Elizabeth had a few things to say recently that bear thinking about.

Reflecting on the travails of News Corp in her MacTaggart Lecture to the Edinburgh Festival in June this year, Elizabeth Murdoch said one the biggest lessons of a tumultuous year was “the need for any organisation to discuss, affirm and institutionalise a rigorous set of values based on an explicit statement of purpose”.

A rigorous set of values based on an explicit statement of purpose, for any organisation.

Turn that statement towards the main political parties and you are greeted with something of a void. What are Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems actually for?

During Conference week, we always hear a lot of airy waffle about Labour values, without much if any clarification of what these values are.

This sort of talk normally refers to our desire to help the poor and vulnerable, which is fine as a policy position but is not a value (because it would be redundant if attempts to eliminate poverty were successful, so you would need to create some poor and vulnerable to maintain it). An alternative is a value of favouritism whereby you assign moral value to certain external characteristics. However, this is incompatible with the surely fundamental value of equality and also relegates the importance of ethical behaviour.

So, what are values, and what might a rigorous Labour statement of values (unlike this one) look like?

The source of values

Values come from the basic fact that we care: about different things at different times and in different ways, but we all fundamentally care about what happens.

Caring of course takes many other guises than setting out statements of values. Wishing, willing, greed and compassion are just a few. But if we did not care, there would be no need for values.

What values do is apply an account of ‘the good life’ to that caring, based on our understanding of what is good and bad. We could in fact call our values a version of “fairness” or “justice”, because they imply a set of at least implicit rules about what is fair and unfair, just and unjust. What is fair to one person is unfair to another because of different values – just think of attitudes to welfare benefits.

Values are also about who we are, but not in terms of our external characteristics like gender, skin colour, age, or whatever ‘identity’ we adopt for ourselves. They are about who we are in terms of how we behave, what is meaningful to us and what we believe is right – above and beyond the daily reality of our lives. If we are in a position of power, they inform us in making decisions there, but they are as relevant to one person as any other.

A draft for Labour

So if Labour was to put together a statement of values as Elizabeth Murdoch thinks all institutions should, what might it look like? Here is a version I prepared earlier:

  • Equality – every person is of equal importance and of equal fundamental value; if we ever judge people, it is not on the basis of external factors like race, gender and background but what they do.
  • Democracy – we believe in giving people in our country equal power to elect those who will represent them in positions of power.
  • Freedom – people should be free to do what they want as long as they do not harm others.
  • Honesty and Integrity in the way we conduct our affairs.
  • Openness/Transparency – we are open and transparent about the core decisions we make and are able to justify them.
  • Accountability – we will be held accountable for the decisions we make by others, in the form of democratic voting and in public opinion.
  • Respect for Life – we believe all life is due our respect and our protection where possible.

None of these statements is beyond ambiguity and criticism. But they do set out a basic political position that would help tell the outside world, and not least ourselves, what we are here for – a potential palliative for those of us who go through the occasional existential crisis in our politics.
Without values to bear in mind, refer back to and gather around, our senses of justice and purpose can easily get lost in emotion, mood, self-interest and the comfort of conformity.

None of us are immune from these other factors in the Labour Party as elsewhere in life; bad practices and bad behaviour can result from them (like fixing elections, as Mark Ferguson has dealt with here on several occasions, and as I did here). Asking our people to commit to a set of values would be a powerful reminder about what standards we expect of ourselves, while sending out a message to the wider world that we are principled and ethical in what we do.

Once, on a visit to the school of which I am a governor, I was struck by seeing a whole class’s handprints in paint up on the wall, pledging each of them to good behaviour in school. It was a powerful statement visible to all the children at all times while they were in the classroom. It also made me think Labour could do with something similar, a public showing of commitment to a core set of values and a promise to abide by them when representing the party.

So, how about it – the collected handprints of a CLP’s Executive Committee up on the wall of a Constituency office, and those of party staff and the Shadow Cabinet behind reception at HQ?

Why ever not?


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