Good politics v ideological politics

12:01 pm - April 15th 2008

by Mike Ion    

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According to the Democrat sponsored strategy think tank, Common Good Strategies much of what passes for debate and argument in today’s world revolves around the politics of division and personal destruction.

The American columnist, E.J. Dionne in his book ‘Why Americans Hate Politics‘ argues that one of the main reasons for people being turned off politics is because it (political debate) seems irrelevant to them, they feel that they are being manipulated because they are always being asked to make false choices: you’re either staunchly religious or vehemently secular, pro-business or pro-unions, pro-growth or pro-environment, for civil liberties or against them, a progressive or a dinosaur.

The truth is, of course, that most people don’t think like this, most people don’t live their lives in this way, and most people long for a politics where we have genuine arguments, vigorous disagreements, where we don’t claim to have a monopoly on what is right or wrong, where we don’t demonise our political opponents. Most people want their politicians to engage in what Barack Obama has called a “fair-minded” approach to politics; politics that understands that truth and certainty are not the same thing.

Being “fair-minded” is, it could be argued, a philosophical approach to politics. It is a philosophical approach that ultimately has as its goal the pursuit of the common good. Common good politics is the politics of empowerment; it is the politics that espouses cooperation not competition, the hand up and not just the hand out. The uncomfortable truth is however, that rather than some broad common good philosophy it has been what might be called an “uncommon-good”, a rigid ideological approach to politics that has dominated the political landscape in the US and Europe over the past fifty years.

Ideologues like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher believed that nations were best served by ensuring that the maximum concentration of wealth and power was in the hands of the right people. Whilst those that argued for the common good promoted the need for mutual responsibility, they were opposed by those that believed that in large measure people made their own luck, that there was no such thing as society. The belief that collective endeavour is both a strength and a virtue, that a problem shared is a problem partly solved was countered by often unilateral and isolationist policies – particularly in terms of trade and immigration.

Those who adopt the “fair-minded” and common good approach to politics tend to believe that debate should be dominated by evidence and argument; that it is political philosophers that we need to embrace and political ideologues that we need to be wary of. Having a political philosophy generally pushes you in a certain direction or another and encourages you to engage in discussion and argument, you might even end up making a principled agreement with someone with a different philosophical approach.

However, if you have adapted an ideological approach to politics then you already have your mind made up. You know all the answers, and that makes evidence irrelevant and argument a waste of time, so you tend to resort to vague assertions and personal attacks on your opponents.

Common good politics is at odds with the conservative ideological view that sees society as merely the aggregation of individuals pursuing their own individual needs. In contrast common good politics adopts an approach that recognises that government is an essential tool for helping people to pursue their dreams whilst at the same time providing a solid safety net for those left behind.

The creation of the NHS and of the modern welfare state are classic examples of the triumph of progressive, common good politics.

What is more, the advent of globalisation will virtually demand that future governments pursue policies that both benefit and require sacrifices from all. Perhaps though what we really need are more philosopher politicians who will devise policies that promote equal opportunity, shared responsibility, and inclusive communities. Is it not obvious that in increasingly multi-cultural, multi-faith societies we need an approach to politics that celebrates partisan differences but is humble enough to recognise that adherence to a particular ideology can be both debilitating and divisive?

The idea of the common good offers a clear, optimistic and above all progressive vision for the future. Progressive politics and the pursuit of the common good are not mutually exclusive – if anything, one demands the other.

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About the author
This is a guest post. Mike Ion was Labour PPC for Shrewsbury in 2005. He blogs at and for Comment is free.
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Reader comments

This article simply presents another ideology, and one that entrenches the typical left-right partisan divide rather than trying to surpass it.

I fully acknowledge that both the left and right have ideologies that hide from them inconvenient fact. If we take one of Marx’s descriptions of ideology, it is a camera obscura which makes small things appear large and, in some cases, makes some important things disappear altogether and non-existent things to appear real.

An example of this camera obscura operating in this article is your simple praise of the NHS as a common good. To the left, the NHS must be good because its means are those preferred by the left (single payer tax, free at the point of use, centrally controlled by a large bureaucracy). The facts on the grounds are that the NHS allows more people to die than need die proportionate to the resources it uses, that it isn’t even especially egalitarian in health outcomes compared to other systems.

The ideology of the left tells them to look to America for a comparison, and to obscurie other comparisons in Europe (where equality is still the mission but the means are slightly different. The most obscured fact is that health care systems have to be designed on the basis that health care is a scarce and expensive resource and that the common good cannot be served simply by aggregating it all into a welfare system, there needs to be a procedure in place to expand and improve it. There are certainly leftish ways of looking at that problem (the new Dutch system would be a good template for the left) but the way the ideology is setup in the UK, that would not be possible. The result result is more poor people to die for the sake of proving a leftish ideology.

Missing a bracket or two in there, sorry!

3. GeordieTory

When you are hand-wringers on the left going to get worked up about the depressing situation caused by that evil Marxist Dictator, Mugabe?

Surely this is an issue that can unite both the true humanitarians (those of us on the right / centre-right) and even the faux carers on the Left? No?

Answers on a Digital Postcard please to:

“My Fellow Socialist Traveller,
Comrade Broon
No. 10 Downing Street”

4. Margin4 Error

Wasn’t this the whole point of Tony Blair’s third way?

“The creation of the NHS and of the modern welfare state are classic examples of the triumph of progressive, common good politics.”

So the common good is not ideology free; it is in fact equivalent to your own “progressive” ideology.

Ah, the NHS, so triumphant that no other country dares attempt to imitate it.
I wonder why not?

Hmm. What to do, though, when we disagree on the content of the “common good”?

> Being “fair-minded” is, it could be argued, a philosophical approach to politics.

Fair enough. But…

> the conservative ideological view that sees society as merely the aggregation of individuals pursuing their own individual needs.

If we’re going to caricature our opponents, then I suggest it’s “fair-minded” to at least do it accurately. What you’ve drawn there is a rough caricature of a liberal, not a conservative.

It is a rather unfortunate caricature too. The advantage individuals have given more liberty is that they are free to pursue the “uncommon” good rather than the just the common one established by a committee of suitably progressive experts. Liberals and libertarians don’t claim that we shouldn’t have duties towards others, only that those duties should be freely chosen.

Common does not necessarily equate with good.

After eighteen years of Conservative goverment you would think that Labour would have got their act together, but no not only have they failed, if anything it’s got worse.
Thatcherisim is alive and well and living within the Labour party.

Whats needed in this country is a goverment that is’nt a lap dog for the American’s.
That has got to say “enough is enough” and starts to look after its own no matter what colour or greed, but making sure never to bring religious faith of any sort into politics.

If you’re wondering why I mentioned religion then just take a look at how the evangelical right have taken over the Whitehouse.

Funny really, the Americans were looking for weapon’s of mass destruction and they invented their own…Neocons…and Britain… well like I said Thatcherisim.

10. Margin4 Error


Do you remember what they 80s and 90s were like?

Now I’m hardly going to say Labour have been great, or that they have achieved the things I’d desperately wish to see for this country. And at times they have done some pretty appalling things.

But we now live in a country where politicians consider poverty reduction (which has happened, all be it slowly) a policy aim, and where unemployment, (down dramatically on every count) a social ill rather than an inevitability and a “price worth paying”.

Being annoyed at the Iraq war is fair enough, likewise ludicrous anti-terror legislation and the pious attitude to teenagers drinking.

But don’t ever downplay how bad the 80s and 90s were in the UK by pretending things have got worse. The fixation of those years on ideas instead of people has changed. Not just because Labour came to power, but because the public have now pressed the tories to change its position too.

Margin4 Error

Yes I do remember the 80s and 90s, the thing is our politicians never learn from history. Thatcher went to war in 1982, did they learn from that? no. poverty is still rife in the 21st century as it was in the 19th century and i’m talking this country.

Ok, you may use the word reduction on how many people live in poverty today compared to years ago but, come on, in 21st century to still have people living below the bread line is a joke.

The leaders of the top countries, USA, UK, most european states etc are now looking into bio fuels to run the cars we use, in doing this the countries that rely on wheat and rice are going to suffer.
Brazil grow sugar kane to make fuel, do you know how big their fields are where they grow this stuff?… about the size of Europe. Ask people who live in India how much they pay for rice, or, why there have been riots on the streets in Egypt becuase people cant get enough wheat to make bread.

Progress, dont make me laugh.

The counts may be down, but the statistics are less reliable.

Numeracy and literacy are not what they were.

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