Clowns to the Left of me, jokers to the Right

Craig Berry

Image © The Prime Minister's Office

In 2010 David Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to measuring levels of happiness. There’s more to life than money, he argued. Accordingly, the Office for National Statistics included four questions on ‘subjective well-being’ in the Annual Population survey for the first time in April 2011.

This is the sound of the Conservative Party moving away, albeit very tentatively, from neoliberalism. The economic downturn has not altered but reinforced Cameron’s point of view on this. His support for measuring happiness, alongside GDP, derives instead from his profound commitment to conservative ideology.

As New Labour’s ‘accommodation’ to neoliberalism and the Thatcher legacy became stronger rather than weaker – contrary to early promises – Cameron carved a space for himself in promoting traditional English values in contrast to Labour’s fanatical modernisation.

It would be easy, and not unjustifiable, for the left to be cynical about what the government is doing. But the left’s bêtes noires of recent decades, the neoliberals, are also cynical, and in some cases incensed – see for example Helen Johns and Paul Ormerod’s research for the free market think-tank Institute of Economic Affairs. And take another look at the speech on happiness Cameron gave in November 2010. He contrasts the pursuit of happiness in public policy with three shining examples of a neoliberal agenda in action: immigration, cheap booze, and consumerism.

This does not mean there is not a major flaw in the government’s thinking. In terms of measuring social progress, the effectiveness of happiness measures are undermined by the fact that, as Johns and Ormerod point out, people always say seven. The ONS asked people ‘how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?’, ‘to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?’, and ‘how happy did you feel yesterday?’; across all three questions, three-quarters of people said seven out of ten. (When the question was posed in more negative terms, that is ‘how anxious did you feel yesterday?’, the vast majority said three out of ten.)

In this context, seven (or three) becomes a mediocre and almost meaningless result. People in a wide range of circumstances say seven because what they expect from life has been shaped by their experiences up to that point. Most people cope, adapt, and look on the bright side of things. Some people don’t. Conservative ideologues like Cameron are perfectly content with this. Society can eternally muddle through, seven-tenths happy, with progressive ideals and large-scale public policy interventions rendered futile.

An alternative approach to measuring happiness has been developed through the New Economic Foundation’s national accounts of well-being. This is based not simply on self-reported levels of happiness and anxiety; instead, the components of a happy, secure and worthwhile life are split up and assessed independently, with both subjective and objective measures. There is no single key to happiness but rather a jigsaw to be pieced together carefully. If happiness became the central goal of public policy, under the approach advocated by NEF, it would offer the state a licence to intervene in our daily lives on a massive scale. Is this any longer an appropriate political space for progressives?

Labour doesn’t really know how to respond. Andy Burnham recently criticised the measurement of happiness by government, arguing instead that the government should be targeting ‘resilience’. But as psychologist David Harper shows, resilience is already part of Cameron’s thinking on this issue (if not the ONS analysis). More importantly, Harper argues that ‘plans aimed at increasing individual resilience may have the unintended side-effects of increasing the self-blame of those who struggle in adversity, and supporting social policies experienced by some poor people as victim blaming’. (See this video for a highly insightful exploration of the various issues around the promotion of happiness, resilience and growth by Luke Gittos of WorldBytes.)

For progressives, it is surely right to conclude that policy-makers should not be pursuing happiness unless levels of happiness become a demonstrable measure of social progress, which is unlikely. But nor can governments continue to pursue growth for its own sake. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Cameron has played a blinder on this one. In the short-term, economic woes mean it would be implausible for the government to claim policy success based on increases in happiness levels alone (should such increases occur) – and if happiness goes down their performance on the economy – the very thing Cameron wants us to stop obsessing over – will get the blame. But in making a decisive move into a post-neoliberal ideological territory, the Conservatives may be winning a ‘long game’ that Labour has yet to even join in meaningful sense.

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