One of the more entertaining episodes of the last Lib Dem conference was the debate on the party’s new Quality of Life policy paper. This paper had wended a long but largely uncontroversial path through the policy formation process, including extensive consultation, before reaching the conference – and I was a member of the working group – interest declared. And generally policy that has followed this path gets more or less nodded through. Not this time. The motion and paper got the backs up of many representatives, and there were a number of well-delivered and entertaining speeches against. For a flavour of this ire see Alex Wilcock’s blog – scroll down past the Dr Who stuff to 20 September. If you click through to the comments page, you will find Alex describing yours truly as “not so much a thinking liberal as a sneering one”! The paper was passed, but the margin was quite narrow by the usual standards of these things.
And that’s a bit of a problem. This is policy that stands behind other policy – important not so much for its direct recommendations as its influence on subsequent policy. I hesitate to call it philosophical – since it does not attempt to develop the core values of the party, but rather to apply them in a new way. But if it is considered contentious, it may get ignored. And for all that it is official policy, this would be quite easy.
What’s the fuss about? The starting point of the paper is that public policy is too dependent on “hard” economic statistics, such as income and economic growth, to measure success. But these are only intermediate measures – in other words we like them because they lead to good things, rather than being good of themselves. That is because of the difficulty of measuring success in itself – the hitherto rather woolly concepts of wellbeing and quality of life. But social science has been advancing rapidly and it is now possible to measure wellbeing in a rigorous way – mainly through asking people to make subjective judgements on their state of mind.
What the paper recommends is to make wellbeing an explicit policy goal, alongside the traditional economic measures. To ensure this is done rigorously, it recommended that a National Institute of Wellbeing is established to promote standards. Various other devices (a cabinet champion, for example) were recommended to get it embedded into the business of government.
So far, so good, perhaps – but for liberals some loud alarm bells should be ringing by now. This could be a charter for highly paternalistic government. And especially when you come up against the evidence that many people seem to have a poor understanding of what is good for their wellbeing. So the beating heart of this policy paper is the insight that individual autonomy (“agency” in wonks’ jargon) is central to wellbeing. The idea is to help people help themselves, and not bullying and cajoling them into making better choices.
Education is central. And, to make a small digression, this takes you in a very interesting direction. A lot more is understood about life skills – emotional intelligence, resilience, and such – and the wellbeing insight gives these a much higher priority at all levels of education.
Fortunately there is a wealth of evidence to support the liberal view. There one further thing – the measurement mechanism of choice for social sciencists, self-reported wellbeing, is a thoroughly liberal idea. Wellbeing is what the population says it is, and not an arbitrary idea imposed by policymakers. It’s like voting.
What were people objecting to? One faction distrusted anything with so little in the way of concrete recommendations – especially when those few recommendations sounded like more bureaucracy and a new quango. At best they interpreted it as harmless, and so a cost-free policy to rebel against; at worst they thought it was opening the party up to being criticised for being irrelevant in times of widespread economic hardship. Others, Alex was amongst these though he was not called to speak, understood how dangerous the the quality of life idea could be in the wrong hands, and felt that it was too toxic to touch. Or, possibly, that the detail of the policy paper did not live up to its liberal intent. At any rate that is my reading of what they were saying.
All this put the promoters of the motion in a bit of a difficulty – it is really quite difficult to push abstract ideas in this kind of debate. In a short speech you don’t really have much opportunity to say more than “I think this is a good idea” rather than why you think it is good – at least not in a way that will connect to more than a minority of the audience.
Does it matter? The problem is that the wellbeing agenda is slowly but surely infiltrating itself into the public policy process already. The word (or “well-being”, the spell-check compliant variant which I don’t like) and quality of life come up with increasing frequency in all kinds of public policy contexts, and especially in health. The concepts, if not the measurements, lay behind so much of the last government’s meddling in people’s lives. And David Cameron is an enthusiast too, though with an entirely different agenda -but no doubt paternalist in a different way. Liberals need to get into this debate and push back hard against paternalism – but using the language of wellbeing, and not just pronouncing the plague on all its works.
And there is something else, even more important in my view, which the paper doesn’t really touch. And this is the usefulness of the idea in promoting a more environmentally sustainable economy. It is important to break through the tyranny of current economic measurements to show that a more sustainable way of life does not equate to poverty – and indeed that it can be better for everybody. This is why the New Economics Foundation is so interested in wellbeing. I particularly like their paper on Measuring our Progress.
So we need to keep pushing. As one of the motion’s supporters said to me afterwards “Who remembers how close Nick Clegg’s margin of victory was for the party leadership?”. Still, we that understand and support the policy have a selling job on our hands.