Tuesday, 6 December 2011

On the Practical Politics of Well-being

Last month the Centre for Well-being at nef (the new economics foundation) launched its latest pamphlet: The Practical Politics of Well-being. At the heart of this pamphlet is the idea that the well-being agenda has the potential to resonate across the political spectrum and appeal to those on the left, right and centre ground of politics in the UK. This is important; we believe that no matter which political party is in power, having high well-being for all as a basic orienting principle for policy making and political decision making can help to deliver improved well-being for UK citizens.

In this vein, The Practical Politics of Well-being presents personal contributions from a Labour (left wing), Liberal Democrat (centre) and Conservative (right wing) perspective on the well-being agenda and how this relates to particular party political principles. In his paper, Michael Jacobs argues that well-being provides a new justification and a new language for goals that Labour already espouses, whilst noting the difficulty of creating public support for the provision of public goods – a necessary pre-cursor for high well-being – and the major challenge that well-being science poses to decisions around economic and employment policy. In her paper, Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson argues that liberals and Liberal Democrats have also long appreciated well-being as an important goal of policy, whilst noting that findings from well-being science may bolster certain liberal principles and pose a challenge to others, which implies a need to consider how well-being sits alongside other key liberal values. In his paper, conservative commentator Jonty Olliff-Cooper notes that whilst Conservative backing of the well-being agenda may at first seem strange, conservatives – whichever strand of conservatism they represent – are interested in how the individual’s well-being can be maximised. He argues that well-being offers one possible route to turning conservative thinking into a practical guide for action.

Acknowledging and harnessing cross-party support for the well-being agenda is an important part of ensuring its practical application. In the UK, moves are now well underway to measure well-being at the national level. Last week the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its first round of test statistics on well-being from its Opinions Survey, and since April 2011 it has included four subjective questions in its annual Integrated Household Survey, which probes the well-being and circumstances of some 200,000 people in the UK. These questions are about how satisfied people are with their lives, how happy they were yesterday, how anxious they were yesterday, and how worthwhile they think the things they do are. The survey also asks a large number of questions about objective circumstances that are influenced by policy, for example health behaviours, housing, education, household income, employment patterns and benefit entitlements. With such information the way is paved for policy makers and political decision makers – of whichever political persuasion – to ask about the likely impacts of particular policies on well-being, and to make policies and decisions in a way designed to maximise well-being. This in turn implies potential changes to policy, some of which might be painful and resisted, whilst others will be less controversial.

Equally as important, however, is our contention – explicit in the pamphlet – that there is a need to change the central dynamic of our society. The current dynamic is inherently flawed. Without doing this, the danger is that despite small, incremental changes to policy and political decision making, the central dynamic will remain unchanged, and that in this the well-being agenda will be no more than a band aid for patching up the cracks in a fundamentally flawed system.

Whilst the well-being agenda appeals to people across the political spectrum, if we are to take it seriously this will mean not only ensuring that policy-making and political decision making at the margins are driven by well-being evidence, but designing core economic policies with well-being in mind. 

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