Respect isn’t nonsense – it could be Starmer’s big idea

In a speech aiming to kick off a “big year”, Keir Starmer this week put respect at the heart of his political vision. It’s easy to mock the use of abstract nouns in politics – especially when they’re forgotten by those espousing them. But far from being hollow jargon, the speech reflects the recent development – consciously or not – of relational egalitarianism in political theory. 

Traditionally, egalitarians have been concerned with resources – who has what – or rights – who is granted what. Relational egalitarianism, grounded in the work of philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, is instead concerned with how people relate to one another (for an excellent primer read this paper by Richard Reeves, formerly of this parish). Relational inequality exists when there is a ‘respect gap’; one group or individuals look down on others, failing to treat them with the respect they deserve. As Starmer put it this week, “My dad always felt undervalued because he worked in a factory. He felt people looked down on him.”

Low paid workers, for example, suffer because they don’t get paid enough; inequality of resources. But they may also suffer if society fails to confer respect on them; they are looked down upon by others. That’s why I find the relational lens so compelling: it gives a more accurate account of human experience than simply looking at resources. As the social policy expert Ruth Lister has put it, “poverty has to be understood not just as a disadvantaged and insecure economic condition but also as a shameful and corrosive social relation”.

This subtle shift brings a realm of possibilities. Starmer could use such thinking to position his leadership as a break from ‘traditional’ socialism. Egalitarianism is no longer a concern with just pound signs or laws, but how people relate to one another. A more human socialism. 

It also has political appeal. The ‘respect gap’ has driven much recent discontent in Britain. Indeed, this is what much of the ‘progressive’ centre and left doesn’t understand when considering why relatively well off homeowners voted for Brexit; it often wasn’t their material condition, but a sense that elites looked down on them. 

My boss Polly Mackenzie pointed out earlier this week that the ‘respect’ section of Starmer’s speech was the most policy-lite. At this stage of the electoral cycle, that’s probably fine. But over the next year or so it will need addressing. Here’s what that could look like. 

Respecting work

We spend much of our lives at work. I don’t see this as a bad thing – despite what you read, most people like working and there’s good evidence that work has a positive effect on our wellbeing. Yet it’s certainly true that some forms of work don’t confer respect. This is partly about resources. While low pay in the UK has thankfully reduced, it’s still a problem – Labour should be thinking about how it can build on the successes of recent minimum wage rises. But pay isn’t the only issue affecting the UK’s labour market. As we saw above, whether your work is respected by others matters too.

The introduction of ‘key workers’ to everyday parlance – one of the pandemic’s few silver linings – suggests how this might be achieved. We clapped and honoured key workers, and this had a meaningful impact on how they felt; research by YouGov a few months into the pandemic found that six in ten key workers felt their work was appreciated now, compared to 37% pre-lockdown. We should consider how such rituals can be carried over into ‘peacetime’ and what new rituals could confer respect.

Recognising contribution

My first project at Demos explored the experience of unpaid carers. Something I heard time and time again when speaking to unpaid carers was how they felt unrespected by others, in particular their employers and more widely the state. For many of those providing unpaid labour, the answer is to respond to this with proper payment. I argued at the time for a Universal Carer’s Income; a replacement for the super-stingy Carer’s Allowance to ensure unpaid carers receive at least as much financial reward as the unemployed.

But as with low pay, the respect gap would not purely be fixed by a more generous financial contribution. I argued at the time for more generous holiday allowances for unpaid care – 10 days of paid carer’s leave. While making carers’ lives easier to manage, this would also send a signal to carers that this is something the state and employers value. We could also experiment with ‘civic bonds’ – could those performing valuable unpaid work beyond care be recognised through tax rebates? 

This develops Starmer’s notion of a ‘contribution society’, first aired in his unfairly-mocked Fabian essay. Then, he defined a contribution society partly “as one where people who work hard and play by the rules can expect to get something back…”. I would add to that ensuring any definition of ‘hard work’ includes labour which takes place outside the workplace, and giving that proper recognition. 

A gravitational state 

If we have stronger connections with one another, it’s fair to assume we’re more likely to respect one another. That’s why there’s a vital role for a ‘gravitational state’ that pulls people together into a society. Here’s one way it could be done. 

Public services are a vital meeting point between people of different backgrounds, yet we have too much segregation in our public services. Giving public services a new ‘relationships mandate’ – to be at the heart of community building and integration and where relationships are forged and strengthened between individuals – could begin to address this. At Demos we’re currently exploring this through our relational public services programme, and will be publishing papers on how councils, employment support and policing can support this agenda later this year.

Stick with it 

Work, contribution and a gravitational state: three starting points for a respect policy platform. Yes, it’s still too early for detailed policy development from Labour, but as we approach the next election this will obviously be necessary. At Demos, we plan to develop our thinking over the coming months on this topic. For now, Starmer should pick up and run with the respect mantle. His next ‘big speech’ should not seek to introduce new abstract nouns, but instead flesh out the respect agenda.