By Tim Hardy
One of my earliest memories is listening to my father talk about his experiences of Britain during and after the Second World War.
He talked about his life in the Navy—how it brought people together from all backgrounds and walks of life in a common spirit.
He talked of the sense that they all looked out for each other, despite all the things that could have kept them apart.
He remembered most the deep fellowship that helped win the war and build the peace.
When I think about my children, I want them to grow up in a Britain like that.
I want them to understand what makes this country special.
I want them to live in a country where people look after each other, look out for each other, care for each other, where compassion and responsibility to one another are valued.
Tony Blair once said he wanted a country ”where your child in distress is my child, your parent ill and in pain is my parent, your friend unemployed or homeless is my friend; your neighbour my neighbour. That is the true patriotism of a nation.”
This patriotism is all around us. We see it every day.
The unsung heroes who make such a difference to the lives of others.
The people who will give up every Friday night so young people have somewhere to go and something to do.
The volunteers who help out the local hospitals at all hours of day and night.
The young men and women who risk life and limb in the armed forces for our protection.
Care, common-feeling and compassion are all around us.
But let’s be honest. We also look around and see how those ties which bind us together have become frayed.
The story of Southern Cross care homes – where millions were plundered over the years leaving the business vulnerable, the elderly people in their care at risk and their families feeling betrayed.
Those elderly people were treated simply as commodities.
This story shames our country.
In my father’s war-time generation, people had a deeply-held feeling of responsibility to others.
Today, the overwhelming majority of people – at every level of society from rich to poor – still play by the rules.
Working hard. Paying taxes. Obeying the law. Caring for others.
But they feel others are not doing the same. They are having to pay the price for the behaviour of an irresponsible minority.
They feel that while they stick to the rules, others are getting one over on them.
The services on which they rely are being cut by an austerity government after a global crisis caused by bankers who still get multi-million pound bonuses.
The gap grows every wider between the rewards for those at the top and the squeeze on the living standards of everyone else.
And they still have to pay taxes to fund the bankers.
People who act responsibly – people who do their duty – are getting angry. And I understand why.
That irresponsibility is not only unfair on everyone else; it is bad for the economy.
And people feel the consequences of irresponsibility in different parts of their lives.
The rubbish fly-tipped by the roadside.
The throb of loud music, played by the neighbour in the small hours.
The overgrown and litter-strewn front garden.
And every time someone acts with casual indifference to the lives of those around them, it undermines the trust of others and frays the bonds which bind our society together.
Now what about the current government and its approach?
On the surface, our responsibility to each other is a big concern of theirs and indeed we hear repeated tirades against people on benefits.
But because of their values—and true intentions— they cannot build the kind of responsibility that I have been talking about.
Just take their current welfare reform bill.
We support their attempts to build on our plans to make those who can work do so.
But their bill will make it harder for people to be responsible.
It undermines childcare support for those seeking work.
It punishes people in work who save, denying them the help they currently get through tax credits.
It cuts help for the most vulnerable, those living in care homes, who receive support to get out and about.
And, it takes away money from those who are dying even though they have contributed to the system all their lives.
None of this will help people show more responsibility.
In fact, it does the opposite.
Nor are they ensuring there is the work available for people who are responsible.
And when they talk about the Big Society, and people showing responsibility through volunteering, they don’t seem to get that you can’t volunteer in your local Sure Start centre or library when it has been closed.
You cannot create a good society – or even a big one – simply with pleas for more volunteers.
We will never encourage a sense of responsibility if society is becoming more and more unfair, and more and more divided.
We should not demonise people anywhere in society.
I do not accept the Conservative characterisation of those on benefits as being feckless and worthless.
We have a responsibility to provide people with opportunities to improve their lives and escape poverty.
And we have a responsibility to look after the vulnerable.
The idea that we’re all in it together under this government is just a cruel joke.
Over the last twelve years Chief Executive pay in Britain’s top companies has quadrupled while share prices have remained flat.
And according to the recent High Pay Commission report, just in the last 10 years, the pay of someone at the top of a company has gone from 69 times the average wage to 145 times.
Things haven’t always been this way.
It is worth recalling that JP Morgan founded his financial company on the idea that the ratio of pay between the highest and lowest paid employee should be no more than 20 to 1.
It isn’t for government to set maximum ratios but we do need change to encourage the responsibility we need.
To carry that out, my party needs to understand where New Labour succeeded and failed.
Those who founded the Labour movement were motivated to do so by the idea that they could achieve more together than as isolated individuals just looking out for themselves.
We continued that tradition in government. Repairing the fabric of society through investment in schools, hospitals and the police.
But we did not do enough to change the ethic we inherited from the 1980s – ‘the take what you can culture’ of those Conservative governments.
New Labour in office talked about rights and responsibilities.
So, why didn’t we succeed in changing the ethic of our society in the way we wanted?
Because we were not consistent enough in applying these values across our society.
And we all know what happened: the banks acting as if there was no tomorrow and causing the worst financial crisis in a century.
And even after that happened the Confederation of British Industry, the Financial Services Authority and even the Governor of the Bank of England sounded more willing to speak out on top pay than we did.
And we did not do enough either to acknowledge the difficulty in creating a responsible society when there is a huge gap between the rich and everyone else.
When people lead parallel lives, living in the same town but different worlds, we should not be surprised that it’s hard to nurture a sense of responsibility and solidarity.
That is why we have to tackle the new inequality in this country between the top and everyone else.
So what are the lessons we should learn to build the kind of society we want to see?
Above all, it is that responsibility and duty to one another must apply across our country.
We cannot lecture people on benefits about responsibility if we do not also address the problem at the top—in the public and private sectors.
It is why it is right that proper action was taken against MPs who defrauded our nation through their expenses.
It is why corporate tax avoidance and evasion are so wrong and need to be tackled relentlessly.
So how do we change things to ensure a better link between top pay and performance?
As other countries require, we need companies to justify and explain what they are doing.
On pay, companies should publish the ratio of the pay of its top earner compared to its average employee.
If it can be justified by performance, they should have nothing to fear.
We need shareholders to better exercise their responsibilities to scrutinise top pay.
And we also need to recognise – as many great companies do—that firms are accountable to their workers as well as their shareholders.
Some companies already understand that having an employee on the committee that decides top pay is the right thing to do.
We should debate whether this requirement should be extended to all firms.
And of course the same should be true in the public sector.
I strongly believe in a welfare state that looks after those in need, including those suffering from ill health.
That principle of compassion should always be at the heart of what we do.
That is a view shared by people right across this country.
One area where people’s sense of fairness is under threat is affordable housing.
There is a terrible shortage of affordable housing in this country.
It will be one of the key tests of the next Labour government that we address this issue.
Let me end on this thought.
What builds a community and a country is a sense of shared responsibility, common endeavour and big national ambitions.
The Tories have no vision for our country.
No sense of national mission.
No vision for how we can deliver on the promise of Britain for the next generation.
We need a culture in our country which marks a real break with the ‘take what you can’ ways of the past.
I know that there is a yearning for that different culture.
A more responsible economy
A more responsible society
And a sense of common life that offers meaning and purpose.
That is the mission for our party.
That too should be the mission or our country.