Lib Dem economic policy takes a step leftwards

Last Monday the Liberal Democrats passed a policy paper on economic reforms, Good Jobs, Better Businesses, Stronger Communities. This covers economic policy outside fiscal and tax reform, and fits in with the party leadership's wish to address the challenges of what is often called the fourth industrial revolution. Does it measure up to the challenge?

Sometimes it is hard not to agree with fellow Lib Dem blogger David Boyle that liberals don't take economic policy seriously enough. There was little excitement about this motion, or another two which tackled taxation. I only attended two of the three debates myself and spoke in neither. But the party leader Vince Cable takes economics seriously (he was a professional economist after all), and the party does find itself well-provided with official policy, even if most of its members might struggle to know what it is. The party should be doing more to promote internal debate.

The Good Jobs motion, and the paper behind it, demonstrate one of the problems. They are very densely packed with ideas and policies. So much so that they are hard to read and harder to condense into something clear and ringing. There seem to be two problems here. First the scope was probably too large. You could easily produce a worthwhile motion on workplace rights, for example, rather than tucking it away in this much bigger motion. And then there is the desire to establish consensus. This boils down to including something for everybody: I'll let your hobbyhorse through if you'll do the same for mine. How much this dynamic came from the policy working group itself, and how much from outsiders I don't know. It must be admitted that there are some advantages to this approach. The Labour manifesto last year seems to have been produced by a similar process, and it collected together enough hobbyhorses to make it a good tool for roping in disparate groups of special interests. I remember one online commenter disparaging the Lib Dem manifesto because, unlike Labour's, it had no policy on puppy farms. It was an electoral success, notwithstanding major holes in, for example, university finance. Secondly, if your party actually does get into government, it helps to have a bank of small-ish policy ideas ready. This gives ministers something to do, and helps them set their own agenda, rather than being swept along by their departments and issues of the moment. So the policy paper should do valuable work, even if it failed to the party at large on fire.

My main beef is that it pays homage to the idea that the country has a serious productivity problem, and that this is something politicians should worry about. But this is such a consensus view that I guess they had little choice. I don't particularly object to the polices that this gives rise to. Indeed many of its ideas would no doubt dent measured productivity in the short term (more regulation, tougher environmental focus, and so on), so it is probably politically wise to have some policies specifically focused on raising productivity. Labour does something similar.

So what, for me, are the key issues? The first is that too much money in the economy is being either retained by businesses, or distributed to shareholders, or paid to senior employees. Quite apart from the corrosive effect this has on people's sense of fairness, too much of this money is idle, causing a phenomenon called secular stagnation. One of the symptoms is low interest rates and too much private debt. This tendency started in the 1980s and  technological changes aren't making it any easier. In order to address this, broadly two sorts of reform are suggested. First there is attacking monopoly capitalism. This is David Boyle's big theme: he wants to rescue the old liberal concept of free trade as a liberator, after it has been hijacked by neoliberals to mean staying out big business's way. The second is to redress the balance of power between workers and bosses. I think this latter is probably more important - I am less convinced than David that modern monopoly capitalism is quite as harmful as it was in old economy days of oil, phones and steel - though I do think he is onto something over excessive protections for intellectual property. The Lib Dem paper embraces both approaches, though not intellectual property, which requires a policy paper all to itself. It opens the door to supporting unions. Having heard a very sensible presentation by a representative of the union Prospect at the party conference, I am changing my mind about the role of trade unions. One of my formative political beliefs (from the 1970s) was that unions were a baleful influence on the economy. But empowering unions sounds much more likely to redress the palpable power imbalabce than more shared ownership of businesses, a typical Lib Dem suggestion (though not advocated as radically as the left are starting to).

The second issue is that the economy needs to be pushed towards environmental sustainability. Not only does this mean unlocking renewable energy and leaving coal and oil buried in the ground, but it also means producing and consuming less stuff. The sustainable economy will be based on services, not manufacturing. This needs a change of mindset, and the policy paper does give it a big shove in the right direction.

A third issue is getting a more even geographical spread of economic success. It is a pity that economists are not giving this more thought. Certain economic processes seem to benefit from accelerating returns - returns that rise with concentration. The idea of accelerating returns sounds good, but it isn't, because it leads to success being concentrated, and increases inequality (unlike the alternative concept of diminishing returns, the more conventional assumption in economic modelling). This seems to be because of network effects among personal relationships, that work better in geographical proximity. This is not particularly well understood, but needs to be. I am convinced that government structure is part of the story. More devolved political power helps - but exactly how and why is less clear. The policy paper duly pushes for this, both in government and in the purchasing of public agencies. That is helpful. But whether more devolved government will help Boston, Margate or Merthyr Tydfil enough is doubtless open to scepticism. The centralised political culture runs deep in Britain.

And a fourth issue is human fulfilment. We have reached the point in our economic evolution when economists need to consider this explicitly, rather than simply trying to give people more money to spend. This fits in with worker empowerment, but there needs to be more. The paper's advocacy of lifelong education and individual learning accounts is helpful here. But I want to see the greater availability of counselling for people between jobs, or unsatisfied with their jobs, as a part of this. Simply giving people spending power is not enough, and can be dehumanising - one of the reasons that I am suspicious of universal basic income, a very fashionable idea on the left that the Lib Dems are sensibly steering clear of.

So, overall, this policy paper fits well enough with the economic agenda that I support. But standing back it leads me to a striking thought. There is a growing overlap between current liberal thinking and new socialist thinking (which isn't just a throwback to the 1970s as its opponents claim), and a step away from the neoliberal thinking that still dominates the centre-right. Perhaps there will be enough common ground for a future coalition, once Labour sees beyond its internal struggles and overcomes its more extreme tribalism. Alas that day is some way off. But a coalition with Conservatives once the Brexit hoo ha has settled looks even less wise than it was in 2010.

 

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Vince Cable sets a bold course for the Liberal Democrats

In one episode of the masterly political comedy Yes Minister, the knowing civil servant advised his naive minster on the art of public presentation. It depends on how radical you are. The more radical that you want to be, the more sober the presentation needed to be, to reassure the wary. A contentless speech, on the other hand, needed to as glitzy as possible. On that basis the British Liberal Democrats' leader Vince Cable's speech yesterday to his party must have been radical indeed. Its presentation was as dull as ditch water, fluffing its one joke (something about erotic spasms). Its content was another matter.

Most commentators, inside and outside the party, have been unable to see past the superficial. They complained that it was dull, and lacked radical new ideas. They assumed that his appeal to reasonable, moderate voters, put off by the extremism of other parties, meant that his ideas were would be wishy-washy, and duly saw that both in what he said, and in the series of policy resolutions passed by the conference. But I have been listening to leader's speeches for nearly 30 years. I'm tired of the presentational tricks, the crowd-pleasing jokes, the radical-sounding policy ideas that lead nowhere, and the personal stories injected by professional speechwriters to establish "authenticity". What I actually heard was a series of direct answers to the hard political questions that the party faces; he never lost my attention. My first thought, as we got up to applaud it, was that it was the best leaders' speech I had ever heard.

So what are these hard questions? The first was what actually do we say if the party succeeds in its quest to secure a referendum on the Brexit proposal, with an option to stay in the EU. This is something that most advocates of a referendum say little about. Vince recognises that most people that support Brexit have a real grievance, having been left out of whatever economic advance the country has made over the last generation. That needed to be addressed through public investment, and for public resources to reflect population increases more readily. He also recognised that the party needed to push for reform of the European Union itself. This is something most Remainers are silent about.

But this only poses deeper questions about what is wrong with Britain, that go far beyond Brexit. Vince took this on too. Part of his answer was a familiar liberal one: better education services, with a lifelong remit; he mentioned further education colleges in particular as a neglected sector that needed attention. He also supported Education spokesperson Layla Moran's ideas for changes to schools. These are a little too crowd-pleasing for me (replacing Ofsted and reducing primary testing) but are generally going in the right direction. But he also had ideas, indeed firm policies, on the economy, often a Lib Dem weakness. He recognised the biggest problem: that too much money is being hoarded by the well-off. He wants to tackle this by taxing it harder. This is quite brave, since there is likely to be collateral damage amongst a swathe of older people (like me) who have made money from owning homes, and who (unlike me) want to pass on much of this wealth to their children (I don't have any). This is surely part of the answer, but also I think it means being braver on government debt. But he hinted at this too - by loosening government rules on borrowing to invest, locally and nationally. My criticism in my previous post that the Lib Dems are weak on economic policy is being addressed.

He also wants to start thinking about how the impact of increased automation will affect our lives, and how public policy needs to change to reflect it. This will doubtless lead to a focus on empowering workers, as well as re-focusing regulation of digital platforms. Deputy Leader, and likely successor to Vince, Jo Swinson also talked about this.

But, of course, developing a policy platform that is relevant and radical is only part of the problem. The are small signs that the party's fortunes are improving at the expense of Britain's big parties, but far short of what is needed to turn the party into a major political force. The party isn't speaking to the vast majority of the public, and media gives it little attention, almost none of it sympathetic. Amongst those who have some awareness of the party, it is considered to be well-meaning but ineffectual. It is unfashionable to support the party, and many people who might be supporters resort to sneering at it. There needs some kind of seismic shift, both in gathering supporters and, critically, money. Vince has launched a series of ideas for party reform in an attempt to do just that. I did not attend any of the consultations on these reforms, but I understand that attendees were giving them a sympathetic hearing, but were worried about some aspects, notably that the free supporters' scheme might be subject to entryism. Many of the older hands are very sceptical, though. They way in which the leadership is trying to push the reforms through has ruffled quite a few feathers.

But the party doesn't belong to these old hands, who include long time members like me, and more recent ones who joined in the 2000s, who consider themselves to be radical liberals. The party's membership has exploded since 2015. The recent publicity of Vince's reforms have drawn in thousands more. Nearly every other speaker claimed that it was their first time speaking at conference. By and large these were persuaded by the leadership line. A strong move by the old lags to derail a motion on immigration, recommending substantial reforms to Britain's current system, but falling far short of making the country truly open, was easily defeated. The complainers were passionate, angry and numerous, but oddly unspecific. Against this most people were persuaded that the policy was a step in the right direction.

But the opportunity is palpable. The Conservatives are skewered by Brexit, as well tied to an outdated economic orthodoxy. Labour is riven by internecine struggles that are relegating many of its ablest people to the sidelines. Too many of its supporters indulge in tribal abuse as an alternative to building broad support for a radical policy programme. Its leader is failing to convince much of the public. A bit like the Lib Dems, he is seen as well-intentioned but ineffectual.

And meanwhile Brexit is hurtling towards us. Personally I still think that the Prime Minister Theresa May will succeed in getting a compromise deal with the EU through, allowing an exit from the union in March next year. The Lib Dems owe it to their supporters to try their damnedest to stop her. But its leader is looking at what the party has to do beyond that. That encourages me.

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What can we learn from 1977? The need for fresh economic thinking

Economic thought follows a 40 year cycle. It starts with a period of doubt, as the conventional wisdom appears inadequate; this lasts ten to twenty years. A new way of looking at the economy then emerges and this leads to a period of confidence and optimism, lasting twenty to thirty years. And then optimism collapses into another period of doubt as the orthodoxies fail. Currently we are in a period of doubt, which started ten years ago. That was also the case 40 years ago. A chance discovery has just brought this home to me.

Last weekend I was staying at my father's house, and picked up his copy of E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful. That book, published in 1973, was one of the products of the previous period of doubt, and is a topic for a future post. But out of the book dropped a cutting from the Financial Times, dated 24 February 1977 by Samuel Brittan, one of that newspaper's most distinguished writers. It was a bit of a shock, because what it says is so similar to what people like Adair Turner, and me in this blog, are saying now. (Apologies: the scan isn't that great as the text is very small, and it defeated my OCR software, so it may not be that easy to read).

The article is a review of a book Social Limits to Growth by Professor Fred Hirsch, which is largely unknown these days (unlike Schumacher's), but not quite forgotten. Hirsch developed the idea of "positional goods", whose value does not arise from their consumption, but what they say about your social position. He noted that as societies get richer, the more important positional goods become. But ramping up production of these goods is self-defeating, as they then simply lose their value. He suggested that this poses a limit to how far economic growth can go. He also discussed the contradictions of market capitalism, and in particular that it depends on self-interest (some would say greed), but needs this to be constrained to avoid corruption and rigging the system.

Sir Samuel Brittan, as he now is, was one of my favourite economics writers: I read his columns religiously (alongside the American writer Paul Krugman), a process that helped me develop an interest in economics which eventually led to me giving up work and taking a degree in Economics at UCL in 2005. He might loosely be describes as a neoliberal, but above all he was rigorous in his thinking and not at all doctrinaire. He starts the article by posing the question about why economic growth and productivity had slowed, and reflecting on Maynard Keynes's essay Economic Possibilities of our Grandchildren (1931 - belonging to the previous period of doubt and introspection that Keynes did so much to resolve). What is economic growth for? Keynes predicted that at some point it would become pointless. Sir Samuel accepts Hirsch's analysis, and goes on to wonder about whether the market economy was really the paradigm that many idealists made it out to be. He concludes:

The main case for the market system is as a method of cooperation, which minimises coercion (e.g. conscription versus the price mechanism). But no one after reading Professor Hirsch can imagine that it promises a short cut to our economic nirvana or that it can manage without an economically literate public philosophy, which - 200 years after Adam Smith - we have still to evolve.

So what was happening in 1977 to provoke so much doubt? I remember it well: I was at university (studying physics and geology) and very politically engaged. In Britain it was the period of the Labour government of Jim Callaghan. Inflation was persistent; unemployment was high. The economy was dominated by large  industries, many of them nationalised, where union power prevailed. They were generally very badly run, especially the nationalised ones, partly because of union interference. Callaghan's tactic for controlling inflation was to do national pay deals with unions, who were grudging at best, and there was much industrial unrest. He, and his Chancellor Denis Healey, concluded that unemployment could not be tackled through expanding demand, as the conventional wisdom prescribed, referred to as "Keynesianism" as if Maynard Keynes could ever be pinned down to an -ism. Instead they adopted deflationary (i.e. austerity) policies to tackle inflation first. It was a turning point in British economic policy which is often ascribed to the Conservative Margaret Thatcher, who became Prime Minister in 1979.

But in the 1980s the economy picked up, with, apart from the odd wobble, continuous growth up to 2007, featuring steady productivity growth. So that poses an obvious question. Was the pessimism about the limits to growth in 1977 unjustified? And is my current pessimism, if it is correctly called that, justified now?

What was behind that quarter century of growth? In Britain, reform of the nationalised industries, most of which were privatised, was clearly part of it. But the deeper causes were the advance of technology, and the development of globalisation, which meant the increasing use of cheap inputs from Asia. These advances gave people access to advanced technologies that have undoubtedly improved lives. I remember desperately searching for phone boxes to make calls in the 1970s; nowadays almost everybody has a mobile phone, a product that was science fiction in 1977, but made cheap and accessible by technology and globalisation. But the growth was skewed. Whole industries, such as coal mines, were closed down or gutted. Those years are not remembered fondly in many areas of northern England or Wales, which were devastated (in common with many equivalent areas elsewhere in Europe and in North America). Most of the benefits of growth went to better educated middle class people, the yuppy generation, of which I was one.  And a lot, much more than in the previous half-century, went to a tiny elite of super-rich. Inequality rose dramatically up to 1997 in Britain; it has stabilised there since, but continued to advance elsewhere in the world, notably the USA. Progress for working class people was much more mixed. Globalisation, and the backwash of decolonisation, also led to a freer movement of people within and between continents, which built resentment amongst those who stayed with their historic communities. So when the good years came to an end with the crash of 2008, there were all the ingredients for a populist backlash. Moreover, when examining the pattern of growth, much of it depended on Hirsch's positional goods, or services which do not directly support increased human wellbeing (investment bankers, mortgage advisers, lawyers, accountants, cyber criminals and security specialists, and so on).

And there is something else: the technology that underlay the growth may have been secure and lasting, but its other foundations were not: the post-Keynesian economic consensus, and the availability of cheap Asian imports. In order to keep the economic engine rolling governments allowed the build up ever larger quantities of private debt. A liberalised financial system, regulated by floating exchange rates, that eased the flow of capital between countries, helped this process along. But this is unsustainable in the long run. At some point policymakers have to confront the macreconomic problem behind it: which is that we are trying to expand the supply of goods and services faster than demand. Without artificial, government-provoked stimulation, the economy sinks. This is what is meant by secular stagnation. Meanwhile, as the Asian economies catch up with the west, the availability of cheap imports, so important to growth in that period, is fast diminishing, and is not being replaced by the development of other regions of the world.

What people failed to see in 1977 was how much of an impact that technological change would have on people's lives, and how this would continue to improve human wellbeing. That potential for further improvement remains. But what the doubters were right about is that the conventional way that economists link human wellbeing to economic growth was breaking down in the developed world. It is now in complete ruin. But most policymakers are still in denial.

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Is Vince Cable’s plan for the Lib Dems a gamble too far?

Last Friday the leader of the British Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable, launched his plan for remaking his party into a broader liberal movement. Having been away, my reaction to this event has been slow. But before we launch into the party conference next weekend, here are my first thoughts.

Vince's main idea is to create a supporters' scheme which costs nothing to join. To give people extra incentive to sign up to this (and be bombarded with requests for help and donations, etc.) he suggests that these registered supporters have a vote to help choose party leaders - and a suggestion that non-MPs may be allowed to stand for the leadership. He also wants to make it easier for new members to become candidates for parliament - currently they must have a full year of membership. Vince said that the party needed to open itself up to become a movement for political moderation.

First reactions in my Facebook feed were very negative. If there's one thing that annoys the more vocal people in this community it is referring to Lib Dems as "moderates", or worse, aiming at the political centre. The party has being going through difficult times after its support collapsed in 2010 when it joined the Conservatives in coalition government. What has kept those of us who remain going, and motivated those who have joined since, is passion for its liberal and internationalist values, not moderation, and not being Mr In-Between. But political leaders know that they must do more than merely represent their supporters; they must broaden their movement's appeal to people who do not currently support it actively. There are many people out there who are appalled by the idealistic extremism that is infecting both Labour and the Conservatives. Doubtless the use of the word "moderate" was based on at least some market research, though the party cannot afford much.

Apart from suspicion of the word "moderate", members are wary of involving large numbers of newcomers with little experience or stake in the party. The Labour Party were the first down this route, when they opened up their leadership contest in 2015 to the public for just a £3 fee. In one sense this was enormously successful: hundreds of thousands were drawn in, and many became full-fledged members. The party how has about 600,000 members when the next three in size (the Conservatives, the Scottish Nationalists and the Lib Dems) have not much more than 100,000 each. But this influx of members helped a manifestly unsuitable candidate (Jeremy Corbyn) become elected to the leadership, and has been exploited to drive the party to left. I need to be careful here. Mr Corbyn has been badly underestimated by mainstream politicians and media, and the lurch to the left has involved some welcome fresh thinking. It may not turn out as bad as many outsiders, including me, are predicting. But what is unquestionable is that the process has been very uncomfortable for many of the people who had devoted their lives to the party before the influx changed things. And that's what many Lib Dems fear will happen to their party if these changes actually succeed in drawing lots of new new people in. It's all very well saying that these new supporters should share the party's current values, but how do you ensure that this is the case?

What gives weight to this is the thought that the party might be able to draw in defectors from other parties, including MPs and big-hitters. Unhelpfully, former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair piped up on Friday too, expressing his fears over the turn that politics in Britain has taken. People won't be slow to make the connection that "moderates" and "centre ground" include people like him. And to many of us, it is people like him who got the country into this mess in the first place, by pushing a series of ideas (often referred to as "neoliberalism") that have created a whole class of left-behind people that are stoking up the anger.

But the party's position is quite desperate, if it wants to live up to its ambitions to make it to the political big time (i.e. achieve power), rather than being an ideological fringe, like the Green Party. It is stuck at between 5-10% in national opinion polls (though at the upper end of the range at the moment) and has too few MPs (at 12) to have serious political clout. Andrew Rawnsley sums this up very well. And yet, as Mr Rawnsley also points out, the opportunity is palpable. The ideological fringes in both the major parties are making the running. And there are examples of successful mass movements led from the centre (he points to Barack Obama, Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau in Canada, whose party has been advising Mr Cable). If the Lib Dems can't do this all by themselves, it is hard to see it working without them. The party has nearly as many members as the Conservatives, and the organisational nous and cooperative culture that a brand new party would lack (one reason that the party has seen off Britain's most successful new party of recent times: Ukip).

There are moments in life when you have to be courageous, and take big risks in order to get what you want. This is one such moment for the Lib Dems. All the risks pointed out by the plan's critics have a basis in fact - but they can all be managed. The plan is not nearly enough by itself, but the point is to capitalise on opportunities as they arise. As such I am giving my support to it, though I have reservations about some of the plan. The secret weapon of liberalism is that it can be ideological and moderate at the same time, because it celebrates inclusion. Inclusion is what political moderation is all about.

To me, though, there remains a hole at the heart of this exercise, which will also afflict any new parties created out of fragments of Labour and the Conservatives. We know what they stand against, but what's the plan? How do they propose to help the left-behind, and start to heal the rifts that are all too apparent in our not-so United Kingdom? At the heart of this has to be a new approach to economics. At the moment Labour understands this better than the Lib Dems, but they are ruining their good ideas by proposing to over-centralise power and supporting the deep conservatism of trade unions. But at least they realise that the cosy consensus that dominates the centre of British political establishment has to be challenged. And that is radical rather than moderate. Once liberals start to champion an agenda for radical economic reform, everything is possible.

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