4 liberal themes on economics and public services: my contribution to Lib Dem Agenda 2020

Agenda 2020 is the consultation exercise being carried out by the Liberal Democrats to set the framework of policy in the period up to 2020, when we next expect parliamentary elections. At this stage the idea is to keep the thinking at quite a high level. This is always quite hard for political activists. We somehow got onto VAT on tampons in the consultation exercise in Bournemouth. Then again, I’m always saying that political types on the left are too abstract. I haven’t submitted the following contribution yet, but the idea is to be strong on general direction, with only a few pointers on the detail. I’m afraid that it’s still a bit longer than my normal posts.

Economics, public services and wider Liberal Democrat policy

Economics and public services should be at the heart of any political narrative. Too often in the Liberal Democrats both topics have been neglected. The party has opted for a simple middle ground between the Conservatives and Labour. The 2015 General Election was no exception, at least as far as the headlines went. The time has come for a much more robust narrative. Here are some ideas on what this might look like.

The story so far

After 1945 the great Liberal thinkers Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge founded a post war consensus on economic management and public services. This was based on the state taking responsibility for managing the business cycle through fiscal policy, and a greatly expanded set of state services, funded by much higher taxes (compared to pre-war levels), to fulfil a series of new entitlements, designed to ensure that everybody obtained a basic level of wellbeing. These ideas were taken on by the Labour and Conservative Parties, and developed into an overbearing state, which also took over a series of failing businesses, from railways, to steel, to even aero engines.

By the 1970s the state had lost control of its finances and the country was heading for towards economic collapse. Public services had been captured by vested interests, with very little regard for their users. In reaction to this emerged a new conventional wisdom, initiated by Margaret Thatcher and expanded by Tony Blair. This new thinking was again based on liberal principles, and it is often referred to as “neoliberalism”.  The idea was that citizens should be empowered as buyers in a market economy, with the state stepping back to provide only basic services and a basic safety net. Much of the regulation of the business cycle would be taken up by monetary policy, so as to reduce the role of the state. Marginal rates of tax on income were cut, though overall levels of tax increased, if anything.

Probably not coincidentally, this change to public policy was accompanied by dramatic shifts in technology and global trade. Society changed substantially, mostly for the better. Living standards advanced, life expectancy improved, and pollution was cut. But now the country, in common with the rest of the developed world, seems stuck. Most economic growth just benefits a rich elite; businesses hoard excess earnings rather than invest or pay their workers more; property prices escalate. The number of badly paid jobs rises; most younger people are shut out of decent jobs and decent homes. Demand for health and care services grows, while public resources do not keep pace. And prosperity is restricted to a small number better-off areas, especially in the south east of England.

Liberals should worry. Power is being concentrated among a wealthy elite of people connected to big businesses. This trend Is abetted by a highly centralised national government that would rather deal with these large businesses, or else large public agencies like the NHS, than directly with the public. The power of the markets works for many people, but it is failing many more. Many people have inadequate leverage in the markets for jobs and homes in particular, leaving an unequal power balance in both domains. This state of affairs breeds fear and insecurity, which in turn leads to the rise of the political extremes of right and left, which threaten social cohesion.

In the meantime thinking on economic policy has not caught up with these profound changes. Most economists still think of the economy in a highly centralised way, in terms of aggregates across the whole economy, rather than the fate of its component parts. And thinking about productivity is stuck with ideas appropriate to manufacturing industry and economies of scale – and not to the efficient use of the human resources the country actually has to hand, in an economy increasingly dominated by personal services. The left rails against a series of pantomime villains, but resists any serious progressive reform of public services. This old thinking simply concentrates more power and wealth into the hands of a well-connected elite. Public services are dominated by functional silos based on political empires, not people’s actual needs.

We need fresh thinking, and my suggestion is to organise this around four liberal themes.

Liberal theme 1: green growth

Green growth means the advancement of human wellbeing while reducing the consumption of physical resources, especially non-renewable energy. The twin objectives are to ensure that everybody has the chance to live a healthy and fulfilling life in a comfortable environment, while easing the stress on the local and global environment.  There are two aspects to this: developing and implementing technologies that are more environmentally efficient, and breaking the idea that ever increasing consumption is the path to improved wellbeing. This requires a profound change in outlook – though one that is already taking place.

Green growth may or may not entail economic growth as currently measured. That depends on how advanced wellbeing is reflected in the monetary economy. In the short to medium term it entails a substantial level of investment, in more efficient homes, power infrastructure and transport infrastructure, as well as research and development. If properly carried out these investments will entail improved economic growth. Longer term growth requires the harnessing of human resources more effectively. This means a wider distribution of information management and decision making, or:

Liberal theme 2: small is beautiful

Large organisations, be they businesses or government agencies, are one of the main threats to green growth and liberal values. They concentrate power in the hands of the elites that control them, leaving the majority of their employees disempowered, and unable to react most effectively to the world as they find it. The elites are geographically concentrated, leading to geographic concentrations of power and wealth, and the hollowing out of communities elsewhere. This hollowing out leads to a waste of human resources, which must be tapped if green growth is to take root. Furthermore, large commercial organisations have a tendency to hoard surplus earnings (often abroad) rather than invest them, acting as a further drag on the economy.

Of course large organisations also play a vital role in any efficient economy; they are the best organisational form to take on some functions. But these are not as many as often supposed. A liberal government must change the legal and regulatory environment so that it favours large organisations less. This will include reforms to political structures, banking and taxes.

It will also entail a substantial reform of public services:

Liberal theme 3: public services that solve problems

It should be obvious that the main reason that public services are inefficient is that they do not work together to solve people’s problems. Housing, mental health, addiction, crime and poor physical health are very often bound together in one person’s feeding on each other – and yet we persist in trying to deal with each of these issues separately, in separate chains of command all the way to Cabinet. Often the key is making all the relevant services work together in such a way that the user moves to a better way of life, with less call on the public purse. Usually what happens is that the relevant agencies work against each other.

Public services should be organised to meet the needs of people, and solve problems rather than playing pass the parcel. This should be the foremost area for the development of policy, based on best existing practice. There may be a number of possible approaches.  Some of things are clear, however:

  • Changes will be easier to implement if responsibility for public services is more localised and more integrated.
  • Some form of empowered professional intermediary will usually be required to assess the users’s needs, to coordinate the different agencies and, where needed, to negotiate the compliance of the user. Empowerment will mean some form of budgetary control. This means a step back from the current tendency to disempower and de-skill such intermediaries, like social workers and probation officers.
  • Large scale functional outsourcing will usually take services in the wrong direction. Repeated tendering also leads to a dumbing down, a tendency to gloss over more complex issues. The greater use of local social enterprises may well be a better approach in a framework that ensures proper accountability.

Public services should help with some of the most difficult problems relating to poverty; but this has to be in a wider context wealth and income distriubtion. We also need:

Liberal theme 4: redistribution to correct imbalances

A well-ordered, liberal society might not require the redistribution of income and wealth. And liberals dislike redistribution for its own sake – different levels of wealth may simply reflect freely made choices over how to balance accumulating money with other things life has to offer. But in our society imbalances of wealth and income pose a threat. The less well-off are denied the opportunities that should be theirs. Excessive wealth can be used to buy political influence and monopoly power, reducing choices for others. The accumulation of wealth may also lead to excess savings and economic stagnation. Liberals must embrace redistribution, albeit warily.

Redistribution needs to work at two distinct levels: personal and geographical. The wealthy must be taxed on both income and assets (land, in particular), and the worse off must be compensated through access to benefits and rights to state services, especially housing. Children must be a particular focus of redistribution as early years are critical to life chances.

Also funds must be redistributed from wealthy regions and districts to those less well off, to offset the negative network effects of clusters of wealth.

At both levels redistribution arrangements must be designed so as not to create dependency. Those less well-off should be encouraged to improve their lot – but at the same time the level of redistribution must fall as the need for it falls. Systems of redistribution based on universal rights (like the state pension) have their place, but have limits too. Truly liberal systems of redistribution will require careful design.

A policy programme to match

At this stage the idea is to sketch out broad political priorities, and not detailed policy programmes. I do not believe that in most cases a radical departure is needed from adopted Liberal Democrat policy. The high level emphasis will need to be rethought, however.

The main policy implications of taking forward the four liberal themes are:

  1. Political reform, and especially the devolution of power to regions and districts. This is essential to create the right political environment. This may be combined with a new federal settlement for the UK and reform of the House of Lords. Electoral reform is important to ensure a plurality of power – but the priority must be to implement proportional voting systems at local level rather than at Westminster. A further important strand of political reform should be restricting the influence of wealthy individuals and organisations, especially through political donations.
  2. A programme of green investments must be instituted, including high quality social housing.
  3. With public service reform the emphasis should be on bottom-up initiatives – but national funding structures will have to be reviewed to facilitate this.
  4. The tax and benefits system will need to be re-examined. The Lib Dem commitment to increasing personal allowances must be rethought, as it is inefficient as a redistribution policy. Restoring tax credits is a higher priority. Taxation of land in some shape or form makes sense, though we may get no further than reforming Council Tax.
  5. On overall fiscal policy it is best to manage down expectations of additional government spending – though the principle that the government (including local governments) can borrow to invest must be clear.
  6. The banking system must be reformed to allow new, locally-based lenders to come into play. Investment in the “real economy” should be encouraged to create new assets, While avoiding a merry-go-round of existing assets.
  7. The UK should act internationally through the EU to curb tax avoidance, especially by large corporations. Trade agreements and relations with the EU should be viewed through the prism of promoting smaller businesses, and not simply advancing the interests of large multinationals.

Of course there are many more important policies that have a bearing on the economy and public services – not least reducing the level of carbon emissions. But overall such a policy platform should be quite distinctive from the orthodoxies of right and left, and yet fully in tune with modern times.