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.