Economics is at the heart of the left’s weakness

In my last post I said that the lack of a convincing economic vision was at the heart of the British Labour Party’s difficulties, and a problem for the left generally. It is worth unpacking that a bit and sketching the direction that any new thinking should take.

The central political problem for the left is the disaffection of so many working class and lower middle class voters, particularly ethnically native people. They are becoming increasingly voting for right wing populist parties and causes. This was a dominant factor in the vote for Brexit in Britain, and the rise of Donald Trump in the US and Marine Le Pen in France, to name just a few examples. These voters had been part of a left wing coalition, but leftist parties moved up market to attract liberal middle class voters, especially those employed by the public sector, and also pitched for ethnic minorities.

Meanwhile problems for the traditional working classes go beyond political neglect. They are overwhelming the losers from the advances in technology and globalisation which have destroyed the relatively stable and well-paid jobs on which they used to depend. Whole swathes of Britain are stuck in a post-industrial doldrums, especially in smaller towns in England and Wales. The left needs to win back these voters if it is to challenge the populists and the centre right. They have little clue as to how to do this, and distract themselves with other issues. Labour indulges in internecine strife. The Lib Dems are concentrating on rebuilding their core vote – i.e. focusing on the middle class vote.

But the cluelessness of the left in Britain struck me most forcibly from a comment made by the Green MP Caroline Lucas. She blamed the Brexit vote on austerity – government cutbacks since 2010 following the financial crisis. And yet the bulk of the disaffected voters were never very dependent on government jobs and handouts, and are often quite supportive of austerity policies, as they felt they hit the undeserving – immigrants and layabouts –  rather then themselves. Indeed, they benefited probably more than most from government generosity on raising tax allowances. It’s not austerity, it is the lack of decent jobs that is the problem. And government handouts are not the answer because these foster dependency and undermine people’s sense of self-worth.

The left starts with a cultural problem. They are by and large liberal, inclusive and cosmopolitan in outlook. This helps in coalition building generally, and especially in outreach to ethnic minorities, but it creates immediate distrust from native working classes. In order to overcome this the left needs to offer hard benefits – and that involves two things. Good quality jobs and decent public services. The left loves good public services too, of course – they provide lots of employment opportunities for their core supporters – though they are less certain how to pay for them as an aging population pushes up demand. But on jobs they have almost nothing to say.

Such talk as there is concerns macroeconomics. The left favours stimulating demand through generous fiscal policy to create jobs in the economy as a whole. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, talks of investing in infrastructure. This may be a good idea in itself, but by and large these policies create the wrong jobs in the wrong places. New housing, for example, needs to be built in the prosperous south east, where the shortage is greatest, and firms often have to import the workers from abroad because local ones lack the skills. Some infrastructure projects should help the economies of the more run-down regions, it is true, but these need to be part of a more coherent strategy of regeneration. Meanwhile the centre-right has cottoned on the ideas of infrastructure and regional redevelopment as well.

What to do? The first thing is accept that the problems of the disaffected working classes are more than a little local difficulty with conventional economic policy. It is an aspect of a broader crisis brought about by globalisation and technology change, and a blind spot in conventional economic thinking, with its emphasis on aggregated statistics like GDP, and one dimensional concepts of efficiency and productivity. It needs fresh thinking of a type that will be heavily criticised by the conventional public policy establishment. As fellow blogger David Boyle has pointed out, this is not necessarily a problem with economists, but with public servants tied to the old conventional wisdom.

The problem is that conventional policies are tied to highly centralised political structures and tend to concentrate the benefits of economic growth at the centres of power, while hollowing out the rest. While promising efficiency, it is in fact wasteful because it leaves so much human capital under-used. So political decentralisation is a large part of the solution. This is very hard for Britons to grasp, since we have been centralising since William the Conqueror in 1066. But countries with a more distributed history of political power, like Germany, Scandinavia and Switzerland, perform much better while having very similar cultural conditions.

But if political decentralisation is part of the answer, it is incomplete. The USA is politically highly decentralised and yet suffers similar problems of alienation. There localised political units have not been able to challenge the power of big corporate interests, who collect large monopoly profits and suck them out of the local economies in the name of economic efficiency. Wider national and international political structures need to keep these corporations in check, and yet too often they are captured by them. This is an unresolved battle in the European Union, incidentally, and the best reason to be sceptical of the EU project – though the EU also does much to counter global corporate power.

Meanwhile we need to stack the economic odds in favour of local entrepreneurship and innovation, and celebrate localised, human and integrated services that tailor service solutions to individuals. Much more public money needs to be channelled into rebuilding skills in de-industrialised regions – something Britain is woefully bad at by international standards (consider this interesting article in the Economist).

Some on the left are starting to get this. American Democrats are waking up to the evils of large corporate oligopolies. British Lib Dems are sympathetic to the decentralisation agenda. A number of Labour city leaders also grasp it. But it is complex and difficult area. It needs both grand visions to change mindsets and capture the imagination, and small, practical steps that will achieve the goals in an evolutionary way that convinces sceptics.

I will try to use this blog to help develop the new economic thinking in my very small way.