Time for hardheaded thinking
In Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall the main character, neurotic comedian Alvy Singer, notes that ‘sun is bad for you. Everything our parents said was good is bad: sun, milk, red meat, college.’ I was reminded of this line sitting through Tuesday night’s Progress debate on creating a new economy. In their haste to read the last rites of the economic consensus of the past 30 years, most panel members rejected the received wisdom of earlier generations.
Chuka Umunna, Stewart Wood and Neal Lawson broadly shared the view that the existing economic consensus had unfairly rewarded those at the top of the income scale at the expense of middle and lower earners. A fair point, but it left some questions unanswered: Should progressives be concerned at the reduced share of wages in GDP, given diffuse share ownership and high levels of wage inequality? Would a living wage undermine attempts to reduce unemployment? Where would money for more apprenticeships and training come from? The panel members have surely considered these points but did not address them. Margaret Hodge refreshingly set out tough choices by questioning our commitment to universalism in welfare provision and calling for the burden of taxation to be shifted from income to wealth.
Presumably because he was addressing a Progress audience, Neal Lawson wisely refrained from bemoaning the lack of health and safety references in the film Titanic, as he recently did in the Guardian. Instead he drew on broad themes of how citizens were becoming pressurised into ever-greater consumption. This is not a new complaint, but I wonder whether the quasi-Athenian model of engaged citizenship that Lawson calls for is wanted by more than a handful of people. It was left to Jonathan Portes, the only non-Labour speaker on the panel, to provide a solid defence of the previous government’s record by highlighting, among other achievements, advances in productivity compared to our peers.
Missing was a coherent picture of a radical alternative economy and the measures that would be needed to bring it about. For all the attacks on the status quo, the solutions seemed to be for a bit more regulation, more money spent on training, and a higher minimum wage. The danger for Labour is that we sell the British public short by offering a set of worthy yet moderate reforms despite promising a revolution.
To move Labour’s economic debate from the seminar room to the cabinet room, we need to shift from broad-brush aspirations to hard-headed policies. The last time Labour won a sustainable majority under anyone other than Tony Blair was in 1966, showing that there are some old electoral truths we would be unwise to question. Key among these is that to win elections Labour cannot be seen as hostile to personal aspiration, consumer choice, and fiscal rectitude. This is important, because as a truly radical thinker once famously said: ‘philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.’
Stephen Longden is a member of Progress
apprenticeships, Chuka Umunna, Guardian, Jonathan Portes, Labour, living wage, Margaret Hodge, minimum wage, Neal Lawson, Progress, Stewart Wood, Tony Blair