Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Progressive capitalism

Why Labour needs a new political economy

—There is no doubt in my mind that the recent Labour government suffered from not having a credible, alternative political economy to neoliberalism; that is, it had no alternative view of what role the state should play in the economy. The third way was not a piece of political economy but simply a political positioning statement, as is the ‘big society’. To the extent that we had a political economy, it was neoliberalism plus an enhanced welfare state. As a result we were slow to see how dysfunctional financial markets were becoming and we had few ideas about what role the state should play in supporting economic growth.

I do not think, however, that we should beat ourselves up too much about this failure, for two reasons. First, no one had produced a new progressive political economy since Tony Crosland wrote The Future of Socialism in 1956, and, if one had been produced, I doubt if it would have been enthusiastically received, as neoliberalism so dominated political and economic thought in the last 35 years. The words of John Stuart Mill in his Principles of Economics in 1848 describe for me exactly the situation we faced. ‘It often happens that the universal belief of one age of mankind – a belief from which no one was, nor without any extraordinary effort of genius or courage, could at that time be free – becomes to a subsequent age so palpable and absurd, that the only difficulty is to imagine how such a thing can ever have appeared credible.’

At the same time, I believe that now neoliberalism has been seen to have major flaws, it is vitally important that we develop a new progressive political economy to guide us in the years ahead. The Labour party is never electorally successful when it is seen simply as a party of protest and redistribution. It has also to be seen as a party of economic reform which can increase the growth rate of the country and improve people’s standard of living. In 2015, after five years of failed economic policies, this is going to be even more the case.

I have, therefore, sought in my book Progressive Capitalism to set out what a new progressive political economy should look like.

The cornerstone of this new progressive political economy is a firm belief in capitalism, which for this purpose can best be defined by two simple features. First, it is a system in which most of the assets are privately owned and, second, it is a system where production is guided and income distributed largely through the operation of markets. It is these two features which differentiate the economy we have in most developed countries today from that of either, for example, feudal England or 20th century Russian communism.

There will be some people who will try to portray my book as an attack on capitalism, but it should be seen as a defence of capitalism. A major theme of the book is that the failures of capitalism we have seen in recent years are not an inherent part of it, and can be corrected by a programme of economic reform.

As well as being based on a firm belief in capitalism, progressive capitalism also incorporates what I believe are the three defining beliefs of progressive thinking. These are the crucial role of institutions, the need for the state to be involved in their design in order to resolve conflicting interests and provide public goods, and the use of social justice, defined as fairness, as an important measure of a country’s economic performance.

In particular the state needs to make certain that the four key institutions which affect economic growth are working efficiently. They are the institutions which underpin financial and labour markets; a country’s corporate governance institutions; a country’s education and training system; and its national system of innovation, which can be defined as the network of institutions in the public and private sectors whose activities and interactions initiate, import, modify and diffuse new technologies.

I am mainly interested in the theory of progressive capitalism because I believe it can be used to develop better economic policies and ultimately lead to a country’s better economic performance. Therefore, in the second half of my book I look at how this new progressive political economy can be used by politicians and policymakers to produce economic reform for a country. I do this by analysing and producing reforms for the UK’s equity markets, its system of corporate governance, its national system of innovation and its education and training system, as it is quite clear that in all of these four areas the UK has major institutional deficiencies. Finally, Progressive Capitalism describes the role the state should play in the economy – an enabling one, rather than the command-and-control role of traditional socialism or the minimalist role of neoliberalism.

No one, I believe, wants to go back to the failed policies of the 1960s and 1970s, to a world of national plans, nationalised industries and income policies. But there is a danger that a future Labour government, without a new political economy to guide it, will do little to stimulate growth or will disastrously start intervening in the decision-making of companies, as in the past. I believe, however, that if the Labour party takes on board the new progressive political economy I have outlined, it will help it to draw up a credible programme of economic reform which, in the words on the cover of my book, will enable a future Labour government to ‘achieve economic growth, liberty and social justice’.


David Sainsbury is a member of the House of Lords and former minister for science and innovation. Progressive Capitalism is published on 14 May by Biteback. Buy it at the special price of £11.99 by visiting and entering the code: PROGRESSIVE

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David Sainsbury

is former minister for science and innovation


  • “No one, I believe, wants to go back to the failed policies of the 1960s and 1970s, to a world of national plans, nationalised industries and income policies”, erm, sorry David you might just be wrong there. So far as I can see privatisation has been a disaster for the utilities and rail. Nationalisation might have had its weaknesses – leaving the original bosses in charge, in some cases – so may need rethinking, but to abandon it altogether as a tool for making society fairer and more equal, no way.

  • I will restrict myself, for the moment, to commenting briefly on one aspect of this article, the definition of capitalism.

    Faute de mieux (for want of anything better), we have capitalism. It works, but for many reasons has a tendency to cause instability. The items in the definition are:-

    (1) “…most of the assets may be privately owned…”

    But some may be, or become, part of monopolies or part of oligopolies. In this category, I would put the utilities and, probably, the big banks. Competition is artificial and price regulation is a sad attempt to make the best of a bad job of privatisation (they should have become mutuals – and may become so in the future (see )). There isn’t necessarily harm in most of the assets being privately owned, but it needs constant attention to ward off monopolistc tendencies (“the rich get richer….”).

    (2) “…production is guided and income distributed largely through the operation of markets…”

    As we have seen lately, markets are so easily rigged, the prime example being LIBOR. The concept of a market is based on lots of buyers and lots of sellers, but prices are ephemeral and asymmetry of information can make the outcome of a market transaction unfair. Markets can be great for participants for whom the outcome of an individual transaction has marginal effect on their wealth, but those with little wealth (bargaining power) can get screwed (“the poor get poorer”).

    It’s an imperfect world and all we can do is to keep trying, bit by bit, to make it better.

    P.S. to the writer (David): I did go to your very interesting lecture at LSE on Monday evening. I came away wondering how the Labour Party was going to gain voter support when it under the onslaught of Tory misinformation about the “deficit”.

  • ‘ I came away wondering how the Labour Party was going to gain voter
    support when it under the onslaught of Tory misinformation about the

    This is the single biggest challenge facing the labour Party and the Leadership need to start hitting it hard now.

  • In
    my view ‘Positive Money’ have the answer to this. The private banks
    should not be allowed to create the money supply as they have done
    increasingly rapidly in recent years up to the inevitable crash. 97% of
    our money has been created in this way in a totally
    uncontrolled manner and to the priorities of the banks, not to the
    priorities of society. Banks create money when they make loans. They
    create entirely new money. They do not as is erroneously believed act as
    agents between savers and borrowers. This money
    they create has to be repaid with interest (nice work if you can get
    it). That’s why we’re in the financial mess the world is in. For more
    information visit

  • Lord Sainsbury is against neoliberalism (which so seduced all and sundry) and the detrimental practices of the financial services industry. When he was a minister, he probably had more experience of big finance than the whole of the Cabinet put together.

    It being politics, that might have been a reason to keep him away from the Treasury.

    However, had he been allowed to revamp the whole of the Government’s way of looking at finance, he might have been able to bring in some rationality and sustainability.

    Had he done so, taxpayers might now understand the true costs of what they are getting (or wish to get). It would be easier to highlight the areas where public expenditure is more effective than private expenditure (eg social insurance). The muddle of accounting for National Insurance contributions would be gone. Businesslike accounting for investment expenditure, as opposed to recurrent spending, would allow us to build for a future.

    We might now not be living on borrowed money, the accounting scam of PFI would have been kept under control and the “deficit” could have been a non-problem.

    It is still not to late for the Labour Party to spell out, loud and clear, the grizzy detail of how the “deficit” arose, why it was necessary, how the financial services industry betrayed the people (not just the British people, but others in the world) and how the Government at the time was deceived.

    Mea culpas by the last lot, still inadequate, are necessary but what is needed now is an action plan which puts the interests of the British people first.

  • There have been other progressive political economy perspectives in recent years, most notably Will Hutton’s ‘State We’re In’, which predicted some of this financial mess we’re in. His arguments are still relevant.

  • There is a postscript to my comment for David Cook.

    In my Financial Times of 5th July 2013, I see an article by Sarah Neville, Public Policy Editor. It is headlined: “Mandarins face finance lessons” and the text contains the words: “Lord Sainsbury will act as external adviser.”

    What sort of lessons the mandarins receive remains to be seen, but the article implies that it would be good if they actually knew what was going on. That is stage one. Further stages will require thought being put into devising accounting systems that take into account long-term effects of government activity, inflation and more sophisticated objectives than balancing, or not balancing, the books each financial year.

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