Frustrated Labour moderates are always heard proclaiming the need to deliver a ‘pro-business’ message before the next election, in order to capture those middle-ground votes and 10 per cent swing. While probably true, it does raise an important issue – how can we balance the interests of private enterprise with progressive politics?
It is a question that has troubled Labour since the financial crash of 2008, when the financial meltdown exposed the worst excesses of global capitalism. Since then, the party has struggled to balance the fears and frustrations of its traditional support base, alarmed at increasing wage inequality, with the demands of the aspirational for growth and opportunity. In the build-up to the election, Ed Miliband proposed a compromise by supporting ‘good’ business while holding ‘bad’ business to account. As with much of Ed’s campaign an interesting principle was lost behind an ill-conceived soundbite – but with more definition the idea of stimulating and encouraging innovative business, while tempering regressive cronyism and rent-seeking, could form the basis of a progressive business policy.
To do this, we need to lose some of the dogma. We need to stop applying 19th century principles to 21st century problems – society is no longer defined by oppressors and the oppressed. For sure, there are countless examples of worker exploitation in Britain today, but often this is down to poor management within individual organisations or the monopolistic effects of inefficient markets, rather than some inherent flaw with business itself. We should acknowledge that most of the positive advances in society today stem in large part from the profit motive – from the smartphones that have revolutionised communication to the medical advances that underpin our NHS, businesses have generated the innovation that improves lives.
Obviously, we on the left are also all too aware that many have been left behind by the globalisation of the world economy, and that for every creative burst of the new there must be painful destruction of the old. We should also never forget the important role the state plays in business development, from tax breaks and research grants, to provision of infrastructure without which the economy would simply not function. Capitalism, for all its benefits, certainly has its vices and victims. Labour must always strive to mitigate these effects, protecting the vulnerable without stifling the creative drive that feeds our economy. We must remember that in order to redistribute wealth you first have to create it, and that involves private enterprise and profits.
How can we define our own vision of what it means to be pro-business? Well, we could do a lot worse than shift some of the focus in language from ‘workers’ to ‘consumers’. By standing up for consumers, we represent the everyman, regardless of gender, income or race – everyone in society is a consumer. Emphasising consumer rights has the potential to achieve that mythical balance, it can keep businesses dynamic and improve efficiency, but also ensure that markets are fair, and avoid exploitative monopolies.
Second, we should be promoting a reduction in the barriers to starting and developing businesses, including the ability of companies to enter closed markets, such as energy and banking. This would not only move our economy away from the too-big-to-fail corporations that held the world to ransom in 2008, it would provide an appealing counternarrative to the Tories. Conservatives, as their name suggests, are about keeping the status quo, so while Tories represent monopolies and vested interests, Labour should stand for innovation and fair competition.
Finally, as technological advances consign many traditional occupations to history, we should develop policies that ensure people from all backgrounds are fully equipped to take their place in the modern economy. In their book The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee spell out the demands this will place on a future society. Some, such as French finance minister Emmanuel Macron, are already looking about how we can build socialist principles around this future.
We in Progress should be doing the same. Too often in the past Labour has been portrayed as a Luddite impediment to economic progress, insisting on propping up defunct sectors against inevitable job losses rather than fighting to ensure these people can be retrained to find a role in new enterprises. To do this, and equip the British people with the skills required to maximise their potential, we need to work collaboratively with businesses now to ensure they develop alongside our progressive values rather than against them.
Mathewe Bennett is a member of Progress. He tweets @MatheweBennett
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