Trade unions: No room for romance

Economists don't dominate British politics. In fact, they aren't listened to enough.

Whatever happened to the passion of post-war British politics?

What became of: "U-turn if you want to"?; of "The only limits of power are the bounds of belief"?; of Arthur Scargill and Jimmy Reid? Of the drys and the wets? Of volatile picket lines and rousing demos? And beyond our shores, where are the Mitterands, Kohls, Gorbachevs and de Klerks of today? The Occupy movement swept loudly across the globe – and there’s not a soundbite to show for it.

Perhaps 24-hour news channels and social media make it easier to communicate policy without using impassioned oratory to create a memorable message. But it is more fundamental than that: mainstream politics itself has moved to the centre. Blair and Cameron dragged their respective parties kicking and screaming into the centre ground, because it is where the votes are. For Blair’s New Labour, this meant shaking off the stereotypes of socialism; for Cameron, the "nasty party" image. And recently, there is a more potent force at work:

Economics.

When times are good, economists are seen as tweed-wearing philosophers, their Nobel prizes viewed alongside those for Literature and Peace. When confident, efficient markets are creating growth, there is no need for academic theorists.

But as soon as recession looms, they are dusted off and brought out as scientific advisers, their theories and models no less venerated than those that uncovered the Higgs boson. Radical party ideologies take a back seat to the rational, value-free, scientific rigour of the dismal science. Already, Greece and Italy have surrendered their governments to economic technocrats.

Ironically, the economics profession itself is growing healthily. In the 1930s, following the Great Depression, enrollments in economics degrees shot up, and a recent paper shows that this trend has been replicated after the latest global financial crisis (the author is a guilty passenger on this bandwagon). Both The Economist and the Financial Times have reported record circulation figures this year.

So if the science of economics reigns in Westminster today, what kind of policies should we expect?

The central tenet of economics is the efficient allocation of resources. Therefore we might expect Government to become a vehicle for cost-benefit analyses and utilitarian policies. But Britain still has a fully elected government – shouldn’t it govern according to the ideology those who elected it expected? Economics tries to be value free. But governments are supposed to make value judgements; to select policies that their voters have given them a mandate to enact – and the vast majority of voters are not economists.

However, for the time being, polls continue to show that fixing the economy is by far the most important issue to voters. This gives both sides of the political spectrum a unique opportunity.

Just as the nationalistic protectionism of the 1930s plunged the world economy into a depression, so the ideological policies of the last 30 years are to blame for much of the recent global crisis. The Euro project ignored decades of economic theory in order to pursue a political utopia. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were lent on by politicians to provide mortgages for poor people who clearly couldn’t afford them. And the banks were allowed to dish out leveraged loans and investments like punch at a party. A rational government would and should have made the unpopular decision to take the punchbowl away, but as Professor Brian Cox said this week on, well, This Week: "you might make it that you have to base your policies on evidence… but that would make it very hard to get elected".

Never has the time been better to change that. Just as businesses have recently had to make efficiency savings, so political parties should prune ideological policies that fly in the face of economic rationale. Joseph Schumpeter’s mantra of "creative destruction" should be applied to beliefs.

For the Tory party, this might mean ditching the Euroscepticism; the single market- and the immigration that comes with it- is an asset to this country. But far more pertinently, the time is right for Labour to renegotiate its relationship with the trade unions.

Try a Google search of the following terms: "economic benefits of immigration" – over 50,000 results; "economic benefits of the euro" – almost 3 million results; "economic benefits of trade unions" – just one result.

Trade unions force up wages meaning that employers can employ less people – they increase unemployment. This might seem against the grain of socialism but when viewed from a rational economic perspective it makes perfect sense: as long as the workers that have paid their Union fees get a better deal, why should Union bosses care about the wider economy?

This is especially important for one economist in particular: Ed Miliband. His speech at last Saturday’s Fabian conference was preceded by a Q&A with Jon Cruddas who spoke of the two sides of the Labour Party; the rational, pragmatic side of Progress and the Fabians and the "romantic" socialist side of the Trade unions.

As the dull, calculated rationale of economics continues to proliferate, there is little room in politics for romance or passion. And that is no bad thing. Most of us mere mortals are more concerned with employment and cheque-writing than empowerment and speech-writing.

For Ed Miliband, his love may long have been a red, red rose, but the time has come for that rose to be pruned.

Jon Cruddas launching his deputy leadership bid in 2007. Photograph: Getty Images

Dom Boyle is a British economist.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses