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:


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.

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation