Why "predistribution" could be a winning agenda for Miliband

How the state can act to prevent inequalities arising in the first place.

"Predistribution", a concept that Ed Miliband discusses in his interview in this week's New Statesman, is one that is easily mocked. But it represents an idea that is central to the challenge of building a fairer economy - that the state, rather than merely ameliorating inequalities through the tax and benefits system, should act to ensure that they do not arise in the first place. (See this recent piece by Yale professor Jacob Hacker, the man who coined the term). To this end, it should legislate for policies such as a living wage and introduce curbs on predatory energy and rail companies, pursuing what Miliband's consigliere, Stewart Wood, has called a "supply-side revolution from the left". As he wrote in a piece earlier this year:

We will need different kinds of banks and stronger competition in the banking industry; corporate governance reforms to incentivise good ownership models and longer-term business strategies; ensuring that companies see the continuing upskilling of their workers as an obligation and not simply a luxury; and the courage to challenge vested interests in the economy that charge excessive prices for energy or train fares and squeeze families' living standards.

In his speech to today's Policy Network conference, Miliband will elaborate on this theme, stating that while redistribution will remain a "key aim of the next Labour government", a greater focus on predistribution is needed. He will advance two main arguments for this claim. Firstly, that the failure of the last Labour government to reduce inequality proves that while redistribution is "necessary" it is "not sufficient", and secondly, that the fiscal constraints a Labour administration will face (based on current forecasts, it would inherit a deficit of £96.1bn or 5.8% of GDP) mean that it will be not able to increase tax credits (the last Labour government's primary redistributive instrument) in the manner that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did.

The great strength of predistribution is that it does not cost the state a penny to pursue. Rather than relying on taxation to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, Miliband will harness the instruments of legislation and regulation. Rail companies, for instance, would be barred from raising fares by more than 1% above inflation. As he will say in his speech:

As with much of Miliband's "responsible capitalism" agenda, more detail is required (which, given that we're still not even halfway through this parliament, is hardly surprising) but the ambition is admirable. Under the rubric of predistribution, Labour can finally adopt the kind of policies that will have a transformative effect on the living standards of working people.

In his speech at the Policy Network conference, Miliband will say that redistribution is "necessary" but "not sufficient". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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