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.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.