One Nation Labour looks more like West Germany than East

If Cameron wants an accurate comparison for Labour's policies, he should look to modern Germany.

David Cameron told the Sun yesterday that Ed Miliband’s "one nation" philosophy "sounded more like East Germany than Great Britain". The irony here is that what few policies Labour has revealed look startlingly like the political economy of the Federal Republic of Germany more than anything else. 

Workers on company boards

Labour has pledged to put an employee on the remuneration committee of large companies. What has gone unnoticed about this policy is that remuneration committees are a subcommittee of companies’ board of directors: putting an elected employee on the committee would mean having at least one on the company’s board. Miliband hinted as much in his first conference Q&A.

In Germany, large firms’ supervisory boards are 50% elected by workers, and 50% by shareholders – a process called co-determination, or Mitbestimmungsgesetz. The supervisory board in turn elects the firm’s management board and approves all major decisions. This system where workers and capital owners play fairly equal parts is in contrast to the Anglosphere view of company boards as being the exclusive petty fiefdom of shareholders.

It’s not surprising that Ed Miliband has sold this co-determination policy indirectly, in terms of tackling executive pay – reform of corporate governance is hardly sexy stuff for the electorate. While one worker is hardly going to be able to outvote shareholders, Miliband’s former senior policy advisor Sonia Sodha tells me the policy is "an important first step to something more significant".

Vocational qualifications and apprenticeships

Technical and vocational schools are a fundamental part of Germany’s economy, where vocational education actually outstrips academic study and about half of 16-18 year old school leavers take apprenticeships – compared to 9% in the UK.

Two Labour policies lean in this direction: Ed Miliband’s big conference announcement that he would introduce a new "Technical Bacc" route for the "forgotten 50%" not going into higher education was welcomed by further education leaders as a strong way of promoting technical education. Ed’s pledge that all public contractors would have to offer apprenticeship schemes to be considered for tender it also designed change the situation where under a third of large UK firms offer apprenticeships – and bring it closer to the German state of affairs, where nearly all do.

State investment bank

Founded in 1948 as part of the Marshall Plan, Germany’s state investment bank, the KfW, or Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau - meaning Reconstruction Credit Institute, is a cornerstone of the country’s active industrial policy. The country’s technology minister sits on the bank’s 37-member board. 

The bank provides cheap finance for housing projects, environmental projects and small and medium sized businesses, particularly those looking to export. Widely regarded as the "safest bank in the world", in the words of the bank’s Chair Ulrich Schroeder, the KfW is active "only in areas where the market does not provide a satisfactory solution".

Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna visited Germany in February to take a look at the country’s banking system, including the not-for profit Sparkassen and local-authority controlled Landsbanks: it’s not hard to see the connection between Mr Schroeder’s views, Labour’s state investment bank policy, and Miliband’s explicit aim to address market failure in SME finance.

Cooperative trade unions

In Miliband’s second Q&A to the Labour conference, he spoke of a role for business and trade unions as partners in enterprise rather than adversaries. Ed cited the car industry and the Olympics as an example of the sort of cooperation he’d like to see between unions and employers.

This kind of cooperation is straight out of German political economy. On top of participating in institutionalised co-determination, German unions are otherwise central to the country’s economic strategy. In the British car industry Miliband speaks of unions actually hold down wages: this is the strategy of German manufacturing exporters, who held down their unit labour cost, internally devaluing the cost of their exports to other countries and causing an export boom that left them with a €140.3bn trade surplus in 2010 – the highest in the EU. (Conversely, UK has the biggest deficit.) This is, incidentally, the internal devaluation which the PIIGS countries are now struggling to replicate through austerity in order to be able to compete in export markets.

Labour’s support for a public sector pay freeze was justified in terms of prioritising "jobs over wages". If this attitude continues then expect to see it implicitly articulated for the private sector as well.

Under Miliband's leadership, Labour has looked to Germany's social market economy for inspiration. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jon Stone is a political journalist. He tweets as @joncstone.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.