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.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.