The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog

RSS

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.

Ed Miliband answers questions from delegates at the Labour conference.
Under Miliband's leadership, Labour has looked to Germany's social market economy for inspiration. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.

Next Article