A "one nation market" could turn the economy on its head

Far beyond calls for a "responsible capitalism", Miliband should push for a "one nation market" that can really benefit the many, rather than the few.

We have absorbed the narrative and enjoyed the dynamism, but the great challenge will now rest in its practical execution. In the run up to the next election, the crucial divergences between the major political parties will concern the conversion of their philosophy into practice. While the underpinning philosophy can lend itself to subtlety, its execution will inevitably be quite different.

We have only glimpsed forthcoming Labour policy this conference season, but perhaps enough to gauge its general direction and approach. From Caroline Flint, the shadow energy and climate change secretary, have emerged plans to abolish the present energy regulator, Ofgem, and impose greater regulation on the country's retail energy market. And Gareth Thomas, the shadow minister for civil society, and Chris Leslie, the shadow financial secretary, have called for more stringent requirements on the banks to deliver on transparency and to invest a proportion of profits in communities - much like the Community Reinvestment Act pioneered in the US.

All of which is very well for those footing the bills. But for the "one nation" philosophy to really succeed, Ed Miliband - and those of all parties and none - must complement such regulation with a far more ambitious agenda. Far beyond calls for a "responsible capitalism", Miliband should push for a "one nation market" - a market that can really benefit the many, rather than the few.

Increased regulation of the energy retail market, for example, could see caps on energy bills and a relief for consumers, but will not in the long-term decentralise electricity distribution, or create greater retail competition to break up its supply. Policy should instead seek to grant "the many" the power to take hold of such markets and indeed open up the opportunity for communities and smaller groups to enter in.

As argued in a ResPublica paper published earlier this year, communities could  themselves be perceived as the potential producers and owners, rather than simply passive consumers, of their electricity generation and supply. A recent growth in co-operative energy models and a greater interest in community shares, have really revealed the nation's appetite for such widespread ownership and devolved investment to take place. "Responsible capitalism" may hold large energy companies to account, but a "one nation market" could turn a consolidated economy completely on its head.

Miliband's "one nation" call, coupled with Jon Cruddas's drive for a politics of the "common good" and a better "big society", has opened up the opportunity for such an agenda to emerge. Turning the philosophy into transformative practice will now be the challenge, and may indeed be the pivot upon which the next election is won or lost.

Caroline Julian is a senior researcher and project manager at the think-tank ResPublica, and co-author of Re-energising Our Communities: Transforming the energy market through local energy production

Ed Miliband applauds shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper at the Labour Party conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Caroline Julian is a senior researcher and project manager at the think-tank ResPublica.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.