How Blue Labour can outflank the coalition

There is a huge opportunity for Ed Miliband to borrow and adapt thinking from the centre right.

When political parties have been in government for a long time, they run out of new ideas. After their crushing defeat in 1997, it took an awfully long time for the Conservatives to even refresh their thinking. The process of intellectual renewal didn't begin in earnest until after 2001, when a new generation of think tanks were created to modernise the centre right.

Something similar is needed now on the centre left. A process of renewal is slowly starting. New groups like the Resolution Foundation are doing interesting work on stagnating wages. The Blue Labour project is interesting, as any group involving both James Purnell and Jon Cruddas is likely to be.

The problem is that this new thinking won't come to fruition for years yet. And that leaves Ed Miliband awfully exposed. Why not borrow and adapt some thinking from the centre right? There are plenty of opportunities to outflank the coalition.

I hear you groan. Of course, these days people are naturally suspicious of anything that smacks of "triangulation" or "outflanking". I understand why. Crass attempts to defeat your ideological opponents by turning yourself into them don't work in the long term. There is no point trying to out-racist the BNP. But there are a whole set of new ideas floating about on the centre right that can fit in with Labour voters' values.

Take the environment. Over the course of recent years, politicians have scrambled to catch up with the public, and have quickly cobbled together a framework of policies to be seen to be "doing something". Partly because of this scramble for headlines, our current set of policies are not particularly effective. We have some, like the climate change levy, which reduce carbon emissions at a cost of less than £4 a tonne. We have others, like feed-in tariffs and the renewable heat incentive, which do the same job, but at a cost which is orders of magnitude higher. (The feed in tariff is about £440 for the same tonne). Rationalising the higgledy-piggledy mix of overlapping instruments we now have would allow us to decarbonise more, at a lower cost. With energy bills now a front page issue again, and Labour voters most likely to feel the pinch, there is a huge political opportunity here: making things "greener and cheaper" is the winning position in the green debate. You could spend the savings on reducing fuel poverty.

Or think about welfare. Here, things are tricky. Public attitudes are often described by commentators as "tough". That's partially true, but is a rather superficial reading. It is true that there is a big political danger for Labour in being too associated with an uncritical defence of the welfare status quo. Voters quite rightly want to change a system that left 5-6 million working age adults on out-of-work benefits all the way through the long boom.

But there are public attitudes and policy opportunities that Labour can work with. The first is strong public support for the contributory principle -- the idea that those who make greater contributions will get more out of the welfare system. This was a core principle of the welfare state as designed by William Beveridge and Lloyd George, who regarded it as essential for both reasons of fairness and public support for the welfare state, and also to underpin incentives to work. But every time the UK has experienced fiscal problems, we have rinsed the contributory principle out of the system a little further, because it is politically tempting to hit those whose immediate needs are less severe. This process is still going on, and few people realise that the UK is an extreme outlier among developed countries in having moved so far away from this principle. Most other countries, from the US to Germany have contributory unemployment insurance at a higher rate than basic welfare payments.

Perhaps the most interesting concrete proposal to emerge from the "Blue Labour" discussions so far is a renewed interest in the contributory principle. But how to get from here to there? At Policy Exchange, we recently suggested allowing the creation of a personal welfare account that would sit above the new Universal Credit. However, that would take time and money to run up. As a first step, we could change things so that the conditions on receipt of welfare benefits (like the period in which you can turn down non-preferred jobs) were relatively more generous than for those with a record of national insurance contributions, compared to those without.

On crime too, there are relatively technocratic ideas floating around on the centre-right which Labour should be seizing on. Poor people are disproportionately likely to be the victims of crime. And polling by Lord Ashcroft suggests that crime has become the government's main vulnerability. The polls also show that the public are far "tougher" on crime than any of the main political parties are. But voters aren't thick either: given that money is tight, we need to be smart on crime, and use resources in the most effective way.

There are masses of things that could be done to improve the criminal justice system, which don't involve spending more money. Our prisons are awash with drugs, and the Metropolitan Police estimates that there are a thousand corrupt officers bringing them in. We will never make progress on rehabilitation until we sort this out. Prison work has been neglected and too few prisoners work. Meaningful work helps rehabilitation, and the money it would generate could be used to help victims and also to get prisoners to partially "pay for their stay." Community sentences are rightly regarded as a joke by the voters, because they fail to stop reoffending. We have proposed thaty they be replaced them with meaningful "work orders".

Despite Tony Blair's promise to be tough on the causes of crime, crime prevention efforts are still peripheral. And of course, there is much more that can be done to enable the police to do more with less: from the shift to individual patrolling (twice as many patrols for the same money) to the more targeted use of expensive warranted officers (they shouldn't be cleaning cars).

On schools, Labour needs a much clearer response to the coalition's expansion of the academies programme. Given that it was originally a Labour initiative, perhaps it is time to try and snatch the policy back. The new government has radically increased the number of academies by allowing existing schools to convert to academy status. And it has introduced new parent-driven free schools. But Andrew Adonis' original academies programme -- in which consistently failing schools are replaced by new schools -- is still up and running. Seven schools of this type, sponsored by individuals and institutions, opened in the first couple of months of this year. Unfortunately for Labour, the government are already moving to rebalance their agenda back towards the Adonis vision. Andy Burnham needs to move much quicker if he is going to grasp this opportunity.
Why not take Adonis' original concept and turbocharge it? Set the bar for failure far higher and aim to replace not tens but hundreds of schools that are failing less privileged children. You could push lots of public institutions to act as sponsors: every university in the country, for instance. If you wanted to make a political point and needle the Tories, you could push independent schools to act as sponsors too.

Trying to turn around a party after a long period in government is a tough gig, as William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith discovered. But there are all kinds of policy opportunities out there for Ed Miliband, if he chooses to take them.

Neil O'Brien is Director of Policy Exchange

Neil O'Brien is the director of Policy Exchange.

Getty
Show Hide image

From Netflix to rented homes, why are we less interested in ownership?

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences.

In 2008 the anthropologist Daniel Miller published a book based on an intimate study of 30 households on a single street in south London. The Comfort of Things ­explored the different kinds of relationships people have with what they own.

Miller described a retired couple’s house, cluttered with furniture, framed photographs and knick-knacks accumulated over decades. Down the road, a self-employed man called Malcolm had rented a flat. Malcolm preferred a spartan existence: he kept his belongings in storage, the better to travel at short notice, and conducted as much as possible of his life online. His home was his email address. His central material possession was his laptop.

Today, we are living more like the laptop warrior than the retired couple. Increasingly, our possessions are stored in the cloud or on a distant server. Just as we had grown accustomed to the idea of owning music in the form of data, we are now getting used to not owning it at all. In television, too, we stream instead of buy the latest drama series; when people use the term “box set” they are rarely referring to a box of discs on a shelf in the living room. Everything solid is melting into wifi.

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences. The proliferation of mobile apps enables us to source or supply whatever we want, for short periods, more easily than ever before. The “sharing economy” is not about sharing, however. I encourage my three-year-old daughter to share her toys with her little brother; I don’t suggest that she charge him an hourly fee for doing so. A better name for it is the Paygo (pay-as-you-go) economy.

The Paygo economy combines two intertwined phenomena: the rise of renting and the decline of stuff. If you are in your twenties and unburdened by wealth you may already have accepted that you will always be in hock to a landlord. If you are in the market for a car, you will probably be thinking about leasing it, or joining a car club, or waiting until Google makes car ownership obsolete. There are even apps that allow you to rent a dog rather than take on the responsibility of owning one.

A world in which we own less and rent more is not necessarily one in which consumers are empowered. You never really own the electronic versions of a book or a film – you can’t lend them to a friend or sell them on – because the publisher retains its rights over them. Even our photos aren’t ours any longer: they are owned by corporations that scrape them for data that can be sold. In a recent article, the Financial Times journalist Izabella Kaminska argued that “ownership of nothing and the rental of everything represents . . . the return of an authoritarian and feudalistic society”.

The Paygo economy is changing our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Possessions form part of what the marketing academic Russell Belk calls “the extended self”. In Daniel Miller’s book, he describes how objects, however trivial, can embody relationships. Each household’s collection of stuff – tacky souvenirs, CDs we borrowed and never gave back – forms a constellation of personal significance. Post-materialism does not equate with spiritual enrichment. “Usually the closer our relationships with objects,” Miller writes, “the closer our relationships are with people.”

Human beings have a deep-seated tendency to imbue physical items with the ­essence of their owner. Hence the market for rock-star memorabilia: an old guitar that has been played by John Lennon is more valuable, and more revered, than a new replica that has not.

We apply this intuition even to money, the units of which are, by definition, interchangeable. Psychologists who study “essentialism” have found that people are less likely to recommend that stolen or lost cash be returned when it has subsequently been deposited in a bank account, as opposed to remaining in paper notes.

When things evaporate, so does ­meaning. A fetish for owning things connects to a yearning to retain a distinct identity in the face of change. Japan has been economically stagnant for decades and, as a result (and perhaps a cause), has preserved a set of idiosyncratic social norms, at odds with the rest of the developed world. One of these is a strong preference for owning music in a physical form: 85 per cent of the music bought in this technologically advanced society is on CD or vinyl. Japan is also the last developed country to rely on fax machines. A fax, unlike an email or the past, is something you can hold on to.

One way of framing the central arguments of British politics is that they are about the rights of owners versus renters – and not just in the sense of home ownership. Long-standing Labour members believe they own the party, and are outraged both by Momentum clicktivists and £3 voters. What appals many who voted Leave in the EU referendum is the thought that migrants can, in effect, rent a livelihood from the UK, treating the country as a giant Airbnb host. They want to know if this is still their country, or if they are now merely tenants of it.

Most younger voters chose Remain, but relatively few of them voted. That was a function of their lack of home ownership as much as age: millennials who rent are nearly half as likely to vote in elections as their peers who have managed to get on to the property ladder. This is partly a product of the mundane business of spending enough time in one place to get on the electoral roll, but it nonetheless suggests that renters form weaker bonds with the society in which they live.

For centuries, what we own has been an important way of placing ourselves in relation to those around us. The 18th-century curiosity cabinet was a collection of objects used to display the erudition and refinement of its owner. In the 20th century, houses became showcases. Your curtains, your car and your choice of decor said who you were or wanted to be. This was the era of what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”. In the Paygo economy, we will have fewer things of our own to ­display, as our possessions dematerialise and we rent more of what we need.

Despite all this, human nature has not changed: we are still apes with status anxiety, endlessly preoccupied by our position in any given hierarchy, eager for ways to convey our aspirations and allegiances. So we find other ways to signal. Rather than deploy what we own to say who we are, we use our photo streams and status updates to show it, even going so far as to arrange our meals and holidays with the aim of generating impressive on-brand content.

The vacuum of meaning opened up by the disappearance of stuff may even have increased the stridency of our political debate. One way I can let people know who I am is by loudly asserting my membership of a political tribe.

If I can’t show off my possessions, I will show off my beliefs.

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times