Ed Miliband's challenge

Shifting economic paradigms won't be easy.

Ed Miliband told us in his speech to the Labour Party conference earlier this week that he wants to see a new type of economy: one with different aims and values from those that prevailed during much of the last 30 years. Bringing about such change will not be easy. In a new IPPR paper, David Nash and I show how resistant to change economic paradigms can be.

As Martin Kettle argues, if Ed Miliband wants a new type of economy in Britain, he will have to argue long and hard for it. He will have to continually highlight the flaws in the existing model and he will need to make a persuasive case for the alternative. This week his framing of this important argument was not strong enough and as a consequence, it has been more easily criticised and caricatured than it might have been.

Distinguishing between "predators" and "producers" was an unnecessary hostage to fortune as the shadow cabinet discovered when defending the speech to the national media. The arguments of thinkers such as Will Hutton, Anatole Kaletsky and William Baumol over different models of capitalism got obscured as Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan resisted the temptation to list good and bad businesses. And without a stage managed letter to the Financial Times from company CEOs calling for a level playing field on apprenticeships or placing workers on remuneration committees, the new policy nuggets were easily picked off by a hostile media.

Nonetheless, Miliband's analysis of the flaws in the existing economic model was sound as the Telegraph's Peter Oborne has recognised. After all, it allowed the worst financial crisis since the 1930s to develop and this was followed by the deepest recession in the post-war era, both in the UK and globally. There is also a growing recognition that, even in the good times before the financial crisis, the economy was only delivering for the wealthiest in society. In the UK, living standards for those on median incomes stopped improving after 2003 - a full four years before the crisis.

And yet there is nothing to suggest that a paradigm change is imminent. Indeed, apart from some toughening of the regulations covering the banking sector (and then less than might have been expected three years ago), it is largely business as usual. There has been no great change in the way economic policy is designed and implemented, no change in the objectives of economic policy and no change the dominant strands of academic economic thinking.

Perhaps, things have not been bad enough for paradigm change to occur. Unemployment has increased sharply, but at around 8 per cent it is considerably below the 20 per cent plus levels seen in the Great Depression: levels that eventually helped create the conditions for the Keynesian Revolution in economic thinking and policymaking. Nor does the combination of 5 per cent inflation and 8 per cent unemployment feel as bad as the 27 per cent inflation and 6 per cent unemployment that were experienced in 1975.

More importantly, there are not enough new economic ideas waiting in the wings to coalesce into a new economic paradigm. Keynes said that it takes a theory to kill a theory and Kuhn argued that a paradigm cannot be displaced by anomalies, only by another paradigm. But the economics profession continues to resist change because it has invested so much intellectual capital in the wrong models and is reluctant to admit its mistakes.

In the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher, Keith Joseph and others in the Conservative Party were able to work with critics of Keynesian thinking, such as think tanks like the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies, to develop the ideas of the Chicago monetarist school into policies that could be implemented in the UK. The politicians helped give support and credibility to the new way of thinking, and in return benefited from appearing more up-to-date in their ideas than their political rivals in government.

Ed Miliband's primary problem is that there is no new well-developed economic model - comparable to monetarism in the 1970s - sitting on the shelf waiting for him to pick it up and champion it. He therefore faces a tough decision. Does he want to tinker at the edges with the existing model - a bit more banking regulation here, an employee representative on a company board there? In some ways, that would be the easy option. But it will hardly distinguish him from David Cameron and George Osborne.

Or is he prepared to make the case for more radical change and to champion those independent voices in economics that are not heard enough? This might involve rethinking the objectives of macroeconomic policy, for example by giving the Monetary Policy Committee a dual mandate to target inflation and full employment (in line with the US Federal Reserve's mandate), or requiring explicit targeting of asset prices. It might involve developing new objectives for economic policy that take account of the distribution of income; of non-monetary measures of progress such as wellbeing; or of future resource constraints. Or it might involve abandoning altogether the solutions proposed by traditional economics in favour of new ways of economic thinking, which better describe the real word, such as complexity economics.

Such an approach would be riskier. It would be a real call for a new economic paradigm and shifting economic paradigms is not easy. There would be an inevitable backlash from beneficiaries of the status quo - the wealthy and the right-wing press.

But the prospect of a decade of stagnating living standards for the bulk of the population suggests a big change in thinking is required. History suggests a shift in the economic paradigm requires political support and if Ed Miliband is prepared to take up the challenge, he could help to forge a new approach to economic policymaking in the UK. The added bonus for him would be greater differentiation between current Labour Party thinking and both its own past and the government's approach.

Tony Dolphin is Chief Economist at IPPR

Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle