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

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation