How the left can be radical without spending money

Balls's speech made way for a new agenda that is profoundly exciting.

Balls's speech made way for a new agenda that is profoundly exciting.{C}

Ever noticed how shutting one door can open another? This week Labour's staunchest champion of growing our way out of the deficit acknowledged that he could well be making cuts in 2015. The left, personified by Owen Jones and Len McCluskey, were up in arms. They think we've lost the possibility of being radical. I say we've opened it up.

The modern left frequently makes one mistake. They assume that the most significant means government has of transforming lives is through taxing and spending, traditionally known as the "demand" side of the economy. They have left the supply side - the rules that govern the price of labour and capital - to the right.

But what if, at a time of pressure to reduce government spending, the left could develop an agenda for the supply side of the economy that delivered meaningful change?

It's not surprising we're sceptical. Because the right have dominated such policy in the past, such an agenda is associated with smashing unions to decrease the cost of labour, deregulating capital to enrich the fortunate or privatising at the expense of quality.

But supply side policy doesn't have to be regressive. It's just a tool that's been used in the wrong way. Most recently, Ed Miliband has been talking about a number of supply side policies that are courageous, imaginative and proudly consistent with the values of the left.

The most high profile example is his attack on certain energy and transport companies. We know that these markets are sown up, so increasing competition and regulation will deliver a fairer result. The living wage is another example. Government contracts that build in apprenticeships and local investment is another. The High Pay Commission's work on wage transparency and shareholder representation on boards is another. Cutting down on corporate tax havens as Miliband just outlined is another. Breaking up the banks takes this one step further.

Although it needs sexier branding, these supply side policies are all part of what Miliband calls "responsible capitalism". It's why Blue Labour is interesting.

These policies have three big advantages. First, they don't cost anything. Second, they make people's lives better. Third, they are much closer to where the public is at. I appreciate the arguments made by Owen Jones, but I don't think he has appreciated the scale of anger there is about a perceived waste of public money by Labour in the good times.

As someone who remembers what it was like to not have enough chairs in their classroom, I'm never going to apologise for investing in schools, and you'll never hear me say that government spending isn't essential and necessary. But waste on IT contracts, PFI and middle managers? I'm happy to apologise for some of that.

And as Ed Balls said this week, a true Keynesian is sometimes a hawk. If you genuinely believe we should be running a programme of increased spending now, then you have to acknowledge that we should have spent less when the economy was booming. The idea that Keynesians believe in high spending throughout the cycle misses the point completely.

So let's not get confused - Labour is still saying that we should cut less fast and less deep now, but with the OBR estimating we'll be 18 per cent poorer as a result of the recession, the state will be smaller once we're out of this mess. And that means a progressive supply side agenda.

If we do that, then Ball's speech wasn't a sign of giving up and following the Tories slowly back to the middle ground. It was a necessary part of gaining credibility with the public to make way for a new agenda that is profoundly exciting. Interestingly, it's one that Miliband is leading, not the shadow chancellor. The left shouldn't abandon ship, it should get on board.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit