How we can make globalisation fairer

We need international action to halt the slide on corporation tax.

The world's wealthy and powerful have convened in the small Swiss town of Davos this week with income disparity high on the agenda. But although it tops the list of CEO risks, no one here appears clear about how to deal with the problem.

The global financial crash should have been the left's moment but now in the fifth year of the crisis, which unpicked many of the principal assumptions of neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus, social democrats and progressives are no closer to having an analysis about how to make the global economy work more equitably and sustainably.

The occupy movement have done much to raise awareness of the issue - spooking company bosses along the way - but they have been largely silent on alternatives, passing the buck to politicians. In the UK our elected representatives have fallen over one another to call for a more popular, responsible or mutualist form of capitalism but suggest micro measures at the domestic level. They miss the point that global fairness in a global economy starts at the global level.

A new report by IPPR, launched today in Davos, takes an analytical and historical look at globalisation to break it down into component parts and understand what has delivered progressive outcomes and what has failed. On the BBC's Today programme this morning, Lord Mandelson - who led our Globalisation project and wrote a foreword to the report - spoke of how markets, while indispensable, can become volatile and need to be regulated, and that globalisation creates income inequalities. Unlike the laissez faire approach to globalisation of the 1990s which appeared to see globalisation as an end in itself, we see that globalisation has the potential to lift people out of poverty and expand the global middle class, as it has most dramatically in China, but that it comes with risks too.

Chief among the risks are the prospect of a downward spiral on corporation tax and the excessive volatility inherent in some forms of capital mobility. The first has moved the tax burden away from global corporations towards individual income, consumption and domestic firms; the latter is part of a wider problem in the financial services sector where pay and performance have become unhinged with all the incentives geared at the short term gains rather than long term value.

Our report recommends concerted international action to halt the slide on corporation tax by making profits across Europe contingent on where sales, staff and production is actually based rather than where the head office is registered. We also push for a more widespread understanding that capital controls, which the IMF now advocate but other organizations like the WTO still oppose, are a legitimate policy in certain circumstances.

In surplus countries like China, health, unemployment and retirement insurance systems are key to reducing savings rates and increasing domestic demand. Conditional cash transfers, like, for example, former President Lula's 'bolsa familia' policy of giving poor families incentives to vaccinate their kids and send them to school, are also a good way of lifting living standards.

In current account deficit countries like the UK and US, the challenge is to increase levels of trade. The projected increases in the global middle class create huge export opportunities for Britain in educational services, higher education, medical devices,green technology, the creative industries and tourism as well as our more traditional comparative advantages such as financial services, aerospace and pharmaceuticals.

In addition we must ensure that consumption is based not on debt but on rising wages. Efforts to broaden the living wage is key to this but so too should countries like Britain reorient their welfare policies towards the crisis points that globalisation can cause like unemployment. Wage loss insurance, which would mean higher benefits when people lose their job but a requirement to pay it back when they return to employment, is another idea worth exploring. Ensuring that Britain

Meeting the concerns of citizens everywhere who feel anger at the growing disparities in society at a time of austerity is by no means easy. But it is essential if governments and CEOs are to avoid an even bigger populist backlash.

Will Straw is Associate Director at IPPR

Will Straw is Director of Britain Stronger In Europe, the cross-party campaign to keep Britain in the European Union. 

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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories