2008 Wish List

The UK directors of major NGOs tell us what they would like to see happen in 2008

Shami Chakrabarti - Liberty

These seasonal lists are normally a bit of polemic mixed with an ounce of idle hope. Not so this time. I sense the beginnings of a new progressive consensus for fundamental rights and freedoms in the UK. Arguments for extending pre-charge detention in anti-terror cases have collapsed beyond repair but unlike her recent predecessors, the Home Secretary has had the sense not to close the door to further movement. Across democratic politics and every strand of society, people know that a belief in human dignity, equal treatment and justice could yet unite and embolden the oldest unbroken democracy on Earth.

Barbara Stocking – Oxfam

For 2008 I wish for an end to the conflict in Darfur. From January 1st I wish for a UN/ African Union force in Darfur which is able to protect the people, especially the women, who are subject to appalling attacks. That for me would also make it possible for us to regain some access to the many people in need by dealing with the banditry which is putting civilians and humanitarian workers at risk.

Then I would like to see an inclusive peace agreement supported by the Sudanese Government, rebel movements and the people themselves.Then, when the situation is peaceful and, at long last, people who want to go home feel able to do so safely, there needs to be sufficient donor support to allow this to happen.

This is all possible, but it will take political will and determination right across the world to make it happen.

Mike Lake - Help the Aged

We've had the Government's thinking on the design of social care services - the unfinished business for 2008 is the funding issue. A promised Green Paper will discuss how much we need to put in to this chronically underfunded service which faces serious challenges because of demographic change, and how much should be tax-funded and how much should individuals contribute. Outside Government, there is some consensus about the way forward: the key question is, will the Government grasp the nettle? What's needed now is action to secure access for all older people to high quality, affordable social care.

Donna Covey – Refugee Council

Ideally, of course, I’d like to see asylum seekers and refugees treated fairly, and given sanctuary when they need it. I’d like them not to be vilified and scapegoated by the media, politicians and the public.

But I know that’s a big ask, so I’ll start with a small one. I’d like the government to stop making asylum seekers whose claims have been refused destitute. Starving people into accepting a return to a country where they fear persecution can never be an acceptable government policy. All asylum seekers should have access to food and shelter while they are here. And they should be allowed to work – allowing them to support themselves and their families, as well as contribute to our communal well-being.

Adam Sampson - Shelter

In short, another year like the last will do for me. 2007 saw housing back up to the top of the political agenda, with commitments to build three million homes and a huge wedge of funding into new social housing. If we get more of the same in 2008, with the stream of new policy initiatives continuing unabated, I’ll be happy.

And if the Conservatives swing in to support the new drive, particularly at local authority level where the battle to free up the land for building is likely to be fought out, I’ll be ecstatic. So long as we avoid a housing market crash and a repossessions crisis, that is.

Oh and I hope that Fabio Capello doesn’t break our hearts.

Dame Mary Marsh - NSPCC

After an important year in which the issues for the well being of all children and young people in the UK have been high on the agenda and then set as key priorities for 2008, we have to secure delivery on this. I hope that there will much more participation by children and young people both in activities they enjoy and in wider contribution to their communities. I look forward across all four nations to better provision for their health, safety and learning and real progress towards the target of halving child poverty by 2010.

John Sauven - Greenpeace

2008 must be the year that the UK Government gets serious about tackling climate change. Gordon Brown must start the year by rejecting new nuclear power stations, an expensive and dangerous distraction from the real solutions – renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The proposed third runway at Heathrow must be blocked on climate grounds, as the proposal threatens to permanently derail our long term Co2 targets. We need a network of marine reserve to protect our fragile fish stocks, as well as renewed efforts to protect the world’s last remaining tropical forests. Finally, we need a new industrial revolution to jump start the UK’s renewable energy sector. This Government tells us that we face tough choices if we are to tackle this problem effectively. Now is the time to make them.

Kate Allen – Amnesty International

In 2008 I’d like to see a successful Beijing Olympics - and not just in terms of medals for team GB (though a few golds wouldn’t go amiss). The Chinese authorities promised that the Olympics would bring improvements to human rights and so far that simply hasn’t happened. Free speech is restricted, thousands are executed each year, detention without trial continues and people who stand up for human rights are brutally repressed. But there is still time to bring in reforms: Beijing 2008 could be a celebration of all that’s good about China and the Olympics could leave a lasting legacy for human rights

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.