We need to look beyond the politics of growth

The next election must not simply be fought over who can put the most money in our pockets.

Sometimes when I read the paper, the world reveals itself as if by some editorial fluke. Stories connect as the pages turn, like the stars in the night sky that make up the great constellations, individual dots join to paint a bigger picture. 

It happened again last Sunday reading the Observer. It started on the front page with a  story headlined "World hunger crisis looms as extreme weather hits harvest", which was developed as a double page spread further in. On page three we had "Don’t carpet bomb the NHS with competition, says health chief", followed on pages six-seven with a story on "Sixth formers pay up to £350 in bid to cheat the university admissions system". Stay with me, there are a few more dots.  Also on page seven, we had "Audit costing £1m might have stopped west coast rail fiasco", on page 10, "IMF austerity warning gives Osborne a £76bn headache" and then, in the business section, an article headlined, "Treating food stocks like stocks and shares is a recipe for disaster."

So what is reveled is nothing less than a society and culture that is being steadily marketised.  A world where we feed multiple times more grain to cattle for hamburgers to make profit, rather than feed people directly. A world where rising temperatures caused by the fossil fuel burning necessary to ramp up even further our turbo-consumer culture, are reaching a level that crops are failing and sending food prices for the poorest through the roof. A world where nothing is sacred and nothing is beyond the toxic reach of competition – even our health. A world where the state is cut back so far to stop it ‘crowding out’ the private sector that it can no longer save the market from wrecking the utility industries on which society depends  – like rail and banking.  A world where our children are under such intense pressure to ‘succeed’ in the learn to earn rat race that the market of course provides a short cut – at a price.

A picture of market fundamentalism emerges out of these disjointed dots and seemingly unconnected news items. It is the story of the unrelenting, disciplined and organised march of the market into every aspect of our lives. It succeeds through lobbying power, intellectual arguments, clever framing of language and through the seductive power of consumption.  We want this stuff, we desire it, it makes us who and what we are. Why fight it? And yet at the same time we know many of us have more clothes that we can wear and yet no time to be with the people we love. We know we buy things we didn’t know we needed with money we don’t have. And we know others don’t even have that dubious choice – and instead face the daily humiliation of not being able to keep up and take their place as a ‘normal’ member of our consumer society.

If the economy picks up again – then what is our story?  Is it just to go back to "business as usual" as fast as possible? A politics of growth, jobs, money, consumption and choice at any cost? For the last thirty years, growth has masked the redistribution of income and wealth from the bottom to the top. Are we happy for that to just kick-start again?  

The Labour Party has worked for a century around the politics of more. But the "more" in question has increasingly just been stuff. More money to buy more things. On one level, it reflects the problem that, for most, real incomes have been flatlining and the spoils have gone to those at the top.  This, by the way, is the inevitable and necessary result of a marketised society.  But what if, by some miracle, capitalism defied its genetic impulses and distributed goods more evenly? Is that all there is? What of the social recession and not just its economic counterpart? What of a planet that continues to burn? What has happened to the well being and happiness debates?  When is enough ever enough?

If the next election is fought mainly on the terrain of who puts more money in our pockets, then I fear for the outcome. Yes, people need jobs , but not at any cost. We have to find a way of addressing the complex insecurity people feel – not just economic, but social and emotional. The politics of time, mental illness, loneliness and what it means to be human in the 21st century. I long to pick up the paper and see the invisible lines that join stories about more hope, care, respect, tolerance, autonomy and a world in which the market serves us and not the other way round.

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

The City of London sprawls out, as seen from the under construction 20 Fenchurch Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.