To reform the economy, Miliband should learn from Germany

The German economy, with its works councils, its regional banks and its vocational training system was much better equipped to deal with globalisation than we were.

It is two and half years since Labour’s general election defeat and there are two-and-a-half-years to go until we face the country again. It seems that we are still torn between a defence of the New Labour record and the articulation of something different and better. But the second option still requires an explanation of what went wrong when Labour was in power.

The central insight of Blue Labour is that there was a fundamental problem with the political economy of New Labour. The assumption that globalisation required transferrable skills and not vocational speciality, and that tradition and local practice could be superseded by rationalised administration and production, both turned out to be mistaken. The denuding of the country and its people of their institutional and productive inheritance by the higher rates of returns found in the City of London, and then the vulnerability of those gains to speculative loss, is the story we confronted in 2008. It turns out that the German political economy, with its federal republic and subsidiarity, with its works councils and co-determination between capital and labour, with its regional and local banks and vocational control of labour market entry - a democracy locational and vocational - was much better equipped to deal with globalisation than we were with our financial services and transferrable skills.

The financial crash of 2008 will turn out to be the most important event in the politics of the next twenty years. It was the result of a failure of many things but one of them is corporate governance, and most particularly, accountability. There is a growing realisation that the workforce has interests in the flourishing of the firm and an internal expertise in what is going on and how it is done. The complement of workforce to shareholder accountability strengthens the honesty and durability of the firm. It establishes a form of relational accountability.

A comparative analysis of corporate restructuring strategy in Germany and Britain tells the story clearly. The resilience of German industry was based upon two fundamental differences with Britain, both relating to corporate governance. The first was that each stakeholder interest - capital, labour and region - has access to the same information about the state of the firm and the sector and could negotiate a common response and bring people with them.

The second reason relates to the common good. The recognition of complexity within the corporation, the recognition that it is a body constituted by complex and mutually dependent functions and the representation of that in the corporate governance model meant that a common good of the firm could be negotiated. German industry works within a legal framework that is based upon the ‘equalisation of the burdens’. In this the burdens of decisions must be agreed to be balanced between owners and workers. This meant that there could not be the imposition of a strategy that was based upon the interests of only one party. The result is predictable: fewer increases in managerial pay, a far greater retention of workers within a framework of greater flexibility, and a shared concern for the renewal of competitiveness.

Corporate governance reform asks a lot of capital. It relinquishes its ultimate sovereignty and recognises the workforce, and a skilled and powerful workforce at that, as a necessary part of the generation of value. It recognises the inability to hold itself accountable and recognises its common interest with labour in disciplining its tendency to be too generous to itself. It also asks a lot of labour, and of the unions. The German and British trade unions took different pathways in 1945.

While the British model was faster out of the blocks in 1945, it turned out that the German model won the race. They retained far higher trade union membership, lower wage differentials, fewer job losses and a vocational status for labour within the economy. One of the consequences of corporate governance reform is the requirement for trade unions to seek the common good and that is a conversation that has barely begun.

Worker representation on remuneration committees is a step in the right direction but needs to be extended into wider reform of the governance of any firm above fifty employees. A third of the seats on the supervisory board should be elected by the workforce. The energy, skills and commitment of the workforce is of fundamental importance to the good of any company and how that feeds into decision making and product innovation is a matter of institutional design.

Corporate governance reform is not a stand-alone policy and requires new regional banking institutions and a renewal of vocational training and status. It is, however, the most fundamental for it restores a dignity to labour, a value that has been for too long neglected in our economy. The lesson of the German economy is that labour is a source of value and its representation on the corporate body of the firm means that its value can be reproduced. It is a fundamental part of the institutional ecology of a sustainable economy.  

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and director of the faith and citizenship programme at London Metropolitan University

A longer version of this piece appears in the new Fabian Society pamphlet The Great Rebalancing

The sun sets on Berlin's Reichstag building which houses Germany's lower house of parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and director of the faith and citizenship programme at London Metropolitan University

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump