What does a left-wing 'rebalancing' look like?

To stand apart from Cameron and Clegg, Miliband needs a radical agenda for the bottom half of the labour market.

With a little over two years until the next general election, Labour's objectives for economic reform feel ambitious yet vague. We can all sign up to the UK being a bit less reliant on the financial sector, but then what? When people on the left talk about rebalancing the economy we need to understand what it is we are trying to rebalance and how - and say loud and clear why the right's version of rebalancing will fail. This weekend Ed Miliband needs to respond to this challenge, when he addresses the Fabian New Year Conference on his plans for 'one nation' Britain.

In his recent speeches, Miliband has used words like "responsibility" and "rebalancing" a lot, but they raise as many questions as they answer. Economic rebalancing can’t be achieved by a few eye-catching attacks on gas companies or millionaires’ pension funds. Reforming capitalism so that it works in everyone’s interests, which is what ‘one nation’ must mean, implies the UK turning its back on its 30-year mid-Atlantic experiment and transforming itself into a mainstream north European economy.

The coalition loves to talk about our unbalanced public finances but every pound borrowed is a pound lent, so Miliband must retort that excessive saving by companies is the flip-side of excessive public borrowing. Labour should promise to unwind the economic forces which have led companies to accumulate and lend so much cash, by creating the conditions in which firms want to investment for the long-term. This will mean sweeping reforms to the financial system whose short-termism has incentivised corporate executives to deliver fast profits not long-term value.

Labour also needs to expose the coalition’s ill-disguised plot to turn temporary deficit reduction into a permanent contraction of the state. Rather than aiming for public spending to return to the long-term average of 42 to 43 per cent of GDP, the chancellor plans a retreat from the crisis peak of 47 per cent all the way down to 39 per cent. Miliband has little choice but to argue for a different path because he believes that public spending matters for economic growth as well as social justice. For George Osborne’s cuts make it almost impossible to spend decent amounts on infrastructure, housing, science or skills.

The coalition has set the terms of the debate so well that retaining public spending at more than 40 pence in the pound has become a controversial proposition. But with Obama-style tax rises for the rich, Labour can set out an alternative route to sound public finances that avoids ’overshooting’ Britain’s historic levels of spending.

This is not to say that Miliband should defend every corner of public spending. This week’s debate on benefit uprating focused on how many working families receive tax credits, but it dwelt little on why so much money needs to be spent topping up low pay in the first place. The truth is that Britain has the highest share of low paid workers in any EU country outside eastern Europe. The Treasury would save huge sums on in-work benefits if rather than having 21 per cent of workers on low pay we could match Finland’s eight per cent.

So Labour’s next priority for a rebalanced economy must be a radical agenda for the bottom half of the labour market. Jobs need to be designed and people trained so work is more productive and secure, which in turn can bring about better pay and progression. This is about culture not just economics, because there are huge disparities in the pay, status and value of low earning  ’women’s work’ across Europe.

Labour must accept that transforming the bottom of the labour market will take change within companies, including laws to require greater worker representation and ownership. And Miliband should say that if industrial sectors and supply-chains do not work together to improve conditions he will impose new public solutions like wage councils or training levies.

But he also needs to promise a decent floor on low pay for everyone. Miliband has talked a lot about the ‘living wage’ but has never quite embraced it as a national policy.  This week he should promise an ‘escalator’ to take the minimum wage, in small increments over five years, to the level of the living wage, which is £7.45 per hour today. Even for the worst hit sector, hospitality, this would mean an increase in payroll costs of a little more than one per cent per year.

If Labour’s ‘one nation’ version of economic rebalancing is to mean anything, it must be about reducing the entrenched inequality of the British labour market and making it harder for employers to make a profit through public subsidies on poverty pay. To stand apart from Cameron and Clegg, this should be Miliband’s first step in a concrete plan to change the character of British capitalism and take the country towards the mainstream of northern European economies.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society and editor of the Fabians’ new pamphlet The Great Rebalancing: how to fix the broken economy

"We can all sign up to the UK being a bit less reliant on the financial sector, but then what?" Photograph: Getty Images.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.