There is an alternative: governments can do what markets cannot

To succeed in age of globalisation, British manufacturers need a government that rejects laissez faire Thatcherism.

In the wake of Baroness Thatcher’s funeral last week, there has been much revisiting of the 1980s and her legacy. Though there are disagreements as to the benefits of her approach, there is one thing on which we can all agree: for better or worse, she did change Britain.

One impact of the revolution her policies unleashed was that too much of our manufacturing base was undermined. Nevertheless, Britain remains the ninth largest manufacturer in the world today, and a global leader in many areas of advanced manufacturing. The best of British manufacturers have shown they can meet the challenge of global competition.

For example, since Labour’s establishment of the Automotive Council – and the continued backing of it by this government – Britain has confirmed itself as a great place to make cars. The sector has attracted investment on an unprecedented scale and is on track to break the record for car production set in 1972.

What it means to be a leading manufacturer is changing as well, as the divide between the service and manufacturing sectors has become blurred. Last week I visited Rolls Royce, a global leader in aerospace. The majority of Rolls Royce’s revenues are generated not from manufacturing but from after sales service contracts. This shows how the benefits of a strong manufacturing base can spill over into other sectors, generating more of those well paying and satisfying jobs that our economy needs.

So the potential is there to grow our manufacturing base further. But British manufacturers need a government that backs their ambition. They need a proper, modern industrial strategy – demanding in its ambition and effective in its execution. This is not something which sits comfortably with laissez faire Thatcherism.

George Osborne – a disciple of the laissez faire approach - promised a "march of the makers". But overall, and despite a significant fall in the value of the pound, the reality simply has not matched his rhetoric. The latest trade figures were terrible, with the recent fall in exports reflecting a downward pattern that started in October 2011 according to the ONS. Companies with cash lack the confidence to invest. Firms needing finance to expand can’t get it.

One of the maxims of the neoliberal economic revolution Thatcherism unleashed was that governments must be subservient to markets. There was, Mrs Thatcher said, "no alternative". Recent history warns of the limits of this approach. It is also becoming abundantly clear that globalisation, far from limiting the space for governments to act, is making such action more important. It is not surprising that northern European economies which have pursued industrial strategies and applied a different model to Thatcherism have largely maintained their shares of expanding global trade through policies that work together to reinforce areas of national strength. 

Governments can do what markets cannot: they can help firms work together to address shared problems over skills or R&D, even as these businesses compete fiercely for custom. Governments can give direction and support to the animal spirits that drive investment and innovation. Through strategic use of procurement powers, governments can provide clear market signals, allowing British-based firms like Bombardier, whose plant in Derby I have also recently visited, to develop the capabilities needed to win public contracts. Public contracts can be used, after all, to advance public goals: to train apprenticeships, to encourage innovation, and to boost local employment.

Baroness Thatcher’s passing has revived strong memories of a bygone era. Yes, she changed Britain, but changed circumstances mean our country’s economy now needs something different too - there is an alternative and we must grasp it. 

 

A Vauxhall employee works on a vehicle on the production line at the Vauxhall car factory in Ellesmere Port, north-west England. Photograph: Getty Images.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration.

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.