Liberals need to challenge inequalities of economic power

To recover from the longest crisis of living standards in memory, we must address fundamental questions around ownership and democracy.

As the citizens of Egypt, Syria and Brazil struggle for control over their lives, it may seem a bit rich to suggest that the UK's economic troubles stem from an unequal distribution of power. Seen from Tahrir Square, Homs or Sao Paulo, the inequalities within British society probably appear moot. Nonetheless, as the Social Liberal Forum will discuss at our third annual conference this week, to recover from the UK's longest depression and crisis of living standards in recent memory, we must address fundamental questions around ownership and democracy, ultimately asking, "Where does power lie?"

So, let us ask: with whom does the power to ensure that finance serves the wider economy more than its own interests - and to prevent the sector from abusing its dominant position in the economy - rest? What about the power to rid politics of the corrupting effects of big money; the power to demand that the press, police and those in positions of influence uphold standards of decency – where does that power lie? To say nothing of the power over the positive capabilities we need to live the lives we have reason to value. How does the ownership of capital, companies, utilities and resources affect the social and economic freedoms we seek? In whose hands is power in each of these domains concentrated, and how can we ensure a more effective, equitable distribution?

Generations of liberal thinkers from Mill and Smith to Beveridge, Keynes and Hutton have acknowledged that the exercise of power by third parties can infringe our freedom. Indeed, liberalism is a political movement dedicated to eradicating the concentration and abuse of power – witness our (almost) unified rejection of state surveillance or of illiberal 'secret justice.' But some aspects of modern liberalism focus almost exclusively on the state as the greatest threat to our rights and liberties when a host of institutions, practices and systems can encroach on our freedom. Our vigilance against the concentration of power must extend to any aspect of society where we find it - with financial capitalism in disarray, electoral politics captured by vested interests and corporations failing to pay their dues while living standards fall for so many, now is the time to unpick the issue of ownership, democracy and power.

Take the question of power over earnings, of particular relevance given the unprecedented decline in the value of wages for millions of low and middle earners. To many, a 'democratic focus on pay' equates to a Living Wage - specifically, to ways in which government can take the lead in paying its own staff enough to live on, and legislate and/or regulate so that companies do the same - thus ending the subsidy for low pay. While these are tools social liberals would welcome, we should go further, democratising the workplace.

Low pay is at least in part a function of the lack of voice, of power, that most employees have over their pay and conditions. As Deborah Hargreaves and Janice Turner will debate at our conference, workplace democracy and a reformed role for unions have a huge part to play in empowering employees to secure a decent salary - democratically, from the bottom-up, in a way that's sensitive to the side-effects that higher wages might bring. In a globalised, competitive, technologically advancing economy, such effects cannot be ignored, and might lead us to ask "how do we unionise [or more broadly, empower] the unemployed?", because empowering those in work at the expense of those without will not do. The answer may lie in radical things like a minimum citizen's income or by expanding mutual friendly societies, perhaps on a sector-by-sector basis, which could provide a range of options to smooth the bumpy journey many face in the labour market - salary insurance, training, apprenticeships and so on.

Applying mutual ownership, widening democratic participation and a redistribution of power to the labour market is simply one example of a social liberal approach to the political economy - the conference will feature discussions on adapting this approach to public services, finance and banking, local and regional government, the welfare state and national economic strategy. The last two are key, and will be addressed in Steve Webb MP's William Beveridge Memorial Lecture, and a keynote speech by Vince Cable, respectively.

Beyond agreeing that we need to reform our political economy, we should ask ourselves whether we can implement said reform and how - answering a question put by Evan Davis in a panel discussion at the Manchester International Festival, "Are we Powerless?" How can we use our collective power as citizens to challenge received wisdom, and to move beyond securing protections against the abuses of power detailed above to fostering the positive power to live fulfilling lives? I suggest two necessary but insufficient conditions must be met.

Firstly, we must take a step back and frame policy, politics and economics differently- as if people mattered, to coin a phrase. The past 30 years - arguably longer - have focussed on growing output, on the assumption that higher living standards would follow. For some, this came true - for the many, the median salary being worth what it was a decade or more ago, not so much. So instead of asking "how do we grow the economy from here?" (which distorts how we address the crisis, hence Osborne's inflation of yet another property price bubble, for instance), we should ask how the government, private enterprise and society as a whole can empower citizens to secure for themselves the capability to live fulfilling lives. We should proceed from there, rather than assuming that growth of output, however achieved, is our goal. Framing the discussion in this way will put deficits, investment, ownership, democracy and power into balanced perspective - and permit the freedom of thought needed to satisfy the second condition, that of formulating detailed policy to meet the challenges we face.

In answer to Davis's question of powelessness, panelists Owen Jones and Judith Shapiro lamented the lack of a coherent alternative to, for want of a better word, neoliberalism. Remember this lesson from history: that even as the post-war economic settlement, with its Bretton Woods institutions and sustained growth in living standards, reached its apogee in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the likes of Hayek, von Mises and their pals in the Mont Pelerin Society met to tear down brick-by-brick the intellectual edifice of Keynesian social democracy. Where is today's Mont Pelerin group that can build a real alternative not only to austerity but to the concentration of power that hinders progress? Where is the political movement that can integrate grassroots activism with bold leadership to put such an alternative into action? This is not a nostalgic call for a return to some golden past, but an appeal for a coherent vision as to where tomorrow's sustainable, equitable prosperity will come from.

Returning to first principles, it falls to social liberals across the political spectrum to consider aspects of ownership, democracy and power in ensuring our political economy provides shelter from poverty, ignorance and conformity, takes on Beveridge's five evils, and secures the freedom and capability for all to live fulfilling lives - nothing short of tireless endeavour to this end will suffice.

Vince Cable will be the keynote speaker at tomorrow's Social Liberal Forum conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

Prateek Buch is director of the Social Liberal Forum and serves on the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder