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.

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10 times Nicola Sturgeon nailed what it's like to be a Remain voter post-Brexit

Scotland's First Minister didn't mince her words.

While Westminster flounders, up in Holyrood, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has busied herself trying to find a way for Scotland to stay in the European Union

And in a speech on Monday, she laid out the options.

The Scottish Nationalist acknowledged the option of independence would not be straightforward, but she added: “It may well be that the option that offers us the greatest certainty, stability and the maximum control over our own destiny, is that of independence.”

She also hinted at a more measured stance, where Scotland could “retain ties and keep open channels” with the EU while other countries within the UK “pursue different outcomes”. 

And she praised the new PM Theresa May’s commitment to wait for a UK-wide agreement before triggering Article 50.

But Sturgeon’s wide-ranging speech also revisited her memories of Brexit, and the days of chaos that followed. Here are some of the best bits.

1. On the referendum

I am the last person you will hear criticising the principle of referenda. But proposing a referendum when you believe in the constitutional change it offers is one thing. Proposing - as David Cameron did - a referendum even though he opposed the change on offer is quite another. 

2. On the result

I told the Scottish Parliament a few days later that I was “disappointed and concerned” by the result. I have to admit that was parliamentary language for a much stronger feeling.

3. On the Leave campaign

I felt, and still feel, contempt for a Leave campaign that had lied and given succour to the racism and intolerance of the far right.

4. On leadership

It seemed abundantly clear to me that people - even many of those who had voted to Leave - were going to wake up feeling very anxious and uncertain. It was therefore the job of politicians, not to pretend that we instantly had all the answers, but to give a sense of direction. To try to create some order out of the chaos. That’s what I was determined to try to do for Scotland. I assumed that UK politicians would do likewise. I was wrong. 

5. On EU nationals

I felt then – and still feel very strongly today - that we must give them as much reassurance as possible. It is wrong that the UK government has not yet given a guarantee of continued residence to those who have built lives, careers and families here in the UK.

6. On karma

You tend to reap what you have sown over many years. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to politicians who have spent years denigrating the EU and pandering to the myths about free movement, that some voters simply did not believe them when they suddenly started extolling the virtues of both.

7. On teenage voters

I think it was wrong in principle to deny EU nationals and 16 & 17 year olds the right to vote. But, as well as being wrong in principle, it was also tactically foolish. 

8. On slogans

While “Brexit means Brexit” is intended to sound like a strong statement of intent it is, in truth, just a soundbite that masks a lack of any clear sense of direction.

9. On Scotland

Some will say that we also voted to stay in the UK, so we must accept the UK wide verdict. But in 2014, we voted to stay part of a UK that was a member of the EU - indeed, we were told then that protecting our EU membership was one of the main reasons to vote against independence.

10. On taking back control

To end up in a position, which is highly possible, where we have to abide by all the rules of the single market and pay to be part of it, but have no say whatsoever in what the rules are, would not be taking back control, to coin a phrase we’ve heard more than once recently- it would be giving up control.