Why workplace democracy must be part of Labour's economic agenda

Strengthening workers' bargaining power can deliver fairer wages and more productive enterprises.

All orthodox economic commentary today is focused on the need for fiscal responsibility. Cutting the deficit is said to be a pre-requisite for growth. On the left, the argument is about short-term stimulus followed by longer-term prudence to get the economy back on track. Unfortunately, a small dose of Keynesianism, while welcome, will leave many of the problems that pre-date the crisis largely untouched.

First, governments of all political hues have failed to halt and reverse the enormous rise in income inequality that took place in the 1980s. Far from being a source of dynamism, excessive inequality is now seen as a cause of economic instability. The IMF argues that the pre-crisis bubble was a result of rising personal indebtedness driven by a growing gap between rich and poor. Their prescription for recovery is equally clear: wages must rise in line with productivity and the bargaining power of those with modest to low incomes must be improved. 

Second, the Labour government was successful in restoring full employment as an objective of public policy. But the net effect of this achievement was to move half a million people from workless to working poverty. Families continued to struggle to make ends meet, despite the minimum wage and tax credits. Wages at the bottom end of the labour market were simply too low.

Third, since 2004, wages for all those below the middle of the earnings distribution have been either frozen or have fallen once inflation is taken into account. Robust growth depends upon a steady stream of consumer demand but consumers are hardly likely to feel upbeat if their living standards are being squeezed.

Obviously the state has a role to pay in solving these problems by making full employment a priority and redistributing through the tax credits system. But the government cannot determine wages for all people at work. Rebalancing bargaining power depends on institutions that can represent workers interests effectively – a relationship that is explored in the Smith Institute’s latest report Just deserts? Poverty and income inequality: can workplace democracy make a difference? (July 2013, Coats). To use the US scholar Jacob Hacker’s formulation, pre-distribution matters.

The centre-left, then, has an opportunity to revive an argument that has been treated with contempt for far too long – that workplace democracy can deliver fairer wages and more productive enterprises. The international evidence is compelling: those countries with a fairer distribution of incomes, like the Nordic states and the Netherlands, have an array of institutions which create an inclusive labour market with decent work for all.

Productivity levels and the extent of innovation in German manufacturing are also looked on with envy by British policymakers. This impressive record is partly a result of effective industrial policy, but it depends just as much on the engagement of workers and their involvement in the process of incremental improvement. Works councils and trade unions, despite their weakened condition, remain central to the integrity of the German system. Britain presents a stark contrast, with an exceptionally low level of employee participation (only Lithuania is worse in the EU).

It would be wrong not to recognise the weakness of trade unions, especially in the private sector, even though the workers covered by collective agreements receive wages around 6% higher than those in a similar non-union firm. There is still a union 'sword of justice' effect, but it has become weaker as membership has fallen. Labour must think radically about how the state can facilitate the growth of effective workplace institutions. There is an irresistible case for learning from the works council models that are to be found in most EU 15 member states.

Rebalancing bargaining power means that the state has to re-establish its role as an exemplary contractor and employer too. The living wage should be used as the pay floor in public procurement and where negotiated rates of pay exist they should be observed by all those in the government’s supply chain, including sub-contractors. Beyond using the government’s contractual powers, the Low Pay Commission (LPC) should be given extended terms of reference to investigate the causes, consequences and cures of low pay. The LPC should also be required to develop principles of affordability, identifying when a rate above the minimum wage could be applied to an industry. And government should sponsor a dialogue on skills and productivity between all stakeholders (including the trade unions) in low wage industries.

The central element of Labour’s story has to be a reconceptualisation of the purposes of economic growth and the role of major corporations. It demands a return to the notion of stakeholding that was rapidly adopted and equally rapidly jettisoned by Tony Blair in the mid-1990s. That the architecture of British capitalism is broken should be a matter of consensus, if 'One Nation' means anything it surely means a broad agreement about the terms under which markets operate. Thoughtful Conservatives like Ferdinand Mount, who served as policy head to Margaret Thatcher, have begun to see the wisdom of two-tier corporate boards on the continental European model.  It would be odd if Labour missed the opportunity to develop an agenda for the reform of British capitalism

While it would be wrong to argue that the electorate have moved decisively to the left, there is a widespread belief that a return to the pre-crisis status quo is unacceptable. The possibility of a progressive post-Thatcherite settlement is tantalisingly close but triangulation and well-intentioned tinkering will prove inadequate to the task. Labour’s alternative has to include a progressive agenda for the world of work. Reducing income inequality and the extent of low pay is essential in convincing a sceptical electorate that the party has a credible economic programme.

David Coats is a research fellow at The Smith Institute

The group's new report can be read here


Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.