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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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.