The two big lessons for the UK from Germany and the Nordics

Social investment welfare spending is central to future prosperity and the state has to become a more active and assertive economic actor.

There are two big economic debates in Britain today. The first is the familiar one about whether austerity is the right response to the aftershocks of the global financial crisis that pushed so many countries around the world into deep recession, leaving a colossal debt overhang. The second, and no less important, is the question of whether Britain can craft a more sustainable growth model, if not a new political economy. To a large extent, the government seems intent on sidestepping this question, mainly resorting to quick fixes like subsidised mortgage credit, and sticking plasters, like timid banking reform and lower corporation tax, to recover the economic output that has been lost since 2008. Labour, in contrast, sounds more ambitious and has repeatedly advocated the need for deeper reform of the British economy.

The case for reform is indeed strong: despite hosting numerous leading edge companies and sectors, together with world class universities and a strong labour market, the UK remains a worryingly weak export nation gripped by excessive financialisation and rising consumer debt. Business investment is pitifully low and productivity failing to improve. Many companies struggle to offer decent, let alone quality, employment. From this perspective, the recovery looks far less impressive.

No wonder, therefore, that progressive policy-makers look for inspiration to countries that appear to offer a more attractive socio-economic model of development. For many on the British left, Germany provides the answers: its strong manufacturing base, ingenious system of apprenticeships and vocational education, and network of regional banking would guarantee a better balanced, more competitive, higher wage economy. Its record low youth unemployment rate, now below 8 per cent, is a case in point. Yet if Labour is right in wanting to pursue an agenda of radical economic change, is it also correct in singling out the German model as a beacon for Britain? The answer is: yes and no.

If policy emulation and international comparison are imperative for countries to improve their own policies, path dependency, long-standing traditions and all sorts of political obstacles put a clear limit to what can actually be transposed.  For instance, Germany’s system of municipal, non-for-profit banks (Sparkassen) goes back to the 18th century. Over more than 200 years they have built up a market share of nearly 40 per cent in retail and SME banking, generously aided by explicit state subsidies, now suspended. How to replicate such a system under present-day conditions, in which new entrants face formidable hurdles, is hard to imagine. And is Britain really dealing with a crisis of "safe lending"? The evidence remains inconclusive. In other words, mutual policy learning requires a much greater capacity for adaptation, experimentation and institutional renewal within set boundaries. Grand ambitions alone do not suffice.

There is another important caveat: as the political economist Kathleen Thelen has argued, the coordinated social market economies, like Germany, have been liberalising in recent decades too, creating new forms of dualism between low wage service sector employment and the high-skill export sectors. While precarious working conditions increased significantly, real productivity growth did not occur. Germany has its very own set of competitiveness weaknesses, ranging from highly unfavourable demographics (the highest median age in Europe) to, skill shortages in important export sectors and a creaking infrastructure.

We just cannot import a new political economy. This is all the more true given the enormous pressures that any successful economic model is currently facing. As in the case of Germany, the Nordic countries, the traditional standard bearers of centre-left aspiration, have their fair share of challenges – whether in the fight to combat unemployment, most notably in Sweden, the quest to maintain and secure educational excellence, or the economic integration of migrants. Moving on from the policy frameworks and partnerships of the 20th century to new, innovative forms of governance fit for the 21st century is proving difficult everywhere in the industrialised world.

Britain must learn selective lessons from northern Europe and beyond, adjusting reforms to its own particular institutions, geography and policy trajectories. Two immediate lessons stand out. First, social investment welfare spending remains absolutely central to future prosperity. Contrary to what many conservatives claim, strategic investments in childcare, welfare-to-work or retraining programmes underpin high employment rates, productive economic growth and fiscal resilience. The big challenge for Labour is how to increase the level of social investment while decisively cutting the deficit. Stark choices have to be made.

Second, the state has to become a more active and assertive economic actor. This can mean devising fine-grained industrial strategies for key sectors, coordinating employers to organise and invest in apprenticeships and skills, or sponsoring new links between leading edge SMEs and public sector agencies. But it should also be about empowering cities with tools for economic development as well as new forms of fiscal devolution. As the economist Wendy Carlin and others have shown, cleverly designed supply-side polices can promote dynamism and reduce inequality.

The bottom line is that the state will continue to evolve from the traditional welfare role towards an agent of modernisation and structural reform. Best practice from abroad will be an indispensable guide – but only if applied in the right way.

Olaf Cramme and Nick Pearce are, respectively, directors of Policy Network and the Institute for Public Policy Research. The conference “A New Political Economy for Britain’ takes place on 30 January

 

The Reichstag building housing the German parliament Bundestag. Photograph: Getty Images.

Olaf Cramme and Nick Pearce are, respectively, directors of Policy Network and the Institute for Public Policy Research

Getty
Show Hide image

Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.