Canary Wharf skyscrapers on the Isle of Dogs. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why "skin in the game" could be the key to reforming markets

Those with the power to make decisions on your behalf should share in the risks, not just enjoy the rewards.

"We are all in this together" has become the political catchphrase of this parliament. The phrase has come back to haunt a government that has introduced tax breaks for millionaires in an era of austerity, but Labour’s critique runs wider than this. Our argument at the next election will be about the way our economy works so that we tackle the causes of the cost-of-living crisis, not just the government’s priorities on tax and spend.

The campaign for a living wage embodies this idea. The question is not just whether tax credits can be protected, but whether companies will pay people a wage they can get by on. The debate on energy prices is another example. The job is not just to fund winter fuel payments but to reform the energy market so that customers are not taken for a ride. Occupational pensions typify the challenge: the difference between a 1 per cent and a 1.5 per cent charge from a provider can be tens of thousands of pounds more in a pension pot at the end of a working lifetime. Sharing in prosperity is about how our economy works, not just what the government spends.

In this context, a new paper by Duncan O'Leary published this week by the think-tank Demos is a welcome contribution to the debate. The paper explores a new idea for reforming markets: "skin in the game". The phrase comes from Warren Buffet, who demands that people investing his money have some of their own money at risk. They must have some skin in the game. The principle is that people who have the power to make decisions on your behalf should share in the risks, not just enjoy the rewards. Only then can they be truly accountable.

In the US, the government is already experimenting with the skin in the game idea. Banks can no longer package up and sell on all the debt from the mortgages they offer. They must retain some skin in the game: 5 per cent of every mortgage must stay on their balance sheets. The idea is that lenders start to consider not just whether they can sell a loan on to others in the market, but whether the loan itself is a good one. The hope is that more skin in the game will encourage more responsible lending.

O'Leary explores what this idea might mean in different policy areas. Is it right, for example, that half of FTSE 100 chief executives are not invested in the pension schemes that more than 90 per cent of their new staff are auto-enrolled into? Would companies pay more attention to pension charges if they were coming out of the CEOs pocket too? Is it sustainable that ratings agencies are paid by the organisations whose financial products they are rating? Should at least some of the fees be held back and paid according to how accurate the ratings prove? Perhaps some skin in the game would lead to greater accuracy.

The idea has the most obvious applications in finance. Is it fair that all financial services companies should pay the same industry levy to fund debt advice, regardless of their lending practices? Shouldn’t the lenders who drive people to debt advice, through hiking up rates when people miss payments, contribute more? Some skin in the game might encourage lenders to adopt a less adversarial approach with their customers.

But O'Leary also examines what it might mean in other areas too. Could companies be given more of a stake in whether the staff they make redundant find work when they leave? Could the skin in the game idea improve back-to-work support for those who find themselves off work through illness or accident? In Holland, for example, companies must pay up to an extra year’s sick pay if they do not take reasonable steps to reintegrate staff who suffer illness or disability. Here we have around 300,000 people flowing from work onto state benefits each year because of health-related issues, adding to the welfare bill.

The value of the skin in the game idea is twofold. First, it avoids the kind of top down micro-management that belongs to the politics of the last century, not this one. The task is to ensure that we really are "all in this together", but through reforming the incentives within markets, not tying business up in complex rules and regulation. The skin in the game idea has a simplicity to it that is attractive. Second, the principle seeks to prevent problems occurring and to align power and accountability where they have become detached from one another. Both are organising principles of Labour’s policy review that I lead, whether in the public or private sectors.

For Britain to become the global standard for an inclusive economy we must create a system that is fair from the start. The policy review will need to look at the skin in the game principle in more detail. But at first sight it looks like a key ingredient in the "recipe for responsible capitalism".

Jon Cruddas is Labour's policy review coordinator and MP for Dagenham

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.