A rare picture of a British factory without a politician or a Royal in it. Photo:Getty
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In power, Labour must do a better job of being pro-worker and pro-business than it has managed in opposition

If Labour wants to win an election outright ever again, if Labour cares about national renewal, it must work harder to build a common good between workers and business.

As a general election -- and almost certainly a hung parliament -- looms, it is apparent that neither Tories nor Labour have grasped the fundamental lessons of the crash, which exploded in our faces so forcefully back in 2008. Maintaining financial capital as the principle motor of growth in the economy is a fundamental failure of the current administration. As we have seen in recent years, this overdependence on the debt generated in the City leads to a form of volatility that in turn leads to chaos for business and workers alike, and, ultimately economic catastrophe. Under successive administrations, wages have stagnated for many years, leading to a doubling of family debt for workers whose job security and standard of living are constantly threatened by an economy that works only for the banks. But it doesn't have to be this way. On the other hand, the German social market economy, with its stress on worker representation on boards of directors and its conception of value, vocation, and virtue as economic categories, sings from a more harmonious hymn sheet. Isn't it time we joined the chorus?
One of the biggest disappointments for the left is that, over the past five years in opposition, Labour has failed to successfully develop a pro-worker position. We hear about football fans on boards, diversity, and individual rights, but not enough about the value of workers, work, or the promise of economic democracy.
Neither have we successfully developed a pro-business position. We have developed a brilliant grasp of banker-bashing rhetoric while remaining adamantly pro-City, true, but, with the exception of our pledge to endow a network of regional banks, we still lack a coherent plan for private sector growth in the regions of England outside of London. Business leaders couldn't be clearer: They want less tax, less regulation, a more skilled workforce and less confrontational labour relations. Since 1979, Market and State power have been centralised in the Cities of Westminster and London. An age of the unaccountable power elites has unfolded before our very eyes, and other than some talk about "redistributing power", we still don't seem to have a long term plan to respond to it.
As they say, a desperate disease calls for a desperate remedy. What is required is a new pro-business and pro-worker political economy -- and an act of parliament that would support it. This kind of approach would focus less on state regulation and be more concerned with institutional mediation. A good starting point would be building relationships between workers and employers within the governance of our largest capitalist corporations -- those which employ over a thousand workers, on being less focused on punitive tax regimes and more active in generating economic value -- as opposed to debt -- through decentralised democratic civic institutions, such as vocational colleges. After the general election, a pro-worker, pro-business bill sounds like a very good idea.
But what would such an act contain? First, it should champion a co-determination model that offers a constructive role to organised labour and to workers through vocational training and in corporate governance. Workers are affected by the decisions of directors, so isn't it a matter of justice that they should be represented on company boards? The same goes for smaller shareholders. And when it comes to bankruptcy proceedings, shouldn't workers voices also be heard? This is important for the economy. Not only do countries with high levels of worker participation fare better across a range of economic factors than those with less worker participation, they experience lower poverty rates, R&D budgets are massively reduced, and firms are more resilient in the face of choppy waters. And this is not a partisan issue. Workforce representation is supported across the board (if you excuse the pun) by Tories, Orange Book Liberals, and the TUC alike. We are currently one of the only EU states to turn our backs on it.
Let's be frank. One of the central causes behind the Thatcherite financial meltdown in 2008 was a lack of accountability and an imbalance of powers in the corporate governance of our largest firms. In the thick of it, employees are the only people with the long term experience, expertise and interest in the success of companies to generate resilience in the face of failure. There's a cultural aspect to this too: The balance of powers is a key feature of the English political tradition. It's there in the "mother of all parliaments". Shouldn't this tradition now be reconstituted in the governance of our biggest companies too? Wouldn't troubled Tesco have benefited from the expertise and experience of its workforce in the negotiation of strategy over recent years? In true Glasmanite fashion, a pro-business, pro-worker act would mean a third of the seats on company boards would be reserved for the workforce, a third for smaller shareholders, and a third for capital.
Second, a pro-business, pro-worker act would oversee a shift in how we fund vocational training, ensuring that elite vocational colleges were set up and jointly funded by business and trade unions in a partnership of equals. This could cut our youth unemployment figures in half, bringing us closer to the picture in Germany, entrench value and skills in the workforce, and go further towards building a reconciliation between capital and labour.
Third, we should offer corporation tax cuts in exchange for paying staff the Living Wage. Labour's manifesto commitment in this respect is commendable. It is the seed of an idea which must continue to be fed so that it blossoms for the benefit of all. This would be the third pillar of a pro-business, pro-worker act.
We now need to face facts: There is no constructive political way forward for Labour unless we reacquaint ourselves with a pro-worker, pro-business tradition and develop a new private sector-led growth strategy that can build the better Britain that Ed Miliband keeps talking about. Right now neither Labour nor Tories have addressed the root causes of the crash. We risk that devastation happening all over again. Both parties have failed to successfully develop a pro-worker position. Both have failed to deliver a truly pro-business agenda. A pro-business, pro-worker act could change all this. In the wake of the Great Recession we need to think creatively about a proper long term economic plan, not merely by indulging in soundbites. For the sake of accountability, corporate governance reform must be an urgent priority for the next government -- whoever they may be. It should be tied to joint contributions from trade unions and employers to fund elite vocational colleges in a way that renews vocational training to promote real skills and a balance of powers in the economy. If we're serious about the pro-business pro-worker agenda, then we need to think straightforwardly about how to reconcile labour with capital within institutional relationships such as these.
If Labour wants to win an election outright ever again, if Labour cares about national renewal, it must work harder to build a common good between workers and business. Our future depends upon it. That is why a pro-business, pro worker act is so important.

 

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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