George Osborne during a visit to the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, Wales. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Under the bonnet of the UK's economic recovery all is not well

To resign ourselves to a return to the economic pathologies of the past, as the Tories do, would be to miss a historic opportunity.

Last month, the OBR confirmed that Britain is now experiencing growth of over 2 per cent. After the slowest recovery from a recession on record – partly because of the depth of the impact of the crash, partly because of the fiscal austerity chosen by this government – we should all welcome this news, whatever our views on economic policy or our party affiliations. To do otherwise is not simply churlish: it is self-defeating for those who want to make the case that there are serious problems with the UK economy, and with the policy choices this government is making. And I think there are some very serious problems.

To see what the problems are, you need to look under the bonnet of the UK recovery. Firstly, it is a recovery predominantly fuelled by consumption, more than any other major economy. Where is this consumption coming from? Partly from the expansion of household debt, which reached a record high at the end of 2013. And partly from people running down their savings to spend more. Between January 2012 and December 2013, the UK savings ratio went from 8 per cent of GDP to 5.4 per cent. Germans save nearly twice as much as that. 

Secondly, it is a recovery of an economy that is relatively inefficient. Our productivity has gone from bad to worse since the crash, and is now about 20 per cent below the average of our G7 competitors. This year, Britain’s trade deficit is predicted to rise to the highest level of any industrial country in 2014, its highest level for a quarter of a century. And what about investment? As a share of GDP, investment in the UK economy dropped by a quarter in the five years after 2008. We now rank 159th in the world, just behind Paraguay and Mali.  

Thirdly, it is a recovery whose benefits are being felt by a very few, not by the broad majority. And not any old "very few" either. City bonuses are predicted to be 15 per cent up on last year. Meanwhile, average earnings are £1,600 a year lower than at the last election, and earnings will only have grown by half the level of the overall economy by the next election. The median household has seen their income drop by nearly 4 per cent since the recession. In our country, the poorest 40 per cent have the lowest share of national wealth of any western country.  

However you cut it, our economy has a problem in the engine room. We are too dependent on housing and debt for family incomes, too dependent on consumption rather than saving and investment, too dependent on an under-skilled workforce, and too dependent on low-wage and insecure jobs.  

But let’s be honest about these problems. They are not being addressed by this government, but they were not caused by it either. Nor are they problems that will be rectified in one policy heave, but instead require a determination to address them over a number of years. The question is: what is to be done?

This is where a clear choice between Labour and the Conservatives starts to emerge. The Conservatives’ answer has two parts. First, to say that the return of growth is the definition of economic success. Second, to double down on the economic model created after 1979. In George Osborne’s view, there is no point trying to reform the way our economy works. It is what it is. The role of government is to feed the low-wage, low-skill monster.  

That’s why the Tories prioritise further labour market deregulation in an economy that is among the most deregulated in the OECD. It’s why they want to revisit UK membership of the Social Chapter, 20 years on from the last debate about it. It is why they refuse to tackle zero-hours contracts. It is why they are happy to subsidise demand for housing yet preside over historically low levels of housebuilding activity. It is an approach based on the policy recipes of the 1980s and 1990s. And it won’t fix what doesn’t work.

The response of Labour under Ed Miliband’s leadership is different. We refuse to accept that there is nothing to be done about the snapping of the link between the fortunes of the economy and those of working people. Britain's problems with productivity, competitiveness and living standards are interconnected, and demand a thoroughgoing reform of how our economy works. That’s why Ed Miliband has said that the government he leads will prioritise a transformation of our banking system, resetting the energy market, a new target of building 200,000 new homes a year, a revolution in apprenticeships and technical education in our schools, and a historic transfer of many of the levers of economic policy from Whitehall to city regions and county-regions.

The easy response to the return of growth after such a long wait is to say that this agenda for fundamental reform is both too difficult and unnecessary. I strongly believe that would be a mistake. As Britain emerges from the most devastating and prolonged downturn of the past 100 years, to resign ourselves to a return to the economic pathologies of the past would be to miss a historic opportunity. As long as Britain’s international ranking on skills, investment and productivity is so low, and on inequality, centralisation and poverty so high, there will be a need for a government that sets itself the defining challenge of reforming the way our economy works. That is the challenge that Ed Miliband will meet.

Stewart Wood (Lord Wood of Anfield) is shadow cabinet minister without portfolio and an adviser to Ed Miliband in the leader's office

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.