Labour campaigners, and the MP Stephen Doughty, wait for results in Cardiff. His win was a lone bright spot. Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

What is Labour's future?

The Labour rout offers lessons for the party's future, as long as the party refocuses on the emerging "middle-middle" majority.

Leading Labour party members have delivered a devastating critique of the way their party conducted the campaign for the general election. I feel that perhaps much of the criticism of the leader at the time was unfair, and in any event, blame and recrimination is not going to restore the fortunes of the movement. It is now necessary to concentrate on new and constructive proposals alone if we are to emerge from what many regard as a bottomless pit.

There is a general consensus amongst leading commentators that the party must concentrate on “wealth creation” and the aspirations of the middle majority. Wealth creation is indeed an all-important concept but only if understood in benefiting the majority. The term “wealth creation” is in itself utterly meaningless as it may be interpreted to mean an economic system exclusively promoting the super-rich and investors in polarizing wealth in society; or in furthering the interests of some other particular group in another form of oligarchic society; or in pursuing the interests of all in the broader dissemination of wealth.

Most right wing governments in modern democracies try to argue that their economic system strives to benefit the majority population, but in this they are usually either dishonest or more often self-deluded. The ideology of  neo-liberalism was designed by a small group of clever men to appeal to the majority, but the falsity of its outcome, and total un-workability from so many perspectives, has been amply demonstrated, particularly since 2008.

The same may be said about “profit” as “wealth creation.” Those on the left have traditionally deplored “profit” as exploitative, arguing that production should be for “use” and not for profit. I have argued at length that profit is not only good but that we should seek its maximization, but only if profit is defined in serving the interests of the majority. That is, profit should be used in seeking to maximize commercially viable productivity (in serving consumer needs); and then for necessary re-investment for expansion and innovation; followed by rewarding producers according to fair distribution along the lines of skills and status; and then employee internal shareholders (to include directors) whose power should override any external influence in matters of ownership; and lastly, dividends payable to external investors.

All this entails a thorough understanding of the business process and the formulation of extensive reforms of the financial-industrial system. It is not sufficient to have an understanding of the “capitalist process” as understood by Marxists or traditional socialists (irrespective of whether the latter may regard themselves as Marxists or not), as the capitalist system in the 20th century has evolved in such a way as to defy all the old convictions that are now discredited. This has led inevitably to misunderstanding and confusion throughout the left, and ultimately to the Labour party turning its back on any attempt to comprehend the world of business. This has been compensated apparently by the satisfaction of remaining a public sector party contented with offering patches of reform here and there on the periphery of society.

It should not be concluded from the above that there have not been prominent business people, who as members of the Labour party, have not put themselves forward as proponents for serious radical reform of the financial-industrial system. And here I must draw on my personal experience as a Labour party activist between 1994-2008. As a member of the Labour Finance & Industry Group, responsible for advising the front bench, I came into contact with leading bankers, manufacturers, and even stockbrokers, who were intent on reforms for the fairer distribution of wealth and extending the power of ordinary working people.

We were divided into specialist groups for discussion and the preparation of reports, and on one occasion, on request, I even stood for the chairmanship of the LFIG. Until the late 1990s the group achieved excellent preparatory work through the keen professionalism of its 300 or so members, but on the election of the Labour government in 1997 everything changed. A number of the specialist groups were either closed down or “put on ice,” and it quickly became apparent that “new ideas” or “reform” of any kind were no longer welcome.

Overnight the association became part of the orthodox financial-industrial establishment, and within several weeks many of my friends had either fallen away from the association or formally offered their resignation. With the advent of Blairism, and to the astonishment of many, the Labour party was to maintain the principles of Thatcherism under another name, and in regard to business policies, little has changed since that time.

In the shorter term Blairism ensured the credibility of Labour in the eyes of the electorate, but in the longer term it merely enabled the continuation of a discredited financial-industrial system under a new label. The myopia of the Labour party on the reality and mechanisms of business were now redoubled as they cooperated with the worst aspects of Rentier capitalism and the polarization of wealth. The irony is that for a short period the party flourished and gained a popularity it had not enjoyed since shortly after the post-War period.

The longer term result of this is the present catastrophe and the predictions of some that the party may not regain power for a generation or more. In view of this situation a mitigating factor may be borne in mind, viz., if the Labour party may be accused of failing to understand the mechanisms of business in all its complexity, so too may most of the population. Even a great part of the business population, especially those in manufacturing and the primary industries, never properly understood the implications of Thatcherism and how it was ruining the wealth creating base of the country.

In what way, therefore, should the party attempt to re-orientate its thinking in preparation for the future? A two-pronged approach is called for. Firstly, it is necessary to understand the sociological changes of society and the world of work, without which realistic forward-looking policies are impossible to formulate. There must be a base or dialectic on which to construct practical proposals. In my book, Emergence of The New Majority, I not only analyse these changes in identifying how different sectors of society think and act today, but illustrated how Labour party members tended to cocoon themselves in the comfort zone of their own ideology and so misinterpreted the outside world.

Secondly, it is necessary to discriminate between Social and Unsocial wealth creation, in covering all aspects of business. A new vocabulary needs to be formulated for the discussion of business and the financial-industrial system, for without such a vocabulary there can follow no effective decision-making or further action. Such a vocabulary should comprise terms that are not only factually descriptive and fit within a rational system but are ethically emotive in differentiating good from ill.

The following pairs of contrasting values have been discussed in depth in my book, The People’s Capitalism, concerned with the lay person and his (or her) relationship with the world of work, and in, Prosperity in a Stable World, concentrating on the internal management of industry:- Social Wealth Creation versus Unsocial Wealth Creation; Productive (or Social) Capitalism versus Rentier (or Unsocial) Capitalism; Productive Profitability versus Rentier Profitability; and, Productive Purpose versus Rentier Purpose.

In view of all the unanticipated developments in the evolution of capitalism over the past hundred years, the purpose of the left should not be its destruction but rather its absorption and transformation in best serving majority interests. The first purpose of Labour or any movement of the left should surely be concerned with overseeing the management of the financial-industrial system, as indeed was that purpose in this country until approximately 1924, rather than fiddling with minor matters on the periphery of society.

The Labour party is now offered an ideal opportunity for renewal, and this is made evident not through the disaster of the general election, but through the emergence of the 90% “middle-middle” majority with its new economic issues not addressed by any of the current parties. The significance of today’s society is not marked by an equal split between the Working and Middle classes, as these were known in the past, but rather a heterogeneous 90% confronted by the 2½ % super-rich at the apex of society and the 7½ % unfortunates comprising an underclass at its base. If the Labour party cannot unite this 90% heterogeneous middle majority into comprehending the reality of its true economic situation, then it is unfit for any kind of future.

In regard to the question of unifying all sectors of our population we cannot ignore the significance of the SNP and its future impact on parliamentary life in Westminster. A huge cloud is now threatening peaceful relationships between the nations of the north and south and the Scots are fully aware of this. The constant gesture of the SNP in extending “the hand of friendship” to the English is only met by suspicion and the cold shoulder of apprehension. Both Scots and English anticipate the possibility that relationships could descend to the level at the time of the Jacobite Uprising in 1745-46, when Scots were stoned in the streets of London.

This must never be allowed to happen nor need it be necessary. When Scots express their resentment against the “Westminster system” that is not the root cause of their complaint. Their real resentment is against the overwhelming “power” of the south, or more accurately, the malign power of the City of London that has subdued the all-party parliamentary system to serve its interests. All this is clearly reflected in their manifesto and entire thinking of the SNP. A financial-industrial system that by default discriminates against home-based productivity is for obvious reasons more strongly felt in Scotland than in England, although the entire UK is the victim of its malign force.

Hence the Labour party should concentrate intelligently on those aspects of the financial-industrial system which call for urgent reform in promoting Social as opposed to Unsocial wealth creation, so that housing and property in all its forms is fairly distributed to the broader population. The aim of the Labour party should not be to blindly attack the City of London (as may have been the purpose of the far left in the not-so-distant past), but rather to empower those professionally competent bankers and others with the vision and intent for real change in society. In this way the Labour party may constructively cooperate with the SNP and other parliamentary groups for a better Britain – and at the same time diffuse that tension between SNP MPs and their other colleagues in the Commons. 

Robert Corfe is a social thinker, political philosopher and author of multiple books, including Social Capitalism in Theory and Practice, published by Arena Books.

Show Hide image

Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.