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31 May 2015

If people don’t trust Labour with their wallets, we’ll never get their votes

We created a false impression that we somehow wanted the state to run, control or own multiple markets – rather than champion their repair. That must never happen again.

By Chris Leslie

When it came to placing that cross on the ballot paper, why did so many voters who might have wanted to support Labour feel they just couldn’t do so? Hesitancy and fears about Labour were undoubtedly amplified by a Tory campaign to conjure up a blood-curdling image of the SNP somehow in the driving seat of a UK government. But I believe it would be a mistake to simply conclude that our defeat was a triumph of Tory campaigning or purely down to media onslaught. If we are to win, Labour must never again allow anxieties about our economic stewardship to fester.

We were absolutely right to seek solutions where customers were disadvantaged by failing markets – in energy, in housing, in transport and in banking. But in reflecting on why we lost, we have a duty to now ask ourselves whether the number and complexity of proposed interventions created a false impression that we somehow wanted the state to run, control or own multiple markets – rather than champion their repair. If we are to seriously address public and business attitudes towards Labour’s ‘economic competence’, we must be much clearer about our approach to markets as well as the sound stewardship of public money.

There are lessons that Labour needs to re-learn now. Twenty years ago Labour grasped the nettle and adopted a new ‘Clause Four’, moving away from the instinct to take ownership and control of the means of production, distribution and exchange – and instead adopt a modern, balanced approach towards markets. Labour will always stands in distinction from a laissez-faire, markets-always-know-best approach from the Conservatives who believe that problems are corrected naturally and government has no role. Instead we believe that public policy can and should successfully step in to repair dysfunctional markets where there is evidence of abuse or exploitation.

Yet this is the crucial point: the manner in which failing markets are repaired matters greatly. It is important to empower consumers and support new market entrants, so that fair and open competition can become the primary instrument to overcome monopoly abuses. Labour should not instinctively reach for options where the state runs and determines pricing and provision. Yes, there will be services where a free market option cannot work well, because essential human needs can collide with the profit-motive, and healthcare falls into this category. But we should not look at every market failure today and think there are quick-fix government interventions to sometimes deeply complex questions of supply and demand, as though there are no downside risks to that. State control can be appropriate, but it can also be crude, unaccountable – and expensive. There are issues that can arise for consumers when politicians end up arbitrating on transactional details.

A better approach is evidence-led, tasking independent regulators to thoroughly analyse whether problems are because of abusive behaviours or perhaps because of genuine wholesale supply-chain pressures. We should tear down barriers for new entrants to come into markets and offer better services at better prices. We should give consumers new tools to make informed choices, with more transparency across market participants.

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So in housing, we should recognise that the lack of supply and the lack of new entrants into the housing market is our principal problem. If tenants and prospective owners had more choice of where to live at reasonable prices, many of the examples of abusive practice could be reduced as those in need of better housing could vote with their feet. Regulators must monitor standards and outlaw bad practice. Affordable and social housing remains essential to meet real need. In the private sector, letting agents are a frustration for both tenants and landlords because they feel there are no other market spaces in which transactions can successfully take place. Instead if public policy

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supported new technologies to create online market spaces, perhaps via local authorities, in which transparent pricing and charges could be fully advertised, then the opportunities for exploitative behaviour would diminish.

In energy markets, we need to focus on where consumers are currently baffled by comparing providers, comparing prices, and monitoring their own energy usage now that smart metering is due for roll out.

In banking, inadequate regulation and analysis infamously failed to catch hazardous practice and governments must now be constantly vigilant. When it comes to retail banking, we should help new entrants to start up and access the data and information so jealously guarded by existing providers and instead design regulation to make it easier for a new bank to safely begin trading.

Markets that used to fail in this country – in car insurance, travel agency or retail – have been rapidly improved by new information technology in the hands of consumers, who can more readily compare market prices and the quality of products. They can’t yet do this in markets that still fail. A pro-consumer emphasis should be at the heart of Labour’s future strategy here. Consumers need to be given the power to drive out poor service and market abuse.

The Conservatives don’t understand that consumers need support and an active government to champion reform. But Labour understands the positive role that government can play, stepping in and repairing failing markets, not just owning or running them. Powerful multi-national corporations must know that a British Government is prepared to stand up for the customers those firms are supposed to serve. But it is also right that successful companies feel Britain is open for competitive businesses to trade and flourish. A balanced and thoughtful approach is where the public and business want Labour to lead.