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Think “neoliberalism” isn’t real? The other day, I met it in person

This merger raises serious questions about British law, says Anna Turley.

In politics, we often bandy terms such as neoliberalism or capitalism around with alacrity, sometimes without pausing to define what we mean. Last week, I had neoliberalism defined for me, because I met it in person at the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee in the House of Commons.

Our committee’s job is to scrutinise the government and to investigate issues relevant to British industry. We are investigating the possible takeover of a huge British company called GKN, which can trace its origins in South Wales back to 1759, by a smaller one called Melrose established in 2003. GKN builds parts for aeroplanes and vehicles, and employs around 60,000 people, with 6,000 of them in the UK. They are subject to a hostile takeover by Melrose. So we called the senior teams in from both companies, as well as Unite the union to talk to us about their proposals. The three founders of Melrose appeared before us, and after some cajoling, explained their plan.

They aim to borrow £1.4 billion to buy the business, and a further £3.5 billion to run the business. They plan to sack the GKN board in its entirety and take over managing GKN’s constituent businesses themselves. As the committee chair Rachel Reeves MP pointed out, Melrose would almost double in size without any extra capacity.

The Melrose team claim that, despite their intention to sell the companies they acquire within three to five years, they run their companies as though they would own it for ever. This was exposed as nonsense by my colleague Peter Kyle MP. In fact what Melrose do is deliver short-term returns to their shareholders by selling off parts of the businesses they acquire. They were very proud that a pound invested in Melrose when it started is worth £18 today. Their rhetoric is all about a ‘speedy, flat and non-hierarchical structure’ for GKN, but the reality is they intend to shed jobs. Each of the three Melrose founders was paid around £40 million this year, with further bonuses in the millions. A successful takeover of GKN would net them many millions more.

When representatives of the Unite trade union gave their evidence, it became even more clear that the real danger is that GKN will be broken up and sold off for short-term advantage.  Steve Turner, assistant general secretary of Unite, also pointed out that Melrose was a financial contributor to the Leave campaign, which cast more than a little doubt on their commitment to European supply chains.

The hostile bid by Melrose raises some vital questions about how we run our industrial economy. A company like GKN is a capitalist company, of course. But it has a long-term strategy, researching and developing products over a ten or twenty-year horizon, investing in the skills of its engineers, designers and apprentices, and a commitment to the defence infrastructure of Britain and the US. It creates jobs as well as wealth. It is a good corporate citizen. And it recognises trade unions. In post-Brexit Britain, it is exactly the kind of company we need to persuade to stay in the UK.

Melrose, on the other hand, seemed to be a machine for short-term money-making and nothing else. In the committee I quoted their letter to shareholders stating that ‘we measure our success by the value we deliver to our shareholders’. This, despite all the warm words about their commitment to the long-term economy, to R&D, to the communities in which they are based, and to the national interest, is the overwhelming impression I was left with. Some very rich people are looking to become even richer, and helping their shareholders to vast fortunes of unearned wealth on the backs of thousands of workers and centuries of endeavour by a great British company. This is the unacceptable face of capitalism: short-term, amoral, and avaricious, like a vulture circling over the terrain looking for weakened prey.

Ministers have the power to block the takeover, on grounds of national security. Shareholders can vote against it, if they experience a sudden rush of conscience. But in the medium term we need new rules on hostile takeovers, making them harder, and a new industrial framework which encourages long-term investment and not a fast shareholder buck. This is something the next Labour government should enact with some urgency, lest we see our proud and long-standing manufacturing base further stripped of its assets and skilled jobs disappear forever.

Anna Turley is MP for Redcar and a member of the BEIS Select Committee.

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I'm not going to be General Secretary, but the real fight to change Labour is only just beginning

If Labour gets serious about a new politics, imagine the possibilities.

For a second time, I was longlisted for the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party this week. For a second time, just as in 2011, I was eliminated in the first round. The final shortlist now consists of two veteran trade unionist women leaders, Jennie Formby of the Unite union and Christine Blower - formerly of the National Union of Teachers and the Socialist Party. I met them both yesterday at the interviews; I congratulate them, and look forward to hearing more about their ideas for Labour party renewal.

Last week in both the New Statesman and LabourList, I explained why I thought we needed a General Secretary “for the many”. I set out a manifesto of ideas to turn Labour into a twenty-first century campaigning movement, building on my experience with the Bernie Sanders campaign, Momentum, Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and other networked movements and platforms.

I called for a million-member recruitment drive, and the adoption of the new “big organising” techniques which combine digital and face-to-face campaigns, and have been pioneered by the Sanders movement, Momentum, Macron and the National Nurses Union in America. I set out the case for opening up the party machine in a radical but even-handed way, and shared ideas for building a deeper party democracy.

I noted innovations like the Taiwanese government’s use of online deliberation systems for surfacing differences, building consensus and finding practical policy solutions. Finally, I emphasised the importance of keeping Labour as a broad church, fostering more constructive internal discussions, and turning to face outward to the country. I gladly offer these renewing ideas to the next General Secretary of the party, and would be more than happy to team up with them.

Today I am launching, a new digital democracy platform for the Labour movement. It is inspired by experience from Taiwan, from Barcelona and beyond. The platform invites anyone to respond to others’ views and to add their own; then it starts to paint a visual picture of the different groupings within the movement and the relationships between them.

We have begun by asking a couple of simple questions: “What do we feel about the Labour party and movement? What’s good, and what’s more difficult?” Try it for yourself: the process is swift, fun and fascinating. Within a few days, we should have identified which viewpoints command the greatest support in the movement. We will report back regularly on this to the media.

The Labour movement is over 570,000 members, thousands of elected representatives, a dozen affiliated unions and millions of Labour voters. We may disagree on some things; but hopefully, we agree on far more. Labour Democracy is a new, independent and trustworthy platform for all of us to explore our differences more constructively, build common ground, and share ideas for the future. I believe Labour should be the political wing of the British people, as close to the 99 per cent as possible – and it will ultimately only be what we make of it together.

Yesterday I spoke over Skype with Audrey Tang, the hacker and Sunflower Movement leader who is now Digital Minister of Taiwan. Audrey is a transparent politician, so she has since posted a video of our conversation on YouTube. I recommend watching it if you are at all interested in the future of politics. It concludes with her reflections on my favourite Daoist principle, that true leadership leaves the people knowing that they have made change themselves.  

This General Secretary recruitment process has been troubled by significant irregularities, which I hope the party learns from. The story is considerably more complex and difficult than is generally understood. I have spent considerable time in the last week trying to shine greater light on the process in the media and social media, and encouraging the national executive committee, unions and politicians to run a more open and transparent process. I even started a petition to the NEC Officers group, calling for live-streamed debates among the candidates for this crucial and controversial party management role. I very much hope that there is no legal challenge.

Most importantly, the last week has exposed a significant fault line in Labour between the new left and the old left. When Jon Lansman of Momentum entered the contest against the “coronation candidate” Jennie Formby, many people read this as a fight between two factions of the old left. But Jon’s intent was always to open up a more genuine contest, and to encourage other candidates – particularly women – to come forward. Having played the role only he could play, he eventually withdrew with dignity. His public statements through this process have been reflective of the best of the new politics. And despite our very different political journeys, he kindly agreed to be one of my referees.

There has been plenty of the old transactional machine politics going on behind closed doors in the last couple of weeks. But out in the open, the new left movements and platforms have shown their strength and relevance. Momentum emailed all its members encouraging them to apply for the role. On Facebook Live, YouTube and podcasts like All The Best, the Novara Media network has been thoughtfully anatomising the contest and what it means for the future of the left. Even the controversial Skwawkbox blog finally agreed to cover my candidacy, and we had a constructive row about the leaked memo I wrote for Corbyn’s office back in December about how to win the next election using data, organising and every new tool in the box.

I am worried about the old left, because I feel it is stuck in a bunker, trapped in a paradigm of hierarchical power and control. The new left by contrast understands the power of networks to transform conversations and win hearts and minds.

The old left yanks at levers, and brokers influence through a politics of fear and incentives. But this tired game is of decreasing relevance in this day and age. The new left has the energy, the reach, the culture and the ideas to build a new common sense in this country, and to win decisive victory for Labour and progressives in the next general election – if the old left will partner with it. 

I am keen to help. So are many others. I hope we can start to have a more constructive and equal conversation in Labour soon. Otherwise an exodus may begin before long; and no-one wants that.

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is a co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of Labour in 2011.