Do any underlying patterns of 2011 shed light on the political journey in 2012? Asks ResPublica Associate Dan Gregory
As 2011’s bewildering firework display of headlines, events and moments of
crisis fades into the darkness, which colours remain
in the political arena?
First, it seems that Red Tory-ism is still
aflame. A range of emerging policies, such as community rights and public
service mutuals, reflect the influence of a philosophy which proposes
small-scale and local communitarian solutions, champions civil society and traditional
conservative values, and rejects both state and market monopolies.
Second, Blue Labour caught fire and burned brightly, at least for a while
in 2011. It shares principles with Red
Tory-ism, highlighting reciprocity,
mutuality and solidarity, and is critical of New Labour’s rather less critical embrace of both market and state.
again forms part of an approach which aims to preserve non-state institutions
grounded in community (such as flag, faith and family) against the unfettered power
of the market.
Finally, in the last few weeks of the
year, this tricolore unfurled with
the ignition of In the Black Labour.
There is a crucial point here – and not only for Labour as they attempt to
restore some economic credibility – that social justice “can go hand-in-hand
with a clear, fiscally conservative stance.” From this perspective, spending is
not the only way to pursue a progressive agenda and is sometimes even “the least
good way to do so”. Instead, “structural or institutional reforms, which affect
the causes of inequality and injustice, are often better – and invariably more
It’s early days for In the Black Labour but already it’s
clear that the challenge is “how”? How can greater social justice be achieved
with less money? There is only one possible answer: the state must enable both the
market and society to shoulder the delivery of social justice, thereby
relieving an enlightened state from
itself performing such an intrusive and costly role.
immediately raises the need for us to better understand how these three
(crudely drawn) spheres of labour and capital interrelate within our economy.
What do we know about the interrelationship between private individuals
and businesses (competing to create financial wealth) with public bodies (which
command or control resources to create public goods and services) and with the
groups, charities, trusts and associations (which co-operate to make the UK a
more socially or environmentally rich place to live)? What are the positive and
negative economic dynamics between (again, crudely) liberté, egalité and
Can the state
provide the infrastructure that helps businesses? Can businesses
reinvigorate communities? Does the private sector generate tax revenues?
action save government money? Do markets rely on trust and social capital? And more destructively, do
businesses generate negative externalities which bring costs to the Exchequer? Does
the public sector crowd out social action? Can the welfare system stifle
the answer is yes to all the above. The question then for In the Black Labour, and indeed for all of us, is to identify the
policies which lead to more positive supporting, catalysing and enabling dynamics
and less stifling, undermining and crowding out. The UK economy can be highly inefficient when these
three different sectors work selfishly and destructively in opposition. With the
state asked every year to pick up a bigger tab to solve the externalities and
failures of the market, the private sector feeding the public sector’s
addiction to tax revenues, and the social sphere ever more reliant on hand-outs
to shoulder the burden of mopping up failure elsewhere. Instead, a more
harmonious and symbiotic alignment of the different spheres of capital and
labour could lead us to more sustainable public finances.
So in this light, the
Big Society (whatever its merits or
faults) is just one part of the picture. The Government argues that if the state
gets out of the way, then social action can flourish. But this is only half the
side (and the gloomy side at that) of a triangle.
the world calls for and still awaits a new economics, it seems a new politics
is already afoot with 2012 providing the canvas for an emerging political
philosophy in the UK. This is a more critical approach which argues that there
is, in fact, an alternative to the supposed liberal consensus that There Is No
Alternative. In synthesis, a vision of a “good economy” based on a critique of the neoliberal market and the
authoritarian state, together with an almost fetishisation of social action. But
a vision projected not only within think-tanks and by influential policy gurus
but also which appeals to the wider public in the context of broad disillusionment
with Westminster’s narrow menu of choices.
First, a vision of a less crass and
rampant capitalism and instead, a re-moralised economy
of co-operatives, mutuals and social enterprises not refusing markets but
seeking to change them: more common and local ownership, less speculation, breaking
up monopolies and pricing in environmental or social costs, and banks you can
trust. This is perhaps Ed Miliband’s half-formed idea of ‘good business’
creating social and economic value. (And fortuitously, as it happens,
ethical business is thriving, co-operatives and social enterprises are
outperforming conventional business at their own game.)
Second, a more vibrant, valued and robust civil society with
‘little platoons’ independent of the state forming around the common good,
around traditional values and conserving what is cherished. This is the Conservative’s
oft-ridiculed Big Society made real
where people feel this is such a thing as society and that they belong to it.
(And, as it happens, contrary to reports of Broken Britain, the
long-term trends suggest we belong to ever more clubs and associations, and a
million more people gave to charity this year.)
Finally, these more rounded spheres allow for a
smaller, more enlightened and enabling state creating the rights, incentives
and better regulation to catalyse and influence behaviour elsewhere, rather
than mopping up and intervening itself. Perhaps a liberal state beyond peak state? (And of course, as it happens, the
state is already shrinking as a proportion of GDP).
So while the
economic theory is lacking and the political narrative is not quite fully expressed,
there seems to be a flag unfurling to march behind, with a positive and hopeful
story that suggests a better future and a more sustainable society, economy and
state, working in harmony rather than in opposition. It may even be a flag for politicians
to fight over for a decade or more. Already, it’s black and blue and red all