The truth behind Labour’s catchphrases

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Now is a good time to start considering what a future Labour government might look like. It is not certain when the next general election will be but the coalition government has completed at least half of its maximum five-year term.

Of course a Labour victory is far from guaranteed but as things stand it looks likely. At the time of writing Ladbrokes put the odds of Labour winning the most seats at the next general election at 1/2.

The problem is working out what a new Labour government would look like. Party leaders are likely to eschew specific policy statements until the manifesto is written for the next election. Generally what they will say is bland and non-committal.

Naturally there are some rough indications of what a Labour government would do. For instance, the 2010 manifesto was written by Ed Miliband, the current party leader. But he was reportedly stopped from writing a more “radical” document – whatever that means in this context – at the time.

Despite Labour’s sometimes searing attacks on the coalition it is also clear it is not proposing any dramatic reversal in policy. Labour politicians have long mastered the art of political ambiguity: they appear to be angry critics of the government while at the same time accepting the substance of its arguments.

The party’s leaders have said publically there will be no substantial reversal of the government’s spending cuts. Their criticism of “austerity” is essentially about the timing of spending cuts rather than their substance. Labour is in favour of implementing the austerity a little more slowly than the Conservatives or their Liberal Democratic partners. Of course Labour it entitled to its preferences but it is misleading to give the impression that they amount to fundamental points of principle.

But even if Labour is not going back to the days of higher spending that does not indicate how it intends to go forward. It does not show whether it intends to more-or-less follow on from the coalition or if it has something else in mind.

Ed Miliband is certainly brimming with catchphrases although it is not immediately clear if they fit together as a coherent package. He can sound like a radical anti-capitalist when he attacks some businesses as “vested interests” and “predators”. Yet his claim to speak for the “squeezed middle” is clearly different from Old Labour’s representation of the trade unions. As for “pre-distribution” it is not immediately clear what it means at all.

Look at the debate within Labour policy circles and it gets even more bewildering. There are claims to represent all sorts of streams of ideas including Catholic social teaching, Blue Labour and Neue Labour (emulating the German model). Although it is not often referred to explicitly there is a strong influence of what is sometimes called American “progressive liberalism”.

It is argued here that such catchphrases and concepts give a good indication of what a future Labour government would look like. The challenge is to decode them to show how they all fit together. To achieve this goal it is necessary to look at both the symbolism and mindset of the Labour leadership.

This article will start by probing the catchphrases so beloved of the Labour leader to discern what they represent. It will then look at the party’s orientation to the streams of thought it claims to draw on. From there it will be possible to outline the main underlying assumptions and future trajectory of any Labour government.

It will conclude that Labour represents a particular form of what could be called romantic anti-capitalism. Its goal is not to replace the market economy with socialism. Instead its main focus is to stop society disintegrating under the ravages of what it sees as largely untrammeled market forces.

This exaggerated fear of social disintegration is what is likely to make a future Labour government so problematic. It looks certain to stifle economic activity still further with its imposition of ever more rules and regulatory institutions. That is even leaving aside the negative implications for personal freedom of such an approach.

Catchphrases

Ed Miliband rivals Bruce Forsyth in the number of catchphrases he has tried to popularise. Except that “give us a twirl” and “didn’t he do well” are meant for comic effect whereas the politician’s favourites are intended seriously.

In the Labour leader’s case the place where a catch phrase is unveiled or used is often symbolic. In many case it is not at a specifically Labour venue, such as the party conference, but somewhere entirely different.

Take, for example, Miliband’s most successful catchphrase: the “squeezed middle”. It was declared the Oxford Dictionaries “word of the year” in 2011 even though it is not even a word.

The phrase was unveiled in an article in the Sunday Telegraph on 25 September 2010 (“Ed Miliband: my vision to rebuild trust” ). Both the location and timing are significant. The article was published in what is traditionally a Tory paper and it appeared the day after Miliband was elected Labour leader. Clearly the appearance in the newspaper was meant to signal that Labour was trying to broaden its appeal beyond its traditional base.

In the article itself Miliband promised “an new approach to equality that will help forge a less divided Britain”. He went on to say that his aim was “to show that our party is on the side of the squeezed middle in our country and everyone who has worked hard and wants to get on”.

Or take what was dubbed Miliband’s “relaunch” speech to Citizens UK – an alliance of community organisations – in January 2012 . It was here that Miliband warned that “no company that is engaging in predatory behaviour should be too big to challenge”. He also said “we need to take action against vested interests”. In particular he pointed to energy companies that he said were not treating pensioners fairly.

Or take Miliband’s most baffling concept: that of “pre-distribution”. The venue here was symbolic as the catchphrase was launched at the London Stock Exchange on 6 September 6 2012. Miliband was speaking at an event organised by Policy Network, a pro-Labour think tank. Larry Summers, a former US Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton, was another of the speakers.

Miliband defined predistribution as about saying “we cannot allow ourselves to be stuck with permanently being in a low-wage economy”. He defined a complement rather than an addition to the redistribution of resources. The concept was taken from Jacob Hacker, a politics professor at Yale and high profile critic of American inequality.

But perhaps the broader context was as revealing as the “predistribution” tag itself. Miliband again felt the need to argue for a responsible capitalism that distinguishes between predatory and productive behaviour. He also attacked “speculation” and emphasised the importance of new rules to regulate the economy.

This list of speeches and catchphrases is far from comprehensive but it is enough to give some insight into Labour’s assumptions. For instance, it is clear that Labour is not hostile to capitalism in principle – despite what some of its conservative critics might claim – but it is deeply antithetical to what it sees as “vested interests” and “predatory” capitalists.

In the name of regulating what it regards as irresponsibility it will no doubt introduce ever more rules to restrain such behaviour. Such regulations are likely to be a burden even on many companies that regard themselves as entirely proper in their business dealings.

It is also clear that Miliband does not see Labour as representing the manual working class or even employees more generally. His mindset is based on viewing people primarily as consumers. Firms are viewed as irresponsible if they treat consumers in any way that Labour deems unfair.

Finally, it is clear that Miliband’s Labour party is strongly focused on inequality. But his concern is not so much redistribution but the potential for the stresses and strains on UK society to tear it apart.

That is what he means when he talks of Labour as representing “One Nation”. For him it is paramount that social cohesion is maintained in the current difficult economic climate. The problem with what he regards as predatory capitalists is that their behaviour threatens to undermine social unity.

To understand these points more fully it is necessary to look more closely at the discussion-taking place within Labour circles.

Inside Labour

The tone of the debate within Labour is a little different from the more public discussion. There is more acknowledgment that Labour often draws on non-British traditions. The assumptions behind the discussions are often made more explicit.

This is not to claim that the internal Labour debate is secret. It is just that it takes place more in pro Labour think tanks, such as Policy Network and the Institute for Public Policy Relations, as well as in associated publications.

Many of these debates are brought into the public domain by Matthew Taylor. The former chief adviser to Tony Blair became the chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in 2006. Although his current position is non-partisan he uses it to promote policy-related debates.

Taylor is also a prolific contributor to the media including both newspapers and radio. His BBC Radio 4 Analysis programmes on Catholic social teaching and on the German model included interviews with many key Labour thinkers on the subjects.

Catholic social teaching chimes strongly with Miliband’s concerns over social cohesion and responsible behaviour. It is usually traced back to Rerum Novarum, an encyclical on capital and labour by Pope Leo XIII issued in 1891 and sometimes referred to as “on the condition of the working classes”. The document sees it as desirable that society should be bound together by compassion for the poor and respect for the family. It is also explicitly hostile to the socialists at the time who wanted to abolish private property.

Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham and the man charged with writing the next Labour manifesto, is a strong advocate of catholic social teaching. He was quoted in Taylor’s programme on the subject saying:

“When the music stops in autumn 2008 [with the economic crisis] … you sort of search for different traditions to reintroduce them. Different bodies, frameworks, ideas.

“One of which is catholic social teaching, which I think is a rich theme in order to analyse the contemporary situation.”

Miliband’s circle (click to enlarge)

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Another related sets of ideas go under the peculiar name of Blue Labour. Its leading advocate, Maurice Glasman, is a Labour peer and sometimes speechwriter to Ed Miliband.The concept is probably best seen as an attempt to relate to what Labour conceives to be the preoccupations of its traditional base. As Glasman put it in another Radio 4 Analysis broadcast: “Blue Labour puts working-class concerns and experience at the centre, has an affection and an understanding of the concerns of working-class people.”

For Glasman the Blairite version of New Labour had many positive elements – such as its “patriotic energy” – but it was far too soft on financial institutions and speculation. It also, in Glasman’s view, failed to respect the social conservatism of working class people.

The Blue Labour view of immigration is particularly telling in what it says more broadly about the party’s worldview. All of the UK’s main political parties favour immigration controls. But for Glasman and indeed the Labour party more generally such controls are pitched as an attempt to connect to the anxieties of ordinary people.

Miliband’s Labour party sees itself as cosmopolitan and enlightened. But immigration controls are viewed as necessary to appeal to its traditional base. Although such measures are typically couched in the language of “respect” they suggest that Labour leaders view their potential supporters as profoundly narrow-minded.

The term “Blue Labour” seems to have fallen out of favour but the underlying assumptions seem to remain. Labour’s leaders are concerned about how they should relate to what they see as a largely conservative base of potential voters.

Germany is admired in Labour circles at least partly because it seems to offer a solution to the problem of social cohesion. What is sometimes called the “Rhine model” of capitalism is viewed as having kept many of the excesses of the English-speaking world in check.

Germany is seen as a society in which the government, business and unions have worked together to ensure long-term economic success. It is also admired for eschewing the consumer credit and property bubbles that got many free market economies into so much trouble.

Stewart Wood, Labour’s director of communications, is the lead thinker on this topic. Although his PhD is from Harvard it is a comparison on economic reform in Britain and West German from 1960-1990. Glasman too included a section on Germany in his doctorate.

Although this desire to emulate aspects of German society is strong it is not new in Labour circles. The same ideas featured in The State We’re In, the 1995 book by Will Hutton that in many respects provided the intellectual backdrop to the first Blair government.

Strangely the most influential strain of thought on Miliband’s Labour party is seldom acknowledged in public. It is what is sometimes called American “progressive liberalism”. This strand of thinking as also admired as offering insights into how capitalism can be regulated.

Miliband and his followers are clearly impressed by the electoral success of the Obama administration. Yet Obama and his team in turn often present themselves as following in progressive tradition of early twentieth century America (See Did inequality cause the crisis? Fund Strategy, 26 November 2012).

The progressives, who included presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, were often vehement in their criticisms of what were often called “robber barons”. These were companies or individuals who in some ways were viewed as damaging the common good through their speculative activity.

Progressives were also in favour of strengthening central state institutions as a way of curbing such excesses. This was at a time when the federal state was gaining more power relative to the local states.

Miliband’s talk of “vested interests” and “predators” can be seen as a way of trying to put progressivism into the language of UK politics. His central policy focus, like those of the original progressives, is also to strengthen the power and extent of state institutions. Although contemporary the UK is clearly fundamentally different from America a century ago the opposition feels it can learn from the earlier era.

Conclusion

Despite the apparent erudition of all these references it represents what Matthew Taylor calls a “pick and mix” approach to ideas. Labour already has a strong predilection for particular ideals – social cohesion, restraint on excesses, “responsible” behaviour – and goes in search of material to back them up.

Nevertheless its choice of themes gives a good indication of the self-image of the contemporary Labour leadership. Essentially it sees itself as a cosmopolitan elite that is trying to relate to a fundamentally conservative society that is under acute strain.

It is particularly anxious that market forces be kept in check. Although Labour favours capitalism in principle it is worried that it is in some senses too dynamic.

It is in this particular sense that Labour can be seen as anti-capitalist. From the perspective of romantic anti-capitalism the market must be tightly restrained. The alterative is viewed as social breakdown as individuals engage in a fierce battle for scarce resources.

That is why irresponsible capitalists – the “predators”, “vested interests” or “1%” – are viewed so negatively. Although these are seen as only a small minority of the rich they are viewed as undermining the integrity of society by treating consumers unfairly. In this view it is vital to take tough action to curb speculation and excess.

For Labour the central challenge is therefore how to use the state to maintain social cohesion. It sees a need for tough rules to regulate both errant businesses and anti-social behaviour by ordinary people.

From the perspective of financial institutions and businesses in general this signals a difficult time under any future Labour government. It is not that Labour is hostile to capitalism in general. On the contrary, it gave up its commitment to old-style socialism and the trade unions many years ago.

Nor is likely to indulge in any rampant spending spree of the type its critics fear. Although public spending will remain high, as it will do under the Conservatives too, it is unlikely to surge. Indeed a future Labour government might well be tougher on public sector pay and benefits than its predecessors.

The problem stems from Labour’s exaggerated concerns about predatory capitalism or what is sometimes called neo-liberalism. Such anxieties are so overblown they are likely to lead to severe restraints on economic activity. Labour looks certain to devise numerous new rules and institutions to deal with what it sees as the threat of vested interests. In so doing it could well choke off economic activity still further than is already happening.