The below is my monthly column for Policy Network, part of their global “State of the left” round up. I’d really recommend reading the other contributions, which can be found here, especially Rene Cuperus on the Dutch Election and Jocelyn Evans & Gilles Ivaldi on the hard time Francois Hollande is already having translating hope into reality. I’ve put here mostly because I can edit out the typos I left in it originally.
I find myself in an odd position. The most interesting development in centre-left politics in Britain over the last month were highlighted at a conference organised by Policy Network, at which the main idea presented by the Labour party leader, Ed Miliband, was “pre-distribution”, a term inspired by, and borrowed from, an earlier conference organised by Policy Network, and set out in a paper by Jacob Hacker, published by (you guessed it) Policy Network.
How can I possibly discuss this without sounding as if I am simply stroking the ego of my editor and his director, who organised all of the above? Further, what can I possibly say that is new? After all, all you need to do to read the state of British centre-left policy development is to click on the little icon in the top left of your screen.
Well, perhaps I can add something, because the reaction to the Labour leadership’s embrace of “pre-distribution” was mild amusement, bordering on contempt by the media classes, and this, in itself, is important.
The first problem with “pre-distribution” as a concept in politics is that it falls foul of the British media’s rampant Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia or fear of long words. I used to think this was a consequence of sturdy British scepticism of anything European. Use multisyllabic Latin and Greek portmanteau words? That’s just showing off, you dastardly foreign type. Stick to Anglo-Saxon bluntness and all will be well.
Unfortunately the soaring popularity of London Mayor Boris Johnson, who likes to scatter his public appearances with Latin quotes acquired during his classical education, rather disproves this theory.
No, what the British press hate is seriousness, not syllables. There is a history here, naturally. Almost two decades ago, the then Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, made a speech in which he endorsed “Post neo-classical Endogenous growth theory”. A potential Finance minister discussing theories of economic growth? This was regarded as a capital joke by all concerned, and brings a smile to the lips of political reporters to this day.
Ed Miliband referred to this very phenomenon as he introduced the topic of pre-distribution to the British press. This perhaps explains why the Labour leader talked about how pre-distribution would help “young people scouring for work” and “struggling small businesses”, doing so with more than a hint of the well-meaning schoolmaster trying to interest a class of schoolboys in calculus by working out how much champagne a football trophy can hold.
This did not work, except among the Labour leader’s friends in the centre-left press. The media had much more pressing matters on their mind than the structure of the UK economy.
Namely, had Ed Miliband fallen out with his Chancellor, Ed Balls.
The newspapers had been full of stories that the two men had argued about spending policy, leading to recycled stories about how Balls treated Miliband with thinly disguised contempt.
This was regarded as far more worthy of inquisition than Labour’s plans for government. The two Eds stood together at the Policy network conference, showing that they were utterly united. (Though Balls went a little off script when at one point he said “What Ed (Miliband) should have said was two Eds are better than one”. Oh, Ed, the proper attitude of a politician to their leader is that of a Cardinal to a Pope: they are utterly infallible, right up to the moment they shuffle off.
However, I’m guilty of the sin I condemn. I’m focusing on tittle-tattle not the policy substance. In my defence, Labour is still at the concept stage of policy development. The Policy Network conference showed progress was being made – There is strong enthusiasm for industrial policy, a business bank, support for innovation and research, and recognition of the need to lift wages in the private sector. Yet it is hard for an opposition to embrace worked out policy without also accepting the bills for such, and Labour, quite properly, cannot do without working out where the money will come from.
Nor can Labour fully commit to policies like an increase in the minimum wage, or more rights for trade unions, that might fit under the “pre-distribution” banner. These would seem counter-intuitive while the economy is still in recession. So while we’ll see further announcements, it’s unlikely these policy concepts will be full production models by the coming party conference, not least because the party has only just re-launched the policy review process.
While we wait for the details of a future Labour government plans, the government extends its reputation for incompetence and division into exciting new fields – a botched reshuffle with the PM sipping wine as he sacked ministers, the deputy prime minister calling those who disagree with gay marriage (about half the Conservative party) “bigots”, the mayor of London gleefully using the triumph of the Olympics and Paralympics to upstage the prime minister. Labour’s lead in the polls remains strong, the recession seems unending, trade unions talk of strikes, and the political press occupy themselves with ephemera.
Like characters in a Beckett play, the British political class, left and right, is waiting for growth. “Will it come soon?” they ask. Why hasn’t it come?” One thinks he knows the answer, but cannot persuade the other, and he is the only one who can act. Perhaps growth will come, and change everything.
But perhaps it won’t – and then what?