Friday, 30 September 2011

Thoughts on the Conference

The conference season should by rights be a good time for labour. The liberal democrats and the conservatives-- who have been drowning out labour in terms of media excitement since the labour leadership election-- are in government and don't really have much new to say. Labour on the other hand is trying to reposition itself, and that has brought a sharp focus onto what their new platform will be, as well as its colour scheme, oddly enough.

And it has been exciting for me. In fact words like 'reposition' and 'platform' feel completely wrong. I got the sense of a surprisingly genuine and cohesive set of principles at work here. Ed Milliband, under fire over his comments on 'predatory' asset strippers, was quick to point to the Beveridge welfare state, and its emphasis on responsibilities as a part of welfare; of the 'deal' aspect. It would be easy to see this as Labour trying to capture the centre ground on the right, attacking welfare cheats instead of tax avoidance, but there's a lot to be said for it.

This is a difficult area because it begins to descend rapidly into questions of personal freedom and paternalistic policies, issues I hope to write more about next week. Even so, expectation is a powerful thing which can encourage us in pursuit of our better natures to rise and meet the expectations placed on us, to be better people and to satisfy our responsibilities as citizens. I do think it may be necessary to ask for more from those on benefits at times, and from all of us. In the manner of civic republicanism I favour the creation of better citizens as a goal of government. It benefits the recipient to feel they have earned the help given, and to be proud of their work and accomplishments, and it benefits society as a whole to feel their help is merited.

Equally our laws and our society have to seem fair to us. Seeing CEOs take home vastly overgrown sums when the value of their company has scarcely improved at all, and being told that this is 'pay necessary to attract top talent' is simply revulsive. The tax avoidance issue and the 50% tax band do come into play here, or should. Unfortunately the current global race to the bottom means that unless rich countries continuously outbid each other on undertaxing the most (upwardly)mobile of their citizens think tanks will continue to threaten us with dire economic consequences if we do not pay competitively, tax competitively, and so on. This is not a local issue. The other side of the coin is that companies don't just want low taxes, they want infrastructure, a well educated workforce and synergies and subsidies.

The indications from the two Eds seems to be a move towards a more responsible way of interfacing with the private sphere, providing benefits to those who act in accordance with our values and the greater good of our society. Despite the fairly hostile approach in many sections of the press to 'arbitrary distinctions' between good and bad companies, it is possible to wield the public purse in such a way as to incentivise desired behaviours, and the idea regarding apprenticeships was particularly interesting. It struck me that they'd learned some of the lessons from our European allies, and that this could be a way of improving those synergies and the infrastructure mentioned earlier, provided it was part of a coherent strategy of course.

Most important for business is growth, of course, and that is Labour's distinctive point on the economy. Ed Balls delivered a surprisingly good speech to conference in which he accepted New Labour's past mistakes but defended its successes. Labour's new line that: "Lehman in New york did not fail because Labour hired too many teachers and nurses." is long overdue. I've heard versions of it given rarely and stutteringly for nine months now, but this formulation is basically pretty good.

I support Ed completely in this. Labour has to defend itself. I'm not going to pretend for one moment it didn't make plenty of mistakes, but it's easy to see how the facts have faded in the minds of many in the public, only to be replaced with a year of sound bites about profligate spending and running up deficits. If Labour does not fight back on this issue it will face two problems. First, that it will continue to be identified according to the coalition narrative, and this narrative can easily be applied to Balls and Milliband, who are hardly detached from New Labour. The leadership vacuum at the top last year left this unaddressed for far too long, with dangerous potential consequences.

And second, if the economic prognosis offered by Labour is sincerely held, which I firmly believe and hope it is, then by sticking to it the party can quickly regain some part of its economic credibility by being proven right by events. Admittedly, the spectre of European crisis has somewhat reduced this by giving the coalition an external excuse for the worsening economy, but if we had conceded the argument we would have gained nothing. We would be the party with no alternative to offer, which had abandoned its principles and its economic logic simply because of the prevailing political winds, only to run adrift by virtue of the same.

This was the most encouraging part of the conference for me. It was only a start, yes, but it was at least a start. A coherent, forward looking set of ideas. Confident enough to apologise, and willing to learn from the mistakes of the past, while being bold enough to continue to assert its firm beliefs.

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