We need a new set of economic responses if we are not to be utterly defeated

First published in New Left Project, 11/5/15

Are you ‘Old Labour’ or ‘New Labour’? For ‘wealth creators’ or against them? A supporter of ‘aspiration’ or not? The whole debate around Labour’s future direction is being framed in terms that are obsolete or meaningless, or both.

The post-war social democratic model dependent on redistribution through taxation with a bit of regulation (or even an energy ‘price freeze’) is looking increasingly past its sell-by date. It was a model shared to some extent by the various strains of Labour (though “New” went softer on the regulation).

We need a new set of economic responses if we are not to be utterly defeated, which include questions of economic democracy – how we can own and manage businesses more collectively, not just tax them? (This is not to say that our history and traditions don’t matter – one of the points of Robin Murray’s ‘Cooperation in the Age of Google’ is that technological change gives new vitality to the older structure of the co-operative.)

Nor can we rely on trade unions alone to act as a sufficient countervailing force to the excesses of capitalism, despite all the exhortations to ‘rebuild’ them (which again, is not to say they don’t matter – how they can be given new relevance as part of a mission to democratise the economy is another important question).

Turning this into a viable political strategy is hard, but it does also give us the possibility of building much-needed new coalitions, and of starting to undermine some of neoliberalism’s deeply entrenched frames.

Being both ‘pro-business’ and ‘pro-worker’ sounds like another bit of New Labour triangulation, but once we are clear we aren’t talking about any type of business it becomes more meaningful, and offers the potential to build alliances with democratic and small businesses against monopolistic corporations. (And indeed we should not allow ourselves to be branded as simply ‘anti-market’ by those who have presided over a new age of monopoly capitalism; understanding the limits of markets is a very different thing.)

Equally it helps us challenge the language around ‘wealth creators’. Labour MP Pat McFadden, one of the first off the mark to call for a return to Blairism following Miliband’s defeat, said: ‘We need to speak about wealth creation and not just wealth distribution.’  The idea of there being a class of ‘wealth creators’ at the top – on whom we are dependent and to whom we must at best be grateful for a bit of their taxed income – is diminished once we start talking about democratising wealth.

None of this offers easy or short-term fixes. There are glimmers of hope at local level like Preston council’s community wealth building initiative, though the election of a Tory government risks extinguishing them before they have had a chance. Nevertheless we have no choice but to move on to new terrain.  If we just keep saying we need to fight austerity with anti-austerity we will fail.