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Review: The State We Need by Michael Meacher

The State We NeedThe State We Need: Keys to the Renaissance of Britain by Michael Meacher can be ordered here at £14 including postage

Michael Meacher has produced a readable and thought-provoking volume which raises a host of issues that ought to be widely debated and aired on the radical left of centre in British politics. The book appears at an important moment: not only is the left losing elections across much of Europe and the developed world. Many now wonder if social democracy can produce a distinctive ideological response to the economic and environmental crises of our age. Paradoxically, a capitalist crisis has been translated into a structural crisis of social democratic politics. The need for re-thinking and fresh ideas has never been greater.

It is against that backdrop that Meacher’s treatise ought to be read. One of the obvious strengths of The State We Need is that it addresses economic, social, political, and environmental questions within a coherent framework, rather than as separate themes, bringing together many complex issues in a cogent fashion.

The organising frame of the analysis is the post-2007 crisis and great recession, but the problems it has engendered are located within a much broader set of historical reference points which identify the long-term structural and cultural weaknesses of the British model of capitalism. There is a penetrating discussion of the problems created by Britain’s deeply imbalanced political economy, not only the lack of productive investment and weak track-record in industrial development, but the spill-over effects into rising social inequality and low social mobility. Meacher is right that on these questions, New Labour’s thinking was severely limited.

The themes of the book range wider. To a non-expert on climate change, the chapters on sustainability and environmental degradation are accessibly written and clearly argued. The severest criticism is reserved for the political elite in a chapter on Britain’s ‘dysfunctional power structure’. Meacher is justified in arguing that the UK, ‘is run by the elites in finance, business, the media and politics, and each of them has failed profoundly in their role…to the intense detriment of the public interest’. The roots of the crisis in democratic governance are traced to the weakness of Parliament’s role in holding the executive properly to account.

The State We Need
does not offer only analytical insight, but sets out a core policy agenda for the British Left. There is much of promise here, not least the elaboration of an ambitious industrial strategy and ‘national interest’ capitalism; a plan for public investment to stimulate the ailing UK economy which appears a long way from any form of sustainable recovery; the restoration of regulatory control in the banking system which properly addresses the problem of banks that are ‘too big to fail’; and the proposal to raise the minimum wage around a ‘minimum income standard’, alongside robust enforcement of employment law.

Inevitably, there are agendas that could be approached differently while still fulfilling Meacher’s radical ambitions. The book is right to advocate an ambitious strategy for British manufacturing not least to tackle the glaring regional imbalances in the British economy; however, the manufacturing sector is unlikely to return as a major source of UK employment in the near future, given the pace of technological development in industry. The left needs to consider how to make service sector jobs better paid, more secure, and highly skilled. The social care sector, for example, is crying out for major reforms to make work more fairly rewarded: overwhelmingly dominated by women, it is essential to improve productivity and skills through investment in training, incentivising all employers to pay a ‘living wage’. The trade unions have a vital role too in improving the bargaining position of the low paid throughout the British economy.

Another issue is political reform. Twenty five years ago, Meacher penned another important book called Diffusing Power which argued the British left needed to decentralise power and control to tackle elite vested interests. Where does he stand on that question today – is there a basis for a revived localism in Britain which does not compromise social democracy’s traditional commitment to equity and social justice? One of the most effective ways of undermining the ancien regime in the ‘British power structure’ would be a radical transfer of power back to local government, local democratic institutions, and local communities. A decentralising, pluralist social democratic politics would surely have the potential to win many converts.

Patrick Diamond is Lecturer in Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London. He is a local councillor in the London Borough of Southwark

2 Comments

  1. terry sullivan says:

    what would meacher know–he is a professional trougher

  2. Rob the cripple says:

    Is he? why what has he done that’s any different from any of the rest, he speaks more about the politics I think are fair then the rest of them.

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