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No country is an island, not even Miliband’s Britain

The State We NeedA strange calm has settled over the Labour Party. There are debates over trade union influence, over what needs to be done to retain those poll leads, but when it comes to the question of political economy there is almost unanimity. From the left in the LRC to the right in Progress there is an understanding that neoliberalism is done. That Britain was dangerously exposed by the unfettered market New Labour assiduously cultivated.

And, lastly, to get things going again requires some new thinking or, for Keynes fans, new old thinking. It is therefore a shame that Michael Meacher’s new book, The State We Need hasn’t had the circulation it deserves. It is very much a work of Labour’s consensus around matters economic and, it could be argued, serves as an outrider for a “Milibandist” vision of Britain. This is not work of the hard or soft left, but rather the realistic left. And as such I can only see it attracting minor quibbles from the quarters that sit either side of it.

Obviously, The State We Need is a title that places itself in the camp of Will Hutton’s reformed capitalism, as detailed in his important The State We’re In. Like Will, Michael accepts that capitalism is the name of the game (although Michael chooses to label it “ethical socialism” – a branding Éoin Clarke has been keen to revive), and that the immediate task is to make up for lost time. That is a root-and-branch reform of how Britain does business to turn around its century-long decline. I’ve said it, but how do you go about doing it?

Michael suggests what Britain needs is a decisive break with neoliberalism and a move to what he calls ‘national interest capitalism’. His book details schemes for reigning in the banks, engineering class privilege out of the education system, rebuilding public services by severely curbing and reversing marketisation, rebalancing the economy with a necessary stress on manufacturing, lassoing corporate power with the thick rope of democracy, clamping down on tax dodging and the socially useless (and value-destroying) power of finance, and an vast expansion of green jobs. No country is an island, not even Britain, so Michael talks about the leverage it could use to rewrite the global rules of trade.

It’s also worth noting his is the first book on global political economy I’ve read that takes the issue of water shortages seriously. As you might expect, the state is the central mechanism for enacting these policies. But The State We Need is not a shopping list of uncosted demands. It’s more an exercise in institutional design and the enacting of powers.

I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of Michael’s suggestions. Together though, they make for a coherent package. And, crucially, they begin from the position Britain is in: a country whose assets have been flogged off and whose governing ideology is completely ill-equipped to guide its way in a global economy increasingly dominated by the East.

There is unfortunately one weakness to Michael’s argument, but not a fatal one by any means. On one level, the structural reforms the book sets out are a necessity. Britain needs to go with the global capital flow and have a much more activist state that will drive investment and provide economic leadership. How do we get there? We can’t expect our decadent ruling class to do it. They’ve had ample opportunity over the last 100 years and fluffed it each and every time. National interest capitalism requires longer-term vision and demands key social supports not beholden to short-termism and reckless profiteering to carry it through.

Policy is never a matter of free-floating ideas. They are always tied to and champion specific sets or ranges of interests. That’s the nature of the capitalist beast. Its political economy is thoroughly contradictory and antagonistic – ideas and policies are specific moments in that interminable, restless struggle. Ethical socialism, for example, presents itself as a nice idea and that’s it. But it’s not. It too condenses the outlook, the collective experience of certain sets of people. Just as liberalism does. Just a Toryism does. Just as UKIP’s faux libertarianism does. There’s a reason socialist billionaires are few and far between.

National interest capitalism is no different. Clearly, that section of business who gained and are still doing well under neoliberalism’s dysfunctional sway would lose out on the basis of Michael’s plans. But who would gain? Business closely associated with manufacturing. Small and medium-sized enterprise. Firms into the promotion of renewable energies and green technologies. Yet the most immediate beneficiary would be working people – the vast majority of us who’ve had to put up with decades of uncertainty, hire-and-fire, scapegoating, crap wages, the erosion of dignity at work, the stripping out of social security supports, housing shortages, spiralling bills and rising food prices. While our interests ultimately lie beyond capitalism the immediate situation demands a capitalism that concedes a severe back-pedalling.

Concession, however, is an outcome of applying pressure. Therefore getting Labour back into government in 2015 is an absolute necessity, but we need the labour movement to build a head of steam behind plans like Michael’s. Thankfully, the trade union and cooperative movements as a whole already are. It just a simple job (pah!) of recruiting more and getting more working people into the party. And, to be fair, there are elements of Michael’s plan to be found in the front bench’s evolving thinking about matters economic. But it’s not a one way street. The historic crisis of capitalism cannot be reduced to a question of proletarian leadership, but it is not irrelevant. A strong labour movement pressing for social democracy needs a quid pro quo, a policy compact where new measures benefit working people, ease that deep sense of insecurity and make it easier for the labour movement to organise and grow.

If that dialectic can be jump started, we’re on our way.

  • The State We Need, by Michael Meacher. Biteback, September 2013, RRP £18.99. Special offer for Left Futures readers: order at just £10 – details of how to order here.

8 Comments

  1. Carol Wilcox says:

    As he is a member of the Labour Land Campaign, I do hope that Michael’s book contains a plug for land value taxation. I haven’t bought a copy myself since partner has one. We don’t live together so have to find time to peruse when I’m at his. We are actually working on a full policy paper on property taxes for CLASS and Michael really needs to see it. LVT is not a panacea, but it is an essential component of a Labour manifesto.

  2. Dave Roberts says:

    This one should go down like a lead zeppelin with all of those Labour voters watching their house prices rocket.

  3. Andy Newman says:

    This is an excellent book, and writing an appreciative review is high on my own to-do list

  4. Rod says:

    I realise that Phil Burton-Cartledge is too important a personage to respond to those who post comments but I’m wondering how Phil connects the “necessity” of “getting Labour back into government in 2015” with the applying of pressure to win concessions in the shape of the outcomes suggested by Michael?

    When Blair was elected desirable outcomes didn’t automatically follow, why should they if Miliband is elected – what’s changed?

  5. Alex says:

    @Rod:

    You’re right that desirable outcomes didn’t automatically follow under Blair, and we shouldn’t assume they will under Miliband. But if the first step is a shift, however slight, back towards social democracy then that is far more plausible under a Labour government than under a Tory one. Labour must win so we can have social democracy. We must have social democracy to empower the labour movement. We must empower the labour movement to achieve socialism.

  6. Peter Rowlands says:

    Quite right. The State we Need is in my view the most important book of its kind published this year, setting out a detailed blueprint for the sort of reforms that will be needed if the left is to make any progress. One would not expecrt the ultra left to take much notice of it, and it’s far too radical for the Blairites, although Diamond’s review in September was fair, but the sensible left has failed to take it on board as it should, and that should now change.
    The book is not perfect. ‘National interest capitalism’ has too many unpleasant connotations, why not just use ‘social democracy’. The book is also silent on the question of Europe, which the left cannot be.But overall the book needs much wider circulation, particularly in 2014 when Labour’s election manifesto will be effectively finalised.Let us hope that this book can play a significant role in that.

  7. swatantra says:

    Michael should forget about charging for the book and just make it available free on the internet.

  8. Robert says:

    Alex that’s brilliant mate, lets see Miliband we will have a meeting to discuss the Union link, yes socialism at it best.

    Miliband we want to see home owners in this country affordable homes and then ok yes and to rent.

    New labour is not dead it in hiding maybe.

    Miliband is now a stooge for the Progress group.

    How anyone who looks reads or listens to Miliband could ever suggest this bloke is Labour he’s another of those career politician who now infest politics.

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