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Playing the neo-liberals game

Upward view of Big BenThe advice offered by some of its leading thinkers that Labour should switch the focus away from the role of central government and towards a greater devolution of power to the regions and communities has a fashionable ring to it.  But it is another, perhaps unwitting, admission of the left’s damaging loss of intellectual self-confidence.

There is, of course, much to be said for bringing the exercise of power closer to the people; but the difficulty lies with its corollary – that expectations of what can be achieved by government should be reduced.

A reduced role for government is, after all, an essentially right-wing – and, in modern terms, neo-liberal – preoccupation.   It was Ronald Reagan who famously claimed that government was the problem and not the solution; and since then, the political right has worked hard to scale down, and in many cases remove, any power claimed by government to intervene in the “free market” economy.

The left, by contrast, has traditionally and valuably seen government, particularly when its role is legitimised by democratic election, as a necessary bulwark to protect basic freedoms and an essential defence for the interests of ordinary people against the otherwise overwhelming power of those who would dominate the market place.

The shift in power away from democratically elected governments and in favour of large corporations, greatly aided as it has been by globalisation and the acceptance of neo-liberal economic doctrines, is after all already well advanced – which makes it all the more surprising that influential voices from the left should recommend that it should be further encouraged rather than resisted.

It is one of the main indictments of New Labour that it showed itself to be so welcoming of the notion that government’s duty was to put business interests first – and it seems that the lessons to be drawn from that experience have still not been learnt.

Not only do we live in a society where all values are increasingly subordinated to the bottom line, but we run an economy in which all the major decisions have been removed from democratic government and handed over to institutions which owe no loyalty to anything other than the profits to be made for their shareholders from – as the Bank of England acknowledged last week – an astonishing monopoly power to create huge volumes of new money.  Virtually all the important economic decisions are now made, not by a government accountable to the voters, but by banks accountable only to their shareholders.

The craven attempt by politicians to hand over responsibility for economic management has a lengthening history.  The Exchange Rate Mechanism, the European Monetary System and the Euro – to say nothing of setting up an “independent” Bank of England to decide monetary policy – have all been devices to allow politicians to escape being held to account.  It is disappointing to find voices on the left advocating a further extension of this cowardly disclaimer.

That disappointment is further compounded by the apparent failure to understand that fragmenting, localising and under-resourcing interests opposed to those of the business big battalions is a recipe for clearing the way for yet further domination by those powerful interests.  The only chance we have of countering the ever-growing power of international capital is to summon up, coordinate and combine the total potential power of government – all the resources potentially at its command and all the legitimacy that is derived from the ballot box.

For the left to turn its back on this obvious truth is a painful – and totally unnecessary – dereliction of duty and counsel of despair.  Are we really ready to concede – as George Osborne asserts – that there is no alternative to the current destructiveness of austerity, and therefore no role for a government taking a different view and pursuing a different policy?

Are we really saying that voters need not and should not look to a Labour government for a society that is fairer and more caring – a better society that is necessarily based on a better-performing economy?

Do we concede that a better-performing economy is beyond the capacity of a Labour government?  Are we so lacking in intellectual curiosity and ambition that we are unaware of, and unwilling to pursue, the increasingly accepted possibilities of a quite different approach to macro-economic policy?  Do we really have nothing to say on these central issues, but are instead content to linger in the foothills so as to divert attention away from the need to scale the challenging peaks?

Why not do some hard work on the central issues facing this country- and in particular on a different macro-economic policy – and then have the courage and confidence to say to the electorate that changing government will make a real and beneficial difference to the lives of most people.  If we don’t believe that, why should anyone else?

This article first appeared at Bryan Gould’s website

Image credit: paolag / 123RF Stock Photo



  1. Neil Stretton says:

    Bryan has summed it up as well as ever. The dangers of Labour following the advice of the ‘think-tank thinkers’ (?!) proposing a shift of economic power from central government to local/regional bodies, is that nothing will ever get done. ‘Decentralising’ the key levers of the economy will only mean inertia. As Richard Murphy and Howard Reed have also pointed out (see the Tax Research site), the only antidote to the neo-liberal economic agenda, is a powerful (and of course FULLY democratic) state, acting in the interests of WHOLE country. Significant devolution of economic power will only fragment and marginalise progressive action.

  2. Robert says:

    If The English Parliament holds the purse strings all you get are Assemblies with no more or less powers then councils.

    The Welsh Assembly is just a talking place at the moment with a very limited amount of powers which can be controlled by cutting the amount of money we get.

    Those purse strings are the biggest issue and until they are let go assemblies are talking shops only

  3. David Pavett says:

    I agree with Brian Gould’s point that people on the left should think carefully before endorsing policies because they devolve power to “the people”. As he says such devolution as a general demand is actually a right-wing demand.

    My problem with BG’s piece is that it suffers from the same vagueness as the policies he criticises (i.e. those advocated in the Lawson letter).

    So long as the argument remains at such a general level that it is about whether devolution as such is a good or bad thing then it cannot be resolved. There are some things that should be devolved to a level below central government (e.g. providing a local framework for schools to operate within) and other things that should be determined at a national level (e.g. total spending on education, teachers conditions of service).

    For the debate to be meaningful therefore one would have to advance criteria as to what makes it desirable or not to determine policy at a national level. The advocates of generalised devolution (Lawson et al) fail to do this. It is a pity that BG’s many valid arguments against them have been couched in a similarly undefined way.

  4. David Ellis says:

    In actual fact devolved government does not mean less government per se. In fact the Tories argued against Scottish and Welsh devolution on the grounds of `who needs another layer of politicians leeching off the public teet’. Cameron’s localism and Big Society bollocks which Millibands advisers are urging him to adopt a version of is of course about getting rid of local government so that there will be nothing between national government and the school or hospital or local tip leaving them in actual fact far more unprotected from the vagiaries of central government who can privatise them or carve up their funding without any co-ordinated resistance.

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