Sunday, 9 September 2012

Predistribution isn’t the answer Ed.

Another week, another barmy policy pronouncement from a party leader, this time it comes courtesy of Labour’s Ed Milliband. The big new idea in town is, drum roll please, predistribution.

In a speech to the Policy Network he said, quite rightly, that sine the nineties inequality in the UK had grown despite the best efforts of the Blair and Brown governments to reverse the trend. He went on to say that the ‘model of the economy we have and the distribution of income it creates should be at the heart of Labour policy.’ What this means, he added, was that ‘we need to care about predistribution as well as redistribution.’

There’s that word again, so what, exactly, does it mean? It describes, according to Mr Milliband, a process of funnelling government money into projects such as creating a living wage and tackling the unfairness inherent in high fuel costs and train ticket prices. All of which is good stuff, but if you’re struggling to see how this is any different from plain old redistribution you’re not alone.

Helpfully Ed Milliband explained it, making reference to the sort of hypothetical supermarket or call-centre workers full time politicians like to talk about because they seldom meet the real thing outside of an election campaign, in the following terms. ‘Redistribution offers a top-up to their wages. Predistribution seeks to offer them more: higher skills, with higher wages – an economy that works for working people.’

The proposals extend Ed Millibands commitment that a future Labour government will encourage ‘responsible capitalism’ and, he said, are about ‘saying we cannot allow ourselves to be stuck with permanently being a low wage economy.’ A model that, he added, ‘is neither just, nor does it enable us to pay our way in the world.’

Again there is little to argue with in the broad brush strokes, but the detail skitters away from you like a bar of soap in the bath; perhaps because at the end of the day this is more about posturing than policy.

Anyone who thinks ‘predistribution’ really is a means for making capitalism more responsible is being charitable to the point of foolishness. Like Nick Clegg’s ‘radical’ plans for the tax system there is no substance to what is being said.

For example if Ed Milliband thinks rail fares are extortionate, and I’d agree with him, and that the lack of a high quality public transport system is holding back our economic recovery, why are he and his party unwilling to even think about renationalizing the railways? Doing so doesn’t mean creating a forties style monolith, the railways could, perhaps be run on a co-operative model that gives government, employees and passengers a stake in their success.

If he wants to raise the level of skills amongst British workers to attract high quality jobs to the country then a Labour government will have to invest massively in training for young people and adults. To pay for that investment there will have to be a significant, and ultimately beneficial, redistribution of wealth.

Unfortunately this isn’t about bold policy ideas, it’s about positioning, branding and the sort of nonsense dreamed up in the never-never land of flip charts and focus groups. It’s the sort of thing Blair could have carried off magnificently in his pomp, earnest Ed Milliband can’t make it work and he shouldn’t even want to try.

The most tragic aspect of the whole thing is that Labour have got an open goal yawning before them and seem intent on kicking the ball into the stand. The government are growing more unpopular by the day; the feel good bubble of the Paralympics was burst this week when the crowd booed George Osborne, a botched reshuffle has moved the Conservative half to the right but failed to bring with it any new ideas and nemesis is bumbling towards Citizen Dave in the shape of Boris Johnson.

What Labour need isn’t to find a gimmick; they need to set about forging a connection with the people who are sacred about the future, angered by a government that seems remote and out of touch and who feel the current economic system has sold them a pup. To do so the party has to get back to its grassroots, to organising people locally to fight for a better and fairer society, mangling the English language with dated New Labour nonsense is a blind alley.

They need to look for a model to the Greens, who this week elected no nonsense Aussie Natalie Bennett as their new leader, and are unafraid to talk openly about their beliefs. They’ll never win an election though, says the voice of received wisdom, the electoral system is against them and anyway the media continually writes them off as well meaning cranks.

Their presence though gives anyone with an interest in seeing a more progressive version of politics cause for hope. Not least because the British people are often much smarter than they’re given credit for being; smart enough to realise that today’s crank often turns out to be tomorrow’s visionary.

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