Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Thu, 10 Jun 2021, 2:45 PM


Our priorities

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One of the dafter genres of political writing is the offering of unsolicited advice to leaders. Nevertheless, I'd like to suggest what I would do if I were Sir Keir Starmer. You can think of this as advice if you'd like, but I'd rather regard it as a way of contrasting two different types of politics.

What I'd do is to greatly beef up the party's National Policy Forum, giving it more resources, a much higher profile and emphasising that it is open to all. We need ongoing informal and widespread public inquiries in which experts, the public and interest groups are engaged. These should be exercises in deliberative democracy in which devices such as citizens' juries are combined with academic research.

Connecting with grassroots is not an alternative to technocracy. The two are complements because good policy requires a detailed knowledge of ground truth.

I stress here that these are not focus groups: the party must ask not "what do you think?" but "what do you know?" And the results of this research must form policy, and not be over-ridden by the instincts of party leadership or by the search for quick headlines. Phil says that:

Labourist politics relies on mass passivity, it's an elite project where the masses vote in the politicians, and they make the changes by passing legislation.

This must change.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

- What is global best practice? Why have some countries such as South Korea and New Zealand handled Covid much better? Why is French childcare so good and cheap? Why has Finland (until recently) had better education outcomes? Can we learn from these, or are there cultural factors that prevent us importing their success? And so on with respect to public transport, infrastructure, vocational training etc. In contrast to Tory waffle about a "world beating" test and trace scheme, Labour should have detailed empirical evidence on best practice in public services from around the world.

- How do we put in place the right policy infrastructure for fighting recessions? This year's events have reminded us that recessions are unpredictable. And the government's response has been patchy, with many (especially the self-employed) not getting the financial help they need. Which poses the question of how to ensure the government or Bank of England can get support quickly to everybody in the next downturn. The means of delivering helicopter money or people's QE must be in place.

- How do we reform the tax and benefit system? Yes, there's a case for land value tax. But the details are key: how to value land, what to do about people who are asset-rich but cash-poor and so on? Ditto lots of other tax changes, such as ending the bias towards corporate debt. The same's true of benefit reform. Whilst a basic income is appealing, can we reconcile it with wide variations in personal needs and housing costs? In these questions, the experience of benefit users is crucial: how can we make the system as simple and quick as possible, so users do not face weeks without cash, or uncertainty and harassment, and how can we ensure that the transition from benefits to work is as smooth as possible?

- Why have real wages stagnated since the mid-00s, and how might this be reversed? The main reason is stagnant productivity rather than increased exploitation. And there are many likely causes of that stagnation. But how can we get productivity going again? Increased aggregate demand is part of the answer. So too is better training and management, stronger competition (included from overseas), more innovation and R&D and - yes- greater equality. But how to achieve these?

- What are the links between economic growth, institutions and values? We know from Ben Friedman's work that economic growth increases tolerance and liberalism, so we need it to reduce the right's ability to exploit culture wars; the left will win these by economic growth, not by being dragged onto the right's terrain. Necessary as growth is, though, this does not suffice to get us to socialism. Some believe that this requires a change in values, towards more reciprocal altruism. But what institutions might promote such values? Failing that, how might we harness self-interest to promote socialism? How far can or should we promote decommodification, for example?

- How can we empower working people? We know that union membership and more autonomy improve worker's well-being - which is great not only in itself but also because happier workers are more productive. But how can these be extended? Is a shorter working week also feasible? How else might job satisfaction improve?

- What corporate forms should government encourage? We've evidence that coops can raise productivity, and that a stock market listing can reduce efficient investment. Which poses the questions: how far can cooperatives be rolled out? What form should worker control take? What are the relative merits of regulation and nationalization in dysfunctional industries (I suspect there's a stronger case for nationalizing banks than utilities)? How can nationalized industries be put under effective and democratic control? How far should outsourcing go, and should it be dominated by the usual suspects? Can procurement policy be used to encourage coops? I'm not sure there are general answers here. Context is everything.

- How might we best achieve value for money in the public sector? We all know that the only binding economic constraint upon fiscal policy is inflation. But there might come a time when this constraint bites. So efficient public spending matters. But how can we ensure that government procurement isn't dominated by cronyism? How can we empower public sector workers to identify waste and improve efficiency?

- How can we best promote green growth? We know we need it. But what are the mechanisms? How do we best encourage green R&D and innovation? What's the role of taxes and subsidies? Download

You might reply here that we know some of these answers. Maybe. But politics isn't only about ideas. It's about what ideas get mobilized and which side-lined. The point of such an exercise is to increase the salience of these policy areas - to ensure that they, and not the passing faff of newspaper headlines, form the agenda. This requires a form of message discipline from Labour MPs - to stick to issue that matter and not respond to media froth.

What's more, abstract centralized knowledge of principles is not enough. We need detail and ground truth. And this comes from mobilizing not just academic experts, but local experts - those with hard experience of getting benefits, working in the NHS, setting up a small firm and so on. Hence the need for widespread, bottom-up deliberation.

This might seem technocratic stuff. And God knows we need that. But it's a different sort of technocracy. It's not the bullshit managerialism of New Labour, but a genuine drive to harness local expertise. Ground truth is everything.

But it's more than that. What all this amounts to is a different way of doing politics. It sets the agenda. It says: our focus is upon real, material living standards, and we must resist distractions from this. It also says that policy is to be developed not with regard to fleeting newspaper headlines but to hard empirical evidence. Policy is not something to be pulled out of your arse or a newspaper column.

The aim of this exercise should be to marginalize the likes of Kuenssberg and Peston, as well as all those centrists and right-wingers who think that politics is about the voices in your head rather than the ground truth of living standards. The message to these should be: you are irrelevant.

Now, it should be obvious that my point in saying all this is not to offer advice to Starmer but rather to highlight how a different politics is possible, and how Westminster-centric politics is a trivial distraction from material truths. In an age of stupidity, the pursuit of expertise becomes a revolutionary act.

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