Monday 26 April 2010

Economic republicanism: a basis for Lib Dem - Labour cooperation?

Dan Leighton and Richard Reeves have a very interesting essay in this week’s New Statesman arguing that this election is an important ‘republican moment’ in British politics.

Part of what they mean is that a hung parliament will produce irresistible pressures towards much-needed reform of the political system, including the introduction of PR.

But republicanism is not just about the political system. In common with Will Davies, and with posts here at Next Left, Leighton and Reeves argue that republicanism is also about how the economy is organized:

'...the republican concern with arbitrary power and public interest does not stop at the frontiers of the state. The economic crisis was a product of unequal power relationships as much as the flawed assumptions of neoliberal economics....The crisis has made it clear that what is good for the City is not necessarily good for the country.'

Economic republicanism is centrally about preventing the emergence and exercise of arbitrary power - the power to interfere in the lives of others at one's discretion, with no accountability to those one has power over - by spreading wealth and democratizing how it is controlled.

Judged by this standard, the manifestoes of the Lib Dems and Labour both have important republican elements. And they are much stronger when taken together than when taken alone.

On the one hand, the Lib Dems have a commitment to banking reform that will disperse economic power. They are also committed to a 'mansion tax' which will rightly take for the community some of the unearned wealth gains recently enjoyed by the richest home-owners.

However, the Lib Dems run counter to their own philosophy and traditions by calling for the abolition of the Child Trust Fund. (The claim that 'we can't afford it' is risible when one bears in mind how much the proposed Lib Dem income tax cut costs.) Labour rightly remains committed to this policy which helps to ensure that in future all young people start their adult lives with some capital of their own. It is a crucial step towards what Paddy Ashdown once called 'Citizens' Capitalism'.

Outside of the manifestoes, there are other economic republican ideas which might offer a basis for a joint programme in government. Vince Cable is on record as sympathetic to a land value tax. This is an idea with a long history within both the Liberal and Labour traditions, reflecting their joint origins in opposition to the power and privilege of the land-owning aristocracy.

Could a Lib Dem - Labour coalition work on a much needed reform of local government finance, seeking to replace the Council Tax with LVT?

Promotion of employee share ownership and the creation of new rights of consultation and decision-making within the firm is also a point of possible convergence between the two parties. Labour's recent enthusiasm for 'mutualism' is not only a rediscovery of something neglected within Labour's tradition, but of something that has, once again, also long been important within the Liberal tradition.

Those of us who would like to see a Lib Dem - Labour arrangement in the event of a hung parliament should beware of expecting proportional representation to do all the work of cementing cooperation between the parties. When push comes to shove, the Conservatives may well be willing to concede a referendum on PR if that is the only route to office....

So there is a need to think about the basis for wider cooperation between the two parties of the centre-left.

As Leighton and Reeves' article suggests, economic republicanism, drawing on the philosophical traditions of both parties, offers one promising basis for genuinely constructive - and progressive - cooperation.

Stuart White is a lecturer in Politics at Oxford University where he directs the Public Policy Unit. He writes here in an individual capacity and is not a spokesperson for the Fabian Society.

1 comment:

_______ said...

Couldn't agree more with the conclusion. Compass is organizing a post election conference with both Labour and Liberal Democrat members (as well as Greens etc). It would be good for the future of progress in the UK, for Labour and the lib dems to discuss what they have in common with each other, and develop policy together. Hopefully this will happen at the upcoming compass conference.