Monday 9 January 2012

Why politicians are fighting over fair capitalism

When Ed Miliband used his Labour conference speech in September to call for fundamental reform of capitalism, the media rolled out a predictable insta-critique: 'anti-business' and 'lurch to the left' were the knee-jerk descriptors of choice. But now everyone's at it: criticising capitalism is positively in vogue. Both the prime minister and his deputy have hit the airwaves over recent days with Hutton-esque attacks on 'crony capitalism'. Such is the shift that Andrew Rawnsley warned Ed Miliband yesterday he risked having his clothes stolen; Patrick Wintour was making similar points in the Guardian before Christmas.

But why the sudden surge of interest in an idea that in the autumn was seen by the chattering classes as electoral hari kari?

Firstly, it was never actually that radical. Despite 'good' capitalism being a relatively new addition to a political agenda that's been stuck in a neo-liberal consensus for decades, businesses, NGOs and academics have all been on this territory for some time.

Secondly, politicians are beginning to realise that this is where the public is.

New polling in the Fabian Review bears out both points. Rather than being a fringe concern of the dangerously detached left, concerns about inequality are now mainstream: 70% agree 'the gap between the top and everyone else is now too wide and is bad for ordinary people'. Interestingly, the gap is of greater concern to those over 60 (78%) than 18-24's (63%), suggesting this worry is not borne of starry-eyed idealism but a rational consideration that our economic model isn't working.

Ed Miliband's distinction between 'predators' and 'producers' didn't really take, but our polling suggests this may have had more to do with language and communication than ideas: only 12% think a company's first priority should be maximising short-term profit for shareholders, with 80% agreeing companies 'should be willing to forego some profit in order to recognise a wider responsibility to their employees, their customers and their communities and to ensure they invest more for the long-term, even if this means less money is paid out to shareholders'.

Business expert Stefan Stern writes in the magazine:

Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference this autumn was the act of a whistleblower, someone confronting parts of the business community and challenging them to defend their ways...This debate is still in its early stages as far as many business people are concerned. But it is heading in the right direction. My money is on whistleblower Ed achieving vindication, and sooner than you might think.

Recent political developments suggest that day is approaching fast - now the challenge is to make sure Labour is the party that benefits politically.

The Fabian Review Winter issue includes ideas for a better capitalism from David Coats, Patrick Diamond, Stewart Lansley, Vicky Pryce, Kitty Ussher and others. Visit the Fabian Society website for more details.

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