Whither Labour now: an open letter to The Leader

Dear Harriet,

Decisions about what kind of opposition Labour is going to be obviously can’t wait until the leadership elections in the autumn:  it falls to you to set the tone and issue the guidance as soon as you possibly can.  I was pretty horrified to see Alan Johnson on television today attacking, in his amiable way, the coalition government’s decision to “Adopt the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database”, and trying to defend the Labour government’s policy on this touchy subject.  I suggest that this kind of thing, however understandable, is the worst possible start to Labour’s stint in opposition.  Many of the policies set out in the coalition agreement which now constitutes the basis of the new government’s programme, especially the section on civil liberties, are skilfully chosen, not just to look liberal and enlightened, but actually to represent real improvements on Labour’s legacy, even or especially when they propose to reverse or repeal some of the more illiberal of the measures left to us by the Blair era.  Many of us who are loyal but worried members of the Labour Party, or just instinctive supporters of it, have been dismayed by some of the illiberal excesses of Labour’s record — and I don’t just mean Iraq.  The 2010 election defeat gives the party the opportunity to make a fresh start, which must include acknowledging past mistakes, however painful that might be for those who were chiefly responsible for making them;  or if not acknowledging them, at least not trying any more to justify or defend them.   It will send the right message if you enthusiastically support government measures to correct or reverse past mistakes, and better still if you make your own proposals for more enlightened policies, even or especially when they conflict with those of the past.  There’s plenty in Labour’s record in government to boast about;  as for the authoritarian and belligerent excesses, the less said now, the better.

I would like respectfully to offer you two golden rules that should govern the behaviour of the Labour Party in opposition, in and out of parliament:

(1)  Be a responsible and constructive opposition, actively cooperating whenever possible, opposing only when absolutely necessary.  Concentrate on showing that you’re an enlightened and above all a different government in waiting, not merely a party hell-bent on opposing whatever the government does;  and

(2) Radically overhaul every aspect of the late Labour government’s policies, brutally slaughtering sacred cows, and boldly thinking the hitherto unthinkable.  In the words of Danton: De l’audace, et encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace! Avoid like the Black Death any impression that if and when Labour is re-elected you will simply take up where the Blair and Brown governments left off.  If that’s how it looks, you won’t be returned to the government benches for a generation, and you won’t deserve to be.

The first of these rules will require a degree of restraint, and behaviour often contrary to every tribal Labour instinct, which won’t come easily to those accustomed to the no-holds-barred bare-fisted combat tradition of adversarial British politics.  But it’s essential to recognise that ordinary decent people detest the kind of yah-boo order-paper-waving point-scoring politics of prime minister’s questions, and yearn for a government and opposition that behave like grown-ups, especially at a time of national crisis, with the nation’s finances in ruins and the threat of a double-dip recession and yet more massive unemployment hanging over us.  The spectacle of both government and opposition back benches baying and screaming at each other, in fits of bogus merriment or of equally fabricated indignation, does almost as much harm to the standing of politics and politicians in people’s minds as the scandal over MPs’ expenses.  Even when the government’s economic and financial policies seem to us misguided, inferior to ours, unlikely to succeed, please remember that they have a mandate to pursue them, and it’s no part of an opposition’s right or duty to try to prevent them from working.  None of us, least of all the poor, the vulnerable, the homeless and the unemployed, has a stake in the government’s failure.  If Labour in opposition is seen to have contributed to failure, we shan’t soon be forgiven.  Explain how things could and should be done differently, more fairly, but then work hard and uncomplainingly to make the elected government’s policies succeed.

Exercising restraint and practising grown-up politics in opposition will call for the kind of discipline that won’t come easily to some of your Labour colleagues, especially those with hearts of gold  on the wilder back-bench shores of militancy, even with a small m.  There’ll be ample provocation from the government side to hit back in kind when they bellow their cheap shots about the frivolous over-spending of Labour’s last days in office, the skeletons they claim to have found in every ministerial cupboard, and stuff like that (some of it probably well founded: much not).  We know from the pre-election style of Cameron, Osborne, Hague, Theresa May, Fox and Lansley and other Tory luminaries, even some of the Tory-inclined LibDems, how unscrupulously partisan they’re going to be.  They’ll taunt you with attacks on Labour’s record in government, and some of the attacks will hit home.  Don’t respond in kind; don’t try to defend and justify every last policy and action of Labour in office.  Persist in asking sober questions that genuinely seek information.  Enforce on your colleagues, especially those on the front bench, the rigid rule: never ask a question to which you already know the answer.  Offer the government your support when they deserve it.  Indicate willingness to take part in consultations with ministers as policies on great national issues are evolving, and promise not to exploit or abuse your participation in consultations if your offer is accepted.  Show that you are more serious, courteous and conscious of the national interest, as distinct from party advantage, than the cheapskate Tories in their triumphalist euphoria.

Implicit in this is that Labour in opposition needs to acknowledge, explicitly and often, that harsh and painful measures to restore the country’s finances were always going to be inevitable, whichever party or combination of parties won the election.  Some cuts in public services are bound to figure in the menu and the living standards of many people are bound to suffer.  There will be room for legitimate but sober argument about the fair and proper balance between increased taxes and reduced government spending; about how best to protect the most vulnerable in society from the worst effects of the measures that will have to be taken;  and about ways to reconcile continued government support for the nascent recovery from recession with the need to demonstrate — as much to our own public opinion as to the fickle and febrile markets — a real determination to put the country’s affairs in order with a minimum of delay.  But that can’t and mustn’t mean opposing everything the government does for the sake of opposing.  The electorate will harshly punish a Labour opposition which can plausibly be portrayed as obstructing the measures that sensible people of all political persuasions recognise as necessary and unavoidable. Similarly, seizing every opportunity to exploit and exaggerate frictions within the governing coalition will harm Labour much more than it will harm the coalition.  Leave that to the harlots of the media.

You will face especially difficult choices when the government’s axe begins to fall on the public service and the services that it provides.  There will be protest marches, demos, work-to-rule, probably strikes.  Labour’s instinct, especially in opposition, will be to support the protests and the strikes, almost regardless of the merits of each case.  But in a situation where almost every section of British society is going to have to bear some of the burden of restoring the nation’s finances, and most sections of society are naturally going to come out in the streets to defend their own sectional interests, the Loyal Opposition simply won’t be able to give indiscriminate support to every demo and every strike, without giving the fatal impression of reckless ideology-driven irresponsibility — which will rightly be taken by many as evidence that Labour is unfit to return to office.  How you and your colleagues behave in these first rather feverish weeks and months of opposition will set the scene for how Labour is seen and judged for the rest of this parliament.

And finally, a highly sensitive point:  you simply can’t afford to allow Labour’s front bench to look like a seamless continuation of the last one.  Those few who watched the opening of the new parliament on television will have flinched at the spectacle of Jack Straw there on the bench beside you, nodding and grinning as smugly as ever, as if he personally was quite untainted by his association with all the previous government’s failures and excesses.  We flinched again hearing the misguided voice, yet again, of David Blunkett, of all people.  Whoever selected him to speak on this iconic occasion?  It’s time for the Straws and the Blunketts and most of the other tarnished stars of “New” Labour — and please let’s never hear that always tawdry term used again — to retire gracefully to obscurity on the back benches, to be replaced by fresh faces whose freedom won’t be circumscribed by a commitment to the unbending defence of past disasters.

All this adds up to a tall order, especially for a caretaker leader.  But you enjoy the unchallengeable legitimacy of having been elected by all wings of the party to your present position.  You enjoy, and deserve, huge goodwill, respect and support.  Insist that the candidates for the leadership use their influence to ensure compliance.  As long as you lead the opposition, most of your Labour colleagues will accept your leadership and follow the course you set.  The great majority of Labour’s millions of supporters out here in the country are silently cheering you on.  Don’t give in to the taunts of the government benches or the vicious slanders of the right-wing press:  maintain a statesmanlike commitment to the national good.  And when your few swivel-eyed militant knee-jerk Tory-bashers get out of line, smack ’em down!  There’s no-one, but no-one, on the opposition benches better placed than you to bring it off.

I’m going to write to you again later about the second of my proposed Golden Rules.  This is more than enough to be going on with.  And it’s not meant to be advice — that would indeed be an impertinence on my part.  It’s an appeal;  a desperate, not very optimistic appeal.

Good luck!

Best wishes

10 Responses

  1. Tim Worstall says:

    The email that alerted me to this contained the line:
    “If Labour is ever to be returned to office”…something I do desperately hope will not actually happen. Ever.
    For reasons explained here:
    In short, I’m not averse to Nordic social democracy. It ain’t quite my thing but I can certainly think of worse ways for a society to operate. But there’s a problem with a large part of the Labour Party, in that such social democracy isn’t compatible with their beliefs, urges and desires.
    If you want to have both a large State and also continual economic growth then you have to have an essentially classically liberal economy with a good dollop of redistribution on top….essentially the Lib Dems Orange Book peeps. That is what the Nordics do. Yet large parts of the Labour Party insist that we shouldn’t have said classical liberalism in the economy, even if it’s the only way to get what they say they desire.
    Which means that liberal, progressive, even radical types like myself hope and desire that the Labour Party never regains power, indeed, dies the death of irrelevance. Because the way they say things should operate makes it impossible for us to have the society they say they desire.

    Brian writes: Thank you, Tim. That’s an interesting and profoundly depressing critique. I have just two (perhaps mutually contradictory) reactions to what you have written. First, post-war Labour governments have in practice gone along quite happily with what you call an essentially liberal economy, and that small and isolated section of the Labour Party which has historically been unhappy with classical liberal economics has effectively had no influence on them. I see no reason — except perhaps for my second reaction — why that shouldn’t be true of a future Labour government. Secondly, and perhaps contradictorily, I believe that the near-collapse of the western world’s classical liberal economy since 2008 may turn out to have destroyed the previously near-universal confidence in its unique effectiveness and durability: the factors causing the near-collapse are increasingly seen to have been systemic, and there are lessons that must unavoidably be learned from the fact that the world economy was saved from a total and ruinous slump, with frightening potential consequences for the social and political lives of millions of people, only by massive governmental interventions. These took the form of actions which themselves may well undermine the viability of the classical liberal economic model. In other words, it’s increasingly clear that we can’t simply reconstruct the world as it was before 2008 and just hope that the same factors won’t in due course lead to a repetition of the same global crisis every time. We’re witnessing a new crisis of capitalism which is leading more and more people to ask whether this is really the best system that human ingenuity can devise for the promotion, not only of material prosperity and progress, but also of human happiness. Next time you share a carriage with a host of weary, anxious, stressed wage-slave commuters returning home from work, crammed into trains and buses like cattle, ask yourself whether this is really the best we can do. When you add on the real possibility that classical liberal economics may be leading to the destruction of our planet, perhaps in the lifetime of our grandchildren, you are surely forced to the conclusion that something entirely new will, and will have to, arise from the ashes of the old economics. In which case (a) perhaps Marx — Karl as well as Groucho — was on to something; and (b) your comments on the Labour Party may come to look distinctly dated in a few years’ time.

  2. ObiterJ says:

    Dear Brian, If the gist of your “open letter” is “BE A RESPONSIBLE OPPOSITION” then I would agree 100%.
    Putting aside questions about who caused what, we are in a massive economic hole and the public expects ALL politicians to work together to do what they can to solve the problem.
    I would also agree about avoiding knee-jerk reactions like backing every strike or other militant action.  Are there still “pre-Thatcher neanderthals” on the Labour benches?
    I particularly agree that it is time that some of various “has beens” moved to the backbenches or elsewhere.
    Back in what they called the “bright new dawn” of 1997 when “things could only get better” there was a massive influx of new MPs.  The Labour Party failed, in my view, to develop much of that intake.    In this parliament there is also a huge number of new MPs since many of the old-stagers have gone – (many tainted over expenses etc).  New talent must be developed.  Personally, I would urge Labour to get a new leader who was not party to anything in the Brown/Blair era and to being in a new opposition front bench.
    As for the new coalition, I have been prepared from Day 1 to give them a fair wind.  Queen’s Speech next week and then the business starts in earnest.  The devil of new policy and law is in the detail and everything must be scrutinised thoroughly.  Now there is a useful job for the Opposition.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I agree with everything you say, except that I don’t think David Miliband should be ruled out of contention for the leadership even though he was a minister at the time of the decision to attack Iraq. He held the lowly position of junior minister in the Department for Education and Skills at that time, not in the Cabinet, his first ministerial job after only a year as a back bencher. He must have voted for the war, as all ministers were bound to do: it shouldn’t be held against him that he didn’t resign over it at such an early and critical time in his political and ministerial career. (His brother Ed, also a candidate of course, was not in parliament in March 2003.)

    Fortunately or otherwise, when Labour is in opposition its shadow cabinet is elected (by the whole party, I think?) at party conference, so even the new leader, whoever he or she might be, won’t be able to exclude the (largely discredited) Old Guard from the shadow cabinet. But with a bit of luck most of the Old Guard — people like Straw, Blunkett, Reid, Clarke, etc. — either won’t stand for election or else won’t get elected. It’s just a pity that all that will have to wait for the party conference in September. Until then it will be up to Harriet Harman to ensure that the shadow ministers are predominantly new or newish faces.

  3. ObiterJ says:

    It appears that Labour are stuck with many of these “has beens” for the time being.  I think that Shadow Cabinet elections will take place once the party has a new leader and it is MPs who vote – [I am open to correction].  Even then, I suspect that many of the “has beens” will stand and get elected unless, of course, they can be “kicked upstairs”.  [Who will want to create by-elections?]. They will argue that they have experience.  Of course, it is all an internal Labour Party business but they might be better electing new faces and use the old stagers to support the new.
    The announcement of an inquiry into allegations of British complicity in torture may add an interesting dimension of David Miliband’s leadership campaign.  He was Secretary of State for 3 years.  It is now being reported that David Miliband does not wish Iraq to be an issue in the leadership race and he thinks that he has not been tarnished by his senior post in the Brown government.  In the Blairite words – “It is time to move on”.  I don’t think they will be able to for some to come and, by the way, Chilcot has not finished yet.

  4. AnneJGP says:

    An excellent post, Brian, thank you.

    I’m in complete agreement with ObiterJ’s remarks: “we are in a massive economic hole and the public expects ALL politicians to work together to do what they can to solve the problem“; “The Labour Party failed, in my view, to develop much of [the 1997] intake“; and “they might be better electing new faces and use the old stagers to support the new“. Given that younger people will be paying for the economic hole for quite a long time, it seems to me reasonable that younger people should be driving the solution.

    Also, given the length of the campaign, nominations should have been accepted for far longer, in my opinion.

    Oddly and perhaps wrongly, Mr Cameron’s vision of society seems to me very close to the Co-operative way of “supporting local”. If that vision ever comes near fruition, it strikes me that many of the local people making it work will be Labour voters, if not Labour activists.

    Brian writes: Many thanks, Anne. I understand that the deadline for nominations of leadership candidates has now been extended by the NEC. I agree with you and ObiterJ that it’s vital for Labour’s revival that the new shadow cabinet to be elected at the party conference in September after the announcement of the result of the leadership election should have a distinctively new and youthful look, but there’ll be no way to ensure that outcome: according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labour_Party_%28UK%29_Shadow_Cabinet_election,_2010 the shadow cabinet will be elected at the party conference in September by the Labour members of the house of commons. Some of these may possibly be influenced in their votes by the wishes of the new party leader, whose identity will be announced at the beginning of the conference. Between now and the conference, I hope that Harriet Harman and the front runners for the leadership between them will be able to put gags on the old stagers such as D Blunkett, C Clarke, J Reid, J Straw and G Hoon, who will do great harm if they persist in trying publicly and vocally to excuse and justify the blots on Labour’s record. Time for the voice of the younger generation of the party to be heard! Unfortunately the interim shadow cabinet, pending the election of a permanent one in September, is full of old lags from the past who will still be making Labour policy from their seats on the opposition front bench.

  5. John Miles says:

    You “hope that Harriet Harman and the front runners for the leadership between them will be able to put gags on the old stagers such as D Blunkett, C Clarke, J Reid, J Straw and G Hoon, who will do great harm if they persist in trying publicly and vocally to excuse and justify the blots on Labour’s record.”

    Isn’t Ms Harman herself one of these old stagers?

    Brian writes: Yes. But she has nothing like the disastrous record of those whom I named. Anyway, she’s now the leader of the party and leader of the opposition, so there can be no question of gagging her!

  6. Brian,

    Hmm. You write this:

    … at a time of national crisis, with the nation’s finances in ruins and the threat of a double-dip recession and yet more massive unemployment hanging over us.  The spectacle of both government and opposition back benches baying and screaming at each other, in fits of bogus merriment or of equally fabricated indignation, does almost as much harm to the standing of politics and politicians in people’s minds as the scandal over MPs’ expenses.  Even when the government’s economic and financial policies seem to us misguided, inferior to ours, unlikely to succeed, please remember that they have a mandate to pursue them…

    It’s as if all of this ruination has come from thin air. What, one wonders, would a Labour leader now identify as a policy ‘inferior to ours’ when the inferiority of Labour’s last three governments is all so horribly obvious?

    The deep confusion you suffer from seems to me to be the following. You identify all sorts of problems which need collective action to ‘tackle’ them. Fair enough. Most problems of any consequence can not be resolved by people acting on their own. If that were possible, the problems would not exist.

    You and Labour then leap to the idea that only the state in some or other form can Tackle and Solve Problems. More taxation, more spending, more regulation, new targets, more control, more more more state.

    Don’t you see that this simply does not work, even in theory? And that when you advocate ‘thinking the unthinkable, maybe the best thing to think is that the Labour Party simply should not exist: its deepest unshiftable beliefs as to how things work are, in fact, insane? In other words, that Tim Worstall is dead right?

    The only way forward as I see it is to look for collective solutions to problems based upon mobilising private human energy, not piling on state-driven process. IT gives us all sorts of unprecedented ways to get large network effects through freedom (maybe with a few central ‘nudges’ here and there) rather than through the clumsy idea that the king orders the serfs to do what the king thinks best, a government principle which has lasted unchanged for thousands of years.

    Which, by the way, is why Africa at last has a chance: Africans en masse can use mobile phones to mobilise their own talents, and not wait on their clueless leaders and Western aid agencies to ‘develop’ them.

    In other words, the only credible way forward  is a new libertarian decentralised agenda aimed at scaling back wasteful state-run stupidity. The ComDem approach is on the right lines, albeit probably going to be far too timid too be truly successful.

    What this country needs is a liberal-minded intelligent pro-EU party and a liberal-minded intelligent Eurosceptic party. We mysteriously have ended up with them in a coalition with an obvious massive faultline concerning Europe, but the looming redefinition of the EU as the Eurozone falters will help create space for a hitherto unfeasible shared radicalism.

    The one thing which really is not needed now and for decades to come is the sort of cynical self-serving control-freakery coming from anyone who has served in the Labour Government in the past few years.  It had a historic chance to show what it could do. And led us to disaster. Let it crawl away and, in a final moment of honesty, die. 

    As my Black Consciousness friends in South Africa used to say: Free the Mind – Free the Land.
    Brian writes: Charles, don’t you think that your feelings about one of the great parties of the state, which in the past 13 years has achieved so many great things and has brought huge benefits to so many of our fellow-citizens, begin to verge on the pathological? This is a time when free-for-all market capitalism, vocally resistant to any but the lightest of control by the state but entirely reliant on the state for its freedom to pursue its goals, has come perilously close to destroying itself and bringing down the lives, livelihoods and well-being of millions of decent people with it, saved from itself only by the massive intervention of the state which you so emotionally denounce. It seems a bizarre moment to launch your rant about the apparently inevitable failure of state activity while calling for a different kind of collective action under some vague and undefined alternative authority. Whatever its faults, the modern liberal democratic state is ultimately answerable to the people whom it both governs and serves, whereas the unregulated “free” markets are answerable to no-one but their accountants, top managers and institutional shareholders, often effectively the same people. With few exceptions, they accept no responsibility to the society which enriches them and which for the most part has no option but to work for them; in their blind and often ignorant pursuit of profit and managerial power they have us all running faster and faster towards the precipice. Who was it used to talk about capitalism’s ‘internal contradicitons’? Whoever it was — yes, I know — just might have had a point, don’t you think? And you choose this moment of all moments to announce that state action, which has just saved the western world from ruin, “simply does not work, even in theory”, and that the one UK political party which has repeatedly demonstrated for more than a hundred years the huge power for good of the modern democratic state “simply should not exist: its deepest unshiftable beliefs as to how things work are, in fact, insane”! And what do you offer as an alternative to the democratic state? “Collective solutions to problems based upon mobilising private human energy” — using iPhones and iPads, it seems. I can only think, in all charity, that in preaching this kind of extreme right-wing libertarian warmed-up half-baked G K Chestertonian rubbish, you’re having us on.

    Oh, and one other rather important point. You say that “the Labour Government in the past few years … had a historic chance to show what it could do. And led us to disaster.” No, it didn’t. It was the barely regulated market capitalism wished on us principally by Reagan and Thatcher and their pale successors, the huge trade imbalance between the US and China, the reckless spending on foreign wars of the Bush administration and the unsustainable level of consumption of American consumers and the escape of global international capital from the possibility of any kind of control by any one national democratic government or even group of governments, that led us to disaster. And it was exactly the exercise of democratic state power which you so vehemently condemn that rescued us at the eleventh hour from utter ruin. Moreover, only action at international state level has a ghost of a chance of saving the world from environmental disaster, of helping the millions of people around the world who go to bed hungry out of their poverty, and of defeating the forces of religious bigotry and terror. You speak about confusion: don’t you think it possible that the confusion might be closer to home than you realise?

    I recognise with deep gloom that this response is going to prompt a series of further rants (if not by you, dear Charles, then by others) about the failures and shortcomings of the Blair and Brown governments and the wickedness of Blair’s wars, regurgitating the unconscionable Tory lie that the huge expansion of government spending under Labour on health, education and other social services to repair some of the criminal neglect of the preceding years under the Conservatives was ‘profligate’ and responsible for our present predicament. No-one who has spent 20 minutes reading this blog can accuse me of being an uncritical camp follower of Messrs Blair and Brown and their acolytes. But the fact remains that the democratic state, working with other democratic states, is our last best and only hope of measuring up to this century’s most formidable challenges: climate change, global poverty, religion-based terrorism, and the failure of free market capitalism; and the Labour party is the principal party of government in Britain which recognises and embraces the indispensability of the state in all these contexts. Reciting a litany of past Labour failures, both real and imaginary, is neither here nor there: or rather, it’s fine for there, but please, not for here.

  7. John Miles says:

    As you suggest, we can expect all kinds of rants  about the failures and shortcomings of the Blair and Brown governments, so let me try and put in a kind word.

    We stock marketeers may not be much, but some of us do have a bit of a code, up to which, sadly, we do not always live. 
    So it’s only decent to acknowledge that that whatever Mr Brown and New Labour may have done to our economy, or to Iraq, they’ve generously allowed people like me to pocket their dividends free of tax and to make around twenty grand a year before we pay tax on  our capital gains.

    Why they did this is beyond me,  but I’d like to say a big thank you before the wicked Tories go and spoil it all.

    Brian writes: Thanks once again, John. You point up what is indeed a paradox. In falling over themselves to kowtow to the rich, the bosses, the reactionary media magnates and the City, the Blair and Brown governments betrayed several of the core principles of the party that they commandeered. It’s painful to witness now the Labour party being outflanked on the left by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in some respects, anyway. Alas, there seems little prospect that things will be very different under any of the current candidates for the Labour leadership who have any chance of being elected.

    By the way, I’d be interested to know more (privately, of course) about these capital gains that you have been making. My principal achievement in this field seems to be to have stocked up on sensational losses that my expert advisers tell me will be invaluable for offsetting against my capital gains if ever I make any. But you wouldn’t expect an old-fashioned socialist to be any good at capitalism, would you?

  8. John Miles says:

    I’m afraid all this is only paradoxical to people who still think there’s anything seriously socialist about New Labour.

    Sorry to hear about your losses – can’t help thinking you probably didn’t do your homework very thoroughly, and consequently got conned by some glib salesman calling himself a financial adviser.

    If a socialist doesn’t understand capitalism,  how can he venture to criticize it?
    And doesn’t he leave himself wide open to gibes about “the politics of envy?”

    Brian writes: John, I don’t think that incompetence in playing the stock market, or resorting to ‘expert’ advice on the management of one’s modest savings, can be equated with not understanding capitalism, or with a disqualification from criticising it. Rightly or wrongly, I believe I can find a better and certainly a more entertaining use for my time than studying the movement of share prices, the performance of uninteresting companies and the tips in the financial pages offered by young men (and women?) who base their forecasts on something roughly akin to astrology. In the end, it’s only money!

  9. John Miles says:

    I don’t think I dislike capitalism any less than you do.
    Yet we’re stuck with it till someone can think of something practical that’s actually better.
    I haven’t been able to.
    Have you?

    Meanwhile many, perhaps most, of our fellow citizens’  livelihoods depend upon the performance of these companies you find so uninterestnig.
    These companies are owned by their shareholders.

    If you worked for one of these boring companies would you rather it was owned by a  consortium of hotshot investment fund managers, or by ordinary people like you or me?

    Brian writes: Thank you, John. Yes, I can conceive of a system in which commercial enterprises would be owned, or managed, or monitored, by a wide spread of their stake-holders, including their employees, customers (a much neglected group), representatives of the local community, suppliers and of course investors, and whose legally defined objectives would not be confined to maximising shareholder value as it is now. I can imagine nationalised industries competing with mutuals, municipally owned enterprises, firms owned entirely by their employees, and ordinary commercial enterprises in the same sector. After the devolution process has been completed and we have fully internally self-governing parliaments and governments in each of the four UK nations, I can imagine some of them legislating to establish other variants of commercial system designed to ensure that the public interest and the interests of employees, customers and other stakeholders are ingredients in commercial management decisions, and not just private profit. I can imagine some experiments on these lines succeeding and others failing.

    I’m sure that the fortunes of companies which I find inconceivably boring are fascinating to those who work in them or otherwise depend on them. Nothing that I wrote earlier is inconsistent with that. If, heaven forbid, I had to work for one of them, I would be deeply dissatisfied to find myself working for either those you describe as “hotshot investment fund managers, or [for] ordinary people like you or me”: I would want to know that I was working for my fellow-employees including myself, for the firm’s customers, for the community I live in, for the wider society, and for maximum job satisfaction. Because no such options are available in 95 per cent of the private sector, I devoted a good deal of time and effort to ensuring that I never had to work in it. At least I knew that in the public sector I wasn’t working to line the pockets of “hotshot investment fund managers”. To earn an income deliberately held below the level of equivalent jobs in the private sector throughout my working life was a small price to pay for that privilege.

  10. John Miles says:

    You say you would would want to know that you were “working for my fellow-employees including myself, for the firm’s customers, for the community I live in, for the wider society, and for maximum job satisfaction. ”
    The only large firm I can think of  that comes anywhere near meeting your requirements is the John Lewis Partnership.
    We’ve got a couple of old books at home by J Spedan Lewis himself, and I’ve never been able to work out why more firms don’t operate on the same, apparently very successful, system.
    Can you?

    Brian writes: Presumably because not enough owners of equity in profitable companies are willing to share their dividends or interest on their bonds with the company’s employees, even if they can be convinced that joint employee ownership will actually increase profitability (as it may, or may not, of course).