Thursday, July 24, 2014

The pointlessness of the Labour Party

I am looking at the question of whether it is a good idea to base a political party on the labour/trades union movement at all. This is not having a go at trade unions, which exist to serve their members' interests, and have as much right to do so as anyone has, whether or not it serves the common good - though it often will.

Trade unions exist to win a better and/or fairer deal for their members. Fairer deals must be a good thing, and unions which achieve this are therefore supporting the common good, providing they don't cause disproportionate damage to the industry they rely on in the process.

Can a better deal be unfair? Not if we always juxtapose ourselves with the idle rich, but perhaps if we compare ourselves to the other workers who will be paying for our better deal through prices or taxes. It is of course very difficult to work out what a fair pay and conditions package for everyone in the country would look like, and we are each left to make our case as best we can, which usually means comparison with the idle rich.

There's a wealth of research and debate over the falling labour share of income (and rising capital share), and the possible reasons for this, including the loss of collective bargaining power. Whatever the reasons for the overall trends are, it is clear that future investment relies on the expectation of future profits, so companies and industry sectors where collective bargaining has won a better deal for labour at the expense of capital in the short term, are bound to stagnate and fail in the long term, to the cost of those same workers and their children. And indeed this has happened - industries dominated by the unions in the 1970s have largely collapsed, and unionisation has become largely a public sector phenomenon.

On the other hand if a better deal can be won at the expense not of profits but of prices or taxes then the question becomes whether the worker is more deserving than the average customer or average taxpayer. And they may well be, but this is fighting over share of the pie with other workers.

So, when you try to unite workers in general, as represented by trade unions, into a political cause, what was an expression of legitimate self-interest, that may often serve the common good, becomes a purely destructive battle over share of the pie, either between workers in the present, or at the expense of investment and jobs in the future. In practise, many workers are left out of the "labour" movement, and they could not possibly be accommodated because the share of the pie demanded by the movement has to come from somewhere. Large numbers of working people recognise this and don't vote Labour, which is why the Labour party isn't on 90%+ in the polls.

With the union movement dominated by the public sector, what this often means is demands for higher taxes to support public sector workers, at the expense of workers in the private sector, many of whom may be more deserving. Yes, obviously public sector workers pay taxes too, and provide important services, but this is still the net effect. And this is aside from any debate over whether taxes should rise because the extra public services are worth it. I am likely to be told that I shouldn't pit public and private sector workers against each other. I'm not. I'm just pointing out that this is what the labour movement is doing.

Now of course it is possible to devise policies that serve the common good, that bring about a fairer society and a stronger economy, and seek to win elections to get them implemented. But there is nothing special in this about the role of a trade union; about the emphasis on the interests of one narrow group or another. And aggregating the interests of all unionised workers or even all workers as workers loses sight of the common good in the process for the reasons I've given. All parties should listen to the views of the unions, but none should be dominated by them.

The argument goes that someone has to stand up against the interests of capital which is the cause of most of society's ills. Where trade unions have gone beyond the direct interests of their members in seeking to influence politics, they have typically demanded a very left-wing position against the better judgement of the bulk of their own members as expressed at the ballot box.

Frankly, workers can outvote capitalists by a factor of probably more than a hundred to one; the idea that the large majority of the enfranchised population exists in a state of victimhood at the hands of capital would be pretty ludicrous even if socialism hadn't lost the intellectual argument.

The attitude that the union bosses know best, that their members should be co-opted into a left-of-Labour position whether they agree with it or not, is not healthy for democracy. A Labour party that is defined by this attitude is dangerous. 

To be fair, these days, Labour only flirts with the self-destrcutivism of socialism and the left, but that still somehow defines it, alongside this clumsy aggregation of unseemly narrow self-interests. Why not build your party of choice on something a little more wholesome? Like values.

Full steam ahead on infrastructure

Tim Farron Social Liberal Forum conference Jul 19 2014 Photo by Paul WalterReprinted from Liberal Democrat Voice.

One thing that struck me about Tim Farron's Beveridge lecture last Saturday was the scale of his ambition for investment in infrastructure.
Conservatives have often talked about their admiration of Victorian values – if only they really did admire those values, because Victorian values included ambition to build an infrastructure, to create a transport, communications and logistics backbone to our economy, to make a difference, to see a problem and not worry about whether fixing it would fit with your ideology, but to just get on and fix it.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Challenging the narrative: Employment

This article has been reprinted from Liberal Democrat Voice

 I was engaged in a twitter argument yesterday with someone who was disputing the progress we have seen in employment, putting the improved figures down to a million people enslaved on zero hours contracts.

The Office for National Statistics have provisionally estimated the number of zero hours contracts to be between 583,000 and 1.4 million. There isn't an established data series for this that would enable historical comparisons, but there are such statistics for full time and part time workers. According to these the number of part time workers is up 356,000 since May 2010, and the number of full time workers is up 1,114,000.

Let me re-emphasise that point. Not just a million private sector jobs, not just a million net jobs, but a million net full time jobs have been created since the coalition was formed.

You can see my calculations here, based on data from here (A01)

A footnote on sheet 3 of A01 indicates that "The split between full-time and part-time employment is based on respondents' self-classification." suggesting that nobody has been classified as full time who is not able to work full time.

Now an unemployment rate of 6.8% is still too high (down from 7.9% in 2010), and for 26.9% of jobs to be part time (down from 27% in 2010) when many of those people may wish to work full time, is also still too high. But the signs are that we are moving in the right direction and need to keep going.

Zero-hours has been debated before on this site, and Vince Cable has been, rightly, looking into the issue and is prepared to act on abuses. The opposition has also been making noises on this issue, largely to distract from what is overall a strongly improving picture on unemployment.

Employment up 1.5 million. Unemployment down 282,000 despite a growing workforce. 76% of new jobs are full time jobs meaning that the proportion of all jobs that are full time has increased.

Maybe we could have done even better? Perhaps.

A basic analysis would say that Germany escaped the worst of the credit crunch and recovered quickly with help from a weakened Euro. France, under Hollande, is seeing unemployment still rise. The UK has escaped the debt default fears that have hit Spain (despite a higher post-crunch deficit), and is creating jobs faster than the EU average.

These facts are toxic to Labour's strategy and message. Understand them and use them.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

On Demonisation

This article is reprinted from Liberal Democrat Voice. The comments on that article have not delivered any counterexamples to the hypothesis that the government is not demonising public sector workers.

 A fellow councillor recently retweeted in a spirit of irony, something about 'evil' public sector workers. After a short exchange it became clear that the issue was the 'demonisation' of public sector workers by the government.

 Now it almost has the status of received wisdom that Michael Gove hates teachers, Jeremy Hunt hates nurses, Eric Pickles hates local government workers, all Tories hate welfare recipients, that this hatred leads to demonisation, and the Liberal Democrats, while perhaps not directly involved, are quite comfortable with all this.

I was reluctant to get involved, as I disagree often with Michael Gove, and have no desire to defend him; yet I've never heard him demonise any teachers. Disagree with teaching unions and teaching experts? Yes, frequently, though the unions and the experts are not the teachers. But demonise is a strong word, it suggests you are saying that someone is at least deliberately doing a bad job, or making a problem worse in some way. I wouldn't be too surprised to hear a Tory talk in these terms, but for it to be such a common complaint, there must be some good examples of it around.

So I could have left it alone, but I thought it was important to understand a) what ministers are up to, and b) whether this is an area for differentiation, or whether this is in fact an example of lazy and dishonest hatemongering, that deserves to be challenged whoever its target might be.

So I asked for an example of a member of the government demonising, or making out to be evil, a group of public sector workers. There followed a long twitter exchange including plenty of examples of public sector workers complaining that they were being demonised, but none of this demonisation in the act.

So I looked for my own examples. What does Gove think of teachers? There's this, which seems quite positive to me, though he clearly has some disagreements with the mainstream of the profession.

I've even heard it suggested that the Mid Staffs enquiry was done purely to demonise nurses, which shows disgraceful complacency over the standards of care. And is Jeremy Hunt lying when he says "I know that the last year has been difficult and how busy and stressful it can be on the frontline. Thank you to everyone for your amazing efforts to make our hospitals safer and more compassionate."

I guess a cursory google search won't find the unguarded remark or secret briefing, so, dear reader, can you help out my Labour colleague. Share with me, in the comments, ministers demonising public sector workers. Or claims of demonisation that seem to be unsupported by any evidence. Together we can get to the bottom of this, one way or the other.

I am aware that many people feel they are being demonised, but that might just be because they believe the Labour Party and the unions who are constantly telling them that it is the case. Who needs morale in the public sector, when you can generate some politically useful anger?

Saturday, November 30, 2013