Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ed Milliband's little big idea

While it is easy to lampoon Ed Milliband and the speech he gave to his party conference, he had one big idea that is worth looking at: that of bringing moral values into government's dealings with business, to reward the good and punish the bad.

On the face of it, what could possibly be wrong with that? It is better to have more training, more R&D, better cared for workers, a social conscience, environmental sustainability. Let's reward the companies that go the extra mile to deliver these things, and punish those that merely follow the rules. Companies that merely tick all the boxes and play the rules to their advantage are not giving back to society in the way they should.

Ed was subsequently challenged to give some examples of what he is talking about and failed abysmally. Southern Cross was mentioned as a company that wasn't giving back, but of course that was in the process of it failing as a business. Let's punish failure with higher taxes? The problem is that it isn't obvious who the good guys and the bad guys are. If you can't even say which companies you think ought to be punished for existing, how are you ever going to write laws to fairly judge the predators from the producers?

The challenge here is to turn good intentions into good policy. Ed's project has been tried before with almost no success under the banner of stakeholderism. Stakeholderism held that workers, suppliers, consumers, the wider community and the environment all had a stake in a business, not just the shareholders, so businesses should be run with all these stakes in mind. But put workers, suppliers and consumers on the board and you get big conflicts of interest. So little policy was ever developed to implement this vision beyond saying "you really ought to think about this stuff". I have written about stakeholderism before, and it all still applies to Milliband's new compact.

While it is possible and necessary to regulate for such things as environmental standards and workers rights, it is logically impossible for a regulation to meaningfully say that you must go the extra mile, beyond ticking all the boxes, because every regulation is precisely one of the boxes to tick. So you can't legislate for virtue.

And while tax breaks for R&D, support for apprenticeships and so forth are reasonable attempts to improve incentives, they don't reward virtue, they are attempts to steer self interest towards more public spirited goals. If Ed's vision means another avalanche of schemes and tax loopholes aimed at rewarding virtue, it will be met head on by an avalanche of tax accountants for whom virtue is not the pressing concern. This is no new vision, this is very much Gordon Brown's signature move of trying to micromanage behaviour through the tax system, giving us one of the most complex tax codes in the world and record levels of tax avoidance.

And let's not forget that creating jobs and providing goods and services are a positive contribution to society. We might like more training and R&D, but there are few businesses that could exist without ever doing any of either. Is Labour just too uncomfortable with the fact that business generally makes a big positive contribution to society even without being tinkered with by government?

So Ed, I hope you enjoyed telling your conference that you will stand up for what is right and oppose what is wrong. It is a fine and noble ambition, albeit somewhat unoriginal. But if you can give it any substance at all, that will be an achievement. Failing that, a mountain of regulation motivated by good intentions is the best and worst we can expect.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

That Ed Milliband speech in full (2)

In a big scoop for the Extra Bold Blog, I have again obtained an early draft of Ed Milliband's speech.

For copyright reasons, I won't release this until after the actual speech has been delivered.

[check against delivery]

Friends, comrades, it is great to still be here. A generation ago a Labour leader condemned Labour in Liverpool. Today, Liverpool has been put right, by someone.

Ask me the three most important things I've done this year, and I'll tell you. They're all about my family. Which is nice.

But let me talk about my nose for a while. You'd be surprised how many unfunny jokes it can inspire.

Conference, let's get down to business. This is a dangerous time. This is not the time for the same old answers to the challenge of growth. People need to know where I stand. We lost trust on the economy, and I am determined to restore that trust.

We will only spend what we can afford, we will live within our means, but not yet. The next Labour government won't be able to reverse any of the cuts we purport to oppose today.

We will set new fiscal rules [like the "Golden Rule"? - Ed]. But I have a disagreement with this government. They believe the government should live within its means, but they are wrong. [Didn't you just say the opposite? - Ed]

Of course the world economy is suffering, but our government is making it worse by following our legacy of debt and austerity, albeit slightly more effectively.

I say to David Cameron, put politics aside and look at the facts. I am going to tell it straight. That's a lesson I have learned over this year. [Insert actual straight talking here later.]

Milly Dowler, Milly Dowler, Milly Dowler. What kind of country have we become where political parties such as this one would suck up to Rupert Murdoch? That's why, once opinion had turned against him, I was willing to change. I'm not Tony Blair (he wouldn't have done this) - a great man, I am my own man, that's what it means to lead. Nobody ever changed things by being nice.

My message to the public is simple... Technical Fault.

... the Labour Party lost trust on the economy. [Haven't we already had this bit.]

... people looting shops, burning cars. But thousands came to help with the clean up. That is what we mean by the big society, I mean Blue Labour, I mean Purple Bookery, I mean refounding next new Labour.

Citizens and public servants alike are truly British, I think. We are great people in a great country, ready for the Olympics. So with such great people, how did we end up here. It is because of the way we have run the country for decades.

There are hard lessons here for our party. Some of what happened in the 80s were right, but too much of it was based on the wrong values. Wrong values that we did not do enough to change.

You believe you deserve more, but bankers are getting more instead.

You believe in the long term, but the fast buck, short termism, borrowing and debt bubbles have been the rule.

You believe in responsibility, but big vested interests like the unions have for too long been able to get away with anything.

Who do we blame for all of this, apart from the last Labour government? Why the fat cats in industry of course. Oh except for the good fat cats, we like them, they create jobs and value. But often the bad fat cats earn more than the good ones. I'm sorry our wages policy didn't crack that one.

Opportunity, opportunity, opportunity. Children, children, children. Sad puppy expression.

Values, values, values. You know what your values are. Celebrity culture, gangs, life on benefits, chavs.

People who have paid into the system all their lives find the safety net full of holes. We need a new bargain. Let's confront head on the new challenge of values, wealth creation, you know what your values are, values, values, China, India and Brazil, the kind of economy we have now, we can't pay our way in the world, confront head on.

Not credit default swaps but creative industries etc.

Now not all business is the same. Who knew? All parties must be pro-business today, but we can distinguish between wealth creators and asset strippers like the Phoenix Consortium; I learned this from a hollywood movie from the 80s.

We must learn the lesson that growth is built on sand if it is built on debt, I mean predators, not producers. This is the pro-business choice because really there is not much asset stripping going on these days, but it makes a good soundbite.

This is why our new industrial policy will stick government fingers deep into the hearts of businesses seeking contracts.

But lets get more competition in energy supply, despite all that.

The wealth of our nation is built by the hands not only of the elite few, but also the proletarian masses.

Just think of our young people going into higher education facing a graduate tax in all but name style repayment. We would cut the amount that a few top earning graduates would have to pay by cutting the headline notional fee to £6000.

Schools, schools, schools, children, children, children.

Have you noticed how uncomfortable David Cameron is when talking about responsibility at the top of our society. When you have had to pay, it is always our fault, our toxic legacy of debt and austerity. Yet at the same time the government is taxing top earners more than Labour did. [Sure you want to say this? - Ed] How dare we say they're all in it together!

If you think putting things right means reforming welfare then you're wrong, but at the same time you're right, work must pay. I'm prepared to make the tough decisions to make the welfare reforms to make work pay a reality, seeing as it will already have been done by 2015. But that won't stop us scoring points along the way.

Decency, fairness, helping those who do the right thing. These are values we are learning from the coalition. And with these values we will make welfare work again.

Millions of public servants deliver a fantastic public service every day and every week. But public services can become unaccountable, and need reform. Patients, victims, standing in the queue, computer says no. We need to sign up to the government's reform agenda, in the hope people think we thought of it. We need to stand up to the vested interests, except the unions, who own me.

Why does Britain care so much for the NHS? Because it's really good. And free, mostly, at the point of use. And when I look at everything the government is doing, I try really hard to find a way in which that will change. That reform agenda I spoke of a moment ago; if the government does it, we will scaremonger as if our lives depended on it.

I'm not finished. Yet. If you want someone who will rip up the old rules, new rules, old rules, new hat, old hat. You know Britain needs to change, kids, mum and dad, a fight for a new bargain, your values, pay our way in the world, values, break open closed circles, a new bargain, a long pause, a new bargain, kids, mum and dad.

I promise to promise the promise of each so we promise the promise of Britain. Thankyou.