Lord Glasman: Now let’s define what a Future That Works really can be

The price of a successful political action is a constructive alternative.  That is a golden rule of democratic politics.  There comes a point in the public argument when people turn round to us and ask what we would do differently.  The message sent out from Saturday’s march was mixed.  While the message of ‘A Future that Works’ is a great one it is still unclear what it means.  It is absolutely clear what the March was against, cuts in the public sector, it is also clear that the solution, spending more money, does not resonate with the public to the same degree.  It is seen as dogmatic rather than constructive, sectional rather than for the common good.  We have the right slogan but not the right position to back it up.

It is important to understand why this is so and the answer lies in the experience of debt.


The explosion in personal debt was the untold story of the New Labour years.  81% of internal investment was in mortgages and loans.  Many people think that simply spending more money, getting into more debt, is not necessarily the answer.  They need to know that things will be different the next time around, that things will work better, that there will be real jobs with a future.  A future that works is what they want, but they still do not trust either the Unions or the Labour Party to deliver it without showing them that we have learnt from the last 15 years.


Where do the Unions, where does the workforce, where does Labour itself fit into a future that works?  The conversation hasn’t even started.  The alternative has not been negotiated within Labour, let alone in relation to the one thing that is absolutely necessary for any kind of future and that is a private sector that flourishes and generates value.  Not debt but value.  They key to private sector growth is access to capital, skilful and engaged workers within a culture of innovation and respect for expertise and courage.  We are far from that and we have remained far from that for a very long time.


Ed Miliband has moved into a position that opens up the space for unions to constructively engage in what ‘One Nation Labour’ means.  The Unions can actively and constructively shape the new economy.  What does the conversation need to be about?


The first is corporate governance.  Strategy has been driven by capital alone in our economy and it is the workforce that has been sacrificed in order to generate higher rates of return.  This led to a comparative decline in our productive economy, an excessive reliance on shareholders to hold managers to account and then the realisation that leverage and debt threatened our entire inheritance.  The workforce need to have a significant power over strategic decisions and that requires long term judgements that involve embracing good work and punishing bad.  It requires a common good to be negotiated between capital and labour.  We are back to the Bullock Report, to In Place of Strife, back to a partnership model that has served German workers so well.  Why did German car workers take a pay freeze in a boom?  It is because they had a stake in the future of their industry that was reflected in their pension, their pay and their status within the economy.  The workforce is the key to innovation and union engagement with that is crucial to union renewal and a future that works.


The second is the generation of a vocational economy.  We need to move the emphasis from academic expansion to respect for skilled work and the traditions that make up a vocation.  Vocational colleges and the regulation of labour market entry so that skilled work has status for skilled workers, just as it does for doctors, dentists and lawyers can create the institutional ecology necessary for an economy that innovates and generates value.  Unionlearn is a vital part of this change and this area needs to be expanded.  There should be union partnership with the private sector in the governance of vocational colleges in which retired workers can play a central role.


There will also need to be a reconstitution of a local bank system, a living wage economy and a cap on interest rates so that the poor are not preyed upon by wealthy and pushed ever deeper into an unrepayable debt.  All of this orientates the unions towards the good, a common good that can lead to a national renewal in which labour is honoured and has some status in the firm and in society.  While there is a good conversation going with business about what went wrong and what needs to be done, and I wish to honour the Catholic Church in hosting and promoting that dialogue, there is not a conversation going on with unions about the common good and what they can do to sustain and promote it.


It is time for that conversation to begin otherwise union membership will continue to decline and Labour will lose.  We all need a future that works.


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