Talk of progressive alliances is all around us. The fear of five years of right-wing Tory rule with the prospect of a hard Brexit, regressive environmental policies and growing inequality, and all the serious social and economic consequences that will bring has been the stimulus for the initiatives.
As the SLF statement asserts:
“We believe agreements should be based on common aims. In our view, these must include a cast-iron pledge that progressive candidates will vote to keep Britain in the single market and support the introduction of a proportional voting system for Westminster election.”
For some time I have been pondering; what else do we bring to the party? Speaking at the SLF fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat Conference Lisa Nandy, the impressive Labour MP, acknowledged our policy contribution in civil liberties and constitutional matters, people often do when they are trying to be nice to us, but I would argue that there are some other key areas where we have much to offer.
My colleague Paul Hindley has outlined 5 radical policies for Liberal Democrats at the General Election. It set me thinking. Not surprisingly I found myself agreeing with much that Paul had proposed. There are two areas of policy that I think we could promote to strengthen a progressive alliance. Firstly tackling the unacceptable level of economic inequality and secondly addressing Britain’s role and position in the world. Here is my list beginning with economic inequality:
- Policies to promote widespread Employee Ownership, statutory profit sharing and Industrial Democracy for the reason stated below
- Inheritance taxes levied on those who receive bequests to encourage wider distribution of ownership
- Land taxation to distributed the unearned income that accrues from ownership. The increased land values come from the actions of the community through granting of planning permission, the building of roads, hospitals, schools, etc. This portion of profit that is unrelated to the actions of the owner should be returned to the community
- Universal basic income to address the job insecurities brought about by economic globalisation and technological development
The General Election gives social liberals the opportunity to advocate policies that will address the widening inequality in our society. As Jo Grimond wrote “when it comes to property Liberals are outright distributists”. Action is needed, if things are left to the ‘free market’ the already accelerating concentration of ownership in fewer and fewer hands will get worse.
This tradition goes back to J S Mill with his advocacy of employee ownership. It is in the famous Keynesian 1928 Yellow Book and in Elliot Dodds’s Ownership for All report of 1938. It was the signature policy of the Liberal revival under Grimond. It was further developed by Economic Nobel Prize winner James Meade who explored ways to equalise the way that the return on capital was distributed.
Liberals have advocated profit sharing. In my first general election the Liberal Party’s policy was that employees and shareholders should have equal rights to share the profits of an enterprise and the determination of a company’s direction.
This was no wishy-washy Theresa May proposal to allow one token employee to sit on a Board. This was full blown industrial democracy. Employees would not merely be consulted on matters like CEO pay – they would have equal rights in determining it. As the highly-respected Yorkshire Liberal MP Richard Wainwright told Liberal Assemblies, our preferred option was that ‘labour should hire capital’.
The default Labour option was always to concentrate ownership in the hands of the state. Liberals wanted to distribute it to the employees.
In a world where new technology – computers and robots – reduce the reliance on employees and thus depress wages leading to an even larger return for those who own capital we urgently need to promote this alternative Liberal policy.
This policy is at one with a broader Liberal approach are enhancing citizens’ rights to have control over their own lives.
The academic Stuart White (who has been active in promoting Progressive Alliances in Oxford and quoted by Paul Hindley in an earlier posting), has written widely about this ‘rich tradition of alternative liberalism (that) has much to offer by way of solutions to the inexorably widening inequality in our society’. He quotes a Liberal Party publication to illustrate the radical implications of this policy.
“Just as there is a difference between a citizen and a mere subject, so there is a difference between an employee who is simply hired by his company and one who shares, officially and formally, in the ultimate power to determine the company’s aims and call its directors to account.”
Just as we shall argue that Mrs May should not be given a blank cheque to decide what happens over brexit, so we argue that the owners of capital should not have uninhibited rights.
The second issue I want to highlight is concerns about Britain’s role and position in the world. Once again the values and principles that Liberals have promoted over the decades point the way.
Philip Rea, who played an important role in the revival of the Party and was Leader in the Lords during the Grimond years, clearly laid out the Liberal belief that our place was in Europe observing that: “The country seemed to find it difficult to realise that her nineteenth-century position in the world was not in abeyance but actually gone. Britain must adapt her ideas to the modern world.”
The humiliation of Suez helped promote a reevaluation of the nation’s role. Sadly memories are short and the recent surge in nationalism often harks back to an era when Britain was ‘great’ and could ‘go it alone’. We have failed to sustain the argument that the nation state is not the vehicle to tackle the major issues that confront us today.
A second humiliation over Brexit may hand us a new opportunity. People like Rea and Grimond returned from WW2 with distinguished war records aware of the failure of nationalism. Interestingly, that belief led them to be contemptuous of the notion that Britain should remain an independent nuclear power. “Why should we attract an onslaught on this undefended island by the provocative possession of a virtually useless contribution to American nuclear arms? That would be the very reverse of a deterrent.” But that is a debate for another day.
We can reasonably claim that Jo Grimond was the grandfather of the idea of realigning the Left. He believed that Liberal ideas of employee ownership could be the basis on which progressives could come together. He expressed that view when he called for radicals in the Liberal and Labour Parties to make a new appeal to ordinary people to take an active part in political life. Asked how a Socialist party could cooperate with a non-Socialist one, he replied that “there might be a bridge between Socialism and the Liberal policy of co-ownership in industry through a type of syndicalism coupled with a nonconformist outlook such as was propounded on many issues by George Orwell”. Industrial democracy and a tolerance of dissent, which were also distinctive marks of a new Left, were symptoms of a change in ideological thinking in Britain that was not confined to the socialist movement.
The political landscape has changed since then. There are new players with important things to say – like the Greens and the Women’s Equality Party – but the need for a progressive alliance has never been more urgent. We have important radical ideas to bring to that movement.