We can be radical without losing our senses

The challenges facing progressive politicians around the world are similar. That was evident at this year’s progressive governance conference, held in Amsterdam last week. The conference, organised by Policy Network and partners brings together leaders and thinkers from around the world. Not surprisingly, many delegates discussed the European elections and debated how centre-left parties could find a common agenda, in large part focused around job creation.

A key focus was inequality. One participant noted a recent IMF study, which finds that inequality is harmful to growth and that progressive policies do not harm growth. The question was what those policies should be today. One implicit presence at the conference, though he was not actually there, was Thomas Piketty, the author of Capital in the Twenty First Century. I lost count of the number of speakers who mentioned his book. Piketty’s case is that the return on capital tends to exceed growth, which means wealth accrues to the owners of capital. Delegates in Amsterdam grappling with the issue of inequality soon focused on wealth disparities. Debates centred around how to encourage growth while ensuring more people have capital (not only tangible assets but skills too). One of the solutions is almost certainly going to be revisiting policies that encourage parents to save for their children. Another topic discussed was the future of welfare and social care, where there was a lot of attention given to the challenges ahead; we need to find a more positive approach here.

As John McTernan has noted there was some re-evaluation of the third way, though this was often implied. It was more a case that delegates rejected statist solutions, wanted growth policies relevant to today, but did not want to be seduced by the neoliberal free market consensus that created the conditions for the financial crisis.

A healthy dose of optimism was given by Will Hutton, who urged delegates to rejoice at the increasing number of transforming technological developments on the way. The benefits could be immense, but progressives needed to understand them and watch out for developing inequalities. Hutton also focused on the ownership of capital, noting that this traditional social democratic focus had largely been abandoned (due to failed policies in the past) with the result that we had ownerless corporations, such as large banks, paying excessive amounts to their executives while being sluggish to increase investment.

My overall impression was that there is a lot of healthy thinking and rigorous policymaking going on in progressive circles, with a realistic view of the challenges (as the accompanying book shows). Clear overall themes need to emerge. The history of progressive politics shows that if the work is done it is possible to change the rules of the game and break out of prevailing orthodoxies that keep us focusing on micro policies rather than the big picture. In the United Kingdom, Lloyd George’s ‘people’s budget’ and the founding of the NHS are key examples. We can be radical without losing our political senses.

This article was first published by Progress on 29 April 2014.

Progress, 29 April 2014, 07/05/2014


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