The economic destiny of the Lib Dems

9 Nov 2015

A few weeks ago, I was in Lancashire, interviewing a Labour councillor about the fascinating and pioneering work they have been doing there reshaping their local economy so that it works effectively for the people who live there.

The measures were all in the local Labour manifesto last May and now they are being put slowly into effect. I think I agreed with every word of it.

As it turned out, the councillor I spoke to was a big supporter of Jeremy Corbyn's. What was interesting about this emerging consensus on a new entrepreneurial future is that, actually, it is difficult to pin it unambiguously to any political tradition.

Most of what was in the manifesto could have been in a Conservative one praising enterprise. As a Liberal policy wonk, I could certainly embrace it.

But you know when an idea has emerged because suddenly those who are about five seconds ahead of the zeitgeist - any more than that, as C. P. Snow used to say, and you're considered insane - start talking about it. So that is the future: it is a new entrepreneurial spirit, based on support and facilitation for small business and the training of enterprising people from an early age to make things happen - and certainly at school.

Tim Farron hinted at an approach along these lines at the party conference - and it is certainly a Liberal economic approach, possibly even the Liberal approach - and now Liam Byrne has said much the same.

When the Policy Network organises a speech by a senior moderate Labour type, you can be sure of a couple of things. It will damn Jeremy Corbyn with faint praise. It will hark back to the Blair-Brown years as the era of economic success - rather than the technocratic nightmare that I remember - and it will gargle with a few things they maybe should have done differently.

So we all pounced on Liam Byrne's talk yesterday morning, perhaps not exactly with excitement, but at least the sense of weary predictability.

Byrne was one of the conduits by which Accenture forged such a disastrous alliance between the Blair government and the management consultants. He was also the author of the note on David Laws' computer screen in 2010 saying that the money was all gone.

But he was completeley correct in his diagnosis of the economic challenges we face - institutional short-termism, a new elite which does not see its task to share the rewards, and the growing power of monopoly.

It is interesting, though, that I have been sent details of the speech by so many people - even before it had been made (thank you, Miranda and Joe). I think this was because of his volte face on some of the New Labour embrace of 'neo-liberalism'.

But he remains a social democrat, in the most irritating sense of the term. He condemned 'free trade', as if that was somehow what we have now, and talks up the idea of the common good. And just as an aside, I'm all in favour of the common good myself - just suspicious when politicians start talking about it. In the mouth of the Pope, for example, it is a wholly worthwhile endeavour. In the vocabulary of a former New Labour apparachik, I fear it is likely to involve clamping down on individuals (sorry David, your welfare isn't consistent with the common good, they might say - and probably will).

But the real reason the speech is interesting is the brief but important section on entrepreneurialism:

"As someone who started a successful tech firm before I came into Parliament, I passionately believe that encouraging people to start their own business or social enterprise is quite simply one of the most effective ways of democratising wealth creation - and if we want a fairer, more equal society we should be doing everything in our power. I think that means, introducing enterprise education in every school for every child; expanding the Start-Up Loan programme, and using government procurement to help new businesses scale up..."

This represents the future. The real question is whether Labour can possibly embrace it without unravelling. Even if both sides use it, they will so misunderstand each other when they do. New Labour really believed in big business and never really liked small.

Personally, I believe it is the historic destiny of the Lib Dems to revive small enterprise - not just as a jolly nice idea - but as the solution to monopoly and economic stagnation.

Byrne mentioned four favoured entrepreneurs at the end - William Lever, Anita Roddick, George Cadbury and Spedan Lewis. In fact, though they didn't devote themselves to politics, all four were Liberals. Nor are they entrepreneurs in the flashy loadsamoney Thatcherite style. To quote Anita Roddick - they were people who could imagine the world differently.

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David Boyle

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