Predistribution is just a meaningless word in place of actual policy

by Atul Hatwal

There’s a great scene in I’m Alan Partridge where our hero has just been told by his BBC boss that he hasn’t got a second series. Alan frantically scrambles to come up with something, anything else that might be commissioned.

“Arm-wrestling with Chas and Dave”; “knowing  M.E. knowing you” and “inner city sumo” are just some of the suggestions he rattles off.

Nothing.

“A Partridge amongst the pigeons?”

The boss’s interest is piqued. “What’s that?” he asks.

Alan blurts out the truth, “it’s just a title.”

Armando Iannucci is a political doyenne because of the Thick Of It, but often politics more closely resembles his work with the redoubtable Alan.

What “a Partridge amongst the pigeons” is to primetime viewing, predistribution is to economic policy.

In case you missed it, predistribution is the new silver bullet. It’s how Labour can square the circle of a limited government spending while still bearing down on inequality.

Rather than rely on tax-payer backed redistribution, predistribution seems to entail regulating the market so outcomes are more equal and redistribution isn’t needed. At least, not on same scale as in the past.

The most frequently cited example is tax credits: if wages were higher we wouldn’t need to spend state funds on tax credits.

As an idea, predistribution has been floating around for a while, but was anointed by Ed Miliband this week, first in his interview with the New Statesman and then at the Policy Network economic wonkathon yesterday (rather snappily entitled  “the quest for growth: ideas for a new political economy and a more responsible capitalism,” though judging by the substantive output, finding Spock might have been a more attainable quest).

Already, think tankers and policy pointy heads are feverishly bashing out articles on what it means and how this is the big idea Labour has been waiting for.

Let me help. Sit back from the keyboard and take a deep breath.

It means nothing.

It’s just a title, and, in practical political terms, there’s nothing behind it.

In his speech yesterday, Ed Miliband tried to sketch out how his vision of predistribution would remove the need for redistribution spending:

“Our aim must be to transform our economy so it is a much higher skill, higher wage economy.”

Hmm. That sounds familiar. Where have we heard those words before?

“Today I offer the British people a better way and a clear choice: a choice between Labour’s high  skill, high tech, high wage economy…”

This ringing endorsement of predistribution was actually pre-predistribution, from John Smith, giving the leader’s speech at the Brighton conference in 1993.

Then there is this quote,

“The only way forward is a hard headed analysis of how to build a high wage, high skill, high investment and high employment economy.”

This was Tony Blair in September 1994, talking in strikingly similar circumstances to Ed Miliband yesterday when he addressed the “New policies for the global economy” conference.

And what about these words,

“But if our choice – a high wage, high skills economy – is to succeed, then Britain, a small country, cannot afford to waste the talents of anyone.”

Not John Smith, or Blair, or Miliband this time, but Gordon Brown, addressing the National Policy Forum in 2007.

Every Labour leader for the last twenty years has said the same thing. Who exactly wouldn’t want a high skill, high wage economy?

Ed Miliband could have proposed something more distinctive when he talked about predistribution. There are lots of examples in the literature. But there’s a problem with them: they all involve a return to the 1970s.

A substantially higher minimum wage would remove the need for any in-work benefits. Price caps have been touted as reducing the need to raise benefits to cope with inflation. Rent controls are often suggested as a way reducing the housing benefit bill.

Unsurprisingly, Ed Miliband was reluctant to go down this path.

There is an underlying truth here that means the Labour leader will persist with his sphinx-like vagueness on the detail of predistribution: tackling inequality costs money. If it is not through public taxation then it will have to be through business regulation.

There really isn’t such a thing as a free lunch and someone has to pay for these policies.

It’s comfortable to talk about theory. There’s no tangible cost or commitment. But as Ed Miliband will find out, it’s a false economy.

Having talked up predistribution, the pressure will now be on him to give some practical examples. Just as last year, following Miliband’s “predators and producers” speech, he will prevaricate and talk in abstract vagaries and the pressure will increase again.

Ultimately, Ed Miliband will see that there’s only so long you can say something without meaning anything.

The time is coming when those tough choices, so often referenced but never articulated, will have to be made.

Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut


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15 Responses to “Predistribution is just a meaningless word in place of actual policy”

  1. PlatoSays says:

    Another great article that cuts through the wonkese – if I hadn’t known about it on Twitter, I’d have no idea EdM had made a speech at all – and what a terrible abstract noun to dress up an apple pie idea with pseudo intellectual speak.

    It’s not a word to use on the doorstep.

  2. wg says:

    From a working class Conservative-type C2 – well said.

    Predistribution is now up there with the other meaningless “Progressive”.

    It’s Orwellian claptrap.

  3. Nick says:

    As usual, the boundaries are drawn to ignore the bad.

    Lets force employers to pay people more (so we can tax them to keep our clients in the cash)

    Hmmm, quite a few employers might go bust, but that’s evil employers, not Labour forcing up their costs.

    Meanwhile, its head up the arse when it comes to the real problem. Government debts and government fraud in hiding the debts.

    Labour fiddled with the state pension. That’s cost a median worker over 80K off the value of their pension.

    It’s the state that is screwing people over. The state pension is 25% of what that 26K worker could have received.

    The 75% was taxed, stolen, taken in charges by the state.

  4. Atul, as ever, agree with thrust of what you say, but in fact I fear it is worse: that it *is* actually defined. It is, if I understand it correctly, a return to a prices and incomes policy, Seventies-style. Such a path, if ever implemented, could be disastrous.

  5. Felix says:

    Not that serial sideline-sniper, Atul Hatwal, is ever willing to put forward any decent ideas.

  6. Steve says:

    Predistribution will mean an enhanced role for the state in ensuring economic fairness and accountability – no wonder your feathers have been ruffled.

  7. John Dore says:

    Steve,

    You obviously failed to understand the article. Atul points out that Predistribution is another bollox’sh expression. Ed has been silent for a month and then this rubbish. Not sure Ed is going to win.

  8. aragon says:

    Rob, it is nothing like a prices and incomes policy (Callaghan Governemnt in ’70s).

    It is much more ambitious than that, but Atul is right, the two Ed’s are not serious, like Britannia Unlimited crowd, it will be long on aspiration and short on impact.

    Nick, they said the minimum wage would cause widespread unemployment, but this policy would include actions to increase employment.

    Done properly it will reverse the damage done by the neo-liberals since 1979.

  9. Ian Carle says:

    I can see a bumper game of “Ed’s cliche bingo” taking place as Ed Miliband tries to explain what “predistribution” actually means. Wonky phrases such as “proactive government role” and “enhanced earnings potential” are likely to feature. Actual policies such as rent controls and living wages probably won’t.

  10. Mike Homfray says:

    a return to a prices and incomes policy, Seventies-style.

    I certainly hope so – the abandonment of this sort of common-sense Labour planning and its replacement with market madness, which managed to display the worst aspects of management and unions , was one example of how Tory thinking edged out sensible social democratic approaches.

  11. Clr Ralph says:

    Ed is merely dressing up the current Government strategy and trying to sell it under a new/different title…a very old strategy to compensate for the endless vacuum at Labour Incestuous Central HQ.

    Very amusing.

  12. Terrible But True says:

    ‘PlatoSays’ – I’d have no idea EdM had made a speech at all

    Indeed.

    And it is interesting why it has so soared without trace across a media estate normally not averse to filling its 24/7 news maw with ‘analysis’.

    One suspects that it was a case of ‘If you can’t say anything good..’

    Which, oddly, appears to kick in as an editorial decision on a rather selective basis.

    Not censorship exactly, but propaganda by omission.

    Media acting as surrogate PR managers hardly does them credit.

    So props here at least where due for putting fingers to keyboard when policy looks like a turkey, walks like a turkey and sounds like a turkey….

  13. BenM says:

    PlatoSays never notices any Labour speeches, so I’m not sure what this comment is supposed to convey.

    Is “Predistribution” any worse than the policy-free “Big Society” concept?

    Even asking the question shows the Tories have had issues in this area too.

  14. Madasafish says:

    I cannot comment on a policy I cannot understand.

    Perhaps if soemone explained in words of two syllables.

  15. Michael North says:

    You are probably too young to remeber, but much the same was said by Harold Wilson almost 50 years ago in his “White heat of technoclogy” theme.

    Actually, I wouldn’t be surplrised if the same couldn’t be found from Clem Atlee.

    Never happened though.

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