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.
“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