Budget 2014 preview: Labour must change the language it uses to talk about business and economics

by Rob Marchant

Today Britain’s political focus turns, as it always does sooner or later, to the economy. It is the last Budget which will come in time to make much of a difference for the election, an election for which all parties now start to gradually gather together their support from various quarters and interest groups.

Osborne will set out his pre-election stall and Miliband will respond. We have yet to see just how he will respond, but it seems pretty likely that it will be along the lines of his op-ed in yesterday’s Guardian.

Reading it, thankfully, Miliband seems to have learned his lesson from the awful “predators and producers” speech of the party’s 2012 conference and is now more careful with his wording. But if you want to really understand what a politician is thinking on a particular subject, you should look to their advisers on that subject; those who may unguardedly say what their bosses cannot. More of that later.

Now, one notable absence – or, more unkindly, gaping hole – in the 2010 election campaign was any noticeable support from the business community. A stony silence replaced the modest set of endorsers for the party’s business policies who had previously spoken in support of the party. And that was in the days of Prime Minister Brown, whose administration certainly had a more business-friendly character than the party’s current leadership.

Why should we care about businesspeople, eh? After all, it was them (aided and abetted by their allies in the League of Political Super-Evil, the bankers) who caused the crash.

Or so the current conventional wisdom in the party seems to go.

I exaggerate, of course, but it is a rather obvious point: when your main electoral priority is increasing the country’s wealth, it is not terribly wise to go out of your way to alienate the people who create it.

Now, it is clear that some of our underlying policies are clearly more interventionist than previous governments on either side for some decades. But that is not the most important point – at the end of the day, we choose the policies we choose. Miliband has chosen his political direction; we might agree or disagree with it, but he’s not going to change course now. Business has to put up with governments of a leftish hue sooner or later.

What is more frustrating is the exacerbation of this effect: the unnecessary alienation which Labour suffers through a habitual poor use of language.

Let’s take an example: the use of the word “neoliberal”.

Miliband has not so much succumbed to this one in public, but the Times’ Sam Coates reports (£) that Tess Lanning, MIliband’s business adviser, thinks that Britain now needs to fix “the commodification of workers (which) has got much worse under neo-liberalism”.

How exactly do we think that sounds to a businessperson?  Well, pretty daft, actually. But it’s not just Lanning. Stewart Wood, a decent and thoughtful politician, has even written a book about it, admittedly in a much more rigorous and academic sense. But other users of the word are not so careful.

Indeed, left-wing papers and blogs recently seem prone to a tiresome use of “neoliberal consensus” to denote something universally bad about the present day, a childishly simple root cause of why economies crashed in 2008, . Something “we all know” – except we don’t.

You may counter-argue that “neoliberal” is a neutral “economist’s” word. But it’s not. In fact, if you read a little around it you find it is not only a poorly-defined term whose meaning has changed considerably over the years but, in the current British context at least, is loaded. You can tell if a label is loaded in politics, because one side uses it against the other as a pejorative. But it gives you considerable insight into how someone thinks. It is a word of Stop the War and of Respect, more than it is of sensible centrism.

In fact, it is pretty safe to say that the only politicians who talk about neoliberalism at all in 2014 are on the traditionalist left, and not very likely to have worked much in the private sector (in the Shadow Cabinet, at least, this is a pretty safe bet). Just as the only ones who speak about “statism” or “bolshevism” are on the right. Or those that speak about the “Euro gravy train” are either Ukippers or backwoods Tories. Our loaded labels reflect our obsessions, they mark us out.

Neoliberalism has thus become the twenty-first century replacement for what in the Seventies lefties would simply call “capitalism”. It’s a bogeyman, to be heard with a sneer, whether or not that sneer is intentional.

Or, for another example, we return to “predators and producers”. Now, in business, predators certainly exist and should be discouraged (Stella Creasy’s excellent campaign against loan sharks being a good example of this). But who decides which is which?

The real problem is that these are emotive, not neutral, terms. By vague name-calling rather than a clear definition, we put up the hackles of those businesspeople who may well not fall into the category we see so clearly. We show we are against them, not for them or even neutral. By using careless language, we make them think that we, the Labour Party, will be the imperious arbiters whose ill-informed decisions will decide the fate of their businesses. Because that is the tone which we are adopting.

It all sounds a bit unfair to them, because, well it is. It is the equivalent of the Tories whingeing about “scroungers”. It makes people feel they are being unfairly treated, because they are. We need to stop it.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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6 Responses to “Budget 2014 preview: Labour must change the language it uses to talk about business and economics”

  1. paul barker says:

    How are you going to stop Union Bosses talking like that ? Thats your fundamental problem : the Union -Party link only works in one direction. Milliband tried to reduce the Unions power & failed, inevitably.

  2. Rob Marchant says:

    @PaulBarker: Actually think this is the least of Labour’s problems – no-one expects union bosses to talk sensibly about economics. They do, however, expect a potential party of government to do so.

  3. Fred says:

    The Labour party in its current form is not capable of talking to business, delivering growth or defining Britain’s role in the world of Global Capitalism. It has no policies that are a game changer.

    The resurgence of the left will be felt in the ballot box. When push comes to shove people will not vote for the Ed’s as they know in their heart of hearts that it will kick them in the wallet long term. Its the Major v Kinnock scenario again.

  4. Martin Yuille says:

    OK Rob. Let’s avoid the word ‘neo-liberalism’. But, if you are serious, you do need to suggest an alternative.

    There’s Thatcherism and Reaganism. These are out-of date and their meaning has shifted from the particular political economy of the 80’s to a representation of the personality of two particular politicians.

    Then there’s trickle-down economics and neo-classical economics and free-market economics. Here the problem is that they represent an economic theory – not a practise of political economy (which is what neo-liberalism addresses).

    Curiously no-one talks much about ‘Cameronism’. But that’s a different issue.

    What we are all getting at when we criticise ‘neo-liberalism’ is its cannabilistic consequence: ‘market failure’.

    That is what happened in 2008 to the financial sector. It is still working itself out e.g. with Osborne’s tacit acknowledgement of the failure of the annuities market. We can see it in new technology sectors (e.g. the House of Lords sees it in biotechnology). We can see it in the old pharma industry (where the blockbuster model has failed). It is widely predicted in the food industry with the decline of the supermarket giants. We can see it generally in the failure to invest substantially in manufacture over many decades.

    OK, it’s true that ‘market failure’ is a concept within neo-classical economics. But we can borrow it to describe the widespread failure of ‘advanced’ nations to get to grips with our floundering societies.

    It will make sense to people as workers, as manufacturers, as bankers and as investors.

    The Coalition is a government that is promoting market failure (wrecking the collective security of the annuity, inflating a housing bubble, favouring short-termism etc). Labour will, after 2015, reform to stop market failures, put markets on a firm footing (i.e. infrastructure reform and development) and start achieving “market success for all”.

    So there’s a narrative that I think works.

  5. Rob Marchant says:

    @Martin: I’d buy that. Anything but the pseudo-economics of “neoliberalism”. Addressing market failure is exactly what the Labour Party should be for. What it should stop doing is interfering where the market works ok.

  6. steve says:

    “Why should we care about businesspeople?”

    More to the point, why should business people care about the Labour Party when they’ve already got a perfectly good Tory party looking after their interests.

    Sure, Labour will want to show they can roll with the big boys and girls and Blair, to some extent, succeeded but we all know how that turned out.

    You may as well admit it: Labour is lost. Changing the terminology is no better than muddling-up the place names on a map – it’ll only deepen the disorientation.

    Labour MPs who don’t have ultra-safe seats should start making plans for a career change.

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