Wednesday 1 October 2008

Do What is Needed not What it Takes.

I have written this article for the Guardian's Comment is Free today.

Time for change

Careful thought has been given to the form of words to be used by the prime minister in reacting to the latest crisis of capitalism. There have been repeated assurances that the PM will "do what it takes". The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have rallied round in almost patriotic fervour to support the government in doing "what it takes".

But "do what it takes" to do what?

Stabilise a system which has allowed homelessness in our country to double over the last decade? Bail out speculators whose obscene incomes and binge consumerism has created a society more unequal than at any time since the 1940s? Attempt to restore confidence in a system which has allowed 3 million of our children to continue living in poverty after 11 years of a Labour government?

And who is going to pay for enabling the prime minister with the support of the Cameron-Cable coalition to "do what it takes"? People are already paying for the crisis and are increasingly facing real hardship. The number of missed mortgage payments is up 50%, repossessions are up by 48%, unemployment has risen in each of the last seven months, electricity bills are up 18% and gas bills 28%, child poverty has increased in each of the last two years, and 20,000 pensioners are dying each winter from cold-related illnesses.

The government must do what is needed, not what it takes. What is needed first is an honest debate about how we got into this mess. The government has a duty to lead the debate on the fundamental causes of this crisis and the Labour party has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to lead the discussion of the profound changes needed in our society to transform an economic system that creates poverty, insecurity and inequality.

The seeds of this crisis were sown in the 1980s, when the belief in the unfettered free market moulded the attitudes of a generation of political leaders. Concreted into all governments' policy since has been that it is neither possible nor desirable for governments to seek to fetter finance capital nationally or globally, but labour costs must be constrained by privatisation, deregulation and restraining employment rights. In this market state, the provision of housing, energy, water, health, and education become less and less the essentials of life for which government stands as guarantor and more and more commodities for sale and opportunities for speculative profit-making. If prices soar and wages are held down, demand is reduced but debt can take up the slack to keep the boom going.

After three decades of the reign of the economic law of the jungle we can now reassert the basic principle that rational democratic government must control our destinies, not the irrational forces of the market motivated by rumour, speculation and profiteering. Market solutions to market failure will simply risk an unstable rerun of the same mistakes.

The government could take four simple steps to demonstrate decisively who is in control:

First, rather than reacting on a case-by-case basis as firms collapse, the government should act decisively by nationalising now all those financial institutions involved in home loans or at least taking a determining equity stake in these bodies. The current policy of bail-outs and nationalising the losses whilst privatising the profits of the banks means that ordinary people will eventually pay the cost of market failure. Repeated bail-outs caused Japan's government debt to soar from 65% to 175% of the country's GDP. In contrast, Sweden part-nationalised its banks in 1992 when their imprudence led them to the brink of collapse.

Second, to avert the prospect of the longest and deepest recession in living memory, the government must reassert democratic control of economic policy by overriding the Bank of England monetary policy committee (MPC) and cutting interest rates significantly. The remit of the MPC could be widened beyond ensuring price stability to advising on the wider economic health of the country but the bank's policy role should revert to being one voice amongst many others to be taken into account when democratic government not bankers determine our economic policy.

Third, the government must re-establish its role in the provision of secure housing, democratically accountable public services and affordable energy. The government programme needed is blindingly obvious – a massive social house-building programme, repossessions converted to social rentals, ending the privatisation mania, and control of fuel prices or re-nationalisation of energy companies.

Four, at a time of economic downturn, the government must ensure that people are secure in their jobs and that their pay reflects the cost of living – this means abolishing Brown's public sector pay cap, making the minimum wage a living wage, and restoring trade union rights.

If the role of democratic government is reasserted, the real debate can now start on what type of democratic government is needed.