Centre-left governments of the future will have to also make work pay better by making work itself pay.
But as an idea, it might just be the key that the left — and this country — is looking for.
Allow me to elaborate a little. Yesterday, Ed Miliband gave a speech organised by the Policy Network. In it, he outlined further the direction of Labour Party policy, unveiling the idea of “predistribution”. Ed explained it as thus:
“Predistribution is about saying: We cannot allow ourselves to be stuck with permanently being a low-wage economy… Think about somebody working in a call centre, a supermarket, or in an old peoples’ home. Redistribution offers a top-up to their wages. Predistribution seeks to offer them more: Higher skills. With higher wages. An economy that works for working people.“
It sounds pretty good, and it gels with the other policy speeches that Ed has given since he took over the party leadership. In his conference speech last year, he talked about “predatory capitalism”. It got a panning in the right-wing press, but since then has become the political centre ground. The idea of predistribution is an extension of that idea.
The problem is not the content, it’s the expression. Yesterday, LabourList’s Mark Ferguson said of the speech, “It was more academic lecture than political speech“, and he was right. Ed has always been a more cerebral kind of politician; a thinker rather than a showman. It’s a characteristic that has also come in for frequent criticism, and one I’ve been quick to defend. David Cameron is the epitome of leaders who can “talk the talk”. We need one who can “walk the walk”.
However, if this idea is going to reach ordinary people, it’s going to have to reach them in plain and everyday English. Just as the Conservatives’ disingenuous “maxed out credit card” analogy connected with the lives of voters, so will this. And “predistribution” just isn’t going to do that.
So what should it mean in practice?
A great many of the votes that Labour lost at the last general election were because people had lost faith that the economy was working for them. It’s hard to argue that this isn’t the case. You only have to open the pages of the Daily Mail, the Daily Express or the Sun to see railing against “scroungers”. But the root of the problem is that a large number of people aren’t earning, and cannot earn, a wage that they can live off.
This was addressed by the last Labour government with such redistributive measures as tax credits. The minimum wage was a good first step, but if it’s not enough to live off then what good does it really do?
We need a statutory “living wage”. If a person can be ensured that by working they will have enough to live off, then what greater incentive can there be to get people to work? Talk of “scroungers” would disappear, and people would have real money to spend and put into an economy that badly needs it. We need a taxation system where anyone earning a “living wage” is exempt from income tax, and a government that helps to enable people to thrive, rather than excusing the fact that they aren’t.
As an idea, it’s still in the early stages of its genesis. But it has real potential. David Cameron’s Tory-led government is the last gasp of trying to fix the broken economic and social system. It’s not working. The government talks about making work pay, but when the minimum wage in the country is not enough to allow a person to survive, then it work self-evidently not paying.
Ed Miliband’s ideas are grand, and mean changing the nature of our society completely. But it’s been done before, so it can be done again.
And if the worst thing about “predistribution” is the name, then I feel we’re onto something important here.