Please let me make a prediction about ‘predistribution’, a solution to Britain’s economic and social woes, as explained by Labour Leader Ed Miliband this week. As he put it:
We need to care about predistribution as well as redistribution.
We need to care about. That is what the man said. But however much we need to care about predistribution, I predict we will not be hearing the word, nor about any of the ideas associated with it, in the Labour Party manifesto for the next general election. Nor will we hear about it in any of their campaign materials, nor will it be mentioned in any campaign speeches. Why? Because once you get past the initial shock of hearing the new word, and start thinking about what it means, you realize that some of predistribution is new, but not good. Other parts of predistribution are good, but not new. Other parts are good, but are unpalatable to a left-leaning political party. And other parts are palatable to a left-leaning political party, but outside of the control of any government. Slice and dice predistribution into its constituent elements, and you can find no good new policy that Ed Miliband would actually want to implement in government.
We need new ideas if we are to tackle the problems the economy faces.
The need for a good idea does not guarantee we will have a good idea, any more than the need for energy security guarantees a breakthrough in wind turbine design or the discovery of oil beneath our feet. Predistribution, as far as it is a new idea, is not Miliband’s idea. It comes from the US Democrats. It is revealing that Miliband revealed his predilection for predistribution on the same day that the most popular wonk of all time, Bill Clinton, gave a barn-storming speech at the Democratic Party’s National Convention. It took 50 minutes for Bill Clinton to nominate Obama to be US President for a second time. He was often interrupted by thunderous applause and huge cheers. Clinton brilliantly explained all Obama’s achievements, and provided many a stat to back up his arguments. During those 50 minutes, he never once used the word ‘predistribution’. Clinton has a gift for taking essentially good centre-left ideas and selling them to the public. Miliband has a gift for taking vague ideas and making them utterly incomprehensible. If Miliband wants to copy the US Democrats, he should start with how wonks persuade undecided voters, not with how wonks impress their devotees. And if no Democrat politician is pushing predistribution to voters, then the Labour Leader needs to ask himself what he hopes to gain by using language that even Mitt Romney would avoid, for fear of seeming out of touch with ordinary people.
But now I, like Miliband, am in danger of getting so hung up on a word that I fail to explain what it means. I would, if I knew what it meant. I am not sure it really means anything, but before you hear my opinion, you should hear the words of those who favour predistribution. This is how Miliband explained it:
Predistribution is about saying:
We cannot allow ourselves to be stuck with permanently being a low-wage economy.
It is neither just, nor does it enable us to pay our way in the world.
Our aim must be to transform our economy so it is a much higher skill, higher 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:
With higher wages.
An economy that works for working people.
Centre-left governments of the past tried to make work pay better by spending more on transfer payments.
Centre-left governments of the future will have to also make work pay better by making work itself pay.
That is how we are going to build growth based not just on credit, but on real demand.
And that is how we are going to help the squeezed middle of this country and, build a better economy when there is less money around.
Yes, he really does talk like that.
With a line between each half-sentence.
But jesting aside, what is stunning about the coverage of this new idea is that no journalist seems prepared to point out the similarities to what has been said before. Take this speech:
And so this post-crisis world throws up three fundamental questions which we will address today.
First – how do we rebuild our economy so that Britain can be a country with high skills and modern manufacturing – where work pays, family finances are secure and government partners business to invest in Britain’s strengths?
…Which is the party of the family, promising to protect child tax credits, the child trust fund, and sure start and to give all new dads a month with their babies and help to buy the family home?
Which is the party of making work pay, pledging a rising minimum wage, and the end of benefits-for-life?
Or how about…
Our whole economic prosperity depends upon which competing vision of the future will win in the next few years.
One choice for Britain -the choice we reject- is a low skilled, low pay economy competing in a race to the bottom with China, India and Asia.
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.
Take this snippet:
This is the difference the Labour Government makes. And this is how we will move forward to create a genuine opportunity society, empowering every young person in Britain to make the most of themselves.
Or this excellent line…
The only way forward is a hard headed analysis of how to build a high wage, high skill, high investment and high employment economy.
Or what about these fine words…
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…
And finally, what about this excerpt:
…we said that the condemnation of the Conservative stop-go-stop cycle was not merely their emphasis on stop. It was their failure all the time to build up our economic strength, to broaden our industrial base with more and modern equipment, to speed the training of skilled labour – so that we could break out of this cycle of crisis.
The top quote was Gordon Brown, at the 2010 launch of the Labour Party manifesto. The next quote was also from Brown, speaking to the National Policy Forum in 2007. The one below was by Tony Blair, from the famous ‘education, education, education’ speech he made in 2005. The quote below that was also from Blair, back in 1994. The next quote was from John Smith; it was his leader’s speech at the 1993 party conference. And the final quote? That was taken from the speech made by Harold Wilson, Labour Leader, at the 1965 party conference. Over nearly 50 years, Labour Party leaders have consistently said the same thing about delivering a high-skill economy. Ed Miliband makes the same old offer, calls it something different – predistribution – and has the cheek to assert:
we need new ideas if we are to tackle the problems the economy faces.
As far as Miliband actually bothered to explain the idea of predistribution, Miliband offered nothing new. The policy of investing in skills has been Labour Party policy for at least half a century. That is not a criticism of the policy itself, just a criticism of Miliband’s disingenuous presentation. The problem for Miliband is that so many voters feel Labour’s last government ended in enormous failure. Hence Miliband has to present himself as offering something new. His problem is that, so far, he has utterly failed to offer anything new.
It says a lot about Miliband’s weakness that he offers ‘new’ ideas that repeat old old slogans, then stops, not providing any further explanation. Miliband is the anti-Clinton. Whilst Bill Clinton avoids jargon and really speaks to voters, Miliband is scared to communicate with voters, preferring to hide behind the jargon. In order to find out what Miliband’s predistribution might be, we have to look elsewhere, to the commentators who support Miliband. Luckily, a whole legion of them rallied to Miliband, gleefully backing the predistribution pitch, even though Miliband never explained what he was talking about. George Eaton of the New Statesman is one of the most reliable propaganda robots in the ‘free’ press, and he was ready, willing and able to explain how predistribution is a political game-changer…
the state, rather than merely ameliorating inequalities through the tax and benefits system, should act to ensure that they do not arise in the first place.
That is an excellent explanation, though it has absolutely no connection to what Miliband actually said. This is a good sign. It means George Eaton can read minds, and tell us what Miliband is thinking, as well as repeating what he is saying. Eaton goes on to write:
…it should legislate for policies such as a living wage and introduce curbs on predatory energy and rail companies…
…The great strength of predistribution is that it does not cost the state a penny to pursue. Rather than relying on taxation to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, Miliband will harness the instruments of legislation and regulation. Rail companies, for instance, would be barred from raising fares by more than 1% above inflation.
Unpack this and either we find ourselves in the territory of la-la-land or just rehashing old policies and pretending they are new. The ‘living wage’ is either the minimum wage (which already exists) or it is a higher minimum wage (same idea, but more expensive), or it is a plea for companies to voluntarily pay higher wages (which is daft, and not an actual policy). So there is nothing new there. And there is an ocean of difference between promising a living wage and a high skill economy. In one case you promise higher wages to people with low skills. In the other case, there is no need for government intervention because people command high wages. So which is predistribution? We are left fuzzily unsure.
As for curbs on ‘predatory’ pricing, that is not new. The 1973 Fair Trading Act is a pretty good example of how previous (Tory) governments have passed laws to stop businesses exploiting customers. Barring rail companies from high price rises exhibits a dash of populist innovation, but beyond a few limited examples like rail companies, the policy would be unworkable and unpopular. Put it this way: if you set a limit on revenues, you might as well set a limit on costs. And if you set a limit on costs, you limit investment in capital infrastructure (so no new trains and no new tracks, under Labour’s predistribution) and a limit on wages and job growth (so no predistributive benefits for rail workers, or for people wanting to get a job working for rail companies). There is a possible get-out clause if government limits revenues but then provides the money for investment or wages. But it is hard to see how this makes things better. Either the government subsidy is paid by taxes, or it is financed by borrowing. If paid by taxes, the predistribution is just a convoluted disguise for old-fashioned redistribution (from people who do not use trains to people who do). If paid by borrowing, then Labour has solved the redistribution problem by redistributing wealth from the future to the present. When borrowing, today’s spending is made possible by straddling future generations with unwelcome interest payments, paying off debts they never had the chance to vote against. And loading our population with unsustainable debt is the surest route to poverty, not the route to a high skills, high wage future.
But maybe I am being unfair to Miliband. George Eaton is a moron who would extol the benefits of a dog turd if somebody told him the turd was official Labour Party policy. As such, he is inclined to make arguments that even career politicians would find too ridiculous to state in public. Maybe I need to find a better advocate for predistribution, before I dismiss it. Paul Hackett, Eaton’s New Statesman colleague, was glowing in his praise for predistribution…
The fast track to jobs and growth is by boosting incomes through higher wages.
That really does sound good. So how would Hackett’s version of predistribution work?
…wealth distribution recalibrated away from the top 1% who have secured more than their fair share of productivity gains
Well, either that means higher taxes for the top 1%, which is good old-fashioned redistribution, or it means… well, I have no idea. Maybe it means Harry Potter casting a spell of predistribution.
Successive Conservative governments transformed the world of work through the erosion of employment protection rights, tight restrictions on trade unions, the abolition of wage floors (like the Fair Wages Resolution and wages councils), lower taxes for the better off, a deliberate effort to shift the balance of power at work in favour of employers and abandoning the commitment to full employment. All of which had a disastrous impact on those on low and middle incomes.
Okay, so is predistribution the same as ‘reverse Tory policy’? Fine. But that is not new. That would be an explicit program of returning policy, and Britain’s economy, to what it was like in the 1970’s. And it was rubbish in the 1970’s. So I can understand why the argument for predistribution is not made in the way I just made it. Even ‘predistribution’ is a relatively good name for a policy, if the alternative is to call it ‘back to the 70s’.
What we know is that policies that ensure a more equal distribution of rewards are most effective when they work in parallel with labour market institutions (notably, trade unions) that achieve a fairer distribution of incomes before the intervention of the tax and benefit system.
Did we know this? That is good. But it would be nice to both know this, and have it written in English, please. I think Hackett is saying that collective bargaining by trade unions means some people get paid more. Correct. But not new. And not necessarily good. Take a look at Spain. Their economy is in a huge mess, and it was not caused by government borrowing (contrary to what some ignorant American Republicans say). Spain has a wonderfully ‘predistributed’ economy because of all sorts of workers’ rights and the established influence of the unions. They also have sky-high unemployment, especially for young people. High skill, high wage? This form of predistribution is high wage for the lucky few, but locks out huge numbers of young people from the job market, meaning their skills are not developed and they receive no work experience.
The solutions are in, many ways, not new but need to be recast for today’s economy.
That is an interesting admission by Hackett. He is honestly pitching a version of predistribution that is identical to the kind of old-fashioned labour policies that now hobble Spain’s economy. And perhaps Hackett misunderstood that Miliband was highlighting the need for new ideas…
We need new ideas if we are to tackle the problems the economy faces.
Hackett goes on to say:
There has to be more transparency in executive pay with an explicit obligation to publish the details of all directors pay packages in the annual reports of listed companies. Listed companies should also record the ratio of high pay to low pay, the distribution of pay across different levels of earnings and the number of workers in receipt of the minimum wage.
At last, for the first time, somebody is offering a genuinely new policy as part of the pro-predistribution mantra. Predistribution means ‘knowing how much execs get paid so we can put pressure on them’. That would be like knowing how much MPs take in expenses, so we can vote out the greedy scum who take advantage of the system. Oops. But that is not how voters behave. They do not punish the greediest scum amongst MPs, and Labour is mighty glad of that fact, because they love their safe seats every bit as much as the Tories do. So predistribution might be a label attached to superficial changes to corporate reporting, in the hope that shareholder influence (or some much vaguer ‘public will’) is going to punish execs for being greedy. And this policy is supposed to work even though, in a democracy, voters cannot even be bothered to vote out greedy MPs. So this aspect of predistribution is new, but will deliver no substantial change to the economy, or living standards.
And worse still, the coalition government is already offering much the same ‘predistribution’ policy. They will give shareholders a vote on exec pay. Labour has complained this does not go far enough. Maybe so, but it goes a lot further than anything achieved by Labour when they were last in power. Either way, Labour is playing a weak hand on this topic. The more radical they are, the more they highlight how gutless they used to be. And however radical they are, the chances are that the impact on exec pay will be trivial.
Whilst the minimum wage has made a difference for millions, unscrupulous employers continue to short change their staff. Ensuring that the minimum wage is effectively enforced and is fixed at the highest possible level before any negative employment effects appear should also be part of the solution.
In other words, enforce the minimum wage law that Labour already passed. Again, this hardly sounds new or radical. As it happens the coalition government is better at enforcing the minimum wage than the previous Labour government was. The Low Pay Commission’s 2012 report says that:
good progress continues to be made with regard to improving the enforcement regime
Enforcing the existing minimum wage sounds a lot less novel than asking for a ‘living wage’, whatever that is. Worse still, the Low Pay Commission, who advises on the correct level for minimum wage, already says it is at ‘the highest possible level before any negative employment effects appear’. Or, to use English, that a rise in wages would mean fewer jobs. Or as they put it:
After a good deal of discussion we concluded that in the current difficult economic circumstances caution is essential.
So for all the talk about the new idea of predistribution, once again we are left with nothing new and no substantive change to where the economy, law and government policy already is. But then Hackett does finally offer a really major change as part of the predistribution mantra:
Any future Labour government should also seek to reintroduce labour clauses in public contracts. This will not only increase the pay of those working in the public sector (or “para-state”) but also set a benchmark for pay in the private sector. There may also be role for wages councils, which set wage floors, and place peer pressure on employers to act fairly. The development, in partnership with employers, of programmes focused on raising skill levels, boosting productivity and improving the overall quality of employment at the bottom of the labour market will also help those on lower income.
So, once again, we see two recurring themes for the ‘new’ idea of predistribution. First, it is a hollow rebranding of an old idea and a simple reversal of policy. In this case, the policy reversal is that governments should be willing to pay more in order to ensure its suppliers pay more to their workers. This is just more redistribution without being honest enough to call it redistribution. The employees get paid more, the employers charge more to government to pay the higher wages, and government raises more in taxes to pay the higher fees to the corporations. This is redistribution, and a kind of redistribution that is none too popular with the workers left to compete in the genuinely free market. Instead of getting ‘high skill high pay’ jobs, many find themselves in the ridiculous position of being paid less for cleaning the toilets of a privately-owned business then somebody else gets paid for cleaning the toilets of the town council. Which leads us to the second recurring theme: fairness has nothing to do with being fair. The Spanish have shown that a two-tier system that promotes higher pay for a few only punishes the rest of the society who fail to receive those benefits. No country in Europe has seen such a disastrous explosion in unemployment, after previously having such a strong government balance sheet. What is being offered as a predistribution ‘solution’ is part of the root cause for the economic difficulties of Spain, a country where one in four workers is unemployed. There is nothing fair about guaranteeing good pay for those in work, at the cost of denying a quarter of willing workers the chance to work. And high unemployment means high levels of expenditure on benefits, low tax receipts and a uncompetitive economy. This is the exact opposite of the ‘fast track for jobs and growth’ that Hackett promises.
So again I looked for someone to sensible explain the merits of predistribution. Mark Ferguson of LabourList sometimes deserves to be read, not least because he tends to avoid some of the worst silliness of political pundits. As he put it:
Of course predistribution isn’t new
which does contrast with Miliband’s
We need new ideas if we are to tackle the problems the economy faces.
Unfortunately, he had nothing to say about what predistribution is, other than the airy-fairy idea that it means everybody gets great pay even though nobody else has to spend more in order to make that possible. Honestly, such is the depth of his analysis; see for yourself.
Daniel Sage of LabourList is more straightforward in pointing out the black hole that lies at the heart of this ‘new’ idea:
If Ed Miliband is to make predistribution a real policy goal, he’ll need to flesh out how he would fundamentally restructure the British labour market. And this will be the real challenge.
Which is another way of saying that the real challenge is not to bandy about a new word like ‘predistribution’, but to tell us what you think it means.
I then turned to Demos, the think tank, where Duncan O’Leary gave his definition of predistribution. At long last I had found someone willing to discuss new policy initiatives, I thought.
The million dollar question, of course, is what this means in practice and Miliband will inevitably come under pressure to announce policy immediately. He should ignore the chorus. Miliband is showing leadership in starting the debate and should be comfortable with letting it play out before he announces detailed proposals.
Indeed. Leadership means uttering a word, not saying what it means, then letting the debate ‘play out’ before you explain what you thought you were talking about in the first place. No need to actually tell voters what you think at this stage, because that might cost votes, because maybe what you think is a load of rubbish that voters will see through… But then O’Leary did make some suggestions for how to fill in the blanks.
London Citizens has a living wage campaign, for example, which is a civil society response. Norway has much more transparency on what people are paid (via information on people’s tax contributions), which is a ‘nudge’-type answer. Germany has ‘co-determination’, giving employees more power to bargain in their own workplaces. France has profit-sharing, which is a more direct form of intervention.
We can rule out civil society as a Miliband policy proposal, not that his most brain-dead supporters will grasp the extraordinarily obvious reason why he has to rule out civil society as a solution. Relying on civil society to solve problems is exactly the same as relying upon the (gulp) big society to solve problems. If he hopes to win the next election, Miliband needs to castigate the coalition government for being a do-nothing bunch of laissez faire toffs. Suggesting that the people can sort out their own mess would sound rather like an endorsement for Dave Cameron’s policy of letting people sort out their own mess.
The next level up is to enforce transparency, but nothing else. Transparency is fine, but it will not win votes. The coalition government is not averse to adopting nudge-nudge policies when they look like a vote-winner, so it is highly unlikely the Tories will throw away the next election because they were outflanked by tame pro-transparency policies from Labour.
German co-determination sounds like a much more plausible Labour policy. Unfortunately for Labour, the way it works in Germany is that highly-educated, highly-skilled people work in highly successful industries and make restrained demands in order to support the all-around goal of supporting the German export success story. That is why German voters despise bailouts for Greeks and other European nations. Their self-restraint is a contrast to the profligacy of others. Given the many years of successful Labour government, it should not be hard to locate the many Brits who, like the Germans, are highly-educated, highly-skilled workers whose self-restraint has contributed to successful export businesses… or maybe not. So co-determination is a no-go area for Miliband because it only illustrates that Labour spent 13 years promising, but not delivering, the kind of high skill high wage economy that Germany has. And when I say they spent 13 years promising and not delivering the same economy as Germany’s, I really mean that they spent 50 years promising it and they still have no idea about how to deliver it.
That leaves just profit sharing, which is a viable idea, and perhaps the best, most radical, and most likely to succeed. Unfortunately, profit-sharing is as likely to be backed by neo-Thatcherites as by lefties. By which I mean that profit-sharing is more likely to be backed by neo-Thatcherites than lefties. Go back to Paul Hackett’s piece, and consider what he said about collective bargaining. Are trade unions constantly complaining that their workers do not get enough profit-related pay? Is the problem that the risks of corporate losses are not adequately shared with employees? I sympathize with lefties when they complain about exec pay. Too many execs got paid for the upsides of the risks they took, too few were made to pay for the downsides. But a fair approach to profit sharing would mean workers also experience the ups and downs of business, as communicated via their pay packet. If the coalition government reinvigorated schemes that encourage employees to buy shares in their employers, predistribution would rapidly become synonymous with Thatcher’s dream of a ‘shareholder democracy’. So even on the occasions where predistribution is new and radical, it may not suit Labour, because it better suits the political right.
Oddly enough, for all the leftist talk about predistribution, it took a right-leaning pundit to point out the greatest single cause of predistributive inequality: housing. Whilst the lefties avoided saying much of substance, Neil O’Brien of the Policy Exchange gave an incredibly wonkish analysis of predistribution in The Telegraph, of all places. O’Brien points out that the difference between the housing haves and have-nots is at least as big an issue as the gap between the highest and lowest paid. Yet what did Miliband have to say about housing in his speech?
If [the government] really wanted to make a difference to housing they would tax bankers’ bonuses and as we recommended, build tens of thousands of new homes.
On housing, like on so many issues, Miliband relies on the gift that keeps giving: taxing evil bankers to pay for pretty much everything imaginable. Odd to think that some of those high skill people who came out of the education education education system may have been motivated to pass exams just so they could get filthy rich by working for a bank. Presumably that is the kind of high skill, high pay job that Labour now wants to discourage. It makes me wonder if Brown and Blair deliberately excluded banking pay from the stats they cited about graduate pay as justification for a massive increase in university enrollment. Clearly their plan of doubling students did not convert into doubling the number of bankers. In fact, it did not convert into anything, because Miliband now says:
And as we face a crisis of youth unemployment, [the government] should be offering young people a Real Jobs Guarantee.
So it turns out that education education education was insufficient after all. Government policy should be to pay to educate a lot of high skill people, then pay to create jobs for them to do. What a beautifully circular piece of thinking, until you remember that it is the workers who go straight into work that will be forced to subsidize education and subsidize the high paid jobs artificially created to keep those high skilled people happy. Miliband never addresses the risk that Labour plans actually hurt the working poor, because whilst he mentions ‘real demand’, all his policies point to altering supply, and have nothing to do with the demand for the high skill high pay workers that he promises to create.
However you look at it, bashing bankers is not a credible long-term policy for housing, even though Ed says he recognizes
that this agenda is about long-term change in the economy and it will take time.
Which I assume means he will not do what Labour did when last in power, and he will not waste three terms, watching idly as the building industry slows to a crawl and produces fewer and fewer new houses each year. And he will not sit idly by whilst watching middle class voters get richer and richer from the consequent rise in the value of their homes. The housing crisis will take a long period of sustained improvement if it is going to be fixed, so Miliband had better have some more ideas for how to fix it. I, for one, would like to hear them. In order to meaningfully predistribute, Miliband would need to reverse the disgusting rift in housing inequality that occurred, say, between the years 1997 and 2010 (the inequality occurred before, and it is still getting worse, but the rules of political pantomime insist that Labour undoes the harm they previously caused, before promising to reverse anyone else’s policies). Again, a flashy new word is just cover for a serial disdain for the voter. Why talk about real problems that have plagued Britain for decades – problems like the housing shortage? It is easier to pretend that a minor course correction (exec pay transparency, caps on rail fares, taxes on bankers) would be sufficient to deliver utopia. And why is Miliband afraid to address those real problems? I think there is a simple explanation. Radical new policies designed to succeed would only serve to highlight the scale of Labour’s past failures.
The truth is that Labour talks a good game about forming a coalition of interests between the poor and the middling, but its long-established electoral strategy demands a quite different approach. Labour adopts policies that screw the poor in order to enrich the middling. A few headline, redistributive policies are used to fool the poor into thinking that Labour is on their side, and as a consequence Labour holds on to its low-turnout safe seats whilst hoping to be competitive in the middle-class marginals it needs for an overall majority.
Like the Republicans in the US, Labour seduces the poor voter by playing on their ignorance. The Republicans tell the American poor that they will be hurt by higher taxes. Labour tells Britain’s poor that they are hurt by inadequate redistribution. The Republicans fail to point out that America’s poor are net recipients of policies that aim to tax and redistribute. Labour fails to point out that Britain’s poor are being subsidized to stay in rented accommodation, but denied the right to own their home, because building more affordable homes would hit the middle class.
If there is any point to discussing predistribution as the basis of informed policy-making, it should start with illuminating how inequality of costs has just as great an influence as inequality of income. Those costs include housing, where Labour has nothing to offer. Costs also include income taxes levied on the working poor, which the coalition government has taken great strides to alleviate. Polls indicate that the coalition government has utterly failed to persuade voters that raising the income tax personal allowance is a great benefit to them. This is ironic, because reducing the income tax paid by the working poor is the most directly predistributive correction imaginable. I fail to see why a low-paid worker should thank the government for endorsing a civil society campaign to increase their wages, whilst also thanking the government for taking a chunk of those wages and redistributing them elsewhere. The two Eds have looked on dismissively whilst watching the coalition’s failure to parlay their tax cut into increased popularity. They even have the cheek to pretend that the stimulus of a VAT cut – which ultimately must be paid for by taxes levied elsewhere – is preferable to the fair predistribution of reducing income tax for the lowest paid.
Predistribution is being presented by the left as a sly complement to redistribution. When the detail is examined, most of it is just disguised redistribution, and the rest is far from sly. Real predistribution would take away inequalities that mean the working poor pay absurd amounts of income tax, and pay a disgustingly heavy price just to have a roof over their heads. Those are two topics that Labour does not want to talk about. To talk about them is to invite a massive u-turn on past Labour policy, or else to look ridiculous. And that is why I predict that predistribution has no future as political gossip or sloganeering.
Predistribution is today’s cafe talking point. Come the end of the day, it will be washed out and emptied, just like the coffee cups. And who will be collecting those cups, and washing them out? The same kind of low skill, low pay workers who also work in call centres, or supermarkets, or in old peoples’ homes. There lies the real tragedy of Miliband’s politics. He has a sneering contempt for the idea that Brits might take pride in doing those jobs. They may not be high skill jobs, but there is no reason for anyone to be ashamed of an honest day’s work. And if not done by Brits, then who should do them? Are Brits meant to think of themselves as superior to other nationalities? But there is something perfectly natural about Labour’s sneering at the low-paid and immigrants who mostly vote for Labour. Labour politicos want to ‘help’ them, because they feel that anyone doing a straightforward job must obviously need ‘help’. They cannot believe that anybody normal, honest and decent might take any pride in doing those jobs. Nursing the old, providing customer service, operating a checkout till – Labour thinks there is something wrong with people who do these jobs. There is something wrong, but it is not with doing these jobs, nor with the wages they get paid. The injustice in Britain stems from the inordinate amounts these people have to pay for everything – their council tax, their TV licence fee, and most importantly for their accommodation, because no politician has the guts to reform exploitative systems that arbitrarily enrich some at the cost of many others.
To understand why Labour despises the low paid, just look at the attitudes that Labour’s elite exhibit through their own behaviour. If Labour wants to start down the road to predistribution, then their MPs can stop making such extravagant expense claims, they can stop profiting from the housing crisis that impoverishes the housing have-nots, and they can voluntarily pay more for the services they receive. They can ostracize Jacqui Smith, an incompetent Home Secretary who admitted she was under-qualified for the job, who fleeced the expenses system to the point where taxpayers footed the bill for her husband’s porno, and who still considered herself a fit person to apply for the job of vice-chairman of the BBC Trust. They can kick out Hazel Blears MP, who retains her ultra safe seat despite being a gormless moron who first abused the loopholes in the taxing of UK houses, then showed her contempt for ordinary people by brandishing a tax cheque as if this absolved her of all sin. They can ask why union leaders like Bob Crow are so comfortable with pocketing huge wages whilst continuing to benefit from subsidized council housing. And nobody is stopping Labour’s top dogs from demonstrating wage restraint. Before Labour politicos talk about pay ratios between top execs and their employees, they might want to look at how much they get paid, compared to the average voter. For example, Ed Miliband could chat to Tony Blair about his extravagant earnings and implausible tax returns, he could chastise Ken Livingstone for his extraordinarily dishonest attitude to tax avoidance on his substantial earnings, and he could remonstrate with his brother David over the morality of making half a million pounds each year, ostensibly for doing bugger all except profiting from his insider knowledge of government. The more Labour chatters about predistribution as an alternative to redistribution, the more prediculous they will seem. And when it comes to the personal touch, treating predistribution as a philosophy for life, and not just a political slogan, I struggle to see Labour leading by example.