Perhaps no six words have done as much damage to sensible policy making as these: ‘beer and sandwiches at Number Ten’. Not only does the phrase encapsulate an idea of social partnership as a cosy labour movement cabal, but as it was coined in the seventies (ironically, as an attack by Labour’s Harold Wilson on Downing Street meetings hosted by Conservative PM Edward Heath) it is also linked to a time of trade unions overreaching their legitimacy and ultimately creating the context for Margaret Thatcher to hasten their long decline.
Whether we use the label social partnership, industrial partnership or corporatism, the UK’s aversion to this way of governing policy and organisations has held pretty firm ever since - which is a pity. For not only have just such arrangements survived and indeed thrived in other countries (most notably Germany) but there are strong reasons to believe that some form of modern partnership is exactly what we need right now.
In part this is because at times of adversity we need to find ways to share out and legitimise hard choices, but it is also in line with the steadily growing enthusiasm among some Coalition ministers for a form of industrial policy, an enthusiasm which was evident again today in Vince Cable’s speech. A third ingredient may be a general shift in boardrooms away from free market fundamentalism, as witnessed this morning by news that Barclays plans to get out of the tax ‘structuring’ business. I even think the great British public – most of whom were either not alive for, or don’t remember, the Social Contract of the mid 1970s – would be receptive to the idea that Government could work with business and employee organisations to develop a plan for long term economic renewal, and that all companies (not just a few mutuals) should be encouraged to engage employees as partners in shared enterprise.
The barrier to this possibility getting a serious airing takes me to the one of the problems with political authority, which I may touch on in my RSA annual lecture tomorrow. David Cameron may share his party’s long running hostility to any sniff of corporatism, but were he to float such an idea, even in the most modest of terms, he would no doubt be shot down in flames by true blue forces in his own party and among the opinion formers of the Telegraph, Spectator and Conservative Home. I suspect many in the public would admire the PM if he reached out beyond his natural supporters (this was after all the style of his early leadership) but, as last week’s reshuffle suggested, this is not a fight he relishes right now.
For Ed Miliband the problem is that industrial partnership is only possible with intelligent, moderate and authoritative trade union leaders and if such beasts exist they are doing a great job of hiding it. The TUC is the closest we have to the kind of trade union organisation which could participate usefully in developing a tripartite industrial strategy but the Congress has always been weak in comparison to its largest members, something which trade union consolidation has only exacerbated. Miliband could, of course, call for trade union leaders to wake up, smell the coffee and act in the interests of the country and their members, not just an activist core. Again the voters would probably be impressed but, like Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband probably doesn’t have the appetite or security for this kind of battle with his ‘allies’.
There are, of course, perfectly intellectually robust arguments against any form of corporatism, but perhaps the most urgent reason at least to discuss some new economic partnership is the sense in post- Olympic Britain (grab it now, it won’t last long) that we can still be a nation which pulls together. That the narrow and rigid base of our major political parties makes such a debate so unlikely is not unconnected to the reasons public faith in politicians is at an all-time low.