Policy think tanks expend much energy hunting for media profile, but it is extremely rare that they ever have it thrust upon them. In this respect, the launch of Phillip Blond’s ResPublica think tank (of which I am a fellow) in late November was unprecedented.
The BBC’s flagship Newsnight programme dedicated a lengthy slot to it the previous evening, featuring a panel of commentators debating the significance of Blond and ResPublica for a possible Conservative government. Michael Crick, their roving politics reporter, was virtually door-stepping Blond, in an effort to get under the skin of this new phenomenon in British intellectual and political life. All this without any co-operation from Blond himself.
The scale of the launch itself, plus the attendance of Conservative leader David Cameron, created further hubbub. Anthony Barnett has since penned a surgical analysis of all this, raising a number of questions regarding the originality of Blond’s ideas, their occasional obscurity and – perhaps most bitingly – the financing of them.
In many respects, Blond has been a victim of his own surreal success, which in turn is partly a consequence of the paucity of ideas elsewhere on the Right. Is all this profile deserved? Certainly not on the basis of existing policy proposals, but then the organisation has only existed for a few weeks!
The single report yet published, The Ownership State, addresses the case for mutualism in public services. At the very least it appears to have jogged Brownites to remember this traditional Labour territory, with the Guardian carrying a front page story on ‘Labour’s plans for ‘John Lewis’ public services’ a few weeks later.
Elsewhere, Blond has garnered attention in more traditional conservative territory. The Daily Mail appears to have taken him to heart, with a string of articles declaring him David Cameron’s ‘philosopher king’. Here it is his social conservatism that is celebrated, with the Mail taking delight in his rejection of 1960s liberal cosmopolitanism, a rejection that causes some anxiety amongst many on the secular Left (this author included). Some have speculated that Cameron needs this part of the project in order to blow moral dog whistles to the ‘toxic’ heartlands of Conservative support that he can no longer speak to directly.
But the reason 300 people, many of them leading figures of the Left, were gathered for ResPublica’s launch was surely political economy. Barnett compares Blond’s project unflatteringly to New Labour’s Third Way. But there is a crucial difference.
The Third Way was born out of sociological fatalism. It was no coincidence that its chief intellectual architect, Anthony Giddens, was a sociologist: it stated the inevitability of liberal individualism, globalisation and financialisation of the economy. It assumed that how things were was how they needed to be. The consequence, under New Labour, was a more sophisticated version of trickle-down economics, a form of laissez-faire in which capital was permitted unprecedented autonomy within British society, as long as it left some additional service jobs and fiscal benefits in its wake.
Blond’s project differs in two respects. Firstly, his timing has been more fortunate than someone like Giddens. Whether the financial crisis is a ‘left wing moment’ or a ‘right wing moment’ (and much of Blond’s allure lies in his defiance of any such categorisation) it surely heralds the end of the Thatcher/Blair compact for political economy, for better or worse. New Labour would have been a very different project, had it experienced significant economic rupture early on, for instance, at the time of the Asia crisis. There is no greater sedative of political imagination than economic growth.
Secondly, and following this, Blond is unusual in fusing a moral and political vocabulary with economics. He raises questions about power, fairness and participation within our economic institutions – including markets – whereas the Third Way only considered the spillover effects of these institutions.
Of course this is not unprecedented. Blond himself cites the neo-Kantian school of ‘ordo-liberalism’ that operated in Freiburg between the 1930s and 50s. Mutual and co-operative movements are also animated by a moral vision regarding good work, fair reward and economic democracy. Labour had its own missed chance to restructure economic institutions, following Will Hutton’s advocacy of ‘stake-holding’ during the 1990s.
Whatever else it might have been, the Third Way was never a critique of capitalism. Thinking back to 1997, when money seemed be growing on post-industrial trees, one might say ‘well fair enough’. But the intellectual and political mood in 2009 is utterly different, and not only because of bankers’ bonuses.
Economists themselves now fret about the divergence between efficiency and measured happiness. Policy-makers wonder what they can do to prevent us eating, drinking and stressing ourselves into the nearest hospital. Economic psychology experiments reveal that, even as atomised individuals, people often care more about fairness of distribution than level of reward. And books such as The Spirit Level wrack up evidence of how inequality harms all of us.
What will ResPublica offer in response? Barnett is right to demand more than philosophical abstraction. Here are two areas where the project needs to offer policy.
Firstly, we should expect new ideas on the design and regulation of markets. Some of Blond’s headlines have been garnered through attacking ‘monopoly capitalism’, citing Tescos as an example of excessive market dominance. His ambition is to move beyond the Chicago School competition paradigm, in which industrial concentration is acceptable so long as it is shown to pass on efficiency savings to consumers.
Blond is appealing to a lost tradition of European neo-liberalism, which begins with ordo-liberalism and – ironically enough – the early work of Friedrich Hayek. In this tradition, markets are governed according to legal and political principles, and not according to measurable effects. This could yet acquire popularity: who, after all, does not feel that there is something lost, when every high street in Britain looks identical? How can the proposed merger of Orange and T-Mobile be a force for economic freedom, when the existing five network providers already seem hell-bent on controlling every link in our mobile media landscape?
Secondly, ResPublica needs to offer robust proposals for expanding the mutual sector in the UK. There are one or two obvious measures that the next government could take, including restoring tax advantages for Employee Benefit Trusts, the mechanism used for ‘John Lewis-style’ company ownership. But a new era of co-operation and economic democracy would need political cheerleaders beyond the world of think tanks. One huge test for Blond himself will be whether he can get George Osborne to speak up for a vision of British capitalism without financial services at its heart.
Will the Tories go for any of this? Why not just wait and see. The biggest problem that ResPublica will face, following a Tory victory, would be that they would be arguing for transformative economic policies without the Treasury’s requisite evidence base. They may also be arguing into a head wind of vested business interests. But that’s the whole point: arguments of principle cannot be reduced to calculations of efficiency or short-term gain.
In any case, the principles ought to offer a useful benchmark by which to judge the seriousness of David Cameron’s ‘progressive conservative’ ambitions. If ResPublica ends up being ignored by a Conservative government, that in itself will tell us something important. And as far as Phillip himself is concerned, you can’t blame a man for trying.