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Back to the future: how a new ownership agenda is reshaping our politics

Changes in ownership underpinned the last two major shifts in the UK’s political economy. Another shift could be just around the corner.

Laurie Macfarlane
26 April 2019

In 2016, Nick Clegg revealed that George Osborne replied to his plea for more social housing by saying: “No, all it does is produce more Labour voters.” The comment was revealing, because it showed that the Conservative Chancellor understood what many on the Left had long forgotten: that property relations have a significant bearing on how an economic system functions, and in whose interests.

But property rights are not, and have never been, neutral or fixed. The rules that govern property rights have varied over time, reflecting power and class relations. In the past century there have been two major shifts in the UK’s political economy, both of which were driven by major changes in ownership. In the 1940s, the shift from laissez-faire to the Keynesian post-war consensus was underpinned by widespread nationalisation, while in the 1980s a raft of privatisations ushered in a new age of neoliberalism.

But Margaret Thatcher’s promise of a ‘share-owning democracy’ never materialised. Instead, the reality has been a growing concentration of ownership and the rise of an extractive and short-termist corporate model that has fuelled inequality, financial instability and climate change. At the same time, the mass sell-off of public housing has destroyed the social fabric of communities across Britain. For those who own property, skyrocketing land prices have generated vast windfall gains, while those without any property are struggling to make ends meet in the face of eye-watering rents. Private developers have been left to shape our communities according to shareholder whims rather than human needs, while so-called Privately Owned Public Spaces (‘POPS’) have appeared all over the country. As Guy Shrubsole has highlighted, today half of England’s land is owned by less than 1% of the population.

While debates about the ownership of enterprise and land are not new, the challenges of the twenty-first century demand fresh thinking. For centuries economic growth been achieved by plundering the planet’s natural resources at a rate that far exceeds its capacity to reproduce them. From our atmosphere to our oceans, capitalism has sustained itself by destroying the common resources which sustain life on our planet. The cost of this is now clear: without urgent action we are staring into a future of environmental collapse. If we are to come close to averting ecological disaster, it is clear that we must urgently transform the stewardship of our natural resources.

Moreover, if data is the ‘new oil’, then who owns our data has huge implications for the future of the distribution of wealth and power. Companies such as Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple have amassed enormous wealth and power through a business model of ‘monopolistic data enclosure’ – a business model that is increasingly responsible for serious economic, social and political problems.

The answer to these challenges cannot simply be to return to the old top down models of nationalisation. Instead, our future will depend on creating new forms of ownership and governance that have the principles of democracy and environmental sustainability hardwired into their institutional design. This is no small task. But in recent years there has been a surge of new thinking on democratic ownership and economic democracy, spurred by a renewed interest from the Labour Party leadership. Now this work, which has been referred to as the 'institutional turn', has a new institutional home.

Common Wealth is a new think tank dedicated to designing new models of ownership for a democratic and sustainable economy. It is the latest member of a small but growing ecosystem of left-wing think tanks working on the policy foundations of a post-neoliberal economy. The brainchild of Mathew Lawrence, a former senior research fellow at IPPR (and the architect of Labour’s ‘Inclusive Ownership Fund’ proposal), Common Wealth has set out an ambitious research agenda focused on transforming and democratising the ownership of business, finance, data, the environment and land. With an impressive Advisory Board that includes Ed Miliband MP, Common Wealth is well placed to inject fresh ideas to the political debate.

Economic paradigms don't last forever. While we have not yet witnessed a fundamental break with the economic consensus of the kind witnessed in the 1940s or the 1980s, the burgeoning ownership agenda is a sign that such a shift could be just around the corner. And this time, the Left is in the driving seat.

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