Predistrobution: The Future of the Left?

It would be hard to come up with a more annoying word to describe a policy foundation stone than predistrobution. It manages to be both alienatingly wonkish and too simple for its own good all at once. Yet for those that follow UK politics predistrobution is a word that is cropping up more and more regularly in Labour circles. When Ed Miliband’s inner circle are asked what makes him different from the garden variety special advisers and ambitious cabinet ministers predistrobution is always invoked but never mentioned. However, it is clear that the idea is an important one for the Labour leader; during the first proper Labour party conference of his tenure the floor was given to the brain behind this idea for over half an hour. The unfortunately named Dr. J. Hacker (unfortunate because of a certain fictional minister of the same name) of Yale has piqued the Labour leader’s interest on the subject after an academic gathering in Norway that Ed Miliband attended and, as such, it is worth some study.

Looking at an idea like this is difficult because just like the Big Society pitch it is so nebulous that anyone could extrapolate anything from it and could still call it predistrobution. To avoid that, my analysis of precisely what it means will try to be as grounded as possible, so as to best convince you that this awkward word contains within the ideological destiny of the Labour party and of the next generation of social democrats worldwide.

Predistrobution’s elevator pitch is that it is a system by which government can form a more equal society before any of the usual fiscal levers come into play (tax, spending, benefits and so on). An example that is often used to describe this in action is a minimum wage: legislation designed improve conditions for the bottom rung without having to move heaven and earth fiscally. Despite the fact that a few politicians cannot name any other examples there are a number of them: state provision/sponsoring of education, childcare and healthcare could all serve as case studies of this in action. In all of these instances government could easily reduce tax or give benefits to the parties concerned but chooses to have a more efficient mechanism for provision: legislation.

Critics argue that state provision of all of these sectors is nothing new and that predistrobution is just old Labour given a fresh set of paint to cover the rust from 30 years in the wilderness. To say this though would be to misunderstand the possibilities of this idea. Where there would be a limit to what could be achieved fiscally due to the presence of a determining factor: money; with legislation: the sky is the limit. Work related stress draining the soul and happiness of the populace? Legislate for maximum working hours before overtime. Quality of unskilled labour falling? Legislate to force firms to train their staff. Female influence in boardrooms not good enough? Legislate to have a certain percentage of the board of directors be women. The applications of this idea all across the economy are endless and far reaching.

There are a few problems however, as you may have guessed, legislation can be a blunt tool to bear on an economy and firms may find it difficult to keep up with the wave of new rules from government, making the UK less competitive. The cost of a botch up in the making of these laws could be huge as well, with legal action by businesses impeding an already laborious process and with massive payouts if the government’s rulings get quashed in the courts. There is also a presentation issue as well, because this idea is still in its infancy not many within policy circles know of its full implications and are reluctant to talk about it. This allows any number of commentators and hacks to stamp their own views on what this policy should be, making this clumsy phrase even more unpalatable to the electorate.

Conservatives, understandably, rub their hands with glee when this subject is occasionally brought up by the press. They use this idea to demonstrate how wonkish and out-of-touch academic the Labour leader is; too buried in his academic papers to have the time or ability to connect with regular people. Yet Conservatives must remember how ludicrous monetarism seemed in its early stages. Something that was banished from mainstream discourse became central to Conservative policymaking within fifteen years, and defined over twenty years of economic thinking. The bitter pill of its early measures was sweetened with populist policies such as Right to Buy and deregulation of the mortgage market. If predistrobution is to gain traction, expect similar content in manifestos worldwide.

Similarities with early monetarism must be tempered however, in 1975, when Thatcher took over from Ted Heath, hardline monetarists were still in the minority on the Conservative side. Thatcher’s policies were only tolerated at the start of her tenure due to the seeming social breakdown of the Winter of Discontent and the Falklands War was still needed to save her from electoral oblivion in 1983. It could be argued that the crisis needed to sell such a radical idea to the electorate simply hasn’t come about yet, despite the pain now there is no feeling of a country falling apart like there was in 1979. Have the predistrobution insurgents taken over too early? Did they not have as good a sense of timing as early Tory monetarists?

There is one fundamental similarity, though, which is too great to ignore: predistrobution is in the heart and soul of the Labour party. Just as monetarism’s emphasis on unshackling business, squeezing back the state and slashing taxes was Conservatism unchained, so policies that seek to create a utopia through greater laws and restrictions is really what social democrats are all about: one hand, the state, keeping firms and individuals in check so that all may prosper.

Across the world social democrats are waiting with baited breath to see if predistrobution takes off. The charge of “what is the point of social democrats if there is no money around” is certainly not unique to the UK. Regions of the world which were once monetarist havens are starting to look a bit more precarious. Chile has a charismatic student movement which seeks to throw a spanner in the works of the monetarist establishment; French socialists yearn for a middle ground between economic reform and protectionism and enemies of Putin’s United Russia party seek some middle ground between communism and the Wild West status quo. All will look abroad for inspiration, just as Republicans looked to Thatcher’s Britain for litmus tests on policy. As odd as it may be to say, Ed Miliband could be the harbinger for a new breed of social democrat, one that keeps J. Hacker’s “Road to Nowhere” close to his heart.

As long as money is tight and scrutiny on the left’s finances is strong predistrobution will hold sway. Now though, this idea will remain dormant waiting for a crisis that will give both it and its movement a moment in the sun.

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