THE BLOG

It's Our Economy, Stupid

19/11/2014 13:07 GMT | Updated 19/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Something's happening. But our political elite haven't quite grasped it yet. The SNP surge, the rise of UKIP and the Greens, calls for devolution for English cities and a luvvie-wuvvie-lution from Russell Brand have left the established Westminster parties confused. How can they respond to such diverse social critiques? It's difficult to fight off attacks from all angles.

But the major parties should be better able to respond to the common economic frustrations of the British people, channelled through these very disparate streams. While our 'liberal metropolitan elite' can maintain their lofty moral superiority over the narrow-minded social values of UKIP's largely provincial support, a dose of modesty, some listening and learning could help them tune into the economic mood of the nation.

On one hand, people are tired of the dominance of economics itself. A few months ago, Nigel Farage broke with years of liberal consensus by pointing out that when it comes to immigration, his position went beyond the economic case. However distasteful to many of us, it's clear his supporters feel strongly about this stuff - whatever the LSE's cost and benefit spreadsheets say. Meanwhile, the Greens' very ethos is based upon people and planet being at least as important as economic imperatives. Russell Brand told Evan Davis he didn't have time for his clever graphs.

On the other hand, there is an incredibly simple argument here, which is a sort of economic one. In short, we're fed up with other people running our stuff. While the perceived enemy differs - Westminster, global capitalism, the 1%, Brussels, bloody foreigners or transnational corporations - the solution is a common one. We want our ownership back.

This is where the Big Society nearly got it right. But at the heart of Cameron's Big Society was - again - a focus only on social structures and not economic ones. The Big Society was about public services and the role of the state. It was never about goods and services and the role of the market. Sure, most people think the state got too big and public services got too faceless but they weren't crying out to run their own hospitals. They weren't taking to the streets with pitchforks to demand the right to attend the quarterly finance sub-committee of their local children and adolescent's mental health trust. Similarly, Ed Miliband's People Powered Public Services might be a nice idea but it's not one which will see him swept victoriously into Number 10.

What's been missing here are policies to enable not only social but economic participation. Crucially, we are crying out to have a greater say in how the economy is run. We want to start up our own businesses, get better deals through collective purchasing, cut out the middlemen through new web-based technologies, switch energy suppliers if we're not happy, have more responsive train franchises and more choice across a range of critical markets. Some of us might want to buy local or buy social. Some of us want to move our money. We want more control.

Most politicians are lagging behind. We hear almost nothing about fundamental reform of these markets to empower citizens. Labour's business team are terrified of upsetting the business community. Conservatives like George Osbourne and Matthew Hancock don't seem to have grasped how business diversity can strengthen markets. Vince Cable has been distracted from his genuine interest in economic alternatives by the relentless grind of departmental business.

But a few key figures in the main parties have picked up on this desire for more economic agency across the country. Blue Labour's John Cruddas is leading Labour's Policy Review. Big Society's Steve Hilton is back to inject new ideas into Number 10. David Boyle, the Lib Dem's Choice Tsar will help shape the Lib Dem's thinking as the next election arrives. And remarkably, ownership is making a comeback. And this time it's about active ownership and engaged economic citizens...

In energy, the Lib Dems' Ed Davey has created powers for local communities to have the Right to Buy a stake in renewable energy infrastructure projects.

In football, Labour have proposed greater ownership powers for fans, giving them seats on the Board and a Right to Buy a slice of a club's shares. The Conservatives are also looking at overcoming barriers to clubs becoming supporter-owned.

In housing, the Community Land Trust Network's ideas for a (not-yet-snappy-enough) Presumption in Favour of Community Involvement in new developments has been welcomed by a number of influential backbench Tory MPs.

In some respects, this is perhaps textbook right-of-centre economics. Successful and resilient markets need diversity with many buyers and sellers, engaged market actors and new entrants to guard against an oligopoly of too-big-to-fails. But there's also a leftist tradition being revived here (with Clause 4 back from the dead) of putting the means of production in the hands of the workers, the fans, the customers and passengers. This is about the invisible hand and it's about ownership.

Crudely, this isn't Big Society not Big Government but more like Big Society not Big Business. Although this really is too crude - Big Business is also often ahead of politicians in recognising how change is inevitable. At this year's Tory party conference, the likes of Shell, the British Bankers Association and others were more advanced in their thinking about diversity on boards, for example, or corporate transparency than the politicians. When the Archbishop of Canterbury and Prince Charles are calling for capitalism to be fundamentally reformed, the ancient institutions of church and crown are way ahead of the state.

But over the coming months, nudged by new political threats, there is a chance for the traditional parties to go beyond a stumbling, scattergun approach to enabling economic participation. There is an opportunity here to attract the dispossessed, left cold by a political class who for too long have been ambivalent about ownership. We want a shareholding democracy and we want power to the people! It's our economy, stupid.