Another overlooked constituency

The Resolution Foundation, ably aided and abetted by Mark Park, have shone a much-needed spotlight onto “low earners”.   As Mark says, “It’s a group of people that is not that often explicitly addressed in Liberal Democrat policy debates or campaigning and messaging discussions…” 

It’s not just low earners; I don’t recall much discussion of who comprises our natural constituency at all.  It used to be so simple back in the fifties; Labour were the party of organised  blue-collar workers dedicated to achieving social justice through big government that would control the means of production and use it to spread wealth around equitably.   The Conservatives were a coalition that come together to oppose this socialist plan, either because they opposed anyone touching their wealth or because they saw through its flawed economics.  Meanwhile the Liberals were, well, almost extinct. 

But the world has changed and those categories serve very little useful purpose anymore.  The socialist dream is revealed as just that – a dream – while on the Conservative side the old coalition is in disarray.   In UKIP the backwoodsmen now have their own party and the implicit deal with the middle classes – that they too could enjoy the benefits of a rentier life-style based on ever-rising property prices – has come apart at the seams.  The Liberals, recast as Lib Dems, are back as a force in the land, although not yet a dominant one. 

So, in this new world who should we look to as our core constituency – other than low earners of course? 

My answer to this is a function of how I see the world in political economy terms.  For me there is a constant struggle for power and wealth (the two go together) but it’s not an equal one.  Libertarians like to fantasize that, when played out by ‘free markets’, this struggle will inexorably lead to an ideal outcome but in reality it doesn’t work like that.  Markets work according to rules made by humans and they can therefore be used for sectional advantage by changing the rules to suit one side or the other.  In practice this gives establishment insiders have a huge advantage; they get to make the rules whether it is a communist system or a market system and this creates a natural drift in their favour absent very clear-sighted political direction to prevent it.   However, if the right-wing can persuade everyone that regulation is a bad thing and that markets should be ‘free’, they can turn 1001 little rules to their own advantage, the drift becomes a landslide and they can roll up much of the available wealth and power.  In essence this is why inequality has increased steadily in the 30 years since Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and why Labour, which as New Labour has bought into this view, has been so utterly ineffective in tackling it. 

The corollary is that liberals who want to see a more just and equitable society have to push back against the inbuilt drift to inequality.  But that doesn’t mean Old Labour style ownership of the means of production etc.  We know that way doesn’t work.  What is does mean is ditching the nonsense that markets can be or should be ‘free’ and instead modify their rules where necessary so that they serve a socially useful purpose.  This is the view that we should be masters of markets not their slave. 

And that thought links me back to the subject of the Lib Dem’s constituency.  One group that knows instinctively how much the balance has moved against them are small businesses.  Most would be overjoyed if there was a party that showed some awareness of their legitimate concerns and were willing to fight for a fair and level playing field in the economic arena.

I have myself been told, “You have to understand that the success or failure of small businesses in this borough is unimportant to us – it makes no difference to us.” (by one of the Directors – the context was that there was no financial incentive and that big businesses did matter but only because of their ability to lobby and their knowledge of the legal fine-print).  The government may worry about access to capital but apparently has nothing to say about unfair terms of trade (ask any farmer or small retailer).  Officious enforcement of a forest of regulations is often targeted at those trying to stay legal (because it’s the easy option for inspectors) while the cowboys operate with little hindrance.  Every edition of ‘Watchdog’ and similar programmes is an indictment of a failed approach to regulation which costs the most vulnerable dearly.

Each small businesses may express it in a different way, but in my experience most have an acute sense that government is very unfair and not at all on their side.  A party that has chosen to put fairness at the heart of its campaign ignores this at its peril.  To ignore it is at one and the same time to strike a profoundly discordant note and to overlook what could be/should be a powerful constituency.

Consider the basic facts.  According to the Office of National Statistics there were 1.9 million businesses with less than 10 employees in 2009, an average of nearly 3,000 per constituency.  But each of these will influence the thinking of several others – immediate family, not so immediate family, employees, etc.  Suppose each influences an average of only three people; that’s a pretty impressive 9,000 in an average constituency, but in practice a lot more in some.  And remember that these are people predisposed to be independent-minded, self-reliant and so on – all of which means they are unlikely to be attracted to nanny-statist Labour.  Most would probably have voted Conservative 30 or 40 years ago, but that was when the Tories still had a reasonable claim to be the ‘One Nation’ party.  As the laissez-faire big business party they are now (did I hear that over 60 of their new candidates have a background in lobbying?) they have little to say to small businesses and the people who depend on them for a living.

Any concept of fairness must have an economic dimension or it’s bound to remain rather woolly.   We have the right instincts but need to articulate them better, specifically to interpret them in ways the small business constituency will relate to.  It’s worth a lot of votes.

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