It’s a pity that Confucius, the great philosopher, felt unable to put his bamboo hat into the ring for the Labour Party Leadership. True, his Chinese nationality and death in the 5th Century BC would have made him a hard sell on the North Walsham housing estates, but we experienced something similar at the last election. In his teachings Confucius emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. He would set a higher tone to the debate. Confucius was also a master of what we would now call the one-line soundbite. My favourite is: ‘the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name’.
I can’t help reflecting on Confucius’s words whenever I hear our leadership candidates stress that they are pro-business. What on earth do they mean by this? Liz Kendall has made the phrase a defining feature of her campaign and recently made the following pitch: ‘I want Labour not just to ‘understand’ business but be the champion of people who take a risk, create something, build it up and make a success of it’.
A bit of understanding would be a good thing so let’s start by recognising that ‘business’ is not the same as ‘wealth creation’ and ‘risk-taking’ is not synonymous with success.
The dominant system today in most economically developed countries is of private organisations of varying sizes, mainly operating under a legal framework (the Companies Act in the UK) that gives primacy to shareholder value, and is run by a professional cadre of managers. This is conducted within a political framework of neo-liberalism that assumes that market forces alone should determine allocation. Within such systems larger international corporations will manage their supply chain to produce where it is cheapest; many will exploit their labour force and most will barter one country against another to gain subsidies and other financial advantages. They will organise their affairs internationally to reduce their obligations to pay tax.
There is mounting evidence that such a system is producing greater inequality both domestically and internationally. Is this the system that Liz Kendall supports and wishes to see enhanced? In fairness to her I doubt it. But, in which case, she ought to say what she means.