The forthcoming Oslo conference of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and International Labour Organisation (ILO) is to discuss ways of dealing with unemployment arising from the 2007-8 credit crunch. As noted elsewhere on this site, the question is one of emphasis between, on the one hand, repaying the public indebtedness which was rashly incurred as a result of private greed, and on the other hand, the protection and regeneration of employment, particularly for the most vulnerable.
The Anglo-Saxon model of corporate governance, granting total supremacy to shareholder interests, still dominates most free market economies. Through charitable (ie tax allowable) think tank propaganda and lobbying, shareholder supremacy is continuing to make progress where it is not already total, such as in Germany and Japan. In those countries there is great pressure to conform to the Anglo-Saxon model. It is the Western orthodoxy, what Galbraith referred to as an institutional truth, that is a lie that has to be bought into in order for one’s career to prosper. With such universal acceptance, the time is surely not far off for its collapse.
Economists, by whom we are all ruled (to quote Keynes), are themselves ruled by abstract theory, rather than by observation of anything which actually exists in the real world. They tend to focus on dichotomies defined by ideal types, such as socialism and capitalism, both easy to describe in their pure forms but non-existent in the real world. Or, another dichotomy: the means by which resources are allocated: central planning or market forces. In reality, resources are allocated by both means: some by market forces and some by planned decisions. The real world takes advantage of both means, but economists argue that there is a simple choice to be made between alternatives as the one best way.
Corporate governance is another simplistic dichotomy on which economics depends. Would companies be best controlled by shareholders or workers? Free market capitalists, including all the UK and US governments of the past thirty years, argue for investor control. That has seen many industries destroyed for the short term interests of their shareholders. Cadbury and Chloride are recent examples of UK companies threatened by this approach to governance. There have been few examples of successful worker controlled companies and there may be little reason to expect them to be more successful than those in investor control.
But the middle ground, where neither shareholders nor workers have absolute control, and where both share responsibility, may be more fertile for corporate success. Germany’s two tier board structure consolidates that joint responsibility and has served German manufacturing industries well. A pragmatic balance between the interests of stakeholders seems more likely to produce the best outcome for the company and therefore all its stakeholders. But it is less easy to make the case than the simplistic dichotomies of economic theory.
George Osborne announced the Conservatives proposal to mutualise and co-op the public sector, describing it as the ‘biggest social revolution since Thatcher sold council houses’. But their proposal just shows how little they understand the essence of those movements. Mutuals and co-ops operate within the for-profit sectors but instead of paying surpluses over to external shareholders they pay some to their members and accumulate the rest within the business. That’s the whole point. That was how the great mutual financial institutions and building societies got to be so big and so successful. The rape and destruction of so many, almost including the Co-op itself, was sanctioned and encouraged by the Thatcher government.
So how would mutuals and co-ops operate in the public sector with no surplus to distribute and accumulate? What would be the point? Well, George Osborne says, they would be able to work without the central controlling bureaucracy. So, was he saying there would be no central regulation or control? Well, not quite that, Osborne admitted, there would still have to be performance standards. So what did this social revolution amount to, other than confusion? Well, it was a reply to Gordon Brown’s earlier announcement that mutualism and co-ops would be at the centre of Labour’s election manifesto. But not a very convincing reply. No more convincing, in fact, than Brown’s own commitment. It would be rather better if politicians thought through their policies before deciding on the accompanying sound-bite.
This space is not habitually given to expressing party political views, but occasionally it is unavoidable. Political parties inevitably, from time to time, address head on, topics which are of prime concern here. And sometimes their approach is either so right, or so wrong, that comment is necessary if these postings are not to appear totally disconnected from the real world. Today is such an occasion.
The announcement that Gordon Brown is to put mutualism and co-operatives, such as John Lewis Partnership, at the heart of Labour’s election manifesto is surely welcome after twelve years of the rape and pillage resulting from New Labour’s unquestioning support for free market deregulation and the maximising of shareholder wealth. But what does it mean? Is it just the sentimental swan-song of the Labour government? Or does it have substance as the foundation for real action?
The disposal of Cadbury is some kind of a marker. It was still a successful company and could have continued independently with no problem. It had a proud history which doesn’t need to be repeated here, but it also had a price. And that price was agreed by its board of directors who gained prodigiously from the sale. Cadbury’s loss of autonomy is surely the precursor of many cost reducing decisions taken at its new American headquarters without regard to the old Cadbury stakeholders, notably including its employees. Doubtless, in the end, Cadbury’s Bournville heritage will be preserved merely as yet another industrial museum, the dead remains of the once thriving industrial community. Such relics are strewn across the British landscape, commemorating our once pioneering roles in wool, cotton and silk textiles, machine tools, iron and steel, cycles, motor cycles, motor cars, trucks and buses, china and pottery and hundreds of other sectors where Britain was successful and achieved a strong position but then sold it off for the financial gain of the few and the bitter disadvantage of the many.