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Plan B has to be co-ownership

When Gordon Brown announces that the “old idea that markets were by definition efficient” is over and that “laissez-faire” has “had its day”, you can see how the crisis of confidence in the capitalist system has pervaded the highest reaches of government and the state. What plan B is, however, is altogether another question.

Brown’s interview with The Guardian, the semi-official government mouthpiece, reveals a prime minister and government who are floundering as economic and financial conditions deteriorate. 

Brown’s conversion on the road to Damascus will cut no ice with those who are victims of the very markets that he championed for so long such as the unemployed and the homeless. Increasing numbers of people feel betrayed by the political class and their cosy relationship with big business and financiers like Sir Fred Goodwin, knighted by Brown and now enjoying his big fat pension at the taxpayers’ expense. 

Detestation of the banking system is now showing itself in public opinion polls like the one in the Financial Times this week. It found sharp opposition to the government bailing out banks, insurers or car manufacturers. Barely a third – 36% – backed state aid for banks, while a fifth supported bail-outs for insurers. A survey carried out by the People’s Charter was even more damning. It showed that a staggering 87% of those questioned said the higher priority was protecting jobs rather than supporting banks or bankers, with only 9% backing New Labour’s bail-outs. 

As the economy slides into slump, and faith in the hidden hand of capitalist markets plummets, other less positive attitudes are coming to the surface. The same FT polls on bail-outs also indicated growing hostility to migrant workers without jobs.  

Now, you can always get the answer you want by asking the right sort of question, so the figures need to be treated with caution. Nevertheless, more than three-quarters – 78% – of British adults believe immigrants should be asked to leave the country if they do not have a job, according to the survey published on Monday. A majority also oppose European Union citizens working here, even though they have a legal right to do so. 

To a great extent, of course, New Labour is responsible for this result. They have relentlessly played the anti-immigration card to appease right-wing, middle-class Daily Mail readers and spent vast resources pursuing migrants without papers and constructing an electronic, impenetrable fence around Britain. And, infamously, the "British Jobs for British Workers" slogan that was taken up in the recent oil refinery strikes came from the mouth of the prime minister himself. Clearly, these are volatile times which extreme right parties like the BNP are beginning to exploit. 

Brown’s admission today that he might have, in retrospect, seen the seeds of today’s crisis when Asia sustained financial meltdown in the year New Labour came to power, will cut no ice. And the idea that there was a “wider intellectual failure” to understand what was happening in financial markets is also rubbish. Brown was, after all, chancellor for a decade and had spent years cultivating contacts in the City. The financial bubble that has burst was not exactly the first in history either. 

What we are experiencing today is not a failure of “laissez-faire” or markets. These are superficial aspects of an unsustainable economic system as a whole – and that is what is collapsing. The solution does not lie in some alternative, kinder, more regulated capitalism. That is fantasy land, especially when the global economy is on the point of disintegration. Our answer to both New Labour and the BNP lies in an altogether different direction, in an economy based on co-operation and co-ownership, not competition and private ownership for profit. 

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor
17 March 2009

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