Over-arching concepts, like the stakeholder economy, have their value both in determining the ground upon which political debate takes place and broadening the basis of support for the party which successfully employs them. There is considerable electoral virtue in a concept open to disparate interpretations and satisfying a variety of political tastes. Harold Wilson’s ‘big idea’ of a New Britain forged in the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’ proved effective in these respects. It was not only sufficiently nebulous to be embraced by the technocratic Right and the pro-planning, public-ownership-supporting Left, but also, in capturing something of the spirit of the 1960s, it served to rally a significant swathe of the aspirant middle and working classes to the cause of Labour. Similarly the ‘stakeholder economy’, since Tony Blair’s Singapore speech, has shown its worth as a portmanteau term which can hold a rich diversity of ideological baggage.

Yet, whatever the flexibility and consequent electoral attractiveness which such macro concepts possess, they must eventually be unpacked by their would-be users and articulated in policy terms. Of course that unpacking predated Blair’s speech but, in the weeks which followed it, the task was pursued with the unbridled enthusiasm evinced by those who believe themselves to be in possession of a big idea whose time has come. Even so, despite the enormous outpouring of intellectual energy and column inches which the speech precipitated, one is still left asking, at least of Tony Blair and the Labour leadership, where’s the beef? For, as quickly as those sympathetic to Labour have pitched their camp in the stakeholder box, the Labour leadership have moved to unpack it. Thus, when John Monks suggested trade unions as the representative institutions through which working people could claim a stake in the management of enterprises and the national economy, the Labour leadership was quick to distance itself from his remarks. Similarly, when John Edmonds of the gmb union saw stakeholderism as entailing new legal rights of job security, the response was equally cool. Those, like Will Hutton and David Marquand, who sought to give radical content to the idea by suggesting, among other things, statutory intervention to ensure that institutions, especially pension funds, prioritized long-term investment in companies and that firms accepted their responsibilities to employees, suppliers and customers as well as shareholders, also received a Blairite brush-off.footnote1 Thus Hutton was categorized dismissively as ‘a well-liked, useful, free-thinker, but not a great influence’, while Blair himself was quick to rule out the kind of corporate legislation which might give substance to a new vision of corporate responsibilities and behaviour.footnote2

In fact, rather than welcome the interpretative creativity of such writers, the leader and his spin-doctors backed away from the choppy waters of specifics to the electorally safer waters of the general. For example, in a post-Singapore interview with David Frost, Blair stressed that ‘the stakeholder economy’ was, essentially, ‘a unifying theme or slogan’; ‘an umbrella concept, under which a multitude of more specific policy initiatives will comfortably sit’.footnote3 But what are those initiatives to be? What is their substance and coherence? What economic policies are Labour likely to marshall under the banner of the stakeholder idea? Here it is better to ponder neither the imaginative attempts of those who have sought to give it radical content nor the sound-bites of the leader and his pr entourage who, for the moment, seek to ensure that the ineffable remains so. Rather, it is more useful to consider the economic literature which the Party has produced in recent years, to try to distil from it the substance of what New Labour is likely to offer—whatever preor post-election label they may use. If the truth of Labour’s stakeholder economy is out there, then this literature is surely where it may be found.

In reviewing that literature, what becomes immediately apparent is that, since the late 1980s, the Labour Party has advanced a supply-side socialism which aims to increase the flow, enhance the quality and improve the use of factor inputs; the primary objective being to increase productive efficiency, reduce unit costs and, crucially, enhance Britain’s international competitiveness. A unilateralist Keynesianism, it was believed, could no longer deliver in terms of full employment or sustained economic growth and could not, therefore, furnish a basis for the social-democratic project; the failure of the expansionary strategy pursued by the French Socialists in the 1980s under Mitterrand made that all too clear. This did not obviate the need for macroeconomic management but it did mean that such management would achieve its objectives only on the basis of two preconditions. First, there must be a substantial improvement in Britain’s international competitiveness and a rejuvenation of her industrial base to curb the increasing inflow of high-value manufactured imports. Second, macroeconomic management policies had to be coordinated at either a European or a g7 level. Specifically, as it was put in the Labour Party’s Rebuilding the Economy, ‘The only way in which recovery can be sustained without inflation accelerating is if an internationally coordinated expansion of demand is combined with supply-side policies to boost investment in industry skills and infrastructure’. There was a need, in effect, for ‘an interaction between supply-side policies and [internationally coordinated] demand management’.footnote4

It is, then, upon the rejuvenation of the supply-side, and the honing of Britain’s competitive edge that the overriding emphasis has been placed in the Party literature of the last decade.footnote5 As one pamphlet put it, while demand management might have its part to play, ‘the best way to cut unemployment and create jobs that last is to modernize our economy and build competitive industries that can succeed all round the world.’ ‘Export-led growth [was] the only guarantee of sustainable growth.’ It was necessary to face the fact that, as the 1992 Manifesto phrased it, ‘Britain [was] in a race for economic survival and success. Faced with intense competition, companies and countries can succeed only by constantly improving their performance’ and that meant more ‘cost-effective production, continuous product and process innovation, the flexibility of a highly skilled workforce and the ability to translate the achievements of modern science into commercially viable projects.’ Only thus could the objective of ‘a prosperous manufacturing sector producing high profits for investment’ be secured and ‘more industrial companies [restored] to the front rank of innovation, productivity and profit’; things which were regarded by Labour as fundamental prerequisites for permanent, well-remunerated employment and thence for a sustained rise in living standards.footnote6