The British left can be empowered by Obama’s speech on the economy
As we digest Osborne's latest dose of austerity and misery in last week’s Autumn Statement, those on the left who want radical and bold solutions to Britain's economic mire can feel daunted by isolation. We are cast as the starry-eyed, off-the-wall idealists who are outside of the tent. No doubt Ed Miliband’s team has discarded policies because they would play to the "Red Ed" label – and that spells electoral disaster. We must play to the centre, we are told. Apparently we need fiscal conservatism, steady-as-you-go minor change so as not to scare the horses.
But as the media reports on Obama’s moving tribute to Nelson Mandela, it’s worth casting our eyes over an important, but less reported speech the President delivered last week.
Obama was remarkably candid, describing "an economy that has become profoundly unequal". He talked about how "a family in the top 1% has net worth 288 times higher than the typical family". He argued that "increasing inequality challenges the very essence of who we are as a people." He said growth is more fragile and recessions more frequent in countries with greater inequality.
Obama argued that inequality and lack of social mobility must be tackled head on – and that includes myths around poverty. He stressed that "we need to set aside the belief that government cannot do anything about reducing poverty." He wished to dispel the myth that growing the economy and reducing inequality are in conflict. He said: "a relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity is a bigger threat than our ... fiscal deficit."
Obama highlighted low paid workers, including fast food workers, "who work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty." And that’s why, he argued, that "it is well past time to raise the minimum wage" and vowed to push for a higher minimum wage - and these claims came the day before a big strike of fast food workers.
Obama’s speech argued for the vital role of unions. He says "part of this middle-class economics is empowering our workers. It's time to ensure our collective bargaining laws function as they are supposed to, so unions have a level playing to organise - to organise for a better deal for workers and better wages for the middle class". Just to clarify, these are the words of the President of the United States of America, not Len McCluskey.
The attack on unions and collective bargaining has been central to the neo-liberal project, and has increased inequality. The shift in class power must be reversed. These are widespread views in the US, as – for example – in the work of Professor Jacob Hacker, who came up with the concept of predistribution. But these deas are far too often treated as taboo in Britain.
Obama's speech can empower the left in the UK to push for radical, bold and confident economic and social policies. Working people in this country need empowerment and government action to enable collective bargaining and shift the balance of power at work. These steps are essential to tackle inequality, and begin to restore living standards.