Policy, Policy, Policy

12 02 2010

New Labour’s former Director of Policy, Matthew Taylor, has been considering the impact of economic growth on the environment. For the first time, so it would seem. This reveals a great deal about the early New Labour project. One of its leading intellectual voices and Tony Blair’s closest political ally was so fixated on achieving positive GDP figures for the U.K., he was not even aware of other perspectives that were challenging the orthodox growth model. Indeed, it is only now that Taylor is considering what many environmentalists have been arguing for years – that unchecked economic growth might be unsustainable and cause longterm, irrevocable damage to our climate. No doubt, the growth versus sustainability debate is a complex one. Precisely the reason there should be more open debate on this issue.

Unfortunately, this is not happening. There is, however, a great deal of coverage in the FT of the faltering eurozone economy and speculation of a double-dip in Germany from various progressive bloggers. In other words, both ends of the political spectrum generally still view economic growth as paramount for achieving a ‘good’ society.

Paradoxically, this is at a time when the idea of a so-called Robin Hood tax is mustering favour amongst political commentators and journalists. Even actor Bill Nighy is in on the act. In essence, the idea is to tax all bank transactions a modest sum and divert these funds to help protect public services through the post-recession recovery. It has been strongly suggested that the tax might also help to promote green industry and climate change initiatives in the world’s poorest countries.

Whatever one thinks of the Robin Hood tax, it poses fundamental questions to our politicians, bankers and economists. If we insist with the old orthodoxy that growth is good we should surely know why it is good. What purpose does growth serve? In the past, individuals such as Matthew Taylor would surely have said that the success of our financial institutions was good for society as a whole as the wealth created helped to pay for the services we all use. But this trickle-down theory has come under heavy fire in recent years. The wealth creation of the financial sector was not harnessed as many would have liked and deregulation and the resulting credit crunch has had dire consequences for millions of people the world over.

If policy decisions continue to be made with the narrow ambition of economic growth then the implications for our climate could be catastrophic. Let’s hope, with campaigns such as the Robin Hood tax putting pressure on elected and un-elected politicians, that a more rounded approach to policy takes form.