The future of the left since 1884

Responsible capitalism in a globalised world

In the Fabian Society’s new foreign policy pamphlet ‘One nation in the world’ I wrote about the need for a more joined-up government infrastructure to achieve our foreign policy objectives. This included a rallying call for greater consistency between our...


In the Fabian Society’s new foreign policy pamphlet ‘One nation in the world’ I wrote about the need for a more joined-up government infrastructure to achieve our foreign policy objectives. This included a rallying call for greater consistency between our international and domestic agendas. One challenge I often hear, however, to thinking more fully about foreign policy is that it is not a doorstep issue. To me, this indicates a failure to understand the linkages between foreign and domestic policy and how they create a strong, coherent policy vision that we can take to the doorstep.

Responsible capitalism is one area which embodies the highly intertwined nature of foreign and domestic policy and the need for policy coherence across government departments. Last year’s G8 provided an opportunity to test this with the debate on tax and transparency – the national furore that broke out over the tax avoidance practices of some of the largest companies operating in the UK provided a platform to promote a vision of international responsible capitalism, which interacted with domestic policy and resonated with a domestic audience.  If Ed Miliband’s vision for a more responsible capitalism is to be meaningful, and successful domestically, it must continue to capture and articulate these interconnections between the domestic and international.

At present, however, we are lacking a focus on this wider applicability of foreign policy. It is not clear whether the ‘not a doorstep’ view stems from a tacit embarrassment over issues like the continued discussion of Iraq, confusion over Syria – or whether the predominant tone of debate around foreign policy issues has become one that jars with our sensibilities, eg. media hostility to our aid budget, interventionism and multilateral institutions, meaning we would rather not raise them.

Austerity Britain has certainly created a level of hostility towards foreign policy and an acceptance of the mentality that it is incidental to more pressing domestic concerns. But rather than retreat into drawbridge Britain mode, it should be our responsibility to develop a positive, robust values-based vision for coherent foreign policy and take that to the doorstep. We need to see it as an essential complement to our domestic agenda and make the case that it matters to many of the things that people are consistently polled to care about – immigration, EU, jobs, health, and so on.

I would argue that the stakes are too high to ignore both foreign policy in general and the need for an articulated vision of responsible capitalism that captures global-local linkages. The nature and complexity of the issues facing Britain and the world – climate change, resource scarcity, financial instability, gross inequality – cannot be solved alone or from an entirely domestic perspective.

Taking a progressive viewpoint on issues that require global action for local benefit without the guarantee of multilateral cooperation, particularly those that relate to the way in which business or the economy operates, however, will immediately elicit howls of indignation that the UK will be disadvantaged in some way. With responsible capitalism in the UK, it is easy to leverage the accusation that adding unnecessary levels of regulation or bureaucratic requirement on our companies will disrupt the global level-playing field, scare away investment and compounds fears that the Labour party will be seen as anti-business.

But there are many positive examples to prove that this can be and is being done. The EU is famous for its high environmental standards around the world. Raising product quality standards in the EU has caused countries like China to change their manufacturing practice, and I hope the UK response to the Rana Plaza factory collapse will catalyse a global shift in decent work and building standards requiring companies to be more aware of their supply chains in future. US FACTA legislation has also catalysed a range of transparency initiatives across the world requiring companies to publish details such as the amount of tax they pay in the countries in which they operate. If we took the view point that it were all just too hard, we would always end with the lowest common denominator and eschew a positive history of progressive action.

William Hague in his op-ed for the Evening Standard about modern day slavery described how parliamentarians and members of the public had to take on “powerful vested economic interests at home and abroad” in their fight to abolish slavery in the 1800s. The world economy at that time was propped up by slavery. We are now in a position again where we have the opportunity to take on vested interest with a clearly articulated vision for responsible capitalism. And we are not alone. Many of our colleagues and counterparts in Europe regularly talk about social market economy – recognising that we can challenge economic orthodoxy and integrate our capacity for pro-social behaviour and motivation into our economic systems.

If we do not want responsible capitalism to go the way of the ‘big society’, the Labour party will have to continue to make the case for progressive change and embrace the politics of international cooperation – harnessing support from like-minded countries and companies who are already taking the right steps to integrate good governance and social responsibility into their core business practice both in the UK and abroad.  Responsible capitalism has the ability to tell a story from both a domestic and foreign policy perspective and be a positive story we can take to the doorstep about the role Britain plays for positive change in the world.

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