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Home » Law » @Ed_Miliband's new idea: it's the corporate social responsibility, stupid!

@Ed_Miliband's new idea: it's the corporate social responsibility, stupid!

On Wednesday morning last week, on the Today programme (@BBCR4today), James Naughtie (@naughtiej) interviewed Ed (@Ed_Miliband). It was a wonderful interview, as I finally got a handle on what Ed had said in his keynote speech on Tuesday to my party’s conference.

The full text of the speech is here.

I was staying in one of the main hotels in central Liverpool. Whilst parked working in the foyer on my laptop, between #fringe sessions of #Lab11, I saw various BBC commentators wander past. I chatted briefly with James Naughtie and James Landale, and they were both lovely. Nobody quite knew what to expect from Ed’s speech, and, indeed, by the sounds of it, journos seem to have had real trouble in identifying what the ‘big idea’ from the keynote speech on Tuesday.

As a speech, the drafting was neither that clear, nor inspiring. The speech was not particularly focused, if listened to from start to finish, but actually the political message of the speech was a strong one. The theme was in fact the importance of the economy, and the importance of businesses making a profit as part of Society. Ed’s view of Society is different from Cameron’s: “But I’m not with the Prime Minister. I will never write off whole parts of our country by calling them sick.” His view of Society is supposed to be improved through SureStart, and other initiatives.

I said Society there, not State. Not pitting businesses against Society. Businesses are part of Society, an argument massively advanced by Prof Michael Porter and Mark Kramer in the Harvard Business Review earlier this year in his article ‘Creating Shared Value‘.

Ed cited examples of where businesses had failed in their responsible role in society. Having set the scene with a failed economic strategy by the Coalition, he then described the farce of the bankers’ bonuses situation (a possible failure of corporate governance in renumeration), and the Millie Dowler tragedy (phone-hacking allegations against News International). It was at that point I became clear what the purpose of the speech was. One was to attack the political credibility of the Coalition in economics, one that has steadfastedly refused to be altered despite incredibly bad macroeconomic metrics. Secondly, Ed wished to contextualise the importance of economics in society and culture. The argument fundamentally rests on the schism between performance and success (bankers’ bonuses for failures, and low salaries for hard-working families), epitomised in Ed’s sentence: “An economy and a society too often rewarding not the right people with the right values, but the wrong people with the wrong values.

In summary, I think the argument is actually a very clever one. It centres on ‘fairness’ – why should students pay so much for paying for University while many CEOs are receiving salaries in ‘business as usual’. Ed Miliband is simply talking about making companies responsible as stakeholders of Society. This has been known to corporate managers and lawyers for decades under the philosophy of ‘corporate social responsibility‘, where companies can indeed maximise shareholder profit, but alway playing heed to ‘people, planet, and profit‘.

It means that people are not rewarded for the wrong things (a mistake conceded by Ed about Fred Goodwin, but Labour should be extremely careful not to overindulge in ‘mea culpa’ (as indeed warned by John McTernan earlier this week.) Under Labour, inequality started to get much worse as measured by the Gini co-efficient (reported by Andrew Sheppard by the Institute of Fiscal Studies as early as March 2003), and indeed the word ‘inequality’ does not even feature in the index of ‘The Journey’ by Tony Blair.

This leads Ed to conclude sensibly that this requires a ‘new bargain‘ to be built for the UK, with a realignment of social values for Society. Indeed, Ed talks about the need to improve manufacturing industry, but also low carbon-industries and technology industries. So, Ed does want the UK to have ‘competitive advantage’. Indeed, he wants the City to have competitive advantage but on the terms of the rest of Society: “But they must change so that they are part of the solution to our economic future, not part of the problem. ” Whilst the example of Southern Cross and ‘private equity’ were couched in rather perjorative terms of ‘asset stripping‘, and, in my opinion, the false dichotomy ‘producers or the predators’ was rather unhelpful, Ed does not deny the critical importance of business. That is why I fundamentally believe that Digby Jones, the former CBI director general and a trade minister under Gordon Brown (but never a member of the Labour party). by describing speech as “divisive and a kick in the teeth for business”, has fundamentally misread the situation in term of macroeconomics and the current English law.

So, whatever you think of Ed Miliband as a person, give the idea a chance, as it’s an extremely powerful one, entirely consistent with how English law currently operates for businesses. If the speech were better drafted, the idea would have been immediately obvious. What’s happened has happened. Ed’s big idea was fundamentally about corporate social responsibility, but the question is as posed to me on Twitter yesterday morning by Anthony Painter. Will the Country buy it? My reply was that Ed has to crack a few eggs to make his omelette; and whilst the journos were treading on many egg shells this week, the omelette is not officially due until 2015.

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