QE is a quantum leap in inequality

It looked recently as if US and UK economic policy would kick the habit of recent years’ quantitative easing (QE) and rock bottom interest rates. We will now have to wait longer for that, as economic forecasts dim around the world. But spending time in London, you could be forgiven for wondering whether there were ever any economic worries – on one estimate, you need to earn over £100,000 to buy a first property, while the numbers working in the City, who might have a chance of doing that, are now higher than before the credit crunch.

There is a direct connection though. There is no better measure of the impact of QE than London property prices.

QE, cloaked in the language of ‘needs must’, is rarely debated and rarely disputed by the main Westminster political parties. Whether it has worked is hard to judge, because we won’t know what the hypothetical alternative, a far tougher, harder correction in economic terms, would have led to. But we do know that it hasn’t worked in the way that was intended.

What is QE? QE is the creation of a new, multi-billion dollar cheque book by central banks, which is used to purchase government bonds and other assets from banks and other financial institutions. The new money is then lent to companies or consumers in the real economy, boosting economic activity and confidence. The central bank creates the money, not by printing but as an electronic account, which it uses in this way.

This has been an extraordinary injection of capital into the economy, over £375bn from the Bank of England into the UK economy in several tranches. But it did not work in the way it was expected to. Very little of the money left financial institutions, particularly in the early years. The banks used it to shore up their balance sheets, rather than lending, or investing instead in other assets that offered more of a yield, given the low cost of borrowing. The wash of money into government bonds and then equities in developed markets served to depress those yields, triggering a hunt then for riskier investments.

This did over time help to restore confidence. The rise in stock market prices fed through into pensions and investment benefits, while the property market, focused initially on London, saw significant price rises.

What do we want? A social economy.

The UK has a remarkable track record of social innovation and action in the economy, but one that rarely touches on mainstream economic policy. As a result, co-operatives and social enterprises, social investment and fair trade are all treated as solutions for when things go wrong, rather than the way to get them right.

For sure, from time to time, one part of this becomes a fad. It was social enterprises, then co-ops, now employee ownership. And while the sun shines, we see partial gains – not least the landmark new Co-operatives Act which came onto the statute books this year, the result of a promise by the Prime Minister at the start of the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives in 2012. Even so, we remain a footnote within a wildly distorted contract, in which financial incentives and returns are assumed to explain and sustain economic activity.

It was out of a mixture therefore of hope and frustration that we formed the Social Economy Alliance last year – an open federation of catalysts and practitioners from the field of social entrepreneurs and social enterprise, co-operatives and charities through to the new cadre of social investors. The idea of the social economy, of course, has a long pedigree, particularly in a European context, but our intention was not to look for new names to describe who we were but rather to paint a picture of what we believe the whole economy should be – a social economy.

When we started working around this idea, we were clear that what we didn’t want was a flipchart programme conjured up by another think-tank – now common enough to fall like apples in a windfall. We started from the bedrock of our own practice as innovations in addressing the big challenges that the UK economy faces.

So we spent our first year developing our own manifesto to put to the political parties, working through an intensive and deliberative process to test what we could learn for the UK economy more widely from our own practice and innovation.

The first theme that emerged was that the frameworks that govern the mix of social businesses already trading in the economy add costs rather than encouraging pro-social models of ownership and enterprise. From a perspective of genuine economic progress, we could see the potential for a new approach to land ownership, finance and infrastructure that give citizens and communities a real ownership stake in action to renew our crumbling social and economic infrastructure.

The second theme, building on the work that led to the Social Value Act, was the opportunity for a smarter state, that uses its own buying power to create social value, delivering greater returns for taxpayers’ money while improving the business environment.

The third theme was about encouraging the social behaviour of business more widely, enabling enterprises to make a fair contribution when it comes to tax, wages and environmental stress and to turn social value into competitive advantage.

For each of these, we found a wealth of social economy entrepreneurs and teams trying to do just that, even if they are often swimming against the tide of conventional thinking – such as Co-operative Energy, Belu Water or the leadership at Knowsley Council, who encourage local labour in every contract they can.

This led us to a Social Economy Alliance that we launched to politicians in September, with advertising raised through crowd-funding, up for three weeks in Westminster underground station and in social businesses across the UK. Among the 25 calls we are making include:

– A Royal Commission on Land Reform

– A levy on unused commercial properties and rates discount on new use to beat the blight of empty properties

– Community ownership to be included at feasibility stage as a percentage of all large infrastructure projects

– Activity co-operatives, allowing people out of work to pool benefits and taper their income to create their own team-based enterprises

– Entrepreneur ‘L’ plates, to simplify and encourage the path to entrepreneurship.

Meanwhile, the practical social economy example of garden cities, as a new way to meet housing need and create better ways to live, is covered in a wonderful issue of New Start magazine this month, after an event we ran in partnership in Letchworth on the day of the launch of the Social Economy Manifesto.

What emerges is neither left nor right, in a traditional sense. In the right conditions, capital and labour, collaboration and competition, society and economy work together to drive the growth in the social economy.

The social economy is creating wealth, jobs and social capital right now. We are not content to solve the problems thrown up by today’s reckless, financialised economy, because we see solutions and the chance for a more sustainable and fair economy, spreading prosperity. What we will do is to commit to be a partner and a champion for a new model of wealth creation.

Autumn of the mind

I’m not sure I have ever seen a maple tree in full orange and gold Autumn glow before I came here to Quebec. This week, I will be participating in the global Co-operative Business Summit hosted by Desjardins.

Today, though, I travelled to Toronto to see my uncle George in hospital. His is a brilliant, gentle brain – one of the foremost actuaries in Canada – now diswired, with dementia.

I hadn’t known what to expect, didn’t know what I could bring except that to be there could be a token of love from my own side of the family. What I experienced was a deep and moving sense of an Autumn in our lives – the culmination, the colour, the cycle, the anticipation of loss.

No, he couldn’t recall what he’d had for breakfast, if anything, even when my cousin, Peter, talked through it all.

But there by his bed, with Peter and Michael, I started an old London music hall song that my father would sing when the family was together. Four words in, ‘A mother was bathing….’ and George and I were singing the verses, word perfect, together – perhaps to the amazement of the small ward.

I have many blessings in my life – and to have moments truly to appreciate what I have and may lose feels like being paraded by all the colours of Autumn.