DJ Taylor: Why not an economy that works for all?

There's a moral dimension to business, fresh scope for Ed Miliband and Lord Patten, and gratitude for long-lived inspiration

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One of the best pieces of journalism Martin Amis ever filed – it can be found in his 1993 collection, Visiting Mrs Nabokov – was some reportage from the 1988 Republican convention.

Backstage in the media lounge and hanging out with representatives of the pollster and consultant community, Amis was fascinated to discover that all their values were "expedient and professionalised". By this he meant that whatever a Republican contender did or said was judged simply in terms of brand promotion. Politics, consequently, was discussed "in strictly apolitical terms".

Much the same feeling arises from the spectacle of the modern economics or business correspondent at work. Again, the tone is nearly always narrowly expedient. Our chief responsibility as a nation, the argument runs, is to secure economic growth. Any government policy that assists this laudable aim is ipso facto a good thing, and any suggestion that an economic system is only as good as the political (and by extension moral) assumptions that underlie it is more or less irrelevant.

The practical consequences of this approach – in which most human activity is judged in terms of material benefit – can be glimpsed on every business page in the country. Only the other day, for example, The Independent's Hamish McRae was comparing the relative economic achievements of Derby, where the Bombardier engineering concern has just announced job cuts, and Plymouth, which is apparently making great strides in the luxury yacht market. There was no point in objecting to the Plymouth yacht boom on the grounds that the economy of the South-West needed a more reliable stimulus than the whims of a few jaded billionaires, Mr McRae insisted. If that was where the money lay, then go for it.

It was the same with the recent revelation that many UK employers prefer to hire Eastern European migrants rather than the native unemployed on the grounds that the former are better qualified and display a superior work ethic. Once again, expedience triumphed. No doubt it was all very sad that a million UK teenagers had no job and no conceivable chance of finding one, the columnists reflected, but business, alas, was business. Naturally, it would be wrong to criticise the nation's journalists for these brisk little exercises in commercial realpolitik, for they are only taking their lead from politicians. But it would be nice if one of the latter – Ed Miliband, for example – could introduce into the debate the moral element it so sorely needs by pointing out that the economic system that sustains our country is deeply injurious to about a third of the people who live in it.

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It is not very often that a whiff of Old Labourism steals over the political landscape. Nevertheless, there was a terrific gust of it with the news that Mr Miliband had secured the backing of the Parliamentary Labour Party to institute a rule change that will allow him to choose his own Shadow Cabinet. To anyone under the age of 40 this will probably seem the most trifling of administrative adjustments. But to others it brings back the most lurid memories of a time when elections to the Labour front bench were one of the most high-profile events on the political calendar. Tight-lipped and grim-visaged, the pundits of the political weeklies would table their anxieties. Would Jim (Callaghan) hold the left? Would Reg Spart, MP for Rantworth North, convenor of so many incendiary mass-signature letters to the New Statesman, make the cut? Could the Manifesto Group (leadership-supporting right-wingers despised by the constituency delegates) fight its corner?

The passage of time has brought a 180-degree shift in my attitude to the Labour leader's choice of his frontbenchers. Thirty years ago one yearned for Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock to have a free hand as a way of excluding all the lefties bent on keeping the party permanently in opposition. Here in 2011, with centralisation the order of the day, you sometimes feel that the slightest scent of idiosyncrasy or maverick trouble-making ought to be warmly encouraged. In fact the sight of Reg Spart's spiritual heir, rising from the opposition benches to inform us that capitalism has failed, the Governor of the Bank of England is a crook and the City of London a spivs' charter, would probably do Mr Miliband the world of good. It would certainly cheer me up.

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The BBC's occasional efforts to work out what viewers think of its programmes and the people who present them nearly always produce embarrassing results. At the time of the 2006 World Cup someone made the fatal mistake of designing an interactive website in which licence-payers could criticise the performances of individual pundits. This led thousands of people to complain about the commentating styles of John Motson and Mark Lawrenson. This year's Wimbledon survey revealed that a substantial percentage of viewers would have preferred more coverage of the actual tennis than the endless celebrity-spotting and the sound of Boris Becker plaintively enquiring (as the camera dwelt on yet another unrecognised notable) "Who is that?"

As the BBC Trust's new chairman, Lord Patten, begins his clearout of the Augean stable that is apparently Broadcasting House, it would be wonderful if he could extend these customer satisfaction surveys to the point where they mean business. Why not include a form to be returned with one's licence-fee payment in which the BBC's leading personalities could be marked out of 10 for their presentational skills, ability to adequately brief themselves, pronounce words correctly and so forth, with a promise that the results would go straight up to the director-general's office? It might not rein in the excesses of a Robert Peston or a Nick Robinson, but it would be a start.

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There were several ways in which the novelist Francis King, who died last Sunday, was an inspiration to younger writers. The first was the sheer indefatigability of a man who published his first novel while he was still at Oxford and made a living from his pen for the best part of seven decades. Others included the consummate skill that he brought to the most trivial of professional tasks, and his ability to let an author who had written a less than coruscating book down gracefully. A third of a century later, I can still remember his review of a Kingsley Amis novel which ended with the deeply equivocal but nonetheless encouraging verdict: "Not many people could write a better novel than Jake's Thing, but Mr Amis is one of them."

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