Steve Richards: What the Germans can teach us

For Blue Labour Germany is the model with its collaborative labour policies, vocational education and regional banks
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The Independent Online

I cannot escape from Germany. In recent days it has become a recurring theme. Wherever I have turned, waiting for a train, reading my emails, finding out more about the group inside the Labour party known as Blue Labour, wondering about Greece, the focus has turned to Germany.

To begin with the most trivial episode, on Monday night I was with a friend who had reported on the World Cup in Germany in 2006. We were waiting for a train to take us a few miles from one part of north London to another. There were no trains. No one seemed to know why. Perhaps it was something to do with the hot weather. As we waited, the sports journalist began to question whether our rotten, fragmented, wastefully expensive transport system would be able to cope with the Olympics next summer, a concern of voters too according to a poll in Tuesday's Evening Standard.

They have cause for concern. The various private companies with their monopoly services are accountable to their shareholders and have little need to worry about the travellers who have no alternative forms of transport. Network Rail is a most bizarre organisations in its blurred accountability, not quite public and not quite private either. As we speculated about the Olympics, I spoke of a blog by the transport specialist Christian Wolmar (which I recommend to anyone remotely interested in Britain's transport system). Earlier this week he chronicled what really happened to the recent McNulty Report on the future of the railways, a deeply depressing account of complacent, chaotic muddle and an almost resolute determination, at some levels, that nothing much should arise from the review.

My friend compared the situation here with Germany during the World Cup where, to his amazement, trains ran on time, regularly, cheaply and with much additional transport laid on to coincide with the end of games. British journalists and fans, at that time still reading in the UK endless eulogies about the Anglo-American economic model, were taken aback to find that quality of life was higher in Germany.

We gave up waiting for the train. The following day my column appeared in The Independent arguing that pension reform in the public sector was needed and that the strikers had a poor case. That is still my view, but amidst the informed emails that highlighted how nuanced the issue was, one from an English reader living in Germany caught my particular attention. He wrote to remind me that in Germany "companies have to have workers' councils by law. In practice, this means unions are integrated into strategic management decisions. For example, instead of laying off skilled workers in time of recession, they reduce hours and increase them again when things pick up, an initiative from unions in one company I am researching.

"The thing that really surprised me was how Keynesian theory is enshrined into the constitution. The CDU/CSU actually have in their parties' constitution a commitment to maintaining social welfare. In the UK Keynesianism is seen as being 'far left' by much of our media. Here it is working, and is pretty well law.

"I read UK newspapers alongside a range in Germany. I have to say that the breadth of debate in the UK is incredibly narrow, and I feel very frustrated by this. Having taught in UK schools for more than 30 years, I was always amazed that politics is often not taught at all. In Germany, politics is a compulsory part of the curriculum. The average German is able to use political vocabulary in day-to-day discussions."

Perhaps this is a romanticised view of the country currently at the centre of the euro storm, and which has not always displayed firm navigation. Yet compare Germany powering away into significant growth with the UK's economy hardly growing at all. This is no time for British disdain. Indeed the patronising lectures delivered to the Germans and French in the late 1990s by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown on the virtues of the British model seem even more preposterously patronising now than they did at the time.

On the same day as I received that email, I heard from some of those associated with Blue Labour, a phenomenon I had viewed with instinctive suspicion, without knowing very much about it. They are highly critical of the Blair/Brown economic policy. When asked for an alternative closer to their way of thinking, they reply without hesitation: Germany. Blue Labour (a poor, misleading title) is not old Labour, nor is it a homage to David Cameron's "Big Society". To some extent, Germany is the model, with its collaborative industrial policies, focus on vocational education and regional banks more responsive to the needs of local business. Blue Labour is strongly in favour of policies that lead to a more vibrant private sector, but is scathing about the UK's dependency on the performance of the banks.

Blue Labour's analysis is much more interesting than I expected and leads to specific policy recommendations, always a test for fashionable concepts. It also provides a coherent analysis of New Labour's failings under both Blair and Brown. Blairites/Brownites and those around David Cameron often turned to the US for inspiration. Blue Labour's greater interest in Germany perhaps will drive the political agenda away from a simplistic focus on one type of market-based reforms, as if no others exist. There are many unanswered questions, but I suspect there is more to Blue Labour than meets the eye.

Of course in parts of the EU Germany is seen as an overwhelming problem, and the recent crises have led to introspective angst in Germany, too. British ministers in the last government were frustrated at Angela Merkel's slow response to the 2008 financial crisis, a frustration echoed now in the EU as she responds, at times tentatively, to the drama in Greece.

Last November, Merkel delivered a speech in Bruges, seen by some pro-Europeans as being as significant as the hostile words delivered by Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s in the same location and on a partially similar theme: the need for consensus to emerge from the aspirations of individual countries rather than an assumption that there is a European consensus to which members will sign up. More immediately, Germany's booming exports and neurotically careful domestic spending do not help other exporters yearning for more buoyant markets. Germany is no idyll.

But at a time when yet another government here argues there is only one approach to "reform" and when some Conservatives ache to stand back from Europe and Greece, as if we will not suffer from the consequences of an economic collapse, there are lessons. Two defining slogans in the UK over the last 40 years have distorted everything. Margaret Thatcher declared, "There is no alternative". And both Tony Blair and David Cameron argue that the pivotal divide is between reformers and anti-reformers.

But there is an alternative. There is more than one reform. There is no escape from Germany.