A tale of two economies.

Or rather, this is about two economic discourses.
On Thursday I went to “The North West Economic Growth Summit” sponsored by Pannone solicitors, at the People’s History Museum in Manchester.  I was interested to hear the official, dominant narrative about the economy in the ‘city region’ and also to understand something of the spaces in those discussions and models where an alternative approach might gain a footing.
On Saturday I went to the first half day of the weekend event “Living the New Economy” at the Yard Theatre in Hulme’s ‘Homes for Change’ development.
Very different events of course, the first dominated (80%?) by (men and women in) suits, it’s key messages were as expected, especially in the presentations of Howard Bernstein, Chief Executive of Manchester City Council and Mike Emmerich of New Economy (this term gets confusing – used by these distinctly conventional thinkers as well as the critical and innovative new economics movement). So the unexamined ‘master’ assumptions were that Manchester (the word used in its broadest sense – at times seeming to encompass the entire North West!) needs to be competitive in the global economy, and that (endless) economic growth is obviously feasible, and is a ‘good thing’.  This led inexorably to the China obsession -getting a slice of the Chinese growth action.  There was also an advocacy of the city region as the appropriate scale to be working strategically (we almost agree – but insist that this should be the bioregion) and a palpable paternalism: almost the only mentions of Manchester’s population were in terms of ‘welfare dependency’ and skills. 
There was though an undercurrent, from some of the speakers (Alun Francis of Oldham College and Erik Bichard of Salford University) who presented a subtly different agenda – not entirely at odds with the dominant one but more communitarian and co-operative, more ecological, more nuanced in its understanding of population well-being and more creative economically (for example in Bichard’s points on measuring social return on investment and Francis’s points on the welfare debate needing to be not just being about money and the importance of non high level skills).
These undercurrents were also present among the audience, both in the (rather sparse) questions from the floor, and in conversations with a number of participants.  So people were questioning whether a ‘trickle-down’ model is relevant to those many parts of the conurbation with high levels of multiple deprivation and others were concerned about the large numbers of semi-skilled people in the mundane sectors that don’t have the glamour of the mega-projects like ‘airport city’ and ‘media city’.  There were even those who were sceptical about the HS2 project, although the need for rail infrastructure investment was accepted widely.
The ‘Living the New Economy’ event was very different with the emphasis on small scale initiatives: no suits there.  While much more in sympathy with the ideas and values being articulated, we really do need to look much more seriously at how to achieve the necessary scale for economic transformation.  Growing a bit of food here and generating a bit of hydro-power there just won’t make a difference in the scheme of things.  Likewise the alternative currencies being promoted do have a useful propagandist role but nowhere are challenging the dominant and disastrous money system.
We need to promote alternatives but make the links with the mainstream economically, socially, politically, and in terms of ideas and values while working at the appropriate scale and levering resources and commitment from the the mainstream for real change.  That is not easy, and there is little time.

Mark Burton

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