Consumerism is an area where the left has a difficult but also a historically productive relationship. There is a role for the left in seeking to tackle issues such as the cost of living crisis and to support consumers; but there is also a role for the left in considering how consumers can become a force in themselves to drive forward our values.
I want to champion the consumer both as a political concept and a political actor. A future Labour government should seek to use the state to protect and inform consumers, but we should also look to reclaim the power of consumerism as a progressive force.
The economic consumer
The cost of living crisis, where wages are not keeping pace with prices, means there is an urgent need to build a better relationship between people and markets. When living costs outpace wage increases we should be looking to make work pay, but we should also seek to keep costs down.
The big living cost issues are represented by broken markets (housing, utilities, transport, food, etc) because they no longer deliver affordability to the many - rather access for the few and denial for the rest. We want markets that deliver: a housing market that builds and an energy market that passes wholesale savings onto consumers. In order to achieve this we need to accept that there is a greater role for the state in breaking up markets where competition is lacking, increasing supply where possible and stepping in to regulate price hikes where necessary.
Consumer detriment, where consumers lose out in financial terms due to poor goods or services, should be of interest to Labour not only because we should naturally want to stand up for people when they are ripped off but because it adversely effects the poor. Making markets work for consumers and seeking stronger powers for redress can disproportionately help the poorer members of society.
Research from Save the Children has shown that low income consumers pay an average of £1,289.47 more in detriment than average income consumers (for instance, because they are forced to use mechanisms such as pre-pay gas and electric meters). Consumers with lower incomes are unable to plan for infrequent purchases, such as cars and internet service providers, which are unfortunately the markets with the highest consumer detriment. To address this we must be active in empowering consumers and increasing information where possible, but importantly we must make sure the rules are enforced and redress is simple for consumers.
Regulation within markets must have the consumers’ interest from the start. This is not to be anti-business - good regulation within a 'responsible capitalism' should promote competition, innovation and, of course, a healthy consumer base. There can be no sustainable growth where consumers are ripped off, rather increasing competition and the confidence of consumers should be a sustainable catalyst to growth. High performing consumer markets should be part of the wider model of any future political economy if we are to build a sustainable economy which provides for all.
In a globalising world it is important that we pay attention to consumer issues at a European level. For example, in the last parliament Glenis Willmott MEP led a fight for transparency in food labelling. But we should not be complacent about the hurdles we will face campaigning on consumer issues - her proposals for traffic light labelling were ultimately defeated as the food industry spent an estimated €1bn fighting against the measures.
What Glenis Willmott’s work in the European Parliament shows us is not just the scale of the fight we face when sticking up for consumers’ interests, but also that consumer interest includes both consumer detriment (in health and in pocket) and the ethical consciousness of the consumer.
The political consumer
To some extent on the left we feel uncomfortable with the idea of consumerism. The political economy of consumerist society has been at the forefront of the discontents of globalisation, such as manufacturing of fast moving goods being outsourced to sweatshops. It's here that I want to stick up for a conception of the consumer as an actor. We shouldn’t reinforce a neoliberal conception of the consumer as a 'utility maximising individual', but rather see in them the potential for political action.
'Political consumption' has been around almost as long as consumer society; we can see it in current examples such as UK Uncut and the pro-Palestinian BDS campaign, however boycotts are nothing new. From anti-slavery sugar boycotts in the 19th century to anti-apartheid boycotts, British civil society has a tradition of bringing the political to the consumable.
Who is ‘political consumerism’ for? One argument levelled against the idea of a progressive space for consumerism is that if we bring a concept of democracy to the market then those with the biggest spending power have the most votes. The ‘ethical consumerism’ has also been seen to be left to middle class liberals and all the following stereotypes of sandal-wearing suburbanites. However, actions by organisations such as UK Uncut show that there is room to engage beyond the choice between similar products. An international cause undertaken by a boycotter may mean simply choosing a product on its origin without price differentials. When it comes to cost, consumers can come together for one of the oldest methods of market disruption – co-operatives.
Co-operatives have been around for hundreds of years; the first consumers’ cooperative was born in 1769 with the Fenwick Weavers’ Society which purchased and sold foods collectively. Co-operatives as a whole have had bad press recently due to the financial issues of the largest British co-operative, The Co-operative Group, however the co-operative movement as a whole is in a period of growth. Despite the economic downturn, the co-operative sector of the economy has grown every year and Co-operatives UK remains one of the UK’s largest membership organisation. Consumer co-ops account for £37 billion of the UK economy. In these austere times, coming back to our values of collective action is being proven to work successfully for consumers; when the rest of the economy falters community ownership of pubs, cafes, shops and energy shows there is light at the end of the tunnel for anyone looking for an alternative political economy.
To summarise, there is plenty of ground for the left to work on for, and as, consumers. Labour should be seeking to increase the powers for consumers, act in their interests within the market where appropriate, and seek to gain greater transparency for consumers but also to engage them whether in civil society or economic co-operation.
This is one of four essays produced by members of the Young Fabians Socialism and Capitalism Ideas Series. To learn more about the Ideas Series, please click here