I end my term as chair of the Fabian Society at a time of political turmoil unknown in my lifetime. The mood in parliament is anxious, uncertain and febrile, as MPs face the most important political decision most of us will ever be asked to take, and we are desperate to do so in the best interests of our constituents. But while Brexit dominates the Westminster scene, many more issues are having a day-to-day impact on the public. This morning, the first emails out of my postbag cover the appalling service on Northern Rail, long delays for referrals to children’s mental health services, and road safety outside school gates.
While Brexit sucks in all political energy, families are under pressure and public services crumbling as the policy choices of the past decade come home to roost. The pain of austerity isn’t all felt immediately – it is cumulative, chronic and its effects will persist many years into the future. But it’s proving hard to find the space to deal with these challenges, when Brexit dominates the agenda. Compound that with the negative economic and fiscal effect Brexit will have, and it’s hard to be optimistic.
Politics is struggling to respond to these pressures. Division and dissent threaten to translate into an angry, hateful, and potentially violent politics. Populism, the rise of the far right, and extremism create deep unease. Internationally, things are troubling too. Climate change, conflict, and consequent population shifts create great challenges – but there is little sign of the global leadership needed to tackle them.
For Labour, these trends more than validate the demand for new and radical solutions. Labour’s vision of a different approach, with power and resources prioritised for the many not the few, has resonated with voters. But the electoral challenge faced by the party remains significant, particularly in the light of the division that’s been caused by Brexit.
This is where the Fabian Society comes in. The development of imaginative, evidence-based and radical policy solutions, and pragmatic proposals for their implementation, have long been the hallmark of the Fabian approach. The past two years have been no exception. We have been pleased to support the Labour frontbench in helping to fill out the details of Labour’s bold policy ideas, from the National Education Service to the Bach Commission on access to justice. I’m particularly proud of the future-facing focus of our flagship programmes on the changing nature of work, automation, and the future of childhood. Meanwhile, the importance of gaining power to deliver our policy goals has been the catalyst for new political research into how Labour wins among diverse and increasingly disparate groups of voters.
Times of uncertainty call for boldness and strong leadership, but they also demand careful and rigorous thinking. The Fabian Society, 134 years old this year, has a long history of proactive, innovative and ground-breaking work, based on the principles of equality and social justice that have withstood and sustained us through past crises. It was Fabians who helped to create the Labour party at the turn of the 20th century; Fabian founder Sydney Webb who was responsible for writing the party’s constitution, including the famous Clause IV, as Europe emerged from the Great War; Webb and his wife Beatrice, along with William Beveridge, who designed the welfare state after the second world war.
Now the country stands once again at a crossroads, and Fabian thinking is needed more than ever. I’m confident and proud that the society will rise to the task and that out of the uncertainty of today, the Fabians will be instrumental in helping to build a peaceful, fairer, socialist future.