The future of the left since 1884

A nation to be proud of again

Deputy leader of the Labour party Tom Watson MP addressed the FEPS-Fabian New Year Conference: Brexit and Beyond.



We are cursed, I’m afraid, to live in interesting times.

These are not, however, glorious times.

This week the Government suffered the biggest defeat of any in British history.  With just 73 days to go until Brexit, the only deal available fell down.  In their hearts Tory MPs know the Prime Minister hasn’t got what it takes to get any deal through Parliament.

They know the cruel truth.

She doesn’t possess the empathy and she doesn’t have the policy to lead this country any longer.  But they didn’t have the courage to face up to that on Wednesday night.   No plan, no authority, no hope. They know that.  It should have led to ‘No Confidence’.

But instead the Prime Minister limps on while the nation is shaking its head in despair.  To be honest I can’t blame them.  As the clock ticks constantly down, it is our duty to engage intelligently with the Government on Brexit negotiations.

But the Prime Minister must create the conditions for that engagement

And I fear her inflexibility and lack of imagination will mean she is unable to do so. The result of the 2016 referendum posed the biggest challenge our country has faced since WWII.  To respect the result while protecting jobs and families and bringing the country back together.

It’s not easy but sadly the past two years have shown we have a government that is not equal to the task.  Our national conversation is toxic, angrier than I have ever known.  Trust in politics is shrinking.

All the important topics – the quality of jobs, the availability of childcare, the future of schools and hospitals – are left to languish.   At a time of greater adversity than this, a better man than me warned that “if we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

Throughout history, times of adversity have resulted in extraordinary change.  A little over a hundred years ago, David Lloyd George promised to build “a fit country” for its returning heroes.  The first Labour government played an important part in building those homes.

Less than thirty years later, in the aftermath of another great war, Clement Attlee built a “New Jerusalem”, still the cornerstone of our modern society.

Over ten years ago, we experienced another historic crisis: The Great Recession.

This time, our democracy failed us.   No “New Jerusalem” followed in its wake; no great programme of reform. No building of anything.   Instead, we experienced years of Tory austerity: austerity that is still all around us today, regardless of what this government tells us.

We see the 500 libraries that have closed. We see the £7 billion slashed from schools that have left classrooms overcrowded and teachers rationing even the basics, like exercise books.  We see the homeless people, whose numbers have doubled since 2012, on streets in every town in Britain.  We see 4.5 million children in the UK growing up in poverty. Children going to bed hungry and waking up in cold unheated homes.

A Nation Divided

When you think about all this, the thread that connects the result of the 2010 election directly to the result of the 2016 referendum, to the problems of the nation, is clear.

We are now a country divided like never before:   Between “haves” and “have nots”;  Between North and South; And between Leavers and Remainers.

It needn’t have been so.

The Government could have sought a Brexit to bind the nation.

Instead, the Tories have turned into a narrow nationalist sectional party.  And Mrs May has chosen at every point to placate her most extreme colleagues. Those who respond to change by fleeing back towards the past.  Sometimes, let’s be honest, we are tempted to do the same.  But at its best, this party embraces change in a spirit of optimism.  In the expectation that the future will surpass the present and improve on the past.

In our 1945 the manifesto of the great Attlee government was called ‘Let us Face the Future’.

In 1964 the Wilson years were ushered in with the promise of a ‘new Britain’ which allied the cause of social justice with a new vision for how the white heat of technology could transform our economy.

In 1997 the promise of New Labour New Britain showed how a changed and modern Labour party could change our country.

That is the task. To look to the future.

At the last election, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, we stood on an exciting programme to remedy the social injustices of the austerity years.  But we cannot rest on the manifesto for the last election and hope it will deliver victory for us in the next.

We need now to show that we have a programme and a vision for how to equip all our people for the economic changes the new technological revolution will bring.

We must turn our vision to rebuild Britain for the many, not the few into a programme that will deliver both within and beyond our traditional Labour base.

If we do not do that, we will have failed in our duty.  If we do not do that we will lose people because of it.  If we do not do that, someone else will.

I want to talk today about what that future could look like.  I want to talk about a fairer, more just and equal society.  An economy that works for everyone.  Our values and how they will be projected across the world.

A new politics that restores the trust of the electorate.  I want to talk about building a nation that we can be proud of again.

A nation only Labour can build.

A New Economy

A good society is built on the foundations of a strong economy.  A party with the name of Labour has to understand the world of work.

Technology is changing work profoundly.

The Fabians recognise that and your commission on workers and technology will I know produce important policy recommendations. I also have a personal interest in this issue.

One of the famous computers in artificial intelligence was developed at IBM.  To show how close to human life the computer could get it was submitted to play the game show Jeopardy! on American television.

Remarkably, the computer won.

The name of that artificial intelligence was Watson. The way that technology changes the economy is a game of jeopardy.  Remember when bowling pins had to be reset by a real person? Remember when there were film projectionists in every cinema across Britain? I am showing my age here.

Every time I go to a supermarket there are more self-checkouts and fewer cashiers. I am not suggesting we try to turn back the clock.  The best of today’s economy is that it provides freedom, autonomy and flexibility.

It promises a revolution in product standards and in productivity.  But it is our job to ensure that these benefits flow to the people and are not made at the cost of the people.

Online shopping is cheap and easy but we have seen High Street outlet undercut.  A High Street is not just a retail park. It is a community centre and the heart goes from a town when it disappears.

There is a lot more change coming.

Here are just some of the decisions that will soon be made by algorithms churning through vast data sets.

Whether the bank gives you a credit card or a mortgage. The best candidate for a job. Whether you deserve a promotion. Whether we should be given a certain course of treatment.

The Government has estimated 9 million existing jobs could be lost to AI by 2030.  We haven’t seen change on this scale since the Industrial Revolution.

It took 17 different Factory Acts over 100 years to find a balance between the power of the employer power and the rights of workers. We’ll probably need to the same for the digital revolution.  It was early Trade Unionists that championed the rights of workers against industrialists in the 1870s.

Union membership today is at a record low while under-employed, gig economy workers and those on zero hours contracts need the strength of collectivism more than ever.

A Green Economy

We also need to come together to make sure that the new economy we build is the greenest the world has ever seen.

In 2015, Britain signed the Paris Declaration and committed to freeze global warming at 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.  We must now set in course the action that ensures we hit these targets.  There is no excuse for not having a plan in place that will deliver a net zero carbon economy.  A Labour government must take us to that goal, as fast as can possibly be achieved.  As other nations across the world renege on their commitments and promises, we must do the opposite.

The Tory government consumed by Brexit is not even talking about any of this, let alone doing anything about it.

Only Labour can do that.

Only Labour can fashion change into fairness.

A Fair Country

And I worry that in the Tory Britain of today, justice has gone missing.

British democracy used to offer a compact to its people.  It was the promise that the young, wherever they are born and whoever they are born to, can do as well or better than their parents.

Today, the link between work and making ends meet has broken.  There are now 4 million workers in the UK who live in poverty. 1 in 8 people classified as ‘working poor’. Nearly 2 million people are employed on ‘zero hours’ contracts with no guarantee of minimum hours and no idea how much money they will have coming in.

Our society is calcifying.

If you are born poor today, you can expect to be poor as an adult too: just look at how the privately schooled still dominate the major professions.  Those born rich get richer, and inequality grows: 10% of the country now own 66% of its wealth.

Last year just one in seven young people said they thought they had the chance to move up in society. A UN special rapporteur looked at British society late last year.  His words were lost in the tumult of Brexit, but they bear repeating:

He described austerity as “punitive, mean-spirited and callous”.

He reported that changes to our taxes and benefits placed “the highest toll on those least able to bear it.”

From this imbalance, anger and frustration grows.

The Labour party must step in.

We must build a society where aspiration is more than a buzzword.

I’m so proud of the work Angela Rayner is doing with our National Education Service to make these hopes real.  A measurement of social mobility should become as important – if not more important – than the other measures we use to judge our economy and society. No-one should tell us about GDP growth or unemployment figures, without mentioning social mobility in the same breath.

The question is not: “is our economy growing?”  The question must be: “is our economy growing for everyone?”

If we are going to give people something to aspire to, there are few things more evocative than a “home of one’s own”.  Our own home is an aspiration shared across our country and throughout our history.  But today, for most it is an unattainable dream.  A thirty year-old who saves 5 percent of her income each year will put down a deposit on an average-priced house in the year they turn seventy-five.  In thirty years, house prices have doubled relative to income.  This is a country that offers too little to too many.

If there is an anger in our politics now, I am not surprised.

A Proud Country

I want this to be a nation of which we can be proud and that means fairness at home. It also means a nation that does us proud in the world outside.  As we leave the EU, our international position will change.  We must ensure that this is not a retreat.

The international order that has maintained peace and ensured prosperity since the end of the Second World War is under threat.  The history of the Labour Party is entwined with the history of this international order, not – as some believe – opposed to it.  It was a Labour Prime Minister, our greatest: Clement Attlee, and a Labour Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, who built it with their American counterparts.   We are now at a moment in time when this order is in retreat as never before in my lifetime.

Freedom House points to 71 countries where we are witnessing a net decline in political rights and civil liberties.  This is a time that we must stand up and fight for our legacy. Brexit has caused Britain’s international reputation to decline.

We must rebuild it.

We can once again be a proud figure on the world stage, standing up internationally for the values that we embody at home.

The Labour way is the way of my great political hero Ernie Bevin. A partnership of patriotism with internationalism.

Those are the values of this movement.

A New Politics

Another of those values is the nobility of politics.  It is a value we are not living up to. Trust in politicians is low and falling.

Regardless of what Mr Gove told us, public trust in experts is high: scientists, doctors, professors, nurses.  Politicians, however, are second only to advertising executives in how little we are trusted: just 19% of the public believe we are telling the truth. It is clear that the public have totally lost trust in those they elect to these offices.

I think the key to changing this will be to pay close attention to slogan of the Leave campaign: “Take Back Control”.  When a slogan like this resonates so deeply, it is clear that something in our politics has catastrophically failed.  Power has become too distant.  Unaccountable and too centralised in Westminster.

We must find ways to make those in power more accountable to the people.  We must allow people to feel a greater part of our democratic process: they must see more people like them in office, more people they know in power at the local level.

Our democracy was built with assumptions made hundreds of years ago.  It has become increasingly ill-fit for its purpose ever since.  It is time that we built a political system that gives the people back control over their lives and future.

Why Now?

If that sounds ambitious, if all of this sounds ambitious, that is because it is:

A new industrial revolution.

A new compact with the post-unionised workers of today.

A commitment to building the world’s greenest economy.

A society where social mobility is a reality.

A society where the young can aspire to own their own home.

A welfare state that looks after those in need.

A nation that stands tall on the world stage: defending the international order that has long brought peace and prosperity to the world.

A politics that gives control back to the people.

A nation to be proud of again.

These are the ambitions that great moments of change call for.

As we move into a post-Brexit era, we are in one of those moments.

The cost of failing to do so is clear.

But this is about more even than the movement I have been a part of all my life.

This is about our country.

The cost of failing to set a new course now will be borne by us all:

More years of Tory mismanagement;

More years of a two-track economy, growing inequality and an increasingly unjust and unfair society;

More years of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer;

A slow but marked diminishing of our presence on the world stage;

And the continued separation of the political class and those it purports to represent.

With this in mind, I look at Britain today and its current trajectory, and the words of Neil Kinnock ring in my ears:

I warn you not to be ordinary.

I warn you not to be young.

I warn you not to fall ill.

And I warn you not to grow old.

These words describe life now as well as they did under Margaret Thatcher.

Our country is at a crossroads.

Fear and frustration under the Tories, retreat from the wider world.

Or renewal and the recreation of hope and optimism with Labour.

The country needs the leadership that only we can give.

Let’s make sure we do not fail them.

Tom Watson MP

Tom Watson is the deputy leader of the Labour party and shadow culture secretary.


Fabian membership

Join the Fabian Society today and help shape the future of the left

You’ll receive the quarterly Fabian Review and at least four reports or pamphlets each year sent to your door

Be a part of the debate at Fabian conferences and events and join one of our network of local Fabian societies

Join the Fabian Society
Fabian Society

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.