A Labour leadership election is the time for a contest of ideas – for competing visions of the future of the left. So, on the day Jeremy Corbyn launches his bid for re-election, let’s hope that both candidates seek to tell a story about how the left should change to face the 2020s. In April, the Fabian Society published Future Left, a collection of essays which sought to do just that. Each contribution analysed key trends which the left must respond to, and set out a fresh path for social democrats in the next decade. In my chapter, I sought to wrap the ideas together, with these brief notes on the shape of a future left.
We hope they will be a source of inspiration for the two leadership campaigns…
1. A new mixed economy
The left needs to revive the spirit of economic activism which pervaded post-war Britain, but without the baggage of nationalised industries and national plans. The task for the 2020s is not to recreate Keynes’ version of the planned economy, but to build a new model of a mixed market, shaped by enterprise, competition and government action, designed for the global, digital age. Government leadership and fair, open markets must be the twin pillars of productivity growth and broad-based prosperity. The government must again be an economic leader, in the way that was unremarkable in post-war Britain and is unremarkable today in so many other European economies.
Leadership and coordination: use investment, regulation and market signals to steer the economy in pursuit of long-term goals, above all decarbonisation; create government-industry partnerships to reshape sectors, jobs and skills; target full employment and asset price stability with monetary and fiscal policy.
Investment and capacity: significantly increase public investment on infrastructure, development and innovation, in ways that crowd-in private spending; promote new public, mutual or non-profit players in failing markets like housebuilding or energy to boost capacity and change behaviours.
Risk and economic power: use regulation to challenge the market power of dominant incumbents; initiate new opportunities for worker and consumer collectivism to redress imbalances in economic power and spread ownership and responsibility; re-create ways to share economic risks, from collective pensions to job creation programmes.
2. Update the welfare state
Thanks to successive generations of social democrats, the welfare state of Beveridge and Bevan still stands to this day. But it needs updating for new risks, needs and expectations. The left in the 2020s must set out to recreate what Beveridge called ‘social insurance’ for the modern world we face. Its goal must be to match need and spending power, over the course of our lives, with entitlements derived from past and future contributions. Since the turn of the century good progress has been made on reforming pensions and only incremental improvement will be needed in the 2020s. But we are failing to respond to other changing needs, especially the nature of today’s ill-health, housing need and the economic vulnerabilities of modern working life.
Meeting health-related needs: integrate health, care and disability support, in a way that maximises personal control; secure consent for higher public spending, by creating earmarked ‘health taxes’; robustly regulate and ‘nudge’ to improve the nation’s health.
Financial support before pension age: commission a new Beveridge plan for working-age protection that reflects modern economic risks; introduce extra tiers of contribution-based benefits and personal accounts; consider how to merge tax reliefs and universal credit into a single system of financial support.
Affordable housing: drive a massive increase in housebuilding, in sustainable, mixed communities, by increasing land supply and construction capacity; promote large-scale borrowing for social housebuilding, through gilts or special ‘housing bonds’, secured against future rents and housing benefit savings.
3. Equality and freedom
The hallmark of the left should be a radical egalitarianism of human capital, substantive freedom and social connection. The advance of equality and practical freedom is not just a narrow question of income distribution through the labour market, tax and benefits. In the 2020s we need new strategies to tackle reduce inequalities of opportunity, wealth and power.
Life chances and education: support stronger relationships and parenting, including more time with children, especially for fathers; demand world-class teaching, facilities and curriculum for the bottom third, so no child is set up to fail; focus support in teenage years on ambition, emotional wellbeing and cultural capital; create credible skills and work pathways for every young person aged between 18 to 24.
Equalising wealth: create nudges and subsidies for low and middle earners to save and build assets, especially younger generations; reform financial and monetary policy to target stable house prices with the aim of reversing the decline in homeownership; significantly increase the taxation of land, assets and large pension savings; develop ideas for UK sovereign wealth funds.
Power, status and participation: spread people power within public services, including personal control and collective leadership; increase participation and power for employees in more collaborative workplaces; broaden and deepen institutions of local civil and political participation.
4. The politics of identity
Politics is out of touch with people’s lives, as the EU referendum proved. Trust in politicians is declining, and the distance between elector and elected is widening. A new politics of identity must again nurture and cherish solidarity and collectivism in people’s everyday lives. Many people sense that the moral intuitions of social democrats are not the same as theirs, with the left too dismissive of people’s anxieties and aspirations with respect to security, tradition and the non-material dimensions of life. We must not sacrifice our old values, but we do need a new confidence to talk about family, patriotism and immigration.
Politics: demand fundamental organisational and cultural change within political parties, so they speak with conviction, and work alongside communities and civic society; embrace an approach to politics focused on institutions and communities not policy levers; investigate reforms to democratic institutions to bring politicians closer to people’s lives.
Place: adopt radical and coherent devolution of money, responsibility and democracy to cities and counties with a strong sense of community; lead debates with confidence on English identity and be open-minded about future England-wide and regional governance; consider how the UK might evolve into a more federal nation state.
Immigration: make credible promises on managed migration, including lower annual immigration than today; work with employers to make them less dependent on migrant labour and exploitative employment relationships; take a tough approach to integration, focused on the responsibilities of newcomers.
This is a revised and abridged version of ‘The spirit of revisionism’, by Andrew Harrop, the introductory chapter to Future Left: can the left respond to a changing society? edited by Andrew Harrop and Ed Wallis.