Labour must prepare for the challenges of government in the 2020s, writes Andrew Harrop.
Only time will tell what form Brexit takes and how it will impact on our lives. The omens for the future are not good. But for now, the worst effect of Brexit is on our politics. It has sucked the oxygen from every other public debate and hidden the most pressing issues from the political gaze. With rising poverty and consumer debt, failing public services and a crisis in business investment and productivity, Brexit is a distraction we can ill afford.
So, for the parliament ahead, the left’s task must be to broaden the national conversation to the things that matter even more than our relationship with Europe. But in doing this, Labour must not just criticise and oppose. With a government that is so rudderless, reactive and distracted, the party cannot take its cues from what ministers do and say. Instead Labour’s central mission must be to prepare for the challenges of government in the 2020s. It needs to think deeply about how our world is changing and use that starting point to develop an agenda for a more optimistic and secure Britain a decade from now.
First, the left needs to understand the extraordinary changes that will come from digital innovation. Ever greater data storage and computational power is delivering constant communication, extreme personalisation and personal visibility, and business models based on automation, networks and relationships not traditional products and transactions.
We know that these developments can commoditise labour and create new concentrations of economic power so traditional social democratic economics remain essential. The UK still needs to increase investment, technical training, housebuilding, worker power and business long-termism – and to deliver fair taxation.
But to be ready to govern, the left also needs a pro-innovation economic agenda for converting technological progress into higher business productivity and good jobs for the many. This will only be possible with active public leadership and support, as the Fabian commission on the future of retail found earlier this year.
The left also needs to tune in to how British culture and values are changing – and, it seems, polarising. With growing numbers of liberal-minded graduates, recent immigrants and older social conservatives, the UK could descend into social division and culture wars. We must not get trapped on one side of these conflicts but construct a politics that embraces Britain’s attitudinal and social diversity. Labour can bring the Britain of the 2020s together: perhaps it is the only national institution that can.
It must also help people understand and prepare for the huge societal changes that will be brought by very long lifespans. The party of labour needs to lead the country in reconceptualising and redesigning 50-year working lives, as patchwork quilts of learning, work, care and leisure.
And it needs to prepare families and public services for the reality that people will be disabled far longer before they die. The NHS and allied public services still have not grasped that their modern mission is not about episodic intervention but helping people with health problems to lead good lives.
Across all these issues, success will come with a fresh reimagining of the role of the state. The left must stop trying to recreate the public sector of an imagined past; and start asking how government can offer security, community, fairness and opportunity a decade from now. It is a mission on the scale of 1945 but with no plan yet written. So Brexit must not be allowed to distract: the left must start to write the next chapter.
This article is an extract from a new Fabian Society analysis paper Shaping the futurescape: notes on the near future by Andrew Harrop