This week I attended the launch of LabourList’s One Nation book. Arriving, as I often do, ten minutes late meant I was confined to the corner as a packed-out room listened to, and engaged in the debate on the future of the party.
As someone who is open about his patriotism, John Denham’s speech – that touched upon themes of national identity – a shared and diverse history and collective responsibility to our future was music to my ears.
For a One Nation approach to work, however, we cannot assume we are entirely in charge of our own destiny – especially since our future is so entwined with the economies of countries further afield.
Much of the wealth and many of the jobs created in the UK relies on inward investment – foreign companies looking to the UK and seeing it as a good place to do business. In 2011/12, 112,000 jobs were created through inward investment, and around 20% of new businesses are now ‘born global’. So not only does Labour have to ensure the One Nation philosophy is relevant to how people want to live their lives, it also has to ensure it is relevant to how global industry wants to invest its money. If we get it wrong, investors will lose faith in the UK, there could be fewer jobs, less money, and the resulting absence of opportunity will divide, not unite the country.
The challenge ahead is made complicated by the actions of this Government and the overall economic backdrop. The positives are that the UK has become more competitive in each of the past four years. Our labour market ranks as the 5th most efficient in the world, and we have a global reputation for innovation and the sophistication of our business environment. These are fantastic selling points. But our competitiveness will remain under threat from a macroeconomic environment that sees our national debt rising to 85% of our Gross Domestic Product – and without a real agenda for growth, the budgetary surplus necessary for debt reduction will not be forthcoming until well into the next Parliament. If more full time jobs are not created, growth will be impossible and the national debt will continue to grow at the expense of our international reputation.
But of all the things that international investors look for, it is stability and certainty. As one professional from the shipping industry – perhaps the most international of industries – said to me recently, ‘we can live with regulations, bureaucracy and weak growth – all we ask is that Government give us a clear picture of what the future looks like so we can invest appropriately’.
David Cameron rightly cancelled his speech on Europe, scheduled for today, in light of horrifying events in Algeria. It was, however, widely reported that he was set to announce a referendum in 2018, with the exact question to be worded at a later date whilst he negotiates the UK towards, in any case a more distant relationship.
My views on the European Union are not for this article – but whether you are pro-European or otherwise, creating 5 years of uncertainty will harm the economy. Companies will be unsure of what regulations they will face, what trade deals will be in force, and in which direction the UK wishes to travel. Quite simply, they will invest elsewhere – and as a result we will see a weaker economy and a more divided country, with those less able to cope with economic fluctuations driven deeper despair, becoming more reliant on the state for financial assistance as a result.
The Labour Party, if it is to unite the country as one with a shared vision and a common purpose, must take its vision to the whole world – recognising the need to create the environment where job creation and economic growth is possible. It will need to steady a ship being lashed by waves of debt and uncertainty. To do that it needs policies that will make Britain the most competitive in the world. If international investors are, in the months ahead, put off by the Government’s approach to Europe, Labour has a duty to put forward its policies sooner rather than later so that job creators and international business can find hope for the future of our economy.
So to deliver One Nation, Labour has to get its business head on – and take a pragmatic view as to where the UK can lead the world. Nothing should be off the table. Even a country as great as ours cannot be One Nation in isolation. The whole world is watching.