Social justice in changing times

Anthony Painter

Yes it’s early. But the debate will be upon us very soon. Let’s be absolutely clear: the platform for change put before Britain over the last few years has been rejected. This basic truth has to be acknowledged very rapidly. Despite an incredible campaign full of energy, endeavour, and passion, there is little time to lick wounds. A leadership campaign is already upon us. This is not simply a choice of personality; it is a choice of programme. And if there is one thing we’ve learnt over the last 24 hours, it’s that the choices you make early on have a significant impact further down the line.

Change-22First, let’s address the Miliband legacy. There are two elements that should be retained. Miliband’s insight that a just future for the nation relies not simply on setting the framework but on rebalancing power within the economy remains important. It is a key component of a modern socially-just political economy. Pursuing economic efficiency is not enough; social justice is critical to. Ed Miliband was sometimes guilty of making the two things sound like they are one in the same. They are not but they are inextricably bound.Secondly, the process of politics matters. Miliband has conducted himself in accordance with the right set of personal and democratic values. That is to his credit. We have to internalise that if centre-left politics in all its plural forms is to become more attractive. This goes for the internal guild culture which Miliband wasn’t able to properly confront.

These elements of the Miliband legacy are critical but a long way from being sufficient in meeting the challenges of a modern society in the next decade. Labour needs a much bigger offer; a worldview. There are four major ways in which a Labour 2020 agenda could look very different to the manifesto put forward in 2015. The four main areas are a comprehensive vision of socially-just modern economy, a new participatory constitution, expression of complex and shared identities, and a state and society empowered by new technology. The means of achieving change will be open, creative and adaptive institutions.

Inequality has economic consequences but that is not an economic vision in and of itself. The question Labour has to address early on is what is its analysis of global economic change including the rise of China and Britain’s pathway to becoming a high value, high productivity economy within that context. It needs a growth as well as distribution analysis. On fiscal matters Labour has to accept that the plan it has just put before the British people has been rejected. It has to quickly rectify the evasion about Labour’s fiscal record in the middle of the last government without conceding that this led to financial crash because it just didn’t. It also has to realise that what it says on fiscal policy early on in the Parliament will remain attached to it at the end. The next election will be in 2020 not 2016 and this was one fundamental error in the last Parliament.

A more modern economy would distribute productive capital on a wider basis. This means more self-employment, access to share capital in your firm, greater support for essential skills development. There are dozens of models across Europe and the US; the centre-left would champion new forms of productive capital ownership to better embed people in economic activity – promoting productivity and well-being simultaneously.

Labour has allowed itself to be dragged into constitutional discussions kicking and screaming in reluctance rather than leading on them. Very quickly it will need to demonstrate that the current vision of power within the United Kingdom is just not right. Yes, this is about more powers to Scotland and, yes, it is about English democratic institutions. It is also about how power is dispersed to people to enable them to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. Enormous and rapid devolution is critical but so are new technology powered democratic tools to enable participation in important local decisions. And the Labour party has to urgently recognise that its only ally in securing social change is not the trade unions. The civic space is innovative, creative and interesting and an ally for social justice – if only the Labour Party could drop its superiority complex.

Identity matters. It is not ephemera. Instead of falling into easy caricature about nationalism, Labour should look for where it can be aligned with its values and be absolutely clear and critical where it is not. There is good and bad – some very  bad – in Scottish nationalism (as would be expected in a pluralistic movement). Unfortunately, the type of English nationalism that we are now seeing is of the more antagonistic variety. Labour, again as part of a broader movement, can become a voice for an open and civic English nationhood – including English local and national political institutions. These institutions must be pluralistic. It would be a disaster for Labour to veer towards becoming UKIP-lite. An open society albeit with managed borders is in the national interest. This spirit of openness must apply to the Labour party itself. Tribal loyalty is becoming increasingly difficult to defend to the outside world and out of touch.

Finally, new technology is now a fundamental driving social as well as economic force. It opens up new possibilities for changing the nature of the relationship between the citizen and the state as well as the worker or entrepreneur and the market. The more technology can be harnessed through the right adaptive institutions and new connected professional approaches to change the relationship between people and public services, the more efficient and effective they will become. This matters whether we are talking about access to learning, ensuring criminal justice works, or people with long-term health conditions and social and nursing needs are well catered for. The more efficiently and effectively this can be done, the more state resources can be freed up for investment in housing, infrastructure, education, health and so on. Labour must ally technology with frugality and adaptability.

I don’t know who is the right leader to take forward such a radically different approach for Labour. Like tens of thousands of others I’ll be listening closely over the next few days, weeks, and months. And I hope it is months- this is not 2010 where Labour is leaving office and has a record to defend. It remains in opposition so it can take time to have a proper debate about the future path of the party. Let it take that time and allow the right leader to emerge. There is no point going for the continuity candidate. Some elements of the legacy should be retained but there needs to be a bigger articulation of enormous challenges in a different and changing global society.

There is a deep sense of sadness that Ed Miliband is not Prime Minister today. But we can’t allow ourselves to tarry in looking towards the future – to 2020 and beyond. Labour’s first attempt at a post new Labour modernisation has sadly fallen short. But we’ve done this before and we can do it again. It won’t be the same as before; the challenges are somewhat different. But if Labour gets this right, we won’t feel the same in May 2020 as we feel in May 2015. This is a challenge but not a crisis. It can be done.

*For further details on the ideas above can I recommend some further reading? Firstly the concluding chapter of Left without a Future? provides some detailed thoughts. Secondly, this piece on tech and political change for Progress magazine might also prove useful. I look forward to engaging in thoughtful and civilised discussion. Let’s start as we mean to go on.

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