Our politics has remained in near-constant flux since 2015. But, while it is difficult to predict what will happen over the next few weeks, it remains important that we continue to talk about the big questions which still matter, and will continue to matter, whatever Brexit outcome is reached.
In this extraordinary period for our democracy, we spend so much of our time consumed by what is happening today and what might happen tomorrow that we do not engage with the deeper questions that led many of us to engage with politics in the first place. And yet there is a widespread public interest in discussion and debate. What is a good life? What kind of country do we want? We need to ask ourselves these bigger questions.
We have a crisis in our democracy and one major cause is our model of capitalism. The old neoliberal economic settlement is exhausted and there is now a struggle to create a new economic settlement for the decades ahead.
The dominance of liberal market ideology and policy has privileged and rewarded the rich over the poor, the older over the younger, the educated over the non-educated, the south over the north, and cities over towns. Its impact has weakened institutions, local cultures, communities and forms of solidarity which once protected people from the commodification of their work, the destruction of the places they lived in and the nihilism of the market. We are living with its consequences in the form of deep inequalities, the injustices of class and poverty, social anxieties and the rise in loneliness.
These social divisions and economic pressures have coalesced around class and geography. Where you are born and who you are born to increasingly define not just your life chances, but your life expectancy. We face political divisions, new and old, of age, tenure, education, and more – but class remains central. However, it is no longer the old class system of industrial society. That had begun to change in the 1950s. The changing nature of the economy has deepened divisions between the working class which have come to the fore since the 2016 Brexit vote.
Labour is proof of these dramatic social changes. While in 2017, we made advances in many areas that were more educated and better-off, we have faltered in some of the ex-industrial areas that were once born and bred into Labour. If Labour is to govern in the future, then it needs to bridge the class-cultural divisions which threaten to pull our coalition apart. It means being able to speak for working- and middle-class people in cities and in ex-industrial towns, who may be divided by Brexit but are united in disillusionment from an economic settlement, whether it is in the form of the unmanageable cost of living in our cities, a lack of jobs and opportunity at the periphery, or the decline of our social infrastructure everywhere.
I believe the way to build these bridges starts with the everyday economy.
The everyday economy is made up of the services, production, consumption and social goods that sustain all our daily lives. Its core activities include transport, childcare and adult care, health, education, utilities, broadband, social benefits and the low-wage sectors of hospitality, retail, food processing and distribution. This core employs around 40 per cent of the workforce in England and Wales. It is a great unifier because everybody in all parts of the country participates in it and depends upon it.
By reforming and developing the everyday economy we can shift the balance of power between capital and labour to improve productivity and the wage share of working people. We can tackle poverty by developing policies across health, care, education and community to encourage social connection, the prevention of chronic illnesses, and the flourishing of family life and kinship. And we must be the pioneers of a new model of Labour statecraft that invests capital in the regions and which shares knowledge and innovation to generate local prosperity. Devolution can create power beyond the town hall to give people more control over the institutions that govern their lives.
In the wake of austerity these priorities can provide tangible improvements that repair the covenant between government and the people: protecting the security and wellbeing of family life; improving travel to work and working conditions; reviving high streets; ensuring better quality food, better children’s education, safer and more beautiful neighbourhoods. And they can attune public services to the needs of communities and individuals.
We need to remoralise our economy by encouraging the ethic of reciprocity and by reforming its institutions to deliver better market outcomes and a much fairer distribution of economic goods.
In a new pamphlet, Everyday Socialism, I and a group of writers, thinkers and politicians from across the left and centre-left put forward the case for this kind of vision.
This is a politics that believes in the power of relationships to transform people’s lives. It is Labour’s historic role to be the party of all working people, and that will mean finding a way to talk about priorities beyond Leave and Remain. We will win when we have a compelling story to tell about the future of the country.