After years of division, let us face the future again

Wes Streeting
© Chris McAndrew / Wikimedia Commons

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the fragility of our economy and the insecurity of our society. We have a responsibility to make sure that the choices we make now don’t just see our country through this crisis, but build a better economy, society and world in its aftermath.

We should ask ourselves how it was that anyone ever thought it was acceptable to expect sick people to live on £94.25 a week and the unemployed to live on even less. We should question the political choices that have left older and disabled people languishing in a broken social care system and an NHS that struggles to cope with winter, let alone a virus outbreak. We should deplore the lack of global leadership at a time when the world needed so much more than slogans like ‘America first’.

When future generations look back on our response to this pandemic, they should be able to do so with the same pride that our generation looks back on the legacy of the Attlee government. Our 1945 manifesto, ‘Let Us Face the Future’, saw a Labour government elected that would create the welfare state and build international institutions that upheld a rules based international order rooted in the principles of democracy, freedom and human rights.

In that spirit, today I’m launching ‘Let Us Face the Future Again’ with the Fabian Society. It looks at five big challenges facing our country – economic inequality, our ageing society, technological revolution, the climate emergency and shifting global power – and considers how Labour might address them. It contains a raft of policy proposals for our new leadership team to consider.

The liberal market settlement born of Thatcherism is not up to the job of rebuilding Britain’s economy to work in the interests of everyone, but nor are the often hierarchical and paternalistic institutions of our existing welfare state. Both require re-imagination to meet the challenges of the 21st century. To tackle economic inequality, I argue for a new Beveridge Commission to redesign the welfare state for the 21st century, a universal basic infrastructure serving every part of the country and for the biggest devolution of power in British history to hand more power and resources to communities to give people more power and control over their lives.

The coronavirus pandemic has confronted many families with the harsh reality of our social insecurity system. We should commit to restoring a social security system worthy of the name, with income protection for people when they lose their jobs, support to get people back to work and a living income for those genuinely unable to work, because of ill-health or disability, that enables people to enjoy a good quality of life.

Older people have been left dangerously and avoidably exposed to coronavirus because of the failure to fix the social care crisis. In my chapter on our ageing society, I argue that we need to change our whole approach to old age. People should be able to look forward to retirement, not just to look back on a life well lived, but to live life to the full until the very end. That means introducing new national entitlements for care eligibility to end the postcode lottery, valuing our care workforce and biting the bullet on how we pay for it by reforming the inheritance tax system. As a country we should care more about how we fund the living, than about how we tax the dead.

We should see the disruption caused by coronavirus to the labour market as a wake-up call to prepare ourselves for the disruption coming as a result of the technological revolution we are living through. We’ve already seen the erosion of hard-won employment rights by companies like Uber in the gig economy. I argue for a ‘good work commission’, modelled on the Low Pay Commission, where government, trade unions, employers and other experts develop new rights at work as our economy and labour market changes, so that we’re levelling up, not levelling down. Labour’s proposed National Education Service understood that we’ve to provide education from the cradle to the grave to provide learning and re-skilling for a society that will be living longer and working longer. That’s why we should prioritise investment in early years, schools and further education.

One side effect of the global response to coronavirus has been the dramatic reduction in air pollution and harmful emissions. If we think the current disruption to our way of life is bad, it is mild compared with the destructive impact of climate change, which is already the single biggest cause of displacement and conflict across the world. Achieving net-zero long before 2050 must become a national mission, with enforceable targets, a Sustainable Economy Act, a Clean Air Act, a green industrial strategy to decarbonise our economy, a just transition to protect workers and a new mandate for the Bank of England to promote green finance as the centre of a green new deal for the UK.

Clement Attlee famously said that the price of freedom is still eternal vigilance. The world is changing around us. Global power is shifting from West to East. Rules, institutions and values that have underpinned international relations since 1945 are under strain and a backlash against globalisation has given rise to a wave of populism and extremism. It is not certain that democracy, rather than tyranny, will define the 21st century. I argue that our foreign policy should be based on promoting democracy, freedom and human rights, with a renewed effort to rebuild international institutions and an unwavering commitment to our defence and security and the international alliances that keep us safe.

After our worst defeat since 1935 we have a simple mission: to renew our party so that we can rebuild our country. I do not disavow the criticisms I’ve made about our leadership and direction under Jeremy Corbyn and I know that this will remain a point of contention with sections of our membership. As I argue in the pamphlet, changing doesn’t mean we have to jettison every policy, embrace the economics of austerity or ape the Tories to win. But the Labour Party will disappear quietly into a vacuum of our own making if we continue to debate the future as if it were a choice between two competing visions of the past.

I don’t pretend to offer all the answers. No one individual or political tradition has a monopoly on virtue or wisdom. But my arguments are unapologetically rooted in the mainstream centre tradition that has seen Labour win a majority on five occasions in our history and the revisionist tradition that has always understood that Labour wins when we apply our traditional values to the challenges of the modern world. Whichever side of leadership elections we’re on, we’ve got to build a more welcoming, inclusive and political culture. This is a responsibility we all share and in that spirit, I am happy to debate these ideas with people across our party. After years of division, let us face the future again.

LabourList readers are invited to join in the Fabian Society’s Zoom event to discuss the ideas in Let Us Face the Future Again, which takes place at 6pm on Monday March 23rd. You can register here.

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