When we talk about changing the UK’s economic model, it is often accompanied by cries telling us that Labour wants to take us back to the 19-somethings – usually the ’70s. And for the past four general elections, the public has indeed seen our manifestos as more of the same, or as unreasonable, expensive and impractical. As a movement, we must admit that we’ve failed, four times in a row, to connect with the electorate on the economy. It is why, even after the deepest recession for 300 years, the Conservative Party is still more trusted on the economy than Labour.
But a new economic model may have just fallen into our lap. The consequences of Covid-19 and the changing work patterns brought with it have actually proven rather popular with the public. Take the furlough scheme: it has been necessary to prevent a complete economic collapse, but could also be a blueprint for a future unemployment policy. Remote working has resulted in lower greenhouse gas emissions, cleaner air and less time spent commuting. You can now live anywhere in the UK, without the geographic restrictions of your employment.
The Tories quickly realised the consequences of this new normal and how it is deeply damaging to their landed interests. The hyper-financialised economy, built on concentrating wealth in the hands of a few, relies on the long commute to the expensive city office with sky-high rents. This is why, in the face of all medical advice earlier this month, we were being told to return to city centres en-masse. To the Tories, the old model was working well. Why should it change?
Rather than sit on the fence, Labour must be bold and capitalise on these building blocks of a new economic model. Our next policy platform should ensure that all workers have the right to request flexible working hours and locations that suit them – not just white-collar office workers. Wherever possible, workers should be able to work remotely if they can prove that they can do the job effectively, and employers should have no recourse to refuse them that right.
We would be wrong to think that this is just a ‘working from home’ revolution. The remote working idea must be tied into a larger economic agenda – one that brings with it expanding and improving broadband access, as well as improving education and opportunities for high-value tech jobs. This will require a comprehensive retraining programme that offers the in-demand skills of the 21st century. But crucially, whilst telling the public about our new model, we must make the case that this would redistribute wealth away from large city centres and towards towns up and down the country.
A higher standard of living, more free time, lower greenhouse gas emissions, cleaner air, greater employment rights, skills and education, greater opportunities and redistribution of wealth across the country. This is the change that Britain has been so desperately crying out for. It is the change that Labour must offer at the next election.