Labour for the Long Term: Let’s bring ‘cathedral thinking’ to policy making

This summer, our forests caught fire. Some trees threatened by the blaze, such as California’s giant sequoias, are among the world’s oldest. In France, towns were evacuated. Even Ken Hill in Norfolk, the typically tranquil site of BBC’s Springwatch, went up in flames.

In 2019, a different fire tore through the Notre Dame Cathedral. The next day Greta Thunberg stood up in the European parliament and said: “I want you to panic. I want you to act as though the house is on fire.” She said that fighting climate change: “… will take far-reaching vision, it will take courage, it will take fair, fierce determination to act now. To lay the foundations, while we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling. In other words, it will take cathedral thinking.”

Notre Dame was built between 1163 and 1345, an engineering feat that required generations of masons and builders to bring into reality a vast cathedral, without electric cranes or computer simulations. The 200-year construction span meant that those who first designed the cathedral didn’t live to see the fruits of their labour. In fact for many of the original visionaries, only their great grandchildren actually got to see the finished building in all its glory.

As Labour for the Long Term, we want to bring this ‘cathedral thinking’ to policy making. This marks a stark contrast from the headline-chasing short termism of Westminster politics. Beyond climate change, we face huge long-term challenges: from pandemics and nuclear war, to harnessing emerging technologies.

Labour is well placed to build resilient policy that will outlive us and benefit future generations. Fleur Anderson, Labour’s shadow minister responsible for resilience, criticised the government for being unprepared for “whole-system emergencies” – those that are “so broad that they engage the entire system”. She said that “the threats we face are myriad, imminent and interdependent”, adding: “Flooding, storms, terrorist attacks, the climate emergency, power outages, industrial accidents, supply chain issues, financial crises, as well as future pandemics.”

Of course, these whole-system risks don’t affect everyone equally. As with Covid and the climate emergency, the poorest and most vulnerable are always hit hardest. We have set up Labour for the Long Term to focus on neglected, important issues with a long-term impact.

This includes, first, preparing for future pandemics. We weren’t ready for Covid. But what if it was just a dress rehearsal for a more contagious or more deadly disease? If Covid was a trial run, we failed the test. Thousands died before the government got its act together. Some people didn’t trust scientists or vaccines. Others stuck to what they knew (hand washing) when in fact the evidence pointed elsewhere (ventilation). For future pandemics, we need better detection, quicker vaccine and treatment trials and stronger distribution infrastructure.

Second, we must prevent the return of great-power conflict. This fear is catalysed by Russia’s brutal and unjust invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine’s resistance has been valiant and Labour has rightly supported the UK’s military aid. This is important because, without a unified position among liberal democracies, nationalist authoritarian leaders will feel emboldened to rip up the international rules-based order.

But the conflict also means nuclear war is a greater possibility now than it has been since the Cuban missile crisis. If Russia’s aggression and China’s rise means we are returning to a nuclear age, we need to be ready for it. During the Cold War, the West and Russia found ways of avoiding conflict and de-escalating tensions. Nonproliferation treaties were established, and certain technologies were monitored or restricted. We would do well to adopt a similar mindset today.

Third, emerging technologies present many opportunities and risks, known and unknown. Artificial intelligence (AI) could transform the NHS and scientific innovation. But AI that is not aligned with our shared human values could exacerbate social injustice, empower autocratic regimes and threaten the livelihoods of future generations. We need robust systems in place to prevent misuse, including in military contexts; investment in AI safety research; and shared standards so that we can hold big tech companies and governments to account.

The policy decisions we make today will affect future generations. Just as it is not too late to avert the more extreme effects of climate change, we have the power and the responsibility to plan for other large-scale risks.

Anneliese Dodds, who leads Labour’s policy review, warned last year: “Policymakers have traditionally paid extraordinarily little heed to the potential for crises like the current pandemic, and indeed to other challenges like the climate crisis. So we must act, now, to ensure that we never again enter a crisis like this in such a state of unpreparedness, so lacking in resilience.” That is why we set up Labour for the Long Term: to help us move beyond short-term fixes, and lay the foundations for a better future.

In the context of a cost-of-living crisis, and as the country faces all kind of immediate challenges, we understand that these issues may not be at the forefront of people’s minds. But we must act today to prevent greater injustices tomorrow. As Labour prepares for government, we want to be the movement’s voice for long-term policy thinking. We’d love you to join us. If you’re interested, check out our website and sign up to our mailing list. Together we believe we can make a difference: for now and for the long term.

Labour for the Long Term will be hosting its first event at Labour Party conference at 11am, Tuesday 26 September. You can find more details here.

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