Idleness: Where the right offers grievance, the centre-left needs to offer an answer – and honesty, writes Pat McFadden
Take back control’. ‘Make America great again’. Two winning slogans from campaigns that have changed the face of politics in the United Kingdom and the United States. Successful as they are, these slogans are revealing about the leadership being offered to both countries. ‘Back’ and ‘again’: they want to restore a glorious past rather than create a better future for all.
Events of the past couple of years have taught us that appealing to a desire for a better yesterday can win elections, particularly when some of the grievances about today are rooted in genuine economic disaffection.
But they have not changed my belief that good leadership is about equipping a country to succeed for tomorrow.
The search for a rewind button is ultimately a dishonest response to discontent over globalisation. The take back/bring back formula will not solve people’s problems and the upheaval in our economies over the past two decades is not going to stop any time soon. Instead, the real question is to how the same forces that have caused so much disruption can be channelled into the public interest and a common good.
Take the most contentious issue facing the country – immigration. It is inescapable that every modern country is likely to be more diverse in the future than it was because it is easier for people to move around the world than it used to be. That movement can be for both benign and darker reasons. It can simply be the desire for a new job and a new life, enabled by cheaper travel and faster flowing information. It can be because the opportunity is there as a result of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the freeing of eastern Europe from tyranny. Or it can be fleeing war and persecution.
Rather than pretending we can return to a pre-immigration past, the real debate should be about the rules on which this movement takes place, the common bonds of values that tie a country together as it becomes more diverse, and the obligations expected from people who make a new life in the UK for the good society to flourish and the fair allocation of public goods to take place.
In the same way, the technology that changes the nature of work and may replace all kinds of jobs or professions in the future cannot be uninvented no matter how many walls we build. Nor will China, with its vast power to manufacture huge quantities of goods disappear, although it may be challenged by even hungrier and more nimble developing countries. Again the task here is the rules under which these processes unfold and the obligations including taxation, employment rights and consumer standards of the corporations who are gaining most from them.
My point here is not to argue that we are powerless or say we should simply submit in the face of change. It is about recognising what is bringing change and what national governments and groups of them working together can do to help their citizens benefit. On all these fronts – immigration, globalisation, technological change, the leadership question should be this: how do we ensure changes that are taking place throughout the world can be shaped to work in people’s interests rather than disempowering and disenfranchising people? And, crucially, the starting point of such leadership should be honesty. I do not believe progressives can rebuild trust and respect with voters by failing to tell the truth now about what is driving change in their communities or about what it is possible to change that will make a real difference to people’s lives. When we have answered those questions in the past with honesty and pride we have won respect, won votes and achieved real progressive change.
The implementation of the William Beveridge’s report for the post war generation sought to address the challenges of the time. The reason why the Labour government that did it holds such a special place on our hearts is because it directly addressed what was wrong with the country and sought progressive answers to the problems. Three quarters of a century on, we face new challenges and we need new answers.
The political right have already offered their answer – a blend of nationalism and nostalgia centred on Brexit. The centre-left in Britain must, if we are to address the anger felt in so many parts of the country, do more than just say the right’s answer is wrong.
So great is the scale of disaffection in working class communities, it demands a response on the scale of a modern-day equivalent to George Marshall’s European Recovery programme – more commonly known as the Marshall plan – that rebuilt Europe after the second world war.
First, we should place education at the cornerstone of our new agenda. The chances of children in the UK fulfilling their full potential varies vastly depending on their background and where they live. Nursery schools in my constituency report a gap of a year or more in the development of some children compared to others – even by the time children are starting aged between two and three. It amounts to disadvantage built in from birth. We need a huge effort at the beginning of all children’s lives to give them the best possible start in life. Cutting nursery funding as the Tories are doing is the most irresponsible and stupid cut of all. We are setting children from lower income households back even before their lives have properly begun.
From the very early years, right through the school system and in the post school system we should fashion a system of the highest standards and expectations and the maximum participation levels. For any country trying to succeed in today’s world the question about a higher education participation rate of around 50 per cent is not whether that is too high, but whether it is too low.
Second, we must make work pay and make tax fair. The tapestry of work has changed with irregular hours, a gig economy, and soaring levels of self-employment. We are not going to a return to the labour market of the past. But we can do so much more to give people decent rights and security, to ensure that the burdens of life events like sickness and parenthood are not all borne by workers, and that the lowest-paid enjoy a decent and rising living wage.
And when global corporations can use tax arbitrage to take advantage of jurisdictions of convenience we must ensure greater responsibility in the taxation system. A big lesson of the financial crash must be that the state uses its power – and works with others – to achieve fairness on these fundamental issues of effort and reward.
Thirdly, we must recognise that the physical environment and the quality of our infrastructure is part of the glue of our society – and it is vastly unequal. The investment famine in some of our smaller cities has been ignored for too long. Places like the Black Country which I represent have never been given the help they need to recover from the closure of so much heavy industry in the 1970s and 1980s. No wonder people feel they do not have a stake in our national story when contaminated land, old mineshafts and derelict buildings stand as barriers to development and renewal. A decaying physical environment like that saps belief. There should be a major programme of land reclamation, house building and renewal in our towns and smaller cities. This would create decent jobs and work together; it would stand as a beacon of transformative hope for people in danger of giving up.
If we are to overcome the false prophets of the past and the nationalist right, the centre left has to offer an appealing and viable story of a successful future that people can believe in. Our moments of victory have always been characterised by optimism about what we can achieve together and a broad reach to anyone who wants to help us do it.
Shaping that story now is the task for our generation. Success depends on asking the right questions for today and seeking answers that go with the grain of the times so we can liberate people’s potential for their good and the common good.
Pat McFadden is member of parliament for Wolverhampton South East