“They were careless. They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made”.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
One significant event hurtles after another. Political and financial uncertainty rattles everything and fear of further disruption becomes a disruptor in its own right. The temptation to batten down the hatches might make sense if we had some expectation that the storm will pass. As it is we cannot predict when the weather will change but we do know that it won’t be soon. We can’t wait. Our political leaders, actual and would be, in current formation or in new alignments, need a plan addressing the underlying causes of the Brexit vote (and the election result in 2015). It needs to be bigger, bolder and braver than ever before. And they need it now.
There are the obvious economic and social reasons why this matters and also, particularly for the Labour party, a political imperative. Tinkering won’t be enough to achieve the change that is needed, to even seem credible at this time, or to sustain the current political hegemony.
I am not sure whether anything can have five cornerstones but, if it can, here are the five cornerstones of my plan:
1) A proper regional economic policy: There are employment opportunities in London but a housing crisis. There are decent homes at a fair cost elsewhere but no work. The next generation in both places is ill served by the free market. The UK is a small island, probably getting smaller, a serious regional economic policy should not be beyond us.
2) Continuous Devolution: Devolution is the right idea, we need to double down on it – extending the principles to more places and to greater depths. All parties are committed in principal but what we are seeing now is a very small and watery version of a big idea. Relocating management of certain services from Whitehall to a very large city region like Greater Manchester is unlikely to make much difference to individual service users unless City Hall then passes on some of its devolved powers to smaller communities, ultimately to individuals. This is more than what the Labour Party used to call ‘double devolution’. This is a process of ‘continuous devolution’ – locating power and control in the smallest viable units. Only then will people begin to feel that they have control.
3) A rolling 10 year need reduction strategy with Future Generations legislation: The Early Action Task Force has shown that many public services are on impossible and divergent trajectories – rising need and diminishing resources. Without radical attention this will only get worse. The nation needs a ‘need reduction strategy’ i.e. service plans, budget processes, spending rules, inspection regimes etc. which take, at the very least, a 5 year view, better still 7-10. This approach to planning would lead to different kinds of decisions from the short term crisis management that already characterises many social spending programmes. The Early Action Task Force explains more in ‘The Deciding Time‘ and other publications. Longer term year planning and budgeting (just as government routinely does for major capital spending projects) would eliminate the false economies of quick fixes and genuinely prioritise the interests of future generations. The newly enacted Future Generations Act in Wales shows the way with a Future Generations Commissioner overseeing the delivery of this approach in all public bodies. We need a UK wide Future Generations bill.
4) A new Community Covenant: Many communities, particularly the most disadvantaged ones, have been hollowed out in recent years by national and global economic and political trends. The voluntary and community sector which should provide the infrastructure and individual support to help us all weather the trends, adapt to change, contribute and thrive has been decimated. Government needs a new, far bolder Covenant with the community sector, a Big Society type vision but this time with intelligent strategic intent, genuine government buy in, cross sector commitment and proper money.
5) Electoral reform: A universal suffrage that so effectively muzzles so many is not universal suffrage. Until this issue is addressed, our politics will never deliver justice, opportunity and voice to more than a few.
None of this is easy. All of it is necessary.