Labour Together's editorials on the pressing issues of the day are based on the politics of Labour's Covenant. In this editorial we explore why Labour, to beat the Tories, must have a plan for national reconstruction.
Labour stands at a moment of decision. While it leads in the poll, its advantage is vulnerable to a Conservative revival. It has multiple policies which few can name. It lacks a narrative to organise them into a coherent and memorable story about the country. And it has no analysis of the times we are living in. A new political era is taking shape and Labour has been struggling to extricate itself from the past. There is a choice facing the leadership. It can lead the country into the new era, or it can be left behind.
Globalisation is giving way to a new geopolitical era. The world’s economic and political geography is being recast.(1) The upheaval of globalisation has created ‘torn countries’ in which political and cultural elites are estranged from their national popular cultures. Globally connected cities with their knowledge based economies and liberal modernity have detached themselves from their traditional, more conservative industrial, rural and provincial national hinterlands. The professional middle classes have monopolised national politics and control over culture and language. The result has been populist revolts that have disrupted and defeated the liberal settlement.
Cultural conflicts both within and between elites have accompanied the diminishing power of the British state. Decades of market driven reforms have decimated its administrative capacity. Over several decades government policy enabled monopoly corporate control to the detriment of the national interest. Strategic national assets have been sold off. Trade agreements threaten to integrate the national economy and services into the global market mocking the idea of ‘taking back control’. Just in time supply chains stretching across continents expose society to the risks of sudden radical shortages of medicines, food, and essential components. Nothing essential is stored for the kind of ‘high impact low probability events’ that have become more frequent.
The bi-partisan consensus on globalisation and a liberal market economy simply disregarded national safety and the UK's geopolitical and security interests.
Both Labour and the Conservative Party must establish a new radical consensus around national reconstruction and confront the UK’s long, slow slide into a chronic state of disrepair and dysfunction. There is the need for a more robust role for the state in the economy to safeguard national security, to concentrate on internal development, and to rebuild the relationship between government and citizen. For Labour this does not mean a return to its chronic statism, but new thinking about subsidiarity and the uses of intermediate institutions.
The Conservatives have responded with their White Paper on Levelling Up. It is not so much a departmental White Paper as a manifesto for reforming national government: a thirty to forty year proposal to reverse the long term historical problem of UK geographical disparities in wealth, income and opportunity.
In three chapters the White Paper sets out a systemic approach to national renewal. The first chapter outlines a brief, limited history of geographic disparities and signals the need for our own national response to be similar in kind to Renaissance Italy and the UK Industrial Revolution – what it calls the Medici model. Its analysis of the UKs economic geography identifies the essential role of place in the complex nature of national economic and cultural development.
Chapter Two provides an ambitious but feasible approach to the transformation of the governance of the UK. It is based on systems theory which matches the ambition of the Medici model through the enhancement of a variety of forms of capital – physical, human, intangible, financial, social, and institutional. In a critical analysis of past policy failures it describes a mission led approach to policy formation, which it combines with changing Government decision-making, and the radical devolution of power based on ‘earned autonomy’. Twelve missions are clustered into four focus areas that range across all the key Government departments of health, education, business, and culture, as well as the mayoralties and local community organisations. These missions are intended to ‘precipitate systems change through cooperation across the public, private and voluntary sectors’.
Chapter Three sets out the policy programme that will be driven by the private sector, civil society and government working in partnership. Specific interventions are designed to begin delivering the twelve missions.
These interventions have proved the easiest and most obvious source of Labour’s criticism of the White Paper. And there is plenty that can be criticised in its analysis and the way it deploys what are sometimes arguably dated ideas. It avoids the distribution of power and it is ambiguous about the need for a new model of economic growth. New funding is absent. Nothing is said about the centrality of land and nature (what it very briefly refers to as ‘natural capital’), nor the need for local tax-raising powers. However it represents an important break with the political orthodoxies of liberal market Conservatism and sets a new bar for Labour. The old liberal market settlement of free markets and globalisation is giving way to a more social and corporate future of national development and security. Politics is changing and there is a need for new thinking and new forms of political leadership.
Labour has been unable to break with the past. It remains by default a party still wedded to a City-centric model of national economic development that ultimately relies on wealth trickling down. It is a model of industrial policy that perpetuates the cultural, political and economic dynamics of globalisation that broke apart Labour’s electoral coalition, and which has lost it successive elections. Added to which it risks pursuing a constitutional convention that will balkanise England into a series of regions, denying the English constitutional representation in the hope of achieving a balanced settlement of the Union. It’s no way to win back the English vote, necessary to win a general election.
There is plenty to suggest that the Conservatives will struggle to achieve the goals of Levelling Up. It already looks marginal to Government business. Ukraine and the cost of living take precedence, Rishi Sunak is unsympathetic, and Boris Johnson has a notoriously short attention span. Failure will threaten the Conservative’s new electoral coalition. It will isolate and undermine those within and around Government who are trying to move beyond Thatcherism and define a new settlement to replace neoliberalism. The failure of Levelling Up might seem a reason for Labour to cheer, but without an alternative plan from Labour, the country will be the loser.
The failure of government to shift the political terrain onto national reconstruction and away from free market globalisation, combined with Labour’s own lack of a development programme, will return the country to an interregnum of political inertia with none of its structural problems addressed.
A small but significant group of Conservative politicians are attempting to define a new political consensus, but few in Government appear to support it and the Treasury oppose it. Labour has the opportunity now to contest the government plan for Levelling Up by matching its ambition with its own plan for national reconstruction.
It will require Labour to be inventive and ambitious, mobilising its resources and organising its strategy around the task of creating a sound, resilient national economy over the coming decade. This would include good work in every community, a green industrial policy for cities and towns, repairing and updating the everyday economy, and greater self-sufficiency in food, energy and essential manufacturing. This is the politics of the nation as our shared democratic economic fate, adapted for our multinational United Kingdom.
Labour Together built a coalition of support within the party around its 2019 election review. Taking our own advice we have followed it up with Labours Covenant , mobilising the coalition around a plan for national reconstruction. It is the great political prize. Whichever political party gets it right inherits the new geopolitical age of national security and a shared national prosperity. In the coming General Election, a plan will beat no plan.
See Helen Thompson, Disorder Hard Times in the 21st Century, Oxford, 2022