Getting the Future Back

Labour Conference

Gerry Mitchell17/10/2023

Source: @Vuelio

 

The narrow constraints that the Labour party has set itself were present at every fringe event at this year’s conference and the effect, like the hot rooms we sat in, was stifling.  In hushed tones, attendees spoke of the disciplined political messaging. They reassured each other that what was presented was surely the only pragmatic approach now that the party is so tentatively within grasp of power. The conference’s format mimics the inherently ‘top-down’ passive political culture in the Labour party more broadly, that I have written about before. The minority of the UK population who are politically active, motivated to attend and funded to be there, are contained within strictly timed fringe presentations, allowed to ask limited questions, take one or two photos, and rewarded with a drink afterwards.

The narrow parameters of those fringe events echoed the limited scale of planned investment that was presented at them. This was plain to see at Monday’s IPPR event ‘What does it take to be the first green Treasury?’ In the fall-out of Labour’s scaled back plans, Tanya Steele, CEO at WWF reminded the room that we now have a very narrow window to respond to the climate emergency, that the UK is woefully behind (and ‘green growth’ has been our best export because the capital and skills have already been taken up and used elsewhere). Luke Murphy, adviser to the Shadow Cabinet, spoke rather enviously of the vastly greater capacity of the US government to implement its green strategy. He also, as if to reassure the audience not to worry that proposed investment for a green transition has imploded because we couldn’t have done it anyway, made it very clear that our civil service has no such capacity, and, together with a lack of supply chains means that a new Labour government couldn’t spend £30 billion in its first year of office even if it tried. Nick Mulho, former executive director of the Aldersgate Group and former Head of Climate and Energy Policy at WWF UK, was at pains to express the financial and planning enormity of even laying the power grids for a transition.  I asked a question from the audience about what Labour’s strategy would be in relation to the top 10% of income earners, who are, globally, the largest emitters[1], but this was reduced to a discussion about flight tax, although acknowledged as an important and ‘live issue.’

As Common Wealth’s Mat Lawrence and JRF’s Alfie Stirling have argued, the combination of tight fiscal rules, high interest rates and debt servicing costs (not to mention the cuts already baked into government spending plans) will make it incredibly difficult to invest on the scale needed to fund their green industrial strategy while simultaneously reforming and repairing dangerously underfunded public services[2] and mending a damaged social safety net. The absence of a response to the tricky question of where the money will come from now that Labour has imposed this straitjacket on its projected public finance plans, was even more painfully evident at a New Statesman event with Wes Streeting mistitled ‘How Would a Labour Government Build an NHS Fit for the Future?” as most of it was taken up by reflections on his bestselling book and the remaining minutes reduced to spending air time reassuring the audience that attacking the waste and inefficiency in the health system would be the panacea to decades of relative under investment compared to just about any other European country.

It was at an event entitled ‘Cost of Living responses - who is missing out?’ hosted by Professor Kate Pickett, that the diminished and fragmented state of the Left really hit me. The roundtable, with experts from a host of NGOs, think tanks and charities, opened with a powerful testimony from a witness who is struggling to survive in 2023 Britain. As James Meadway and his contributors have written in, The Cost of Living Crisis (and how to get out of it, 2023 Britain is a country in which life's essentials, housing, food, and fuel, have become cruelly and unnecessarily unaffordable.”[3] Different NGOs, politicians – both local and national – applauded this witness and gave their organisation’s views on the current state of the social security system and other policies.

While various contributors lamented how atomised the policy discussion about poverty has become, not one person mentioned the political choices that led to this witness’s struggle to survive. No one dared join the dots.  We were sitting in a political conference, after all. This symbolises the disconnected truths that we are being asked to hold simultaneously in our collective minds right now.

Starmer told us at conference that “If you think our job in 1997 was to rebuild a crumbling public realm, that in 1964 it was to modernise an economy left behind by the pace of technology, in 1945 to build a new Britain out of the trauma of collective sacrifice,  then in 2024 it will have to be all three.”[4] However, in terms of delivering on any of this rhetoric, the shadow cabinet has a specific problem, namely the Labour party “has no substantive policies that would involve having to spend any taxpayer money.” [5]

As the latest Public Attitudes Survey results show, the public’s acceptance of a reduced role for government has been reversed by recent crises:  after the financial crash, 41% said that the government should definitely reduce income differences.  Now, after COVID-19 and the cost-of-living crisis, 53% feel that way.[6] To reflect public opinion, the job in 2024 would need to be, first and foremost, a complete reform of the tax system designed to tax income more heavily than wealth and which primarily addresses the extreme wealth inequality that none of those previous Labour governments faced. There are a host of relatively ‘low-hanging fruit’ and/or oven ready policies, as advanced by Arun Advani and colleagues[7] and which would provide the long-term investment that we all want. 

I took the opportunity to remind everyone in the at breakfast event with Anneliese Dodds (who might well be the next Minister for Women and the Equalities in a UK Labour government), that we find ourselves in a relatively poor European country with a few extremely wealthy people in it, and she visibly winced. Despite the very restrained messaging from a shadow cabinet desperate to convince both Labour and Tory voters that they can be trusted to balance the books: they were keen to emphasise that nothing will be rolled out immediately, that it is a ten year plan, that they very much want to work with business, but there was little, if any, reference to how to fund long term investment.

Reeves argued that “you cannot tax and spend your way to growth”, but if Labour really are committed to these fiscal rules and to not raising taxes, big questions remain over whether they can achieve their ambitions.

As Bell Ribeiro-Addy said at the conference:  “How we are going to pay for it, that’s what people really want to hear.”[8] Why not, as Julia Davies urges politicians, replace the word ‘tax’ with ‘investment?’[9] If the centre left don’t have the courage to change our public conversation on tax from a burden to an investment, what happens when the weight of expectation has given way to bitter disillusionment in the people who gave testimonials at Labour’s 2023 conference who then find themselves five years down the line of a Labour government, in worse circumstances. Roger Liddle cautioned Starmer about this in a briefing earlier this year, and concluded that a future Labour government must provide a “break out” from Britain’s present stagnation because that is “the only way to ensure it can be more than a one-term government.”[10] However, Liddle, as a representative of the Shadow Cabinet, avoids addressing the issue of the UK’s extreme wealth inequality and concomitant underinvestment. The closing words of Hans Christian Anderson’s story, The Emperor’s New Clothes come to mind:

 

"But he hasn't got anything on!" the whole town cried out at last.

The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, "This procession has got to go on."

So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn't there at all.

 

[1] see Uncomfortably Off, p.115

[2] Thanks to the New Economic Brief bulletin for this reference; https://renewal.org.uk/the-hammer-and-the-anvil-the-same-forces-propelling-labour-to-office-risk-fatally-undermining-it-in-power/?mc_cid=a039800b75&mc_eid=a46575d6c9

[3] Lapavitsas, C.; Meadway, J. and Nicholls, D. (2023) The Cost of Living Crisis (and how to get out of it), Verso: London: p.25

[4] https://labour.org.uk/updates/press-releases/keir-starmers-speech-at-labour-conference/

[5] Sam Freedman, ‘Comment is Freed’, 14.10.23.

[6] https://natcen.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2023-09/BSA%2040%20Role%20and%20responsibilities%20of%20government.pdf

[7] See https://arunadvani.com/policy.html

[8] https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/doctor-strikes-could-continue-under-labour-government-bma-chief-warns

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/jan/25/nadhim-zahawi-british-millionaires-pay-taxes-nhs

[10] https://feps-europe.eu/publication/prospects-for-a-keir-starmer-premiership/

Posted in: Politics

Gerry Mitchell

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Dr Gerry Mitchell is a social researcher, writer and political activist. With degrees from Cambridge and LSE, she was a PhD Associate at LSE's Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion and a Research Officer in its Department of Social Policy. Gerry’s research has focused on inequality (she was a contributor to and editor of the FEPS-TASC's report Inequality and the top 10% in Europe); the delivery of welfare to work and working tax credit programmes and the impact on those using them. Her policy experience includes working with Compass; the Houses of Parliament; the New South Wales Government Department of Training and Education and in frontline roles with disabled and long-term unemployed people; children in mainstream and special needs settings and in the NHS. Gerry is an active member of the Labour Party and stood as Parliamentary Candidate for Woking, Surrey in the 2019 General Election. 


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