Statecraft without statism: governing for shared prosperity in an age of austerity

The task is to seek material gains through a new, less transactional politics.

Whoever governs from 2015 will have to do more than repair the public finances, as tough as that will be. If shared growth is to be saved, an incoming administration will need to be radically reformist at the same time. This will mean fixing the structural failures that caused living standards to falter for all but the richest before 2008, restoring the three conditions of shared growth: fuller employment, a strong link from productivity to pay, and a sustainable welfare system for families. It will mean little less than re-crafting the state for new times.

Consider fuller employment. Simply returning the UK to a pre-crisis employment rate requires 850,000 more jobs. Even if the UK now emulates the strongest sustainable period of employment growth in the past 20 years –the late-1990s jobs boom – this will take until late 2016. We will not come close to this without steady growth.

But fuller employment won’t flow from growth alone. It will also require reform. The UK population aged 65 and over is growing twice as fast as the population aged 16–64, meaning unprecedented employment among over 65s is needed to stand still. And with soaring childcare costs undermining incentives to work, parents as well as older workers will need more support if people are to move into the new jobs we create.

What about productivity and pay? Anaemic demand has caused an unprecedented collapse in real wages and spikes in job insecurity. But around one in five UK workers were already paid below £7.50 an hour before 2008, trapped in sluggish swathes of our jobs market that have expanded over time. Meanwhile, the link from productivity to pay has eroded; only 18 per cent of pre-tax income now goes to the entire bottom half while 10 per cent goes to the top 1 per cent. None of this will change until growth returns.

But just as with employment, growth won’t be enough. Addressing low pay will require reform. In a society that is older, more unequal and increasingly online, the growth sectors of the future aren’t just hi-tech knowledge industries that create well-paid jobs but also low paying industries like social care, hospitality and logistics. The UK’s skills system and the structures in our jobs market don’t encourage good quality versions of these jobs. They need an overhaul.

Finally, what about welfare? How will families with children keep up with childless households as growth returns? No level of employment or wage growth can fulfil this function. Assuming that we don’t want to send children out to work, the task of sharing growth with larger households is necessarily one for the tax and benefit system – it’s one reason that tools like Child Benefit were created.

The squeeze on these forms of support is unlikely to end until growth returns. But even once a recovery takes hold, no-one seriously believes that today’s approach to family support is a sustainable settlement. In 2015, the UK will be left with two illogically separate systems of means-tested child support, Child Benefit and Universal Credit. Meanwhile, the coalition’s cuts work mainly by freezing and squeezing support rather than re-sculpting it. No party has yet set out which parts of the system should be protected or extended and which will need to be run down over time. Such decisions will be needed if the system is to be made sustainable.

So, ambitious reform is needed to save shared growth. How can this be delivered when there’s no money? One thing is clear: the answer can’t be to use the same approach as the last government, when so many major reforms relied heavily on a growing spending envelope, whether through large pay hikes for GPs’ extended opening hours, vast capital spending for early academies, or simply funding reductions in child poverty without contentious cuts elsewhere. Next time around, there won’t be money to oil the wheels.

In thinking about how to drive reform without money, a useful place to start is Jon Cruddas’s recent critique of New Labour’s statecraft. He argues that New Labour became managerial and bureaucratic, focusing overwhelmingly on material goals that under-emphasised culture, community and family and also became pre-occupied with state remedies. The result was a transactional approach to social problems like child poverty that had some major successes, for example, raising 1.1 million children above the poverty line, but that was also both too reliant on new spending, and too liable to lead to change with shallow roots.

The call for a richer, deeper statecraft – both less purely materialist and less instinctively statist – is a useful one when thinking about a post-2015 agenda on living standards. But it has both strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, it must be right that shared growth won’t be saved unless progressives break away from a cold arithmetic of cash transfers and distributional charts to argue for more structural reforms. On the other hand, by far the greatest challenge we now face is a material one of falling living standards. Now is hardly the time to retreat into a post-materialist politics of pubs, patriotism and parks.

So the task is to seek material gains through a new, less transactional politics, obsessing less with static charts of winners and losers and more with economic empowerment through reform, embracing an instinct to spread power in the market. That means rejecting power hoarding in the central state, including policy solutions that see poverty reduction as something done for people rather than with them, and shifting away from cash transfers towards structural reforms like investment in pro-employment public services and the institutions in which they are provided.

What could that mean in practice? On employment, the priorities are services that give individuals and families more freedom to boost their own incomes through work, like childcare and elderly care, and fully functional re-employment and support services for older workers as extensive as traditional job search services are today.

What about pay? A minimalist approach of ‘skills supply plus a minimum wage’ has proven a grossly inadequate response to the modern challenge of low-wage labour. A fuller response would make the Low Pay Commission worthy of its name with a broader, more strategic remit, advising the government on how to reduce the extent of low pay and assessing the ‘affordable wage’ that major sectors could pay without employment effects. This would need to be backed with stronger sectoral institutions to address the coordination failures that stop UK employers from investing in skills, and particularly long-term training relationships with young people. It will also require detailed work to raise demand for skills – for example, through the greater use of occupational licences.

The long-term view must be grounded in a recognition that shared growth depends as much on reform as on recovery. Broad-based real income growth won’t return until its three foundation stones – fuller employment, a stronger link from productivity and pay, and a sustainable welfare system for families – are back in place. Achieving this in the austere environment of the next parliament will require a new way of governing. It is a no less material agenda than those pursued by progressives in the past. But it will need a richer, more confident and less statist approach to reform than the last government, requiring a statecraft that is appropriate for new times.

 

James Plunkett is director of policy at the Resolution Foundation. He writes in a personal capacity.

A fuller version of this article first appeared in the February issue of Juncture.

Jon Cruddas, the head of Labour's policy review, has criticised the last government for becoming too managerial and bureaucratic. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Plunkett is director of policy and development at the Resolution Foundation

Getty
Show Hide image

Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear