The bright side manifesto: why Labour must be optimistic

In trying to protect the people from abusive market forces, both the traditional left and New Labour disempowered citizens from shaping their own destiny. We need a new "people-led politics", says Stella Creasy.

Britain is being held back by the view that our future is a foregone conclusion. Whether the conversation is about deficit reduction or social change, there is a suffocating pessimism about the next decade. Yet the world that generated the financial crisis is also one in which global poverty has halved in 20 years. The world that produced climate change is also one developing house paint that generates solar power. We must never doubt the capacity of human creativity to solve our problems and secure progress.

It is up to the left to restore faith in Britain’s prospects and its people; to champion how and why – even in hard times – change for the better is both possible and desirable. There is no doubt that some are better equipped than others to navigate the challenges of the 21st century. Our purpose is not to fear or deny those inequalities – in resources, or skills, or confidence – but to understand and overcome them.

This is not a matter of more spending or more government. It requires putting members of the public in charge of their own destiny so we can prevent problems rather than just mitigating them. Such people-led politics is the way in which we save money and secure better outcomes for all. Radical and difficult to implement though it may be, it is the progressive future for which we fight.

The coalition’s failures show how the most expensive strategy of all is limiting your ambition to an accounting exercise, setting your goals by the money you have. Three years of salami-slicing budgets has led to increased costs elsewhere, whether through youth employment, underemployment, homelessness or household debt. This is a damning legacy in itself. Yet the travesty is just how many challenges of our generation remain overlooked: an ageing population, sustainable growth, stubborn inequality. Reform has been driven by a narrow focus on current costs, not concern for the future.

The discussion of the reorganisation of our NHS has been dominated by the working lives of professionals who run it, not the changing health needs of the population. Education policy has been defined by an obsession with who is running schools, when our children need preparation for a digital economy where “jobs for life” no longer exist.

Those on the lowest incomes pay the greatest share of earnings in taxes, and so we have a duty to secure value for money. But our aim is social justice, not just efficient fiscal management. We know an unequal society is also a wasteful one. We all lose out when talent goes unrealised, whether in the child who might have grown up to cure cancer if given the right encouragement, or the invention that could cut carbon emissions, had the investment been there.

If we wait for problems to arise before we act, it is those with the least resources and fewest opportunities who suffer the most. Only 20 per cent of public spending goes on preventive policies, with 40 per cent covering the bill for failing to intervene earlier. We cannot afford to keep working this way – financially or socially. People-led politics means rebuilding our economy to help citizens become more resilient and more open to opportunities. It means reforming public services so that they don’t just tackle problems, but avert them.

With the pace of change in the global economy, no one can take his or her job for granted. British businesses are challenged every day by new players in different countries. The main threat to our living standards hinges on our ability to compete on an international scale. “Robosourcing” – machines doing jobs that were once done by people – accounts for more evolution in employment patterns than immigration. Our future prosperity will depend on our personal and national capacity to create and add value.

In this capitalist maelstrom, the potential for progressive revolution resides in human innovation. As the economist Adam Lent argues, the means of production are increasingly in the hands of workers. Starting a business once required considerable capital outlay. Now broadband and a PayPal account will do. Our youth embrace this. In 1998, just 17 per cent of 18-to-29-year-olds wanted to start a business –now it is 30 per cent.

This ethos hasn’t been created just by the rise of the internet. The new enterprising spirit is no more defined by new hardware than the 1980s were defined by fax machines. This is a grass-roots, pioneering mindset – and it can be harnessed by the left. An economy which nurtures that spirit needs a government that invests in platforms for collaboration. Mentoring young entrepreneurs isn’t just about a fortnight of work experience but about giving businesses the incentive to provide courses, encouragement and funding.

By 2015, there will be more Britons over the age of 65 than under 15. We cannot afford to discard their expertise. Nor can we close our borders to innovation. Forty per cent of the Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants. In the future, concerns about immigration or pensions will be less about sheltering industries or countries from change and more about how to benefit from mobile populations. This requires bringing ideas and individuals of all ages and all nationalities together to inspire new growth.

The public is ahead of politicians on this. One in five has worked or studied in another country, lived with an overseas partner or owns property abroad. One in ten plans to move in the next decade.

Studies showing that on average each of us will have seven careers, two of which are yet to exist, are skewed by younger respondents. They move between occupations with curiosity and trepidation, given the risks and rewards such portfolio careers have. They need social security and trade unions that can adapt to this new way of working, so that people feel socially insured enough to exploit change instead of fearing it.

An economy structured to fulfil that goal also needs redesigned services. Only 15 per cent of a child’s attainment can be accounted for by school. Of course we should give priority to investment in early-years provision, but equality requires action on the 85 per cent, too. Stephen Twigg’s work reflects the need to provide pupils of all ages and communities with more pathways to achieve their potential: prioritising gold-standard skills and further education; engaging with parents; looking at models of mutual ownership for childcare and youth services.

Ten per cent of the total NHS budget is spent on interventions following the failure to tackle diabetes, not the diabetes alone. We shouldn’t accept health care that kicks in only when an illness is diagnosed. We should ask how it can keep us well, too. As my colleague Liz Kendall points out, this will entail an end to the false divide between services that address physical, mental, social care and housing needs. In an era of tight resources, we will do little for those with heart disease, cancer or diabetes by simply fighting for empty hospital beds, when we can be pushing for investment in community services. Addressing quality and reducing costs is not just about structures but about professional cultures. Family and friends with caring roles are crucial to outcomes when treating chronic conditions but too often they are not formally involved in planning treatment.

Such changes can occur only when users are asked to be more than consumers. They must also be partners and pioneers. To rely on either the market or existing state structures alone to provide answers excludes the ingenuity of the public. The left has always understood markets as a tool to facilitate social justice, along with other methods that foster collaboration in pursuit of shared ambitions.

Yet in trying to protect the people from abusive market forces, both the traditional left and New Labour disempowered citizens from shaping their own destiny. Both portrayed communities as requiring assistance to “build capacity” – by setting up countless meetings, bureaucracy or predetermined “choices” to tell people what to do.

People-led politics is not about getting better at organising consultation. It is about building the agency and ambition of all to act for themselves and each other. This entails devolving power and accountability to users and communities alike through personal budgets and mutualisation. Feedback forums and choice are useful tools but to empower citizens fully we need to engage them in conversations about the future, not just the present. Saving money in the long term will entail supporting people to become responsible for reducing their own risks; it will also require co-operation between services so that they are built around the needs of citizens and will strengthen the public’s right to participate in decisions about their own care.

Our fate rests not just on managing problems but on asking how we can realise the potential in each of us for the benefit of all of us. Tim Berners-Lee said of the internet: “This is for everyone.” Our mission is to apply the same principle to Britain’s future. Instead of fearing change, we should build one nation where the rewards that flow from embracing change are shared by all.

Stella Creasy is the MP for Walthamstow (Labour and Co-Operative)

Sunshine over a field. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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