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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit