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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.