The Chancellor’s Budget message is clear: we are optimists about Britain’s future. We believe that Britain can win in global markets. And here at home, the right decisions — about jobs, tax and public services — can spread that wealth fairly.
It’s a message that matches the mood on the doorstep. And it sets the scene for the decades ahead. Let me explain.
Knocking on doors throughout the winter, I’ve felt the national mood change. People have gone from thinking a week ahead — would they still be in a job? Would their hours be cut again? Would another shift get taken off? — to thinking about the future.
They’re asking how we will help them get and keep good jobs. Will they and their kids get public services that help them turn their aspirations into success? And can we regain and retain a sense of community in a world which is changing before their eyes?
These are themes that must be taken forward in our offer to the British people at the next election, which, as Gordon Brown says, will be the first election of the global age.
Globalisation has dominated the years since I left university. Before the crash, the past decade had seen the greatest lift in world trade and world wealth since the Second World War. This great global growth helped Britain grow faster than Japan and continental Europe for the first time in a century.
But the 200-plus residents’ meetings, the school-gate surgeries and street surveys I’ve done in Hodge Hill have taught me a great deal about how people in my constituency think about their community’s connection with this new “globalised” world. And it’s fair to say that they are not exactly head over heels in love with it.
Looking for a payback
Unless we share the “prizes” of globalisation with those who feel like they are paying a “price”, people will not vote for it. In Europe, the far right is on the rise. In the US, only 59 per cent support the idea of the free market. There is nothing inevitable about “open”.
So, looking ahead from this Budget, we need a manifesto for global gain — not global pain — for the aspirational voters who decide the outcome of every election fight. And that starts with jobs.
In Hodge Hill, residents are not just interested in work that simply pays a wage. They want work that paves the way to a better life for their family.
They know that might require them to improve their skills. And they are happy to do it. But they want to know it will have a payback. Which is why skills have to be part of our agenda.
New Labour should be prepared to strike a new bargain with business. We should say: We will invest in the innovation and infrastructure that make you more profitable. But if your workers get skills that help your profit grow, then you should give them a pay rise. This will require us to forge a new partnership with business whereby employees can make progress and get the rewards.
Second, we have to show how public services will add to people’s ability to get on and have the quality of life they are aspiring to. As I have argued before, I don’t think that means we can limit our agenda to more and more choice.
What people really want is control. Sometimes that means being able to choose a different GP, or a better school a bit further away. But sometimes it means more power to change the school that is at the end of the road, or the beat patterns and priorities of your neighbourhood police team.
We have transformed the quality of public services in Britain. We should be so proud of this that we should never flinch from trumpeting what’s changed.
But I think we can also admit that we have spent too long pushing an account of “supply-side” reform in public services and too little about giving users more power. “Choice” promised more than it could deliver because it came without greater control and personalisation. More emphasis on “demand-side” reforms — guaranteed entitlements to service, online access and customisation, individual budgets — which in turn shape public-sector provision, must be next.
Third, let’s be the party of strong communities. I serve a very multi-ethnic community. But every corner of my community would be more comfortable with change if the people felt the place they lived would still feel like home in ten years’ time. People know nostalgia does not pay the bills. But they treasure familiarity. Of habits. Or traditions. Of strong connections with their neighbours.
Yet, right now in Britain, we drastically underestimate how much we have in common with our neighbours: there is no moral schism today in Britain because, overwhelmingly, the law-abiding majority is not only bigger than it has ever been, but it shares some common causes.
Like being a law-abiding neighbour. Like getting a job if you can work. Like being a good parent. Labour is the party of these ideas. But we must also be more imaginative about ways of renewing civic life — as our great-grandparents were when they built Britain’s urban fabric in the 19th century.
A network with a purpose
Policymaking in government can help foster a greater sense of community and reciprocity. But one of the other ways in which this can be done is by changing the way our political parties serve our communities, making them a force for social action.
Pretty soon after being elected, I found out that my constituents were much less interested in the minutiae of Westminster-focused constitutional change than I am.
They wanted to know what the Labour Party would do to change what going on outside their front door.
Make no mistake, traditional forms of political reform, such as a democratic House of Lords and votes at 16, both of which I support, will be important at the next election. But this is the hardware of political reform. Let’s change the software, too.
That is why we built up a new network of community activists and social entrepreneurs — two of whom are now standing in council seats for Labour in Hodge Hill in May.
That’s why we should all want to transform the mission and purpose of the Labour Party, from being a force that mobilises communities for political ends, to mobilising politics for community ends. You might call it a return to our oldest traditions.
So, in this next election, Labour not only has to show it has a plan for global growth, we have to prove we’re the party that will bring home the bacon for ordinary working families. Giving them control over their public services; building stronger communities; and reforming politics on every street, not just at Westminster. It’s an ambitious agenda for the next five years — and one that is Labour to its core.
Liam Byrne is Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill.