Beating Boris Johnson should be the start, not totality, of Labour’s ambitions. To become an alternative government in waiting, not just an opposition, Labour’s challenge isn’t unity, it’s direction.
In 1948 Britain feared polio epidemics. We built hospitals with wards full of iron lungs. NHS vaccination programmes all but eradicated the disease by the 1980s. Yet still bed-counts dominate thinking about healthcare, when cancer, heart disease and diabetes require different prevention techniques. If the language of priorities is the religion of socialism then keeping people well in 2020 means not waiting until they get sick and diverting resources accordingly. Socialism isn’t preservation, offering nostalgia about communities and services at the expense of shaping the world to come. When the ingredients of a BLT sandwich may travel 31,000 miles before arriving at your local supermarket we cannot pretend change isn’t happening. Neither is socialism protesting life is hard, inequality inevitable and campaigning to apportion blame – be it to immigrants, Europe, the city or London. It may be populist but it’s not principled, and nor will it raise anything except tempers.
Socialism at its best is about freedom, liberating each and all by tackling the inequalities that hold us individually and collectively back. It is not and never should be about punishing someone for being successful as a result of their talent or creativity. It recognises more of us are likely to be successful if we support each other to achieve our potential. What that looks like for every generation will change. Many throw around terms like neoliberal or leftist, but often these are applied to tools and resources, not principles. We shouldn’t hate markets or state institutions any more than we should fetishise them. Shaping the world to come needs us to cultivate the networks that can redistribute the ability to innovate from the grassroots up.
Innovation is what people do with assets they can access – be these financial, social or psychological. Inequality takes root in how these are distributed. Britain is becoming a nation where inheritance increasingly determines living standards more than any job. From April it will be possible to get more than a million pounds of property inheritance tax-free – yet nearly half of millennials who don’t yet own homes have parents with no property wealth and so no chance of joining them. The same imbalance is true across the regions and needs much more than the House of Lords or Channel 4 to be moved.
Discrimination also drags our economy; countries with more diverse public and private leadership are more socially resilient and economically productive which benefits all. Yet the left has form in misunderstanding how equality empowers shared prosperity – trade unions fought against women entering the jobs market in the 1900s using the ‘lump of labour’ fallacy; the same mistake is being made in how we view the impact of immigration.
Marianna Mazzucato famously identified how the iPhone developed thanks to government intervention. Her book The Entrepreneurial State highlights the radical possibilities of clever public interventions and being venture capitalists for the nation. Yet it requires the government to be good at understanding what assets the public need to be innovators. Nesta missed investing in touch-capable screens – it took another two years before it happened within the private sector.
Markets fail with horrific consequences for humanity. But state action can result in levelling down, not up – not through want of commitment – as it tries to maintain existing frameworks. This can disempower people even if what officials do should be in their interest. Special education embodies this paradox, with many parents now paying for tuition or watching their child struggle because they don’t fit a standardised service.
We may find working in more fluid, networked ways difficult. Others don’t. Its estimated there are approximately 1000 ‘county lines’ networks of criminal gangs enabling drugs to flow from inner-city areas to rural Britain through networks built on technology and brutality. Similar patterns also operate online to devastating effect- whether the arguments on Brexit slipped from Facebook feeds onto ballot papers or the toxic but effective anti-vaccination movement.
Governments good at supporting individual and collective innovation can’t do it for the public – only with them. We need people-first, not problem-first, approaches. Consider three traditionally separate concerns of personal debt, productivity and poor health. Since 2010 there’s been a ten per cent rise in lower-income households using consumer credit with the poorest ten per cent of households having debts three times bigger than the value of assets they own, while the top ten per cent have total wealth – property, pensions and other assets- worth 35 times larger than their debt.
Sinking in debt is connected to precarious work and poor health- affordable credit as well as jobs that pay a decent and predictable wage would help millions to sleep at night. Yet too often the left sounds like we can’t join those dots. We focus on social security and independently worry about social care for those in poor health and tax levels.
Government should regulate the cost of credit. But trying to dictate jobs from the centre or what people spend their money on is futile. With Sajid Javid openly admitting Tory Brexit will hit hard, Labour could respond by championing a future jobs fund led by local people. Across the world, progressive universal basic income schemes have targeted whole communities over a time-limited period – here it could help those who affected by the Brexit drag, and those living alongside them whose talent is as yet untapped.
Focusing on people, not providers, could also take on the healthcare timebomb we face. The majority of our nation is overweight or obese. Our annual spend treating this is greater than that on the police, fire service and judicial system combined. With fewer manual jobs and more technology, we are the first generation who need to consciously build physical activity into our daily lives.
Redesigning how we live to get us more active could also decarbonise our economy- but what that means will be different in Glasgow, Gateshead or Gloucester. You can’t do this effectively without public involvement any more than it would work to put Britain on a diet from Westminster.
Without intervention the intergenerational and inter-regional inequalities that plague the lives of so many will harden and the next generation will continue to get worse off. Conversely, a healthier, more empowered, higher-skilled and more connected country is possible with joined-up socialism. But it won’t happen if we are preoccupied with how existing services deliver it. To be capable of winning elections and changing the country again, the Labour needs most of all is to our ways of thinking about how change itself happens.