The pandemic has been the harshest of challenges. It has exposed our fragility as a nation and presented grave new challenges. Though the vaccine roll-out through the NHS has been a great success that we should all celebrate, Britain has one of the highest death rates from Covid-19 in the world, with each death bearing a terrible human cost. The truth is that, throughout this crisis, the government has been too slow to introduce lockdowns, too reluctant to tighten our borders and too ideological in its approach to test and trace.
The challenges facing us all are huge. The United Kingdom has left the European Union and we must now redefine our global role in an uncertain world. And our Union is under strain: too often it feels like the UK and the individual nations of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have lost a shared sense of belonging.
And yet throughout the pandemic the people of this country have demonstrated their spirit of decency, kindness and resourcefulness. Once again, the British people have shown themselves to be better than those who govern them and better than their system of government.
The pandemic did not need to be so harsh: it was the insecurity built into our economy and our public services that left us so acutely exposed to the virus when it struck. On the eve of the crisis, the UK languished near the bottom of the European league tables for intensive care beds per person. Our PPE stockpile had been run down to dangerously low levels. Warnings from experts involved in pandemic preparedness exercises went unheeded.
The legacy of successive Conservative governments since 2010 is that we were less secure as a country, and less resilient in the face of a crisis. Our country and our people were left exposed to the pandemic.
That insecurity is endemic in an economy in which wealth is often extracted rather than created. It is rent and ownership, not productive work, which yield the biggest returns and which drive our deep inequalities. The British economy is not run in the interests of the British people. Our economic resilience has been weakened by low wages, depleted public services and by supply chains that cross continents. Deep insecurity is manifest in the millions of households with next to no savings and in the ongoing crisis of our fragmented, underfunded social care system.
The virus, and the measures taken to contain it, have affected us all, but they have not affected us equally. If you are poor; if you work with your hands or in a caring role; if you are from the north of England; if you are black or Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi, then you have been at greater risk of dying from coronavirus. Covid-19 has thrived on inequality and insecurity, which have been allowed to run rampant.
The depletion of our public services and the neglect of our care sector have taken their toll. The calamitous outsourcing saga during the pandemic has shown government at its worst: a state that is at once overcentralised and emaciated after a decade of cuts, with a well-connected few reaping the financial rewards. Children and young people have lost out on opportunities and many have suffered terrible setbacks to their education and well-being. We have been reminded that the security and health of each of us affects the whole: the consequences of insecure work, inadequate welfare and run-down public services have been felt by everyone.
And yet, through it all we have seen the strength and resilience of our communities. People in towns and streets across the country have come together to support each other. We have celebrated our shared institutions, even as they have been stretched beyond all reasonable expectations.
From our health service to the BBC, to the local efforts of councils, faith groups and schools, these institutions have all helped us through this crisis. We have been reminded of what we truly value as individuals, families and as a country: the family members we have either spent more time with than ever before, or missed desperately; the friends and colleagues who have helped us through difficult times; the local parks and open spaces in which we have found respite; the everyday kindness of neighbours. These are the things we love most of all about Britain and which provide the foundation for a decent society and a fairer, stronger country.
We can all point to different things that make us feel pride or a sense of belonging in this country. It might be the glory and breadth of our landscapes, from Land’s End to John O’Groats. It could be our music, arts and literature – whether it is Shakespeare or the Brontës, Philip Pullman or Zadie Smith. In Leeds, where I am an MP, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United might have achieved great things on the football pitch playing with freedom and togetherness, but through their affinity with the fans and the wider community, they have stirred something extraordinary in the city’s people, too. It doesn’t have to be the grandest things; for many of us, it is the simple, everyday rituals that make us feel pride in the place we call home.
What we sometimes call “British values” – democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, tolerance and mutual respect – are not “British” because they are unique to our country, or found in our blood or in the air. They are a product of our history and of the struggles of working people. Our values have been shaped every bit as much by those who have chosen to make this country their home, as those who were born here.
The best of Britain’s history can be found in the times we have come together, whether in the fight against fascism or to rebuild society after the Second World War. It is found in the story of working people uniting to support each other, to demand security from the effects of unrestrained markets and the right to share in opportunity. And it is found in the gradual expansion of our national community and the struggle to give voice, membership and security to those who were once excluded – from the fight for women’s suffrage a century ago, to the extension of rights and legal protections to minorities and women across the last six decades or more, to the Black Lives Matter movement today.
Labour was founded to give voice to working people at a time before many men, and any women, had the vote. Labour spoke for the whole nation in opposition to the vested interests that dominated politics. Our roots lie in England, Scotland and Wales – from Lanarkshire, to Merthyr Tydfil, to Bradford, to the East End of London. Over the last hundred or so years, Labour has played its part in building the British nation. In the first decades of the last century, Labour in local government built libraries, public baths, housing, utilities, hospitals and local parks to sit alongside our pubs and post offices, providing a base for healthy, happy lives and strong communities. We can still see the landmarks of that extraordinary drive today: from London’s lidos, to Bramley Baths in my Leeds constituency, to town halls and civic buildings across the country. In 1940, the Labour spirit of standing together – of standing together as a nation – led the party to form the coalition government with Churchill, uniting the country in a moment of great danger. This spirit drove the building of a new settlement after 1945 as Labour took power under Clement Attlee’s leadership, creating modern industries working together for a common reconstruction, raising the standards of living for all and guaranteeing economic security and free access to healthcare.
In those postwar decades, the people of Britain benefited from modern railways, electric power and gas. Things were built to last. Labour spoke in the name of the people against the private interests that held back investment, slowed the modernisation of the country and clung on to undue privilege. It stood for fair rewards for workers, and for greater security for families, communities and the nation.
After 1979, the UK economy was reshaped around a much narrower set of interests. Many of the national assets built up over the postwar decades were sold off or run down. No other Western country has allowed so many of its strategic assets, great companies and public services to be captured by overseas interest. Rather than investing the proceeds in the modernisation of our manufacturing base or in our people, tax cuts were awarded to the rich, North Sea oil revenues were squandered when we could have created a Norway-style sovereign wealth fund, and great British industries – and the jobs that went with them – were left to collapse faster and more precipitously than those anywhere else in Europe.
Over the subsequent decades, the economic fortunes of individuals and of regions diverged sharply. It became increasingly hard to believe we were all in it together. Politics and business alike became increasingly detached from people’s lives.
Meanwhile the state itself was being marketised and privatised. Outsourcing created a shadow economy of crony capitalism: unaccountable, extremely lucrative and frequently ineffectual. Money extracted from the public sector was handed to wealthy directors and shareholders. The consequences have been stark: deteriorating standards, mismanagement, corporate greed and, in the case of the construction firm Carillion, self-destruction. Working people paid the price in lost jobs, incomes and pensions.
The last Labour government rescued underfunded public services, instituted the minimum wage and built new institutions fit for a modern and multinational state, from Sure Start Centres, to devolved assemblies and parliaments for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But Labour maintained the country’s overreliance on outsourced provision and accepted too late the need to change more fundamentally how the UK’s economy works.
These trends have resulted in the sight of a depleted state turning to outsourcing giants to step in and provide key parts of our coronavirus response. Rather than trusting local people or public health professionals, the government turned to companies with impressive track records of securing government contracts, but poor records of delivery. This way of working – in which decisions are centralised and delivery is outsourced – reached its nadir with the contact tracing debacle. The government would not put its trust in the local councils, public health workers and all the other ordinary people who knew their communities best and were well placed to deliver the service; instead, Serco employed workers on minimum wage, with minimal training, to deliver the service from a centralised call centre. Meanwhile, devolved governments and regional and local leaders in England – often those who can best speak up for the needs of their communities – have been treated with contempt.
The pandemic has revealed a great deal about our country. It has shown beyond doubt who the real key workers are. They are the hauliers, supermarket workers, fruit and vegetable pickers, bus and delivery drivers, care workers, cleaners, all those working in our schools and, of course, our NHS staff. While many middle and higher earners have been able to work from home, it is those who work with their hands or in caring roles, often on lower wages, who have put their health at risk to keep the country going throughout the worst moments of this crisis. They are the foundation of the economy, and yet they are among the most underpaid and undervalued in the workforce. They have been badly let down by their government and they have been most exposed to the virus.
Then, we have been reminded of what matters in our own daily lives. In this global crisis, many of us have found our lives have become more local, more centred around the place we live. Yet the pandemic threatens to accelerate the decline of our high streets as local businesses struggle with uncertainty and inadequate support from the government. Amid the long hours spent indoors, we have learned the value of green spaces: our parks and woodland, countryside and coastline. Most of all, it is our relationships that have kept us going, whether it’s the children who make you laugh at the end of a difficult day, the grandmother you’ve taught to use FaceTime, or the shopkeeper who asks after you. In its cruellest moments, the virus has isolated us, denied us the chance to be with loved ones, and kept families apart at the end of life.
Labour faces an uphill battle to regain the trust of voters who have lost faith in us over the last decade and more, and to build a broad, national coalition. Long-term structural trends have weakened our electoral position. First, falling industrial employment, declining trade union membership and shifting social values transformed British society. People expected greater autonomy over how they live and new opportunities for consumption. We could not, nor should we want to, roll back many of these changes which took place in the postwar decades and which brought greater equality, recognition and opportunity for many people. However, the conditions that secured Labour’s success in 1945 and 1964 disappeared long ago, and Labour struggled to adapt.
In 1997, New Labour offered an optimistic story about Britain. In electoral terms, the party enjoyed a period of success unparalleled in its history. But, over time, it lost significant parts of its voter base, revealing a new set of challenges. Some voters felt ignored or left behind by Labour, especially those who did not live in big cities. Labour appeared too relaxed about the impact of rapid changes in our economy.
In recent years, Britishness has lost some of its political salience with the rise of more assertive Scottish, Welsh and English national identities. Nowhere have the consequences of this been starker for Labour than in Scotland. Across all nations, however, new political fault lines around age, education and geography have become more conspicuous and reconfigured the electoral coalitions of our major parties. And Labour has been too slow to recognise and adapt to these changes. People left Labour – often because they felt that Labour had left them.
Today, the answer to Labour’s political crisis is also the answer to Britain’s national crisis: telling a powerful, inclusive story about the Britain we can build together.
Labour’s history is one of nation-building, of creating a thriving economy on strong, secure foundations. It is through that powerful vision of a new United Kingdom that we can transcend our divisions. City or town, young or old, Leave or Remain – British people have more in common than the polarisation of recent years would have us believe.
Yet we will fail if we seek to reinvent our past achievements. We cannot simply look back. We must celebrate and govern the country as it is today, not as some believe it is or wish it to be.
What comes next should look profoundly different to what we have seen before. We recognise people’s desire for power and control over their own lives and the places they live, alongside the need for greater security as well as opportunity. We will tell a compelling national story about a revitalised and more democratic Union in which places, regions and nations are all recognised and valued equally. We must rise to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of the future: chiefly, by combating the climate emergency and investing in greener jobs, homes and infrastructure.
This task is to rebuild a national economy on strong foundations. In this endeavour, government must work with and support all those prepared to put national reconstruction first – managers, small business owners, workers, unions and beyond.
But national renewal cannot be measured in GDP alone, or in the success of our most productive, best-paid sectors. It will be measured in our achievements in generating good work and thriving places in every part of the country, and in reducing carbon emissions. We must bolster our economy’s foundations, ensuring good work, wages and services in those sectors in which we all participate and upon which we depend: care, health and well-being, education, transport, homes, utility, broadband, retail, food and agriculture. It will mean working to ensure everyone in every place has access to parks, libraries, spaces for the elderly and young people, and good local businesses including shops, pubs and cafés.
This endeavour will not just be about the role of government. It will be a partnership of the state, business and civil society. It will be about drawing on this country’s immense resources and making use of the talents and strengths of all people, whoever they are and wherever they live. The goal must be for people to enjoy strong local government supporting their communities, to have a greater say in how services are delivered and to be able to shape the future of their nation – all within a Union that makes us stronger and more secure.
First, we must win back the trust of those voters who have left us. Labour will champion common decency and togetherness so that we can forge a new path for Britain. We want this to be the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in. For all of us, however we vote and wherever we come from, rebuilding a stronger and fairer society as we emerge from the pandemic must be a national undertaking.
This article appears in the 10 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Grief nation