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Torsten Bell: “Social democrats need to become insurgents”

The Labour thinker and candidate on how to save Britain.

By George Eaton

Torsten Bell is in a transitional phase. For almost a decade he served as chief executive of the Resolution Foundation, turning it into one of the UK’s most prominent and respected think tanks. The organisation shaped policies such as the furlough scheme and the energy price freeze and exposed the depth of the UK’s living standards crisis (real wages are still below their 2008 level). 

Now, Bell, 42, has resolved to “try and change the charts, not just draw them”. On 31 May he was selected as Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Swansea West (having served as policy director during Ed Miliband’s leadership). A fortnight later, his first book – Great Britain? How We Get Our Future Back – was published. There is an inevitable tension between these two roles: the free-thinking economist and the loyal candidate. In view of the general election, Bell, unsurprisingly, cancelled most interviews. But one recent afternoon, at a café in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, we met to discuss the UK’s future – and his own. 

Bell’s selection in Swansea West was criticised by some as an act of Westminster “parachuting”. But he is unapologetic about the circumstances.

“The Labour Party has its processes. You put in an application and then a panel from the Welsh executive committee and some local members – three from the executive, two from the local party – make a decision on the basis of the people that have put in. I’m very glad that people have decided that I should be their candidate. Every single member and voter l’ve met over the last few weeks have been nothing but lovely.” 

He added of his new role: “Some people have texted me saying it’s going to be awful because you can’t just say whatever you think and I think that is a misunderstanding of politics. That is the deal: you don’t want a dictatorship and all the other people who aren’t the dictator don’t want it, so the nature of politics is compromise.”

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The assertion at the heart of Bell’s new book is that the UK suffers from a “toxic combination” of low growth and high inequality. “Put those two things together and that’s what failure looks like,” Bell said. “That’s why you end up with poor families in France being 25 per cent richer – £4,000 a year – than poor families in Britain.” 

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt likes to boast that the UK has been the fastest-growing major European economy since 2010. But this, Bell said, reflects two things: a “bounce-back” after a deeper recession than most countries; and high levels of immigration. “In the end, that isn’t a sustainable way to grow your economy, it doesn’t raise your living standards per se… What we care about is GDP per capita and productivity growth and on that measure we are an absolute catastrophe.”

What of the charge from the right that high immigration – net migration of 1.9 million over the last three years – has depressed living standards? “The sceptics of migration, like Nigel Farage, and the proponents of more migration both overestimate its economic effect. You can be a successful country with high migration or low migration, what really matters is the type of migration.”

Bell acknowledged the negative impact of Brexit on the economy – “the evidence is now pretty strong” – but warned that it should not be overstated. “It’s not as if Britain’s economy was where we wanted it to be in 2016. We were already far too unequal, we already had lower productivity than most of our peers”. 

Throughout the election campaign, Labour’s leading figures have been challenged to define themselves: Keir Starmer has described himself as a “socialist”, while Rachel Reeves preferred “social democrat”. Bell characterised himself as “a bread and butter social democrat”. 

“That is what this country needs. I know people would prefer a brand new label but we need a growing economy and public services that are properly funded and able to deliver.” 

Since the 2008 financial crisis, I noted, social democrats have endured repeated defeats in Europe (not least in the recent parliamentary elections). “I don’t think that’s surprising, lots of those countries are fundamentally social democracies. And the public has seen the banking crisis, the Eurozone crisis and austerity,” Bell replied. “The question is whether social democrats can turn themselves from simple defenders of the system into insurgents. That’s what I hope Labour is going to do in government, that’s what I’ll be playing my part in doing.”

Bell was born in Greenwich, south London, and hails from a civic-minded family. His Swedish mother Clem Henricson is an author and policy analyst, who specialises in family policy, while his British father Bill is head of child protection at Save the Children. His identical twin, Olaf, is EU director at the Foreign Office – making them the most influential siblings in Whitehall. 

It was as a special adviser to chancellor Alistair Darling during the 2008 financial crisis that Bell, then in his mid-20s, first came to prominence. “He was a serious person doing a tough job at a difficult time. He taught me that good politicians are those that understand their role is to take a decision – that is literally the bit of democracy that matters.”

Bell visited Darling just weeks before his death from cancer last November – “he was clearly very sick by that point”. What did they discuss?

“We talked about life, about the kids, about the coming election. We talked about what a Labour government was for and would do and about what some of the previous ones had done.” 

As Bell recalled this final encounter, his eyes welled with emotion. It was evident how much Darling meant to him both as a mentor and as a model. “He knew that politics is a vocation: it’s not a game. It’s about how you run a country and it’s the best system we’ve found to date.”

In recent years, both the left and the right have accused the Treasury of obstructing economic growth. As a former insider, what is Bell’s view?

“I’m always sceptical of anyone either standing for office or in office who blames the system. The Treasury is actually incredibly responsive to its political masters and will deliver for them.”

But he conceded that the department had an “anti-investment bias” during the 1990s and beyond. “That is wrong, I think the Treasury would agree with that now.”

Dominic Cummings – who shares parts of Bell’s diagnosis – has declared that Starmer “just wants to be in charge of the broken old institutions and then do what the civil service tell him to do all day”.

At the mention of Cummings, Bell the politician is roused. “Dominic Cummings is someone interested in blowing up institutions, not in making the country a better place. I’ve no time for those people. They definitely shouldn’t be anywhere near government, they should be writing books, not standing for office.” 

In his own book, Bell calls for measures including the equalisation of capital gains tax rates and income tax rates and the introduction of new council tax bands or a “fully proportional tax on property values” (some might be tempted to view it as an alternative Labour manifesto). Does he hope and expect the party to tax wealth?

“I’m not going to get into individual tax policies because that’s for Rachel Reeves and others to worry about. But my view on tax strategy is that we do need to be careful as a country not to tax workers’ wages more than we tax everything else.” 

Though he is not yet even an MP, Bell is already spoken of inside Westminster as a future chancellor. Others speculate that, like Harold Wilson in 1945, he might be immediately promoted to the government frontbench. But Torsten Bell is, sensibly, not feeding the hype.

“I’m happy to do anything. I hope I get to spend some time on the backbenches learning, it’s a big change. I have spent a long time doing economic policy behind the scenes and I’ve got a huge amount to learn.”

[See also: Tim Shipman’s inside story of Brexit]

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Lammy Doctrine