Beyond Brexit: what might the Independent Group’s economic or welfare policies look like?

Chuka Umunna’s former policy advisor on what the new group should do next.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Brexit brought parliament’s rebels together, but it will take policies beyond Brexit to sustain them. So far, the policy statement of the Independent Group reads like the red lines of the British electorate. Over many electoral cycles the revealed preference of the British people is for parties firm on national security, responsible on the public finances, sensible on the economy, and favouring equality of opportunity.

Being on the right side of these red lines is a promising place to start. But going beyond a loose grouping to become a real party people can vote for means colouring between those lines, creating a compelling vision of the future, rooted in the real experiences of people’s lives.

This may not be easy. There are good reasons why some of the group were formerly Conservative MPs and others were Labour. But it could also be an opportunity: to draw from left and right to solve the problems of everyday life. Rather than an amalgam of lowest common denominators, it is the chance to draw from the distinctive best of each tradition. Not bland centrism, but a radical programme to improve the lives of people in every corner of the country, at every stage of life.

Such an approach could, for example, combine the right’s focus on responsibility with the left’s understanding of the structural causes of disadvantage and the positive support people need to realise their potential. Both traditions could be mined for ideas to ensure that childhood is valued, work is meaningful, and retirement is secure, across every part of our nation.

From childcare to higher education to pensions to social care, the question is increasingly becoming how we share risks that fall unevenly, and how we encourage investments in ourselves that also have wider social benefits. Automatic pension contributions and student loan repayments are now a third line on many people’s pay slips, between take home pay and taxes. Instead of viewing these policies in isolation, an approach that draws from left and right could bring these disparate parts together in a cohesive whole, and extended to new areas of policy. These payments are not tax, but neither are they income: they are something in between, combining individual contribution and personal choice with government support. They strike a balance between individual and shared responsibility, while respecting the different choices people make. This is not big government, but the state enabling people to lead a bigger life.

On the economy, it means combining the right’s faith in business and entrepreneurship with the left’s concern for fairness and security, reshaping historic divisions between capital and labour into more collaborative, productive relationships. This is possible with three shifts: a fairer sharing of decision-making power within firms, as is common in countries like Germany; a more active role for the state in managing the risks for workers of structural change, as in Denmark; and fairer burden-sharing in gig economy jobs, not just between employers and workers, but also with consumers. Drawing from left and right would mean supporting cooperation between businesses to coexist with competition, a formula lying at the heart of successful clusters around the world.

Approaches to ownership have been a traditional dividing line between the collectivist commitments of the left and the individualism of the right. If capital is outflanking labour, as economist Thomas Piketty argues, and robots really are coming for our jobs, then the answer must be in ensuring more private sector capital is in the hands of ordinary people. Drawing from left and right would mean developing new mechanisms for collective investment, held equally so that all share in both downside risks and upside gains and, in time, reducing inequality.

In public services, combining left and right means integrated services built around the needs of citizens, putting people in control of their own lives. For the left this means accepting reform; for the right it offers better outcomes at lower cost. The citizen, both as taxpayer and as service user, is the winner. It could mean taking a life-cycle view of public spending. This would seek to correct the imbalance across the generations highlighted by former Conservative minister David Willetts, perhaps with an unambiguous commitment to investment in the early years and access to lifelong learning.

Finally, approach. If Brexit was the cause of the group’s mutual attraction to each other, it was the increasingly toxic nature of their old relationships that made it so much easier to move on. The Independent Group are onto something important in championing a kinder sort of political discourse.

But kindness is not just absent from our politics. It is absent from our approach to policy, from welfare to criminal justice to immigration. Kindness might seem a nebulous concept for an approach to policy, but it was been recently championed by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in her speech to the UN, and by former Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust chief Julia Unwin, who has considered its application to policy.

Beyond Brexit, Britain is crying out for change, for new ideas to address the deep inequalities and divisions that scar our land and pollute our discourse. Combining the best of left and right can help reframe the problems we face, and open up new directions for solutions. In doing so, we can start once more to make Britain a better place to live and work, to grow up and grow old.

Jeff Masters was Chuka Umunna’s policy adviser from 2011-15. He is now head of practice at Collaborate CIC, but writes in a personal capacity.