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To achieve a new settlement, the Conservatives must champion the empowering state

The government should adopt a new programme that tackles poverty, revives industry and rewards workers. 

By David Skelton

The sands of British politics have been shifting for many years, with outmoded orthodoxies of both left and right being found wanting. The 2008 financial crisis and the EU referendum highlighted the inadequacy of orthodox neoliberal economics, while last year’s general election represented a powerful rejection of top-down socialism. A new common ground has emerged that sees good in both the market and the state, and emphasises the relationships and bonds that tie us together in our communities. It is this new common ground, with a focus on building One Nation and ensuring that no community is left behind, that should form the basis of a new national settlement as we emerge from the horrors of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This common ground has been evident in much of the government policy set out in recent weeks, with the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, arguing that “times like this demand that we put aside ideology and orthodoxy”. The response of the British people to the crisis has emphasised what is best about this country, demonstrating resilience and solidarity as we seek to overcome the worst of coronavirus. 

The NHS has once again shown itself to be a great national institution. The Queen’s address on 5 April reaffirmed the monarchy’s enduring role as a source of unity, while the importance of the BBC as a source of trusted information has also been reasserted. Almost a million people have volunteered to help the NHS, demonstrating that the spirit of community hasn’t been suffocated by marketisation and statism. Indeed, communities have pulled together across the country; community, place and belonging have seldom felt more relevant – affirming the point recently made by New York Times columnist David Brooks: “It could be that the neighbourhood … is the essential unit of social change.”

As we emerge from this tragic pandemic, we should look to protect and build on these national strengths, and the sense of common purpose, and forge a new post-crisis settlement. The NHS should continue to receive the funding it needs to provide the world-leading healthcare that has proved so essential. We should also develop ways to maintain the increased sense of community and neighbourliness. Government should do what it can to protect those local institutions, from pubs, small shops and public libraries to communal spaces, that are so important in binding communities together. 

As well as devolving power to cities and towns, we should seek to empower people in their neighbourhood and community. Initiatives such as StriveTogether in the US and the Wigan Deal in the UK show that community-based initiatives and collective impact projects, drawing on local knowledge and personal relationships, can inspire people to make a difference. Maintaining this revived sense of community also means restoring a sense of place; strenuous efforts should be made to enhance communal shared space and make town centres preferred places to socialise, shop and do business. 

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The pandemic has also, sadly, laid bare issues that have long been neglected. Just as a new settlement should seek to build on national strengths, it should also seek to address issues of socioeconomic and regional inequality, and deliver a future of secure, well-paid work.

Covid-19 has emphasised the impact that deindustrialisation has had on our ability to mobilise industry quickly. Underlying health conditions are more common in poorer communities and, as the Resolution Foundation has shown, the preponderance of low-paid and insecure work has made it difficult for many people to work from home and shield themselves from the health and economic consequences of the virus. The poor quality of many low-cost houses, with little in the way of gardens or green space has been made clear, as has the lack of investment in public space for much of recent decades. Technological inequalities have also been exposed regarding parents’ ability to home school their children. 

This new settlement will not be built by a laissez-faire economy, nor will it be delivered by a top-down state. There will be a role for the state, a role for the market and a role for empowered local communities. An increased role for the state in creating a stronger economic settlement is now an emerging consensus – some 89 per cent of Tory voters believe that government should take a bigger role, compared to 81 per cent of Labour voters. The state’s role should be one of empowerment – to create strong local economies that reverse decades-old decline and provide the infrastructure and links between towns that have been so sorely lacking.

A decisive shift towards reindustrialising the economy must be a post-crisis priority. The UK deindustrialised more than any other major Western economy, with an inevitable impact on prosperity, productivity and domestic supply chains. The pandemic has shown that a process of reindustrialisation should be a priority once the UK has emerged from the crisis, forging a predominantly high-pay, high-skill economy. Emphasis should be placed on creating “prosperity hubs” around former industrial towns and enabling them to do whatever it takes to encourage the creation of manufacturing jobs. An industrial strategy should have the restoration of a strong manufacturing sector at its heart, including the reshoring of lost manufacturing jobs. This should be done in tandem with a vocational education revolution that establishes manufacturing centres of excellence in these towns and has a two-track approach to vocational and lifelong learning, heavily inspired by the Northern European model.

We also shouldn’t forget the level of precarious work and poor housing that has been laid bare in many of our inner cities. These often forgotten workers have been fundamental at keeping the country moving and we must repay them with better working and living conditions as part of a post Covid-19 settlement. A 21st-Century Workers’ Charter should seek to embed a more responsible capitalism, including the empowerment and capitalisation of workers, and the limitation of firms’ ability to impose insecure, short-notice work.

This responsible capitalism should be long-termist and view the interests of the community and workers as equal to the interests of shareholders. At the same time, a national house-building programme, providing high-quality, low-rent accommodation should emphasise beauty, community and liveability in design, with green spaces and gardens being a key part of this. 

It was once said by Charles de Gaulle that his political mission was to reconcile the left to the state and the right to the nation. The challenge for this political generation in Britain is the opposite – to reconcile the right to the state and the left to the nation.

The Tories are now facing a more highly skilled Labour leader than before and Keir Starmer has shown some desire to once more reconcile his party to the nation. It is the Conservatives, however, who are in possession of the levers of government, and it is welcome that they have already demonstrated their willingness to use the state to enhance economic security. The government should look to build an enduring One Nation settlement that binds and empowers communities, tackles poverty, revives industry and harnesses the best of the market and the state.