New Times,
New Thinking.

Why cross-party progressives must unite to build back better

The complex challenges and opportunities we face cannot hope to be met by just one party or political tradition. 

By New Statesman

This is a joint article by the SDLP MP Claire Hanna, the Labour MP Clive Lewis, the Green MP Caroline Lucas, the Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, the Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville-Roberts, and the SNP MP Tommy Sheppard.

This is a moment like none we have ever known. In just a few weeks, orthodoxies about what governments can and can’t do have been shattered. It seems, after all, that the state can print money and act not just as the lender of last resort but as the employer. 

Yet it’s not just governments that have stepped up, but people. Carers, NHS staff and other key workers have bravely and selflessly placed themselves on the frontline against this wicked virus. And the overwhelming majority of us, Dominic Cummings aside, have abided by a new set of social rules quite alien to anything we have experienced before. Through it all, people have showcased their humanity, neighbourliness and willingness to put others first. It tells us what we always knew: that there is such a thing as society. 

These are just some of the pictures that flash before our eyes and now seep into our hearts and minds. But if we step back, we see something bigger still. We see for the first time in modern history, as the writer Anthony Barnett has pointed out, societies that have forced their government to put people before profit. During every other epidemic the UK has experienced, the crisis was largely swept under the carpet. It was business, literally, as usual. Left to their own devices, many now in power would have gone the same way. But not this time. 

This time society’s sense of itself and its humanity rose to the fore. Movements for human rights, the environment and feminism, and sentiments around well-being, the body and the mind collided with new technology to make it impossible to put the profit first. And then in the midst of the chaos, Black Live Matter swept the globe in days, and portends immense and vital political, cultural and social shifts. 

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In all this, the issue is not what we believe in or where we want to go. The crisis has made all that vividly clear. We want a world where people continue to come before profit; where the air is as clear as the bird song; where our relationship to nature is the priority; where value is measured in terms of making everyone’s lives better and not just a few pockets fatter; where time for the things and the people we love comes first. Because of every life lost and our whole society’s brush with death, we must hold on to these vital insights with every ounce of strength we have.

But building back better cannot just be a hashtag. It requires concrete action. As 350 signatories have asked, how do we ensure health, social care, housing and other vital public services are properly resourced and able to meet our future needs? How do we mend the inequalities in our society so that everyone, no matter their background or race, can live a decent, fulfilling life? How do we create secure, well-paid and rewarding jobs for all who want them, particularly for young people? And how do we not only increase our resilience to future pandemics, but tackle the climate and environmental emergency already upon us?

The question is not really what do we build back better, but how? How do we resist snapping back to some broken mirror version of an economy and society that got us into this mess? It is here that politics and politicians have to change. The old system only knows how to produce the old outcomes. Expecting anything different is a fool’s game. 

It is unusual, maybe even unique, for politicians from six different parties to write something together. As a group, with the help of Compass, we started to meet and talk just before the crisis, in the wake of the Tories’ huge general election victory last December. 

Each of us knows that progressives who are divided are progressives that lose. But this approach means much more to us than that. We know that life in the 21st century, and the complex challenges and opportunities we face, cannot hope to be met by just one party or political tradition. We know that anyone claiming a monopoly of wisdom is in fact not so wise after all. 

But such collaboration is not easy. Our electoral system of first-past-the-post and our winner-takes-all adversarial political culture are designed to tear us apart. But we won’t allow it. The stakes are too high, whether it’s the pandemic, the resulting economic recession, the climate crisis that is upon us, or the rise of artificial intelligence, we have to work together – not just to occupy the system, but to change it. 

While we have different views on the future of the UK – some of us favour Scottish independence, others don’t – we all know that our democracy has to be transformed. To us that looks like power residing with the people, a proportional voting system, maximum devolution, a written constitution and the widespread use of citizens’ assemblies. Only if we change the system do we then get a Green Deal worth its name, real and sustained investment in public services, and new policies for this new era, such as a universal basic income.

The system insists we compete, but our values demand we cooperate. As a group, and through our respective parties, we will do everything we can to surmount these tensions so that we do build back better. 

The size of the Tories’ majority probably means that, no matter how inept they prove, they will be in office for four more long years  at least in Westminster. Over the next few years we will focus on the action, as well as the vision, ideas and policies necessary for a good society. As we discover we have more in common than even we ever imagined, and as we build relationships and trust, then we can consider longer-term plans. But in everything we do, our values will always come first.

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