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Labour’s “New Britain” is not as new as it seems

There have been many attempts to rebalance the UK’s economy. Will Gordon Brown’s review be any different?

By Jonny Ball

Keir Starmer has sometimes been accused of lacking vision. At Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have goaded the Labour leader as “Captain Hindsight”, accusing him of having “no plan” for remedying the country’s growing pile of social and economic calamities. On his party’s left flank, some have criticised him for ditching key planks of the Corbynite policy platform, and earlier this year it was reported that he had reprimanded his own shadow cabinet for briefing to the press that he was “boring”.

There has been little narrative offered on the state of the nation, beyond vague commitments to an often insincere-sounding patriotism and various lists of abstract nouns ­– the “integrity, authority, unity” of the Labour leadership contest has given way to “security, prosperity, respect”.

But something resembling what could be called Starmerism is beginning to take shape, if not as a fully formed political-ideological project then certainly as a direction of travel for the party. This week’s release of the A New Britain report is the clearest sign yet of Labour’s desire to offer a real reforming programme to the public. Chaired by Gordon Brown, the Commission on the UK’s Future has published forty recommendations in 152 pages focused on rebooting the UK’s constitutional framework and attempting to change the country’s status as the most politically and fiscally centralised in the OECD.

Its headline-grabbing proposal is the replacement of the House of Lords with an elected second chamber of nations and regions. But as well as the Westminster reforms, the Commission has also recommended a radical decentralisation of powers to local authorities across the country. Devolution would be extended to towns, cities and regions, with control over skills, transport, job creation and growth strategies, as well as new tax-raising abilities for improved financial autonomy. Decisions would be taken “as close as meaningfully and practicably possible to the people affected by them” with longer-term financial settlements awarded in a move away from the model of ad hoc bidding for centralised funding pots.

This isn’t the move towards Scandinavian-style social democracy set out in Labour’s 2017 and 2019 manifestos but, claims Starmer, it will be transformational. It takes as its starting point the notion that the unequal distribution of wealth, prosperity, productivity and investment, as well as the health and educational disparities that are the hallmarks of the most extreme regional divides in Europe, have their root in the concentration of political power in SW1. This is constitutional reform set out not as an end in itself, but rather as a means to spurring inclusive growth and creating a more egalitarian economic model.

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It’s part of a general shift in global political thinking that in the post-2008 financial crash, post-Covid era of climate breakdown, is more focused on combating the drivers of inequality and more comfortable with interventionism, that aims to rebuild domestic supply chains, shore up industry and increase public investment. Where once the watchwords were open markets, globalisation, limited government and modernisation, the new buzzwords are resilience, security and a revival of the protective state.

The problem is that we’ve been here before. Eight years ago George Osborne announced the Northern Powerhouse project, designed to rebalance the UK’s economy and create an economic counterweight to London. Devolution deals were signed to give city regions powers over transport, planning and health. Just three years later Theresa May stood outside Downing Street to condemn “burning injustices” in a speech that signalled a new kind of big state conservatism. After her premiership collapsed under the weight of the Brexit process, Boris Johnson introduced us to “levelling up”, with a white paper that correctly identified a range of social and economic ills and promised new powers for the regions as well as more infrastructure spending to boost growth.

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In that time we’ve also had an industrial strategy white paper, and a host of other reviews and commissions that recommended a new partnership between an active government and socially minded business, that encouraged localism, and that promised investment to solve the UK’s productivity puzzle.

And yet today, building on Northern Powerhouse Rail is yet to begin. The disparities of wealth across the UK have only widened. May’s “burning injustices” burn brighter than before even the current cost-of-living crisis began. And the passage of the Levelling Up Bill through parliament has been stalled by recalcitrant Tory backbenchers. While Johnson assured new Conservative voters in the red wall that the days of austerity were over, spending restraint is now back, even after twelve years that in many communities felt like it had never gone away.

If current polling is to be believed, Starmer is on course to enter No 10 after the next general election. But he will be taking over a country that is deeply divided, pulled further apart after a lost decade in which the efforts of politicians to close the gaps have been roundly discredited. A New Britain, like may policy papers before it, identifies myriad problems that have arisen from our rigid adherence to the Anglo-Saxon economic model, but whether its prescriptions can succeed where others have failed will be the true test of any future Labour government.

[See also: To forge a “New Britain”, Labour must rethink our economic system]

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