A plan for Britain after Brexit: In search of a better politics

A general election which has been in some respects something of a foregone conclusion has, nevertheless, produced a campaign which has been both dynamic and interesting but also, from the perspective of genuinely progressive politics, profoundly depressing. It has shown just how very bitter the political divisions in UK society have become and highlighted how puerile, ill-informed and wholly unedifying our political culture now is.

Genuine open and informed, cross-party discussion about the real challenges the country faces and the real options available to us in terms of policy interventions now seems pretty much beyond us. Frankness is in vanishingly short supply and there is a lack of credibility at the core of both main parties’ policy platforms, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out. The Labour Party, while offering a costed and pretty well thought-out manifesto, has, nevertheless, been over-optimistic about the revenue its reforms will bring in and has done too little to bring the whole country with it. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have been arrogant enough to leave costings out of the equation altogether, campaigning on an extraordinarily thin base which has nevertheless wobbled and shifted throughout a thoroughly awful and ineptly run campaign. Nor have they been frank about the impact of the continuation of the politics of austerity which has already seen public investment fall below levels necessary to maintain decent education and health services and will see these services cut more and more over the course of the next parliament. Not only are such cuts unnecessary, they run directly counter to international trends.

The most likely outcome now seems to be an increased Tory majority but a significantly smaller one than expected when May opportunistically called the election, citing national interest but thinking only of party. Labour may do better than expected but have not, I suspect, made serious inroads into the core vote of other parties nor have they established the sort of progressive alliance that could do serious damage to the prospects of a Conservative majority. Corbyn has impressed many people during the campaign, struck by his sincerity and commitment, but for many others, the traditional Tory and some UKIP voters, he remains seriously toxic, and, ill-founded and irrelevant as they may be, the ‘press the red button/terrorist sympathizer/magic money tree’ guff hits home with a lot of people.

May, on the other hand, has seen her star plummet, deservedly so, with her failure to rebuke Trump over his moronic rubbishing of London Mayor Sadiq Khan the latest example of her weak leadership and lack of moral substance. Her campaign has offered little in the way of constructive policy thinking (her own flagship policy of increasing the number of grammar schools is a socially regressive measure her own minsters find difficult to defend) and has seen a party with no plan for Brexit (beyond being prepared to entertain an option worse that a bad deal) present itself as the party with a plan for Brexit, while a PM whose leadership has been characterised by lack of backbone and a willingness to bend to the will of power has staked most of her hopes on being recognised as a strong and stable leader.

Labour, nevertheless, have run a decent campaign which has tapped into grassroots support, mostly in places where Labour is already strong, though I suspect it has made little impression in strongly Conservative seats where the weak messaging on tactical voting makes it unlikely we will see much change. Jeremy Corbyn is likely to hold onto most existing Labour seats which may be perceived as a success in some quarters but will disappoint many caught up in the apparent groundswell in support for the Labour leader. If, as is highly likely, Labour lose the election, they will need a leader capable of unifying the party and reaching out to all parts of the country if they are to contest the next election with a hope of winning. However, it seems likely Corbyn will limp on, for the time being at least.

Despite the likely failure of his campaign to land many blows on a governing party which, at the end of the day, is offering little more than the managed decline of Britain’s place and reputation in the world, Corbyn may, nevertheless, come to be seen as having created a worthwhile legacy, leaving something that a new leader can build on. For one thing, he has put the chronic underfunding of UK public services under the spotlight. And while his proposals for increases in top-end tax have prompted the worst sort of dog-whistle reactions in the increasingly rabid and right-wing British press, they have also allowed commentators and institutions such as the IFS to highlight how modest these proposals actually are by international standards. Corbyn’s plans, if implemented, would still place the UK some way behind the likes of Germany and France in the tax-and-spend league tables, as the IFS acknowledges. They certainly would not require the services of a ‘magic money tree’; nor, fairly obviously, would they ‘bankrupt the country’ (it is an indictment of our media that the previous Labour government is still widely – and wrongly – regarded as having wrecked the country’s economy through excessive borrowing). Whether they would lead a few corporations to consider leaving the UK is another question. I suspect, by and large, not, given the absence of substantially better terms in comparable countries.

Corbyn has also, quite properly, resisted attempts to put Brexit at centre stage of the election debate. He is surely right to put wider social and economic issues first. Our ‘plan for Brexit’ should be shaped by the vision we have for the sort of country we want to belong to; not the other way around. He has also adopted a measured thoughtful approach to discussion, which other leaders can learn from. I hope it can provide a basis for a more intelligent, all-embracing national debate about the kind of country we want to be. We are in severe danger of giving a huge mandate to a leader who is about to enter Brexit negotiations without having set forth a clear vision of the kind of Britain she wants to emerge post-Brexit. And, make no mistake, the kind of Britain we become will be strongly influenced by the outcome of these negotiations.

There is an opportunity here to launch a different kind of politics, with progressive parties taking a genuine lead in shaping genuinely national debate. With casual and unforgiveable recklessness, the Conservative party has taken the country to a place no serious commentator thought was in its interests. It now approaches crucial negotiations apparently misty-eyed at some vague right-wing fantasy of what we could become if only we turned our back on our most important trading partners and threw ourselves largely at the mercy of an infantile US president who is likely to name the NHS as the price for any prospective trade deal. It’s down to parties on the left of politics to ensure there is meaningful inclusive debate about where we want to go and who we want to be. We need, above all, to have a sensible debate about what public services we want and how we pay for them and we need that debate to be informed by an understanding of what things costs and what other, comparable nations are prepared to pay and to tax. This will be difficult. The level of debate is low and the noise from those who would rather this discussion did not take place will be huge. But it has to happen. Just as Labour forged its ‘Plan for Britain’ amid the rubble of World War II, we need a new ‘Plan for Brexit’ which is just as far-reaching, just as ambitious and expansive, just as full of hope and purpose. Like its predecessor it should tackle crucial issues to do with infrastructure, education, productivity, fairness, equality, health and social security, and it should aim to be inclusive. It has to carry people with it.

For my part, I have already voted (by post) for Labour and Mr Corbyn. My vote will hopefully contribute to re-electing a Labour MP in a constituency which has changed hands between Tory and Labour over the years (though it has been in Labour’s hands since 1997). I hope that, around the country, other people who favour a politics that is progressive rather than reactionary will also vote for the party with the best chance of unseating a Conservative candidate. I do believe that another, better politics is possible and I think a Labour government, or a progressive coalition of some sort, offers by far the best chance. Without it, I fear the government will continue to destroy yet more of the UK’s hard-won social infrastructure, systematically ruining the life chances of most of our children (those whose parents can’t afford to send them to private school or to have them coached through the 11-plus) and further cutting funding to the already cash-starved NHS, as a prelude to its eventual privatization. I fear the outcome of Brexit will be an isolated, impoverished, less environmentally secure UK, a friend to crooks, tax cheats and tyrants, eaten up by self-loathing and tantalized by the fantasy, backwards-looking politics of the right: the country that took back control but didn’t have a clue what to do with it. And I fear that the dwindling supply of foreign skills and expertise will not be met by a thoughtful and well-funded reinvigoration of our own education and skills system. The UK is now very much an outlier in its commitment to austerity.

Nevertheless, for all of this, I will turn my television on at 10pm on Thursday night hopeful of a result no serious commentator is predicting. In all likelihood, I will be disappointed, as will millions of others. It is going to hurt. But it is important people remain hopeful, even if they have to work hard to find a reason to. That is the challenge now, to nurture those increasingly elusive ‘resources of hope’, as Raymond Williams termed them; to use them to build something better. We must not allow the meagre politics of division and desperation, or the clamour of those who want us to talk and think about anything other than the things that really matter, to win out.



Instead of flinging brickbats at the poor, give them hope

It may be that familiarity breeds contempt for individuals, but contempt for whole groups of people requires distance – cultural, social, economic or geographical (and in some cases all four).

When the Conservative Party brands itself as being ‘for hardworking people’ and George Osborne sets out plans to make unemployed people work for their benefits – using punitive language that will be icily familiar to anyone who endured long-term unemployment in the eighties, or who, like me, was part of a family (indeed, a community) that did – they are making a calculated gamble.

They believe that the majority of people will share the intuition (it is no more than that – evidence is unwelcome in politics of this sort) that the long-term unemployed are workless by choice, because they are lazy and refuse to knuckle down. They suppose that people will be willing to believe that this is one of the biggest, most urgent social problems we face.

Unhappily, they may well be right. It is natural when times are hard to look for someone to blame, and the unemployed are a convenient target. That is why this divisive technique has proved so popular for so long, with politicians of all parties. But it is ugly. It appeals to the worst in us. And while it may appear to be politically expedient, it is, morally, pretty repugnant.

What problem is such rhetoric supposed to address? It isn’t an economic problem – or at least not one serious enough to warrant the ceaseless gushing of hot air on the subject. The cost of out-of-work jobseekers’ benefits is relatively small – it amounts to just three per cent of the total welfare spend – while the vast majority of jobseekers find work within two years. And, in any case, as the government’s own research points out, workfare is the ‘least effective’ method to get the long-term unemployed back into work. If the need to bring in extra revenue really were as pressing as the rhetoric suggests and the moral outrage about people not doing their bit were genuine, as much effort would be put into pursuing and vilifying tax dodgers – a potentially much more lucrative source of income for the state, and a much more significant moral issue.

The real issue here, it seems to me, is the problem of how to manage political dissent. It is much easier to manage people’s moral outrage if it is dispersed, and especially if it can be directed towards the man across the street who has his curtains drawn all morning rather than at the real, systemic causes of worklessness and low living standards.

We should be honest about this. A party which believes in hard work and wants to promote it should also want to reward it. Yet the dreadful toll taken by in-work poverty shows that those who strive the hardest do so for very small rewards, and at huge cost to their personal and family lives. At the same, those who are unemployed and looking for work are faced with a lack of vacancies and huge competition for the (frequently low-paid) jobs that do exist.

What should a party serious about promoting hard work and self-reliance be doing? Well, it should first back the living wage (4.8 million people in Britain earn below this level – 20 per cent of all employees) and find ways of encouraging/obliging employers to follow suit. The tax payer should not be expected to subsidise employers who are not prepared to adequately remunerate their hard-working staff.

Second, it should stop attacking the poor – the vast majority of whom are hard-working – and blaming them for their poverty. Vilifying people who are already struggling on the breadline doesn’t help. It is counter-productive. Better instead to target interventions that will make a real difference, prioritising educational interventions in particular. Education is by far the best way of giving people the resources they need to take charge of their lives and change them for the better.

We hear in the press each week about how working-class parents are failing their children, sending them to school without the basic skills they need to flourish – or even just to cope. But, all too often, these parents are themselves struggling with their own lack of education, having been failed by the system the first time around. As anyone who works with these families will tell you, they want to do the best for their children, as surely as any middle-class parent does.

Instead of spending more later on the consequences of our failure to intervene where it can make most difference, we should invest more in adult education and ensure it is a core part of properly coordinated cross-departmental efforts to address poverty and worklessness. An educated, skilled and enterprising workforce is key not only to an economically prosperous society but also to an engaged, resilient and creative one (something we surely must be if we are to flourish in the harsh decades to come).

It is positive that literacy interventions form a part of Osborne’s welfare-to-work scheme – but while carefully targeted skills development should be a part of any such programme, we also need a much broader lifelong learning offer, giving people the chance to learn at different moments and in different spaces throughout their lives, in and out of work; helping create a culture of learning across – and between – the generations capable of supporting growth of every sort and accessible to the whole community. Education must be about more than employability, important though that is – it should develop curiosity and help people engage as citizens. Instead of flinging brickbats at those on the breadline, we should be offering them hope.