South Wales Evening Post
This year’s Westminster budget comes with the Westminster parliament in a state of disarray. Thanks to Tory in-fighting Theresa May has spent two years negotiating with her own party rather than with the European Union. Her scrambled ‘Chequers’ plan fails to solve the issue of the Irish border, and it doesn’t have a snowball’s chance of forming the basis for our future relationship with Europe.
Negotiations are at a standstill, and our politics is in a state of paralysis.
The good news is that there’s an option that can get us out of this mess. For two years I’ve been banging the drum for a Brexit based on the UK's continued membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) plus a form of customs union. This would solve the Irish border question, protect jobs and provide a safeguard on EU immigration. Further still, the 52 / 48 result of the referendum was clearly a mandate to leave the EU, but it was not a mandate to burn all our bridges in the process. The EEA is essentially all the trade and none of the politics – a return to the days of the Common Market, if you like.
Yet if the Tories are in denial about their Brexit failings, they seem in an even greater state of denial about the causes of Brexit.
They occasionally talk a good game, but their performance on the pitch shows that they are clueless about the devastating effects that the major social and economic changes of the last 40 years have had on constituencies like Aberavon, and others across South Wales. They appear to care even less that their savage austerity policies have pushed thousands of in-work families into poverty.
In my constituency I see proud, resilient people who have had to compete with one hand behind their backs as investment, wealth, resources and talent have been sucked out of the industrial heartlands of Wales and into London and South-East England; out of manufacturing, and into financial services. During this time we’ve seen numerous factory closures across the region – Sony, Panasonic, Visteon and Crown Packaging to name just a few – and that was before the more recent loss of 2,000 steel jobs.
Our people have often asked why governments have done so little to help their communities cope with these seismic changes, and too often they have been labelled as backward-looking by politicians who seemed to place almost no value on what many of us in South Wales hold dear: strong cohesive communities, fair reward for hard graft, and the desire for a level of control in the direction of our lives. Can anyone really argue that these values are reflected in modern Britain, when bankers get away scot-free after a financial crisis of their own making, whilst 600,000 manufacturing jobs are lost and wages stagnate? And until recently anyone who dared to raise legitimate concerns about the level and impact of immigration was been labelled a bigot or a racist.
Even as a Remain campaigner, I can’t help but feel that the Brexit vote was the backlash that many politicians deserved.
What we need now is for politicians to recognise their integral role in bridging these divides and rebuilding our economy. I believe passionately in a whole nation politics that is based on a level playing field, where everyone plays by the same rules. The Chancellor’s budget on Monday will show whether or not his party too holds these ambitions.
With this in mind, let’s set him the following tests:
First, will he listen to the powerful campaigns led by UNISON and the LGA Labour Group, calling for more money to be made available to the Welsh Assembly so that it can fund council services adequately? In Neath Port Talbot alone, £72m has been removed from the budget since 2010 and a further £63.9m will need to be removed before 2023. 2,500 permanent jobs have been lost, fees have been introduced on services like pest control, communities have taken on the responsibility for services like libraries and social care has been cut to the bone.
Second, does he recognise the need for a properly funded and targeted industrial strategy that will boost the economy in Aberavon and wider South Wales? If so, he should back the UK Labour leadership’s calls to introduce a National Investment Bank to boost local economies across Wales by investing in infrastructure and enterprise. He should also look at the excellent ideas set out in my book by my fellow Labour MP Anna Turley and Labour's new Plymouth Moor View parliamentary candidate Charlotte Holloway. They call for reforms to business rates and for scaling up community banking which would in turn give a major boost to small businesses through lower taxes and better access to finance.
Third, will he support Labour’s excellent Build it in Britain campaign which commits to using public sector procurement to support our manufacturers? This would likely bring massive benefits to the Port Talbot steelworks and other local industries.
Fourth, will he endorse the calls I have made in my book for radical reforms to the taxation system? The top 1% of the UK’s population currently owns 24% of the wealth - a shameful indicator of just how unfair and divided our society has become. British land is valued at £5 trillion, with its value increasing massively thanks to public sector investment. A 1% land tax would generate £50 billion for the Exchequer, which could open up the space we need for freezing or even cutting income tax. This would put more money back into most people’s pockets and, crucially, begin to turn Britain into a country where it is more attractive financially to start up a business than it is to inherit a house.
So, Monday’s Budget is truly a moment of reckoning for the Tories. They have had ample opportunity to invest in South Wales through the electrification of the Great Western Mainline and supporting the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, but have failed miserably. Will they finally acknowledge what is needed to boost our economies, or are they going to turn their backs on South Wales yet again?
If they fail, then they’ll simply have to step aside for a Labour Party with a plan that can re-unite our deeply divided country.