In their far-sighted article for Juncture on the coming decade and the future of the left, Gavin Kelly and Nick Pearce offer a comprehensive and compelling analysis of the underlying forces that will shape British politics for the remainder of this decade, and beyond. At the heart of their piece is the argument that any political party that fails to ‘intuit the future’ will inevitably be ‘eaten by the past’ – a warning that we in the Labour party would be well advised to heed.
According to Kelly and Pearce politics is being reshaped by a set of interrelated demographic, economic and cultural shifts, and they highlight some of the most significant aspects of each.
The demographic shifts they identify are arguably the most striking (particularly if you agree, as I do, with their view that age is now at least as important as social class when it comes to determining voting behaviour). The statistics speak for themselves: over-55s will constitute the majority of the electorate by 2020, and there will be five million more over-60s by 2030. Allied to this will be the rise of a generation that has had to cope with low pay, a dysfunctional housing market and a shrinking state.
The economic shifts Kelly and Pearce outline are set against a challenging context of volatility, insecurity and fiscal weakness. They predict that unless something is done productivity will continue to nosedive and the trade deficit will continue to grow. The climbing wage floor will compress pay at the lower end of the scale, leading to the creation of ‘one wage towns’, but overall income inequality will grow.
The new cultural paradigm will be driven by continuing urbanisation that will cause metropolitan centres to flourish, in stark contrast to left behind post-industrial towns. This polarisation of British society (combined with the impact of immigration in some communities) will feed the rise of identity politics, and make Britain an increasingly difficult country to govern from the centre.
What do these emerging trends mean for Labour? How can we ensure we not only grasp and internalise the analysis Kelly and Pearce present, but that we turn their insights into a winning argument – a narrative that can rebuild our credibility as a party of government?
Last September I published a pamphlet ‘A New Nation: building a United Kingdom of purpose, patriotism and resilience’, which was my attempt to answer some of the very same questions that Kelly and Pearce pose, and there are some striking similarities.
Just as the ‘red thread’ running through the Kelly and Pearce analysis is the sense that our country is fracturing along demographic, economic and cultural lines, so I argue in my pamphlet that the social, economic and constitutional foundations of the United Kingdom are cracking beneath our feet.
Just as Kelly and Pearce call for policies that can forge common interests between generations and communities, so I outline proposals that will bring purpose and resilience; and their push for greater devolution to local government is echoed by my recommendation that the UK moves to a federal model.
Kelly and Pearce make a full-throated call for greater public investment in research and development, and a proper industrial strategy to provide the support to our post-industrial towns that is so urgently required; I agitate for a manufacturing renaissance, underpinned by an industrial strategy that works across skills, investment, infrastructure and energy. They state that in these times of economic uncertainty it is vital we reassure the British people that we are a party of economic competence; I argue for a detailed smart deficit reduction plan and that we must, as a matter of urgency, reposition ourselves as a pro-business party.
In some ways I am heartened by the close alignment between our respective analyses and proposals, but the fact that over seven months have elapsed since I wrote my pamphlet gives cause for concern. What have we been doing, as a party for the last seven months? Why has there been so little debate, and so little progress made on the things that really matter?
I believe that Labour people know what our party should stand for, and we are increasingly clear on what that means in the rapidly changing world in which we live, as illustrated by the similarities between ‘A New Nation’ and Kelly and Pearce’s work. But rather than focusing on the hard intellectual and organisational graft that is the pre-condition for crafting our new narrative and policy framework, we seem to be in a state of analysis paralysis, caught in the headlights, waiting to be run over by the future. It is deeply frustrating.
How we get out of this rut I do not know, but it is vital that we find a way, as the clock is ticking: elections are won in years, not in days, weeks or months. One of the lessons of the 2010-15 period was that we failed to settle on a clear message. We had nothing to combat the Tories’ ‘long-term economic plan’ (repeated by them with impressive frequency and discipline), and we were duly punished at the ballot box.
We know that if we are able to intuit the future, then we will have a good chance of owning it. It is therefore a matter of urgency that we seize the chance to move beyond analysis, and to start shaping an agenda for government.