This was originally written for the Winter 2019 edition of the Fabian Review.
“It’s nice to have dinner with someone who’s less popular than I am.” I didn’t take it personally when a friend’s husband recently opened our conversation with that. He’s a car salesman – and he wasn’t wrong.
Politicians and those involved in front line politics are lucky if one in five of the population think they are trustworthy. The most recent Ipsos Mori Veracity Index put the proportion just below at 19 per cent . Even though this number has been creeping down for years, no one in power seems to be paying attention. The past decade has seen every major public institution dragged through the mud. Parliament, the churches, the BBC, the police and the media have all – rightly – faced a reckoning.
At the same time, our country has been pulled apart by a financial crisis, austerity, a Scottish independence referendum and then the Brexit referendum. Yet, at the end of it all, in the public’s eyes, not enough has changed. And they are right.
In 2008, Labour’s response to the financial crisis was to focus on keeping the economy going and as many people in jobs as possible. That was correct. Had we stayed in power after 2010, that would have been the time to begin to think about how to rebuild. Instead, the UK elected a Conservative government led by a prime minister who wanted to carry on economic policies as if nothing had changed since he advised the Tory Chancellor in the early 90s.
The crisis demanded a response that is still overdue and, in its absence, we have had a populist and nationalist howl that was amplified by half a decade of austerity. Labour’s economic policies today address some of that anger, but it’s only half the battle.
The Scottish independence referendum and the EU referendum both presented people with constitutional propositions and both tapped into a deep-seated discontent about the way our country is run. Addressing the economic and social problems that led to both these referendums is essential, but we need to go further. We also need to address the issues of identity, place and belonging that led people to opt for constitutional settlements that – in their eyes – best expressed their identity. And that means building institutions – and reforming existing ones – to deliver that.
In the 20th century, Labour had virtually a monopoly on building the institutions of the state that expressed our country’s values and identity. The NHS and the welfare state met specific needs for health care and social support, but they also clearly showed what our country was about. The Open University increased access to education, but it was also a signal that we believed we were a country where higher education shouldn’t just be the right of a privileged few. And the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly met a demand for power closer to people, but in their creation they also recognised national identity and difference.
The last 10 years have seen our country divided and there is still no consensus about the direction we go in or the kind of society we want to build. The next election – if it delivers a majority Labour government – will be our first chance to do that. In setting out to change the way our country is run we must do three things.
First, we can’t respond to populism with easy answers. The country that a future Labour government will inherit will be deeply divided. Our path out of that won’t be found by trying to please all sides but by showing clear leadership, establishing the kind of country we want to be and then building the institutions to hard-wire that change into the way our country is run.
Second, we must preserve the institutions we still have. That means coming to power with a plan to revitalise the NHS and the welfare state. Both are still essential parts of the social fabric of our country and are valued by people not just for what they provide, but for what they stand for. We need to make the case for both – not from a defensive position, but as an argument for the positive power of state institutions.
Finally, we have to recognise that we do not have a monopoly on wisdom and work together to overhaul our constitution. That means convening a constitutional convention and using methods of consultation such as citizen juries to allow people to have their say about how we can change the way our country is run. Those sceptical about the success of such bodies need only look to Ireland where the Constitutional Convention and Citizens’ Assembly prompted wide ranging change to the Irish constitution, including repealing the ban on abortion. Such an exercise in the UK could be similarly wide ranging and could examine English regional devolution, the make-up of Parliament, the future of the House of Lords and other issues which have been put in the ‘too difficult’ pile for too long.