BY SAM HOOPER
While Theresa May’s rootless Conservative Party tears itself apart over Brexit and continues to fail to provide a clear, positive vision for Britain, one currently has to look primarily to left-wing groups for a systemic analysis of Britain’s challenges — and ideas to fix them.
Depressing as it is to write, still it must be acknowledged that with the Conservative Party permanently stuck in neutral under the leadership of a failed prime minister, nearly all of the intellectual and political energy is now on the left and centre-left of British politics.
Not Jeremy Corbyn’s faction of the Labour Party, of course – Corbynism still doesn’t seem to amount to much more than reheating the planned economy policies of the 1960s and 1970s, which only failed last time because we didn’t throw ourselves behind them lustily enough when they gave us the three-day week and rolling blackouts. And an important caveat should be made that some forward-thinking Conservative MPs are doing their utmost to shock some intellectual and ideological life back into the party – George Freeman and Nick Boles being the two most prominent examples.
Yet it remains the case that when it comes to acknowledging that Britain has entered a period of discontinuity – a time when we face a new configuration of challenges which are unresponsive to the policy remedies of the past and causing people to lose faith in existing political parties, processes and institutions – the Left seems to “get it” far more than the Right. This might be forgivable if conservatives were actively using their time in government to enact an agenda of their own, however misguided. But there is no agenda, save what appears to be a concerted effort to move the Conservative Party to the left of Ed Miliband’s losing 2015 Labour Party manifesto.
By contrast, Ria Bernard, chair of the Young Fabians, has one eye fixed on the future. Writing for LabourList, Bernard urges:
As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, we need to be thinking about our position globally to ensure that we can compete and prosper economically and socially on the international stage.
While understandably most parliamentary activity is currently focused on the Brexit deal, we need to consider what happens next as Britain seeks a more independent role for itself in global trade.
The idea of auditing our strengths and vulnerabilities as a nation should not be something brought about by the decision to break ties with the EU – it should be something we are routinely doing to enable us to reach our potential and ensure prosperity for everyone in society. But it seems particularly important that at this time we consider where we stand in terms of a range of domestic policy areas and how we measure up to nations around the world.
If we look at our domestic policies, are we functioning at full capacity? Do we have the skills, expertise and structures in place to ensure that domestically we are supporting the population, and internationally we are able to compete? Which areas of domestic policy will put us in a strong position as we go it alone, and where will we need to be focusing our efforts to ensure that we can compete and participate in the global economy?
Apparently the Young Fabians have been working on this initiative for awhile, and have now published a report with the fruits of their labour. The report itself grew out of discussions around three specific questions:
- What are the strengths and vulnerabilities of Britain’s domestic policy in comparison with other countries?
- What are our core strengths as a nation that will enable us to effectively compete in the global community?
- What will undermine our place on the global stage?
These are absolutely the kind of questions that need to be asked in order to engage in strategic thinking. Serious political leaders ought regularly to conduct a dispassionate analysis of where we stand vis-a-vis our peer countries and competitors. They ought to fearlessly scrutinise our current strengths and weaknesses, confronting any serious liabilities rather than ignoring them. And perhaps most importantly, serious political leaders should be able to outline a clear vision for domestic political reform or management together with an unambiguous declaration of what Britain stands for in the world – and with whom we stand.
Does anybody honestly think that the incumbent Conservative government is engaging in any of these basic acts of strategic thinking? Does anybody honestly believe that they have done so since Theresa May came to power? Or even since 2010 and the coalition government led by David Cameron? In the former cases, the answer is surely no. Instead, ministers scurry around putting out fires or chasing positive headlines, picking up or dropping policies based on the next day’s news cycle rather than doing what is right, guided by conservative principle. And all of this under the “leadership” of a prime minister whose primary objective every morning is to survive the day.
Obviously it is easier to engage in strategic thinking from the luxury of opposition, when one has nothing but time to kick ideas around and undertake the kind of analysis that leads to good policy. But being in power is no excuse for a failure to plan – this government should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, otherwise what are we paying them for?
Meanwhile, as Conservative MPs and activists glumly try to discern whether Amber Rudd or Philip Hammond is the more inspirational, charismatic future leader to replace Theresa May, the Young Fabians correctly identify many of the major challenges facing the country:
It is widely acknowledged that we are performing poorly in terms of growth, productivity and underemployment. We have a generation of young people who are encouraged to go to university, then face a limited pool of graduate-level jobs, leading to a huge mismatch between skills and demand across the skills bands. The “gig economy” and the rise in automation is at risk of eroding hard-won rights and making job security a luxury. Our levels of productivity are some of the lowest in the world and yet we are working some of the longest hours in Europe.
If we look at health and education – are our systems the most effective way to ensure a healthy, prosperous and highly skilled population? The NHS is under phenomenal strain as it performs in a context of under-funding, staff shortages and the demands of an increasingly ageing population. A country with a healthcare service that is entirely free at the point of use, and provides services far beyond the scope of when it was initially founded in 1948, spends a significantly low proportion of its GDP on it. The NHS is likely to face challenges around funding for new research and negotiating with pharmaceutical companies, as well linking up with social care and the correcting the failure to invest in prevention.
The increasingly fractured education system, which comprises a wide range of schools from privately-funded institutions and state comprehensives to academies, free schools and faith schools, is leading to postcode lotteries and a disparity in access to specialist provision. Yet, in terms of skills and innovation, we need to be evaluating whether our national curriculum is fit for teaching the skills and knowledge that will be needed to compete in the international job market. Is the next generation prepared for the new world of automation and able to compete in the era of globalisation?
At one point in the report, the Young Fabians – the Young Fabians! – even question the continued viability of the National Health Service:
Turning to the NHS, there was much discussion on whether it is the most cost-effective way of delivering high quality, free at the point of use healthcare or if the system is no longer sustainable.
Meanwhile, Conservative MPs, terrified of showing anything less than fawning deference to our national religion, continue to tweet out bland banalities and paeans of praise to the NHS without engaging in any kind of strategic or comparative analysis to determine whether that dated organisation still best serves our needs:
What is impressive here is that rather than wasting time in a divisive effort to thwart Brexit or impose an ideologically pre-determined left-wing wishlist of policies on Britain, the Young Fabians chose instead to look forward, not back. They started with a blank sheet of paper and sought to identify all of the various challenges (and presumably opportunities) facing Britain in order to inform joined-up policymaking.
The next step – for which we have not yet seen any evidence from the Young Fabians, though hardly their fault when nobody else has led the way – is an attempt to join up these various diagnoses and identify the connections, dependencies and shared root causes between the various issues. This is an important step if we are to ensure that future policies work in concert with one another to achieve positive outcomes rather than interfering with one another or leading to the kind of confused messaging which can erode political support for a course of action.
Still, it should be a source of shame to those with prominent positions in the Conservative Party that one has to turn to the Young Fabians for the kind of strategic analysis that most competent governments (and nearly all major corporations) undertake as a matter of course.
When Britain last went through a period of discontinuity in the late 1970s, Labour represented declinism, fear of the future and a slavish commitment to the failing policies of the post-war consensus. Their punishment for failing to show political courage at that time was eighteen years in the wilderness of opposition, and the destruction of much which they claim to hold dear. The Tories now find themselves in a nearly identical position, painted as grim custodians of a failing status quo, an obstinately un-visionary party of technocrats and chancers who want to cling onto power only for power’s sake. Some of the issues feeding into our current period of discontinuity are different, but the political threat is identical.
And unless the Tories can stop being bested at strategic thinking by a group of earnest twenty-somethings of the centre-left, Labour’s fate of 1979 awaits them.