The future of the left since 1884

Putting Labour and Britain back together again

Over the course of the next decade, the UK faces a series of economic and social challenges that will have a significant impact on the way we live our lives. From globalisation to terrorism; from an ageing society to devolution:...


Over the course of the next decade, the UK faces a series of economic and social challenges that will have a significant impact on the way we live our lives. From globalisation to terrorism; from an ageing society to devolution: each confront the country with major choices about its future.

In the face of great change, Labour’s task is to give people hope. The Tories will continue to shrink the state, choke off aspiration and widen inequality. We need to present an alternative that is both economically credible and offers people renewed optimism that a fairer society will benefit us all. This needs to bring together the realities of a changing world with our eternal values of social justice, social mobility and social solidarity; putting Labour and Britain back together again.

It is impossible to discern all aspects of the future. But we can make some clear predictions about  how Britain will look in 2020 and this is where Labour’s renewal should begin.

For example, the rapid pace of technological innovation will continue to transform our economy. The impact of automation, the rise of a low carbon ‘sharing economy’, the growing integration and complexity of the global economy, will all have a profound effect and the labour market must respond. It is currently dysfunctional, unable to deliver enough well-paying jobs and inequality will only widen.

We are fortunate to have an ambitious, innovative and creative generation of young people. An increasing number are setting up their own businesses, with a new enterprise culture emerging which Labour should nurture. However, too many young people have been hit hard by austerity. Social mobility has declined, and this may be the first generation which does worse than their parents.

To allow them to flourish we must succeed economically, and this requires changes in our skills mix. In ten years’ time the workforce will need to be vastly different, so our educational institutions will need reform. However, the Tories’ FE cuts leave the UK facing a technology skills gap that is threatening economic growth. With productivity levels continuing to decline relative to our competitors, we should be investing in the digital economy and taking advantage of emergent technologies, from stem-cell medical technology to intelligent polymers and biometrics. A renewed focus on science, technology and green jobs would equip Britain for the future and share more fairly the proceeds of growth.

Devolution has the potential to drive economic development and productivity further. It’s also an opportunity for Labour councillors and mayors to tackle health inequality, worklessness, low pay and child poverty, in the face of a Tory government which is widening inequality. The future is to empower local communities and individuals by placing them at the heart of the decision-making process on the issues that affect them directly. By creating thriving urban and rural hubs, we can attract long-term investment and increase prosperity and social mobility. Devolution must not simply be from Whitehall to town halls but to local communities, where entrepreneurs and community activists can lead tangible change.

Another great challenge we face is the ageing society. In 2030 there will be 51 per cent more over 65 year olds and 101 per cent more people aged over 85, according to House of Lords research. With more people retired than in work, there will be huge pressure on the public finances and on our public services. While care and support matter, many older people are active citizens playing a key role in their communities, supporting their families and providing childcare. Labour failed to address the changing nature of post retirement at the last election, and older people voted Tory in alarmingly large numbers. Labour must address this immediately, but not at the cost of deserting young people: we must invest in our young people alongside developing a comprehensive vision for the role of older people in society.

While these are clear predictions we can make, other factors are knowable. For example, we face a referendum that will determine our future in the European Union, and which may reopen questions about the future of the United Kingdom. Continued instability in the Middle East will pose a serious threat to our national security and may lead to an on-going refugee crisis. These crucial global issues pose very real challenges to Labour. Our pro-European instincts and determination to maintain a balanced approach to migration place strains on our relationship with a significant section of our traditional vote.

While there are no easy answers, we need to face the future and commit ourselves to reshaping the UK. We should expose the Tories for the paucity of their ambition in managing national decline. Our alternative should be to work with business, civil society and communities to unleash the talent of all our people and give Britain a renewed sense of national pride and belief in its future. Labour’s vision must lie in movement politics, putting people and communities at its centre and making change happen on the ground. However, we must also marry our values with the realities of rapid economic and social change at home and abroad. If we can do that we will once again achieve a synergy between our values and the values of the mainstream majority.

That is what I mean by putting Labour and Britain back together again.


Ivan Lewis MP

Ivan Lewis is MP for Bury South and Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. He is also the author of the Purple Book Chapter “One Nation Labour: tackling the politics of culture and identity”.

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