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Great Britain? by Torsten Bell – why Labour must move fast and fix things

Great Britain? by Torsten Bell – why Labour must move fast and fix things

Choose your fighter: mission-driven government or radical incrementalism? Evangelical academic or nerdy policy wonk? Economist Mariana Mazzucato’s idea of reconceptualising government around a few long-term goals inspired Keir Starmer’s five “missions”. Former chief executive of the Resolution Foundation Torsten Bell suggests a more pragmatic approach, set out in this book, published midway through the election campaign. He has just become MP for Swansea West, and will be a key figure in Labour’s Treasury. However, the new government will have to decide – in rhetoric and action – which is more convincing.

Bell’s case for “radical incrementalism” rests on three pillars. First, that the UK is in deep trouble; we’ve combined abysmal levels of productivity growth, resulting in stagnant real wages and slow growth in living standards, with persistently high levels of inequality and rising levels of severe deprivation. As he notes, “this should be enough to put to bed the zombie idea that Britain faces a trade-off between growth and equality: being ‘more normal’ means becoming more prosperous and more equal.”

Second, the path to “normality” requires a combination of relatively quick and modest policy shifts with longer-term strategies. From abolishing the two-child benefit cap, which would make a massive difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged kids, to increasing our miserable levels of both private and public investment, Great Britain? is full of policy detail. Much of this – reforming the planning system so that we can build more houses, reducing the exploitation of lower paid and insecure workers, reforming the tax system so that it taxes richer and older people more and workers less – is well-trodden territory, largely reflects the consensus among economists and thinktanks, and is none the worse for that. Many of us would be much happier with this prospectus than Labour’s timid and sometimes incoherent manifesto.

And third – and this is perhaps the most important point of difference with the “mission” approach – many of these changes can and should be implemented quickly. In time, this incrementalism can and should add up to radical change, but we don’t need a fully formulated roadmap to start the journey, and we can’t afford to wait. Bell makes the argument for immediate, concrete change on both principled and political grounds: “Early victories will incrementally rebuild faith and break us out of the stagnation trap … in time, higher public investment drives growth, but in the short term it means something almost as important: potholes that are filled in, rather than providing a daily, jolting reminder of the country’s stagnation.”

The subtext is clear. “Missions” are fine; but, as everyone who’s ever worked on an “interdepartmental strategy” knows, the risk is that a new government spends its first year setting up working groups, workshops, consultations, and evidence papers, culminating in a big set piece ministerial speech and the publication of a hefty policy document, after which everyone relaxes. Meanwhile, separately, the Treasury won’t stump up the money, the pothole is still there, and the public’s distrust of all politicians ratchets up yet another notch.

As a civil servant, I helped establish the Child Poverty Unit – which Labour has highlighted as the exemplar of “mission-driven government” in action. And I am convinced that there is no substitute for objectives, like ending child poverty, that are long-term, ambitious and directly impact people’s lives. But Bell is right that unless government puts its own political capital, and our money, where its mouth is, they will ring hollow. That applies to all of Labour’s missions, from net zero to the NHS to “expanding opportunity”. Leaving the two-child limit – which Bell rightly excoriates – in place, not improving pay and conditions in social care, or failing to address unfair zero-hours contracts will undermine Labour’s credibility from the start.

Labour’s six “first steps” suggest that they recognise this, but these range from the specific and quantifiable (more teachers and NHS appointments) to generic politician-speak (economic stability) to bureaucratic deckchair-shuffling (replacing the “Illegal Migration Operation Command” with a “Border Security Command”). Bell argues convincingly that Labour needs to go further and faster to deliver concrete improvements in people’s lives. As he concludes, “Problems will not vanish overnight – yet, as we start investing in our own future, the clouds that hover over Britain will lift far more swiftly than we might realise.” Keir Starmer should listen.

Source: theguardian.com