We are now clearly in a ‘New Era in Politics’. After the reforming Labour government of 1945 to 1951, there was a ‘Butskellite’ consensus which meant that even the Conservatives, more or less, accepted the desirability of full employment and the welfare state. With the election of a Conservative government in 1979, there was a sea-change and the advent of Thatcherism, based on neoliberal economics drawn from the Chicago school, put individualism and the minimalist state centre stage. New Labour acted as a corrective to this and quite successfully ‘took the rough edges off’.
This distinct era in politics was, however, broken by the global financial crisis of 2007. It is important to see this crisis, which is yet to be concluded, essentially as a failure of unfettered capitalism.
But one of the paradoxes of this crisis is that the right have gained short-term benefit from it, not only in Britain but in many other countries as well. One of the reasons for this is that the traditional social democratic conception of the state has become unpopular. No longer are people enamoured by the strong, centralised, in many ways bureaucratic state. I am therefore not convinced that Labour should give the impression of wanting to go back to it.
This is not to suggest that we should abandon the idea that of the state being central to our vision. But we need to redefine our idea of the state so that it is more a reflection of community. For me, the state should be an enabling framework, an empowering state, or as Patrick Diamond has said, a steering state.
And we cannot forget the phenomenally difficult financial situation which a Labour government will inherit. Britain has a huge and growing national debt thanks to the failure of the Tory-led government’s policies. And, at the same time, our ageing population is creating additional pressure on limited resources. For example, an additional six per cent of GDP is needed to meet the cost of an ageing population by 2030.
This is another reason for a leaner, smarter state.
We also need to make devolution and decentralisation central to our social democracy. In Wales and Scotland, and indeed in Northern Ireland, devolution is popular. Yet England remains highly centralised.
If we are going to embrace English decentralisation it means recognising that the old approach of regional government has been rejected and it cannot be resuscitated. Instead, what we need is ‘permissive devolution’ which takes different forms in different parts of England. In other words, messy devolution.
Local government needs to be central to this process. But we need to breathe new life into local government and attract more people into it. Votes for 16- and 17-year-olds will help in this process.
In my view, decentralisation in England should be a priority for an incoming Labour government and perhaps there is a case for a constitutional convention to look at how different forms of devolution and decentralisation can best ‘hang together’.
Decentralisation is not only good for democracy it is also good for economic development. Throughout the world, and especially in Europe, the most successful economies tend to be those which have decentralised structures of government. Look at Germany. Ed Miliband’s recent statement in favour of regional banks points us in the right direction. Now we need to take the debate forward so that the development of entrepreneurship in the regions is seen as the key to bridging the north-south divide.
Having mentioned Europe, I am not convinced that a referendum on our membership of the EU is a good idea. In my view, we need to make the case for Britain in Europe much more vigorously and I have no doubt that pro-Europeans could win a referendum. But would a referendum really solve anything? And do we want a referendum to dominate a Labour government? A few weeks ago, David Cameron made a big speech on Europe but it’s already been forgotten about.
I think, however, it is important for us to have a clear vision of the kind of Europe that we want to see – not a centralised Europe but a Europe based on the principal of subsidiarity, where power rests at the most appropriate level, close to the people. This would reinforce our post-economic crisis social democracy so that it is seen as being profoundly democratic and decentralist in character. This is vitally important because, as Aneurin Bevan said, our socialism must always be in touch with people’s realities.
Wayne David is MP for Caerphilly is shadow minister for political and constitutional reform. This is his response to Professor Vernon Bogdanor at a Progress policy review event, The One Nation Labour debates: Labour and the new era in politics, on Tuesday 19 March 2013
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