Labour needs to plan now for the Britain of 2020, writes Parmjit Dhanda
Five years ago, when we lost the general election, including my bellwether seat of Gloucester, our kids were very young. Zac was four, Max had just turned one. Our infants’ experience of five years ago was not one of being born in to a nirvana; it was two years after the financial crash, after all. Yet the trickledown of investment to local communities and public services had not ended. Theirs was not a time of austerity; they and their cohort were brought into this world in one of Labour’s 100 rebuilt hospitals; there was a growing savings culture through child trust funds; mothers received universal child benefit at record levels; they were nurtured in new Sure Start facilities and they would be destined for schools that were rising in international league tables in facilities that were brand new. Yet Labour lost.
Five years on and the hospital is still gleaming but short of staff and missing targets; child trust funds are gone, child benefit rationed, and Sure Start hollowed out; schools are short of capital for their buildings.
Let’s face it: if the world has changed for infants, those of working age who provide for them have faced greater challenges than any other group over the last five years. Their job insecurity, wages, level of household debt and inability to plan for security in old age has left them as the first generation to be poorer than their parents’ generation.
The challenge for an incoming Labour government in 2015 has rarely been greater. But, despite the coalition’s terrible legacy and another five years of constrained public spending ahead, Labour’s record of building a better nation through tough times should not be underestimated, most notably in the first postwar Labour government. The 1945 government recognised that it would be wrong to reproduce old solutions, but instead looked to the future, to the type of Britain we needed to become for the challenges we were about to face. We will need to reawaken that spirit in the years ahead. The challenges to come will be very different to those of the last decade.
Come 2020, the scheduled end of the next parliament, our population will be getting close to 68 million, and still rising. This will not just be due to inward migration but due to the fact we are living longer too. One in six of us are over 65. That gradient rises steeply in the years to come; a quarter of our population will be over 65 by 2050. The nation’s housing need will become greater and more complex. As a nation we currently build around 100,000 homes a year. Even if we meet our pledge to increase this to 200,000 new homes a year by 2020, the Future Homes Commission says we will need to be building 300,000 homes annually right now to be keeping up with demand. If the National House Building Council is correct there will be a shortfall of two million homes by 2020.
Simply building new houses or blocking people from coming to live in the United Kingdom will not solve the country’s problems. Labour will need to become more nuanced in its policy outlook and will need to do much more to persuade the electorate that life is more complicated, and so are the solutions. Part of the housing solution will have to involve imaginative equity solutions that allow older people to downsize, maintain property wealth to pass on and yet free up their family homes for younger families. People living in to their ‘extended middle age’ are soon to play a bigger role in our political lives than ever, as they represent a larger growing part of the electorate.
We will need to find a way to engage with society in a more educative process about globalisation that raises the game beyond the kneejerk politics that has benefitted the United Kingdom Independence party and other fringe parties. In our next decade, as we head closer to a demographic cliff-edge, Labour must not allow the debate about immigration to be decoupled from the debate about economic growth and the nation’s ageing population.
And while we are on this topic of our ageing society, Labour’s theme of predistribution received a lot of flak for being too highfalutin. But it was ultimately right. The best way to prepare for a new demographic outcome is to make it easier for older citizens to prepare for their retirement. In the next decade we should champion predistribution for older people through defined benefit pension schemes to enable tomorrow’s pensioners to plan and to save the state from having to step in to bail them out. The opposite, of course, is what we are seeing presently. You cannot plan for your old age with a defined contribution scheme.
So many of the policy levers I described at the outset of this article, during that momentous decade at the start of the century that made a difference to my children’s generation, came from central government, big money that was controlled by the big state. As the state shrinks, those levers have shrunk too. Policy changes in the 2020s will require more local levers. We have seen local authorities come together to become more than the sum of their parts – they have had to as central government budgets have shrunk. Partnerships between councils and partnerships with the private sector have opened up new revenue streams for innovative local authorities. And, while what we are beginning to see in London and Greater Manchester is truly exciting, Labour will need to find a way to ensure parts of the country are not left behind. Labour, at its best, is both the party of the urban and rural community.
I have probably posed more questions than solutions – but therein lies the point. To own the future we need to put our minds, today, to the challenges of 2020.
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