Progressives must be the architects of a better future, writes Mathew Lawrence
Given the year just gone, to say the centre-left is in crisis is a truism bordering on a banality. What is now required from progressives is less handwringing and premature autopsies on their fate, and more effort to get to grips with the forces remaking society and offer solutions to the challenges change invariably will bring. Progressives, after all, have only won when they have the future in their bones, able to intuit and shape change for the common good, not simply resile themselves to it.
IPPR’s new report, Future Proof: Britain in the 2020s, examines the powerful trends likely to drive change over the 2020s and the challenges this is likely to throw up. Five big forces will remake our world.
First, we will experience significant demographic change in the decade ahead: we will get older, more diverse, and the population will grow substantially. By 2030, the 65+ population will have grown by a third even though the working age population will have remained static, while the United Kingdom will be on course to become the biggest country by population in Europe and one of the most ethnically diverse in the world.
Second, the aftershocks of Brexit will continue to remake the UK’s political and economic order in 2020s. Investment is likely to be put on a permanently lower trajectory, reducing productivity and growth rates, dragging down the public finances and ultimately living standards in the process. At the same time, an increasingly vicious and divisive fight to define and speak for ‘the people’ will define British politics.
Brexit will be just one part of a broader transformation in the global economy and the geopolitics of the 21st century. Globalisation will evolve, trade patterns shift, and economic power gravitate toward Asia, with developed economies struggling to escape secular stagnation. As American hegemony fades, the post-war international order will be remade to better suit the economic and geopolitical interests of the global south.
Fourth, exponential improvements in new technologies are going to reshape how we live and work, reorganise our social, economic and political institutions, and redistribute power and reward in society. For example with two-thirds of all jobs in the UK at risk of automation in the coming decades the 2020s is likely to be ‘peak-human’ in terms of our role in the production process. Such powerful accelerations in technology have the potential to create an era of widespread abundance or a second machine age that radically concentrates economic power. Which path we take will depend on the type of politics and institutions we build.
Finally, we live in the Anthropocene era, where human activity is the decisive and destructive impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. It is not just climate change, important though that is. Biodiversity degradation, resource depletion and species extinction will accelerate, threatening life as we know it. For example, we are currently consuming resources at about one and a half times the Earth’s ability to regenerate them, while we have only 60 more harvests left on current trends of topsoil degradation. The future will therefore be powerfully shaped by a radically destabilising and deteriorating natural system, interlocking and reinforcing instabilities and inequalities in our political and economic systems.
In a ‘business as usual’ policy world, where we do not significantly change our policy direction, these trends are likely to deliver weak and unstable growth, rising inequality and stagnant living standards for many in the 2020s. At the same time, without reform our political system will struggle to build a more democratic society.
Fiscally, demographic change will put the public finances under immense strain. For example, the funding gap for adult social care budget is expected to be £13bn in 2030/31, equivalent to 62 per cent of the total expected budget for that year. Public services will also be under acute pressure, particularly due to ageing. For example, the number of people who will need daily physical assistance to wash, feed, or clothe themselves will double to two million by 2030, while there will be an estimated two million additional adults with mental health challenges.
Brexit will overshadow everything, accelerating us towards an uncertain, potentially radically different institutional landscape in the years ahead.
In the face of this, nostalgia and defensive tinkering will not be enough. The old approaches will neither be robust enough to mitigate against growing insecurity, ambitious enough to reform Britain’s economic model, nor sufficiently innovative to affect deeper social and political transformation. Moreover, the conditions that underpinned New Labour’s statecraft – rising productivity, easy if ultimately unsustainable flows of credit, a global demographic tailwind behind growth, the relative absence of distributional conflict – will be long exhausted. In short, the old toolkit can only get us so far in the new times ahead.
If we want to return to rising living standards for all and a more democratic, sustainable public life, deep structural reform will be required to meet the challenges of the future. Progressives will therefore have to rethink notions of work, value and how they connect to identity and culture, as well as reimagining the institutions underpinning ownership, credit, production, consumption and distribution. They will also have to grapple more seriously with power and how it is wielded, whether in the workplace, in the marketplace, or in our democracy, seeking to reassert democratic power wherever possible.
IPPR’s newly launched Commission on Economic Justice is seeking to answer how we can do that, to build a democratic economy that works for all of us. However, given the scale of the challenges ahead – economic, social, ecological, and political – it will require all of us facing up and responding to the world hurtling towards us.
In short, in the face of an accelerating wave of change, progressives will need to be the architects of a better future, not archivists preserving an old order.
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