What has changed?
How do the policy challenges of 1997 compare with the ones we face today, asks Stella Creasy
Tony Blair did not send a single email in office. The 1997 manifesto pledged to get rid of outside toilets in schools, such was the condition of our public services. Back then people went into shops to book holidays, rent videos, or buy newspapers. Labour’s election battle bus had a fax machine – for when pagers were out of range.
It is not only technology that has changed. Globally, the largest generation is now young people. In contrast, our population has become top heavy as the number of those aged over 65 grows at a faster rate than those under. Since 2000 the number of self-employed has increased 45 per cent to 4.8 million – yet they are earning less in real terms than their predecessors did 20 years ago.
The challenges we face in health are unrecognisable to those we have faced before. Half of all the people who have ever turned 80 are still alive, yet we are obsessing about hospital beds rather than preventative care. A woman recently died in America from a superbug resistant to all antibiotics, and yet we are not investing in research.
Just as some things are different, others are wearily familiar. Twenty years on, callous and incompetent Tories obsessed with Europe preside over rising inequality. Where Labour lifted millions of children out of poverty, in 2017 working households are sliding into destitution at an alarming rate. Our National Health Service is again fraying at the seams as a combination of cuts and reorganisation have damaged its capacity to serve.
It may be tempting to make ‘told you so’ our mantra. But if we want to win elections and so transform lives it is our answers about what we would do differently that the public needs to hear. Whether Keir Hardie’s sunshine of socialism, Harold Wilson’s white heat of technology, Aneurin Bevan’s NHS or Blair’s information superhighway, at our best Labour does not fixate on recreating the past, but is ruthless about securing a better future for all. To be progressive is not simply to lament, but to actively challenge whatever holds people back – whether unfettered markets, greed or indifference. It is also to do this for and with everyone. Other political parties accept trade offs between people, regions, markets. We do not trade off one against another, we trade up. We know Britain is better when everyone is judged not by where they came from, but how they contribute to making a success of both their own lives and those of others in their community and their country.
How we do that continually changes, just as the times change. Against the tide of nationalism and pessimism, we need the courage to argue for a future where the lives our children will lead and the country they live in will be very different to that of their grandparents. That does not mean being indifferent to those struggling to cope as industries and jobs evolve or evaporate in their towns and cities. It is about recognising their talents and ensuring that, as change happens, they are at the front of the queue to benefit.
Twenty years ago Labour argued that extending education and skills to all was the key to ending poverty and inequality. Today these are necessary, but not sufficient, in a world where automation and globalisation mean there are no careers for life. The public also needs more than legal protections against exploitation or the right to organise. We have to redistribute the ability and funds to be your own boss. This is not just about individuals – it also means investment into the spaces and places that support entrepreneurship and a sense of shared identity too.
In 2017 opportunity for all means broadening our focus from early years investment or going to university. Every school leaver needs an advance – whether to pay for higher or further education, buy a house or to start their own business – and the requirement to repay it so the next generation can be underwritten. Every person facing redundancy needs a loan to support their job search or start up, with retail banks and other small businesses given tax breaks to back them with money or mentoring. Every locality needs a tax break to attract investment and new technology to them, to make sure every corner of Britain is a good place to do business.
Opportunity for all is also about the partnerships we create beyond our borders. Twenty years ago, working with the European Union delivered some of our biggest progressive gains – whether on employment rights through the social chapter or on international development and climate change. Collaborations offer options to our country and our fellow citizens – to continue to make that happen we must be willing to win the case for amending, not ending, freedom of movement, alongside fighting for access to the single market and the research and development partnerships that can benefit our nation of budding entrepreneurs.
Times, people and possibilities change. Principles do not. If we want to win not just the policy but also the political battles ahead, we must take on the world as it is now, not just as it once was. Nor will we inspire and enthuse the public until we are clear about what we are prepared to do to actually deliver change. Every generation forgets at its peril that without both the energy of ideas and the determination to act, all we engender in those struggling under the yoke of a Tory government is despair. Now is our time to show we can and do offer something better.
Stella Creasy is member of parliament for Walthamstow. She tweets at @stellacreasy
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1997 general election, 20th anniversary 1997 victory, Aneurin Bevan, Brexit, Europe, European Union, Harold Wilson, Keir Hardie, NHS, Tony Blair