Brexit provides the centre-left with an opportunity to offer real solutions to Britain’s regional inequalities, writes Callum Tipple
On the morning of the 24 June 2016, the FTSE 100 fell over five hundred points. The pound descended to its lowest level against the US dollar since 1985, and the governor of the Bank of England was forced into holding an emergency press conference in an attempt to reassure the markets. Despite a healthy showing in the short-term fuelled by a weak currency, the impact of Brexit on the UK’s long-term economic prospects has been recognised to be negative by all but the most extreme wing of the Conservative party.
Short-term boosts to growth have been accompanied by the downgrading of Britain’s credit rating, a currency which has failed to recover despite relative political stability, and the prospect of job transfers from the City to its European rivals. All of these effects are long-term, and demonstrate the concern of the financial sector over any exit deal which isolates the UK from the single market and customs union.
This story is a powerful one, and the centre-left have been right to emphasise it given the importance of the services sector to the British economy. However, this is not the only place Brexit’s impact will be felt. It will strongly affect sectors of the population that voted for ‘Leave’ in significant numbers: fishermen in coastal ports, steel workers in plants; textile workers in industrial heartlands. The people that have been let down by the Conservatives’ ruthless focus on austerity, and who used the Brexit vote to protest a status quo that has led to economic stagnation and a growing disparity, not between the north and the south, but between London and ‘the rest’.
The social mobility commission’s outgoing state of the nation report underlined that coastal and older industrial towns such as Scarborough and Nottingham are rapidly becoming ‘social mobility coldspots’, with progression to higher education falling to 10 per cent and up to a quarter of young people in towns such as South Ribble not in education, employment, or training (NEET). It is unclear how Brexit can do anything but worsen this situation. Much of the remaining industry in these towns is dependent either on free access to sections of the European market, or on substantial inwards investment from abroad by companies seeking tariff-free access to Europe for their goods. The town of Grimsby which voted by 70 per cent for Leave, recognises this reality – representatives of the seafood industry have sought a ‘Brexit exemption’ as vital to protect jobs.
Amidst Conservative inaction, the centre-left is uniquely placed to convey this story and to build clear, detailed, and substantive policy proposals to solve the problems it raises. Not only would it provide progressives purpose for the coming years, but it also fits with what this section of the party does best: the development of costed, pragmatic, and effective solutions that are realistic and achievable. This will secure measurable effects for the very people that Labour seeks to represent.
The advent of the fourth industrial revolution means that any plan for regeneration must centre on technological innovation. If we do not take into account the rise of automation and substantial advances in artificial intelligence, there is a real risk that British manufacturing could become a thing of the past. The first element of such an approach must focus on larger towns and small cities such as Nottingham, given that these are hubs for local workers. Whitehall must provide support for sustained investment in smart technology, which will not only create jobs, but also improve public services. For example, Barcelona’s smart city strategy involving the roll-out of LED lamp-posts, intelligent water systems, and effective city-wide wifi has created 47,000 jobs, whilst also helping to collect increasingly important data that allows city authorities to use their resources more effectively.
Though smart technology has been rolled out in cities such as London and Manchester, financial support must be given to struggling towns and cities in the Midlands and north to boost growth and prevent a digital as well as economic gap forming between the big cities and other urban areas. However, we must also target rural areas and local towns where the introduction of such technology is not feasible. In these areas, central government must invest in training programmes specifically targeted towards technology manufacturing (where automation still requires human input), and offer tax breaks to tech companies building facilities which employ a strong proportion of local people in areas of the industrial north. Offering devolved power over these issues to regions with a strong identity would also fit their political agenda.
Such solutions may not have immediate effects, but in the long-term they could help to construct a new manufacturing belt between London and Manchester which thrives and is suited to the 21st century economy. The centre-left wholeheartedly opposes Brexit, and with very good reason given its disproportionately negative effects on working people. However, this opposition must be coupled with serious debate. Progressives must have a conversation that develops solutions to these problems, and be a powerful and relevant voice for the years to come.
Callum Tipple is a writer for Progress. He tweets @Callum_Tipple
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