20 May 2017

The big lesson of this election? The state is back


There are many things that have become clear in this geekily fascinating manifesto week. But the single most significant fact to emerge from the parties’ policy platforms – and, indeed, from the election as a whole – is that the state is back.

Inevitably, both of the main parties are coming at this idea from different angles. Labour promises a major round of renationalisations, the scrapping of student tuition fees and an enormous increase in public spending.

This would amount to what is, for me and for what I’m sure will prove to be the vast share of the voting public, a worryingly hyperactive role for government, leading to an insidious and inefficient increase in centralised control. One also knows from the nature of the current party leadership that its instinct is to regulate, enforce, tax, tax, tax and spend, spend, spend – and that this manifesto is merely an opening offer designed to avoid scaring too many voters away. Imagine what would come next.

But the Tories, too, are embracing their inner statist. The difference, of course, is that while Jeremy Corbyn will intervene where possible, Theresa May will do so where necessary. This distinction won’t satisfy the Tory libertarians or parliamentary backwoodsmen currently crying foul and checking for Reds under their beds, but Mrs May will, happily, soon have a majority that allows her to ignore both.

This regeneration of the state is not a return to, or even a compromise with, traditional Left-wing thinking. It’s an acknowledgement of the prominent role identity and culture now play in our politics: knowing who you are, who you’re accountable to, and who is accountable to you; having confidence that your elected government has the toolkit to tackle the leaks, strains and blown fuses of society.

There is plenty in the Conservative manifesto to object to – the immigration policy is breathtakingly idiotic. But the Prime Minister’s pursuit of a One Nation agenda, while in its intellectual infancy, shows signs of being genuine. The Tory leadership has stopped banging on about a shrunken state in favour of advancing the case for an enabling one, or at least one that is unafraid to intervene in the national interest.

The Conservatives have freed themselves from the increasingly unsustainable commitment to universal benefits for pensioners, regardless of income or wealth, by promising to means-test the winter fuel payment. They will scrap the triple lock on the state pension after 2020.

They have finally come up with a robust plan for social care – one that focuses on individual responsibility above social insurance (well, they are Tories). Like the proposal or not, it will at least break the status quo, should stimulate the creation of a private insurance market, and will give us a factual rather than theoretical evidence base for future policy. These measures begin to tackle the intergenerational biases that have become such a hot-button issue in our politics. It’s a good start, at least.

There are also a number of proposals to like – whisper it – in the programme offered by Labour. The idea of a UK Investment Bank should be stolen by the Conservatives when they form the next government. Properly funded, such an institution would be a useful tool for adjusting the tiller of the economy, while lending at a rate that brings in a reasonable return for the taxpayer and addressing the ongoing dysfunction of our private financial institutions. The Tories’ recent privatisation of the Green Investment Bank after just five years of life was an ill-judged ideological spasm, torpedoing perhaps the most innovative British policy experiment of the past decade.

Corbyn’s suggested introduction of a maximum pay ratio in the public sector is also smart thinking. This is something that both public and private sectors should – must – embrace. By leading the way, the state can exert moral pressure on those in private finance and elsewhere who have shamelessly continued to coin it at an unjustifiable rate since the 2008 crash. Again, it’s a start.

But it’s not just about the individual policies. What links and drives all of these proposals is a desire on behalf of both elected and electors for the return of nation-state agency – for government to show it can flex its muscles in ways that make a positive difference to the lives of its population.

It is, of course, little surprise that politics has shifted in this direction. A key driver of the vote to leave the EU was the urge to “take back control”. This isn’t just about Europe – the idea that Westminster was no longer able to take the decisions that matter because ministers and Whitehall were restrained by the extravagant tentacles of Brussels (whether this has ever actually been true is, of course, a matter of significant dispute). It’s also about the belief that global business behemoths have slipped the surly bonds of national accountability – that if globalisation is to be saved, it needs a lead around its neck.

In short, a necessary reinvention of the state is underway, in no small part because Brexit has licensed a new political radicalism – even if some of our politicians, conditioned by years of relative homogeneity to operate within fairly narrow parameters, are only just starting to work out what to do with it.

This feels like one of those rare moments where politics is approaching a (lower case) great leap forward – where, faced with a society, technology and way of being that is changing rapidly, those who govern are finally shaking off the calcified constraints of the past few decades, the innovation-killing insistence that “this is how things must be done”.

And what I draw from it, as a frustrated centrist, is the certainty that frustrated centrists must and can produce a distinct programme of their own. That is this election’s missing manifesto.

The Blairite pitch of strong public services funded by a thriving market economy remains the single most persuasive and attractive ordering of our society – and remains undefeated at the ballot box (see Macron, E.).

That understanding of what comes next, of how to address the public’s concerns and fears as well as its hopes and aspirations, cries out for something beyond this awful Labour Party and these shape-shifting Tories – for a movement that is commensurate with the challenge of the times, that has a natural sympathy for what’s needed, and that belongs wholly to the changed world of the 21st century.

Our politics is only heading in one direction. The excessive protection of the green belt will end and houses will be built. Power will be increasingly devolved from Westminster and London throughout the UK – Brexit will mean greater powers for Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, but will also quicken the shift towards city mayors and local accountability. There will be a substantial move towards renewable energy as the technology improves and its price lowers. Personal taxation will move from income towards wealth. Governments, including our own, will also find ways to call to heel the giants of global capitalism, which have become all but statelets – as Ed Conway wrote in this week’s Times (£), abolishing corporation tax and replacing it with a levy on companies’ turnover rather than their profits would be a “sure-fire way to extract some cash from the Googles and Starbucks of this world”.

These are all issues that at their essence cry out for measured, modern, unifying solutions. Call it Blairite, call it centrist, call it, y’know, effective. But it’s coming.

Chris Deerin is a political commentator