A new year fantasy of a better politics

Let us start with some good news about climate change. No, I cannot unveil some secret analysis showing that global warming is slowing down, or that targets for the future are well within reach. The COP meetings in Glasgow and Sharm-el-Sheikh made less progress than the planet requires.

The good news, however, is that the scale of the problem is now widely recognised. If the world does remain habitable for our grandchildren, it will matter that in our time nations in every continent came together to ask big questions, debate them fairly openly and feel their way towards big answers. Progress is too slow, but the process deserves our support. Without it the risk of catastrophe would be far greater.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of other large challenges we all face in this new year. And this should trouble us. Be warned: this blog is squarely about that least sexy of political topics: process. Unsexy, but crucial. For it is failures of process—above all, the absence of large, open debates about the ways forward—that are likely to end up making us poorer and more miserable in the months and years ahead. 

Here are three statements that would, I think, command general support from those with broad knowledge of the state of our economy (experts, if we are able to rescue that word from Michael Gove’s poisonous clutches) and who are not involved in fighting in Westminster’s trenches or worrying about offending target voters ahead of the next election.

First, we cannot all maintain our standard of living during the present crisis; if some are to be protected, others are bound to suffer more. The rising cost of imported energy has shrunk our economy. The question is: how should we share out the pain? The government ducks this by saying that we cannot afford the significant pay rises sought by public sector workers, who are among those suffering most. Labour says unions, management and ministers should get round the table to sort things out. Neither proposition is ridiculous, but neither gets to the heart of our national challenge: to work out a fair distribution of our reduced national cake in a way that does not involve trials of strength that punish the weak and which are giving us a winter of strikes, misery, galloping inflation and, in many cases, real hardship.

Second, taxes must rise steadily in the years ahead if we are to see long-run improvements to the NHS, our schools, our national infrastructure and the welfare of our most vulnerable citizens.  The reasons are well-known: increasing life expectancy, new and often expensive ways to fight illness and save life, ever greater demands on our education system to produce adults with the skills to make the most of new technologies, and so on. Managed properly, we can enjoy a future in which economic growth generates enough money to increase both public and private spending. But recent decades have shown that both health and education require steadily increasing shares of our national income to give us the quality of service we want. Some people say that both health and education have enough money and that what we need is reform. Others demand more cash and say little about reform. In truth, money without reform won’t solve our problems; nor will reform without money. We need lots of both.

Third, Brexit has damaged our economy severely, especially by impeding trade with our largest partner; a return to true frictionless trade is an urgent necessity, The economic consensus puts the cost at 4 per cent of GDP—around £100bn a year. This is enough to damage both public and personal finances significantly and make the first two challenges above harder to tackle. To get rid of that huge annual burden, we need to return to something like the customs union and single market, even if we use different labels for a future of friction-free trade. Polls show that most voters now regard Brexit as a mistake and would like a closer relationship with the EU. Yet neither of our main parties supports the kind of action that is needed.

At the heart of all three propositions is a failure at the top of both Labour and the Conservatives. To be sure, there will be some members of the real and shadow cabinets who flatly disagree with some or all of those points. But I would wager that if all members of both took a truth drug and privately said what they really think, majorities of both groups would agree with most or all of this analysis. 

So what is holding them back? The answer is simple: fear. Fear at the heart of the Conservative party of its right-wing outriders in parliament and the media; fear in Labour of public sector unions and voters in the red wall seats it needs to win back; fear in both parties of reopening the Pandora’s box labelled Brexit—and fear of coming clean about the long-term costs of fixing broken Britain and how to pay for them. 

Fear is not an ignoble sentiment. Evolution has made it part of our human armoury for a reason. But we have reached the point where political fear has paralysed good government and blocked rational debate. Which is why my new year wish—OK, fantasy—is that we copy COP, and create arenas where we, and especially our leading politicians currently too scared to come clean, can ask big long-term questions about austerity, public services and Brexit, debate them openly and feel our way towards big answers.

This blog was first published by Prospect