by Jonathan Todd
Nothing says Christmas like the Prospect feature on the big ideas of the year ahead. At least in the bedrooms of geeks. Thinking about them, especially when there is turkey to be eaten and mulled wine to be drunk, is the preserve of the pointy-heads.
At the same time, nothing says unprepared like a Labour party that hasn’t thought through the implications of these ideas. Uncut is here to help. The turkey and mulled wine were untouched for long enough for us to identify and discuss the most important question raised for Labour by the pot pourri of ideas.
Prospect’s annual feature is a bit of lugubrious beast, so we deal with them in three posts looking first at domestic challenges, then international issues and finally drawing together the conclusions for Labour next year.
So, first up is domestic policy, where there are 9 big ideas:
1 Rejectionist politics
How will Labour react to UKIP’s likely strong performance in 2014’s European Parliament elections? And the election to this parliament of more nationalists than ever before?
The beltway consensus is that the anti-beltway chief, Farage, will be the big winner of the 2014 European elections. It’s virtually factored into the political stock prices of 2014. The bigger doubt is whether Farage’s stock price can remain high till May 2015.
While my suspicion is that UKIP will be back around 5% by May 2015, their strong performance in the European elections will put pressure on David Cameron, as his strategy for containing UKIP will seem to be failing. Labour should note, though, that Farage is part of a broader rejectionist trend uniting UKIP with both the Tea Party in the US and populist parties of the left and right across the EU.
This trend sees all politicians as being as bad as each other and is expected to result in more nationalists than ever before ending up in the European parliament. The only way for Labour MEPs to defeat them may be to align with Conservative and Liberal MEPs – potential validation of the UKIP charge that they are all the same.
2. Beginning of the end of QE
What’s Labour’s view on monetary policy?
Quantitative Easing (QE) is “the biggest monetary policy experiment in the history of the planet,” according to Richard Lambert, a former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee. It’s an unfinished experiment of central banks in the US, UK and the rest of the EU. It seems to have averted depression. But if it is withdrawn too quickly, it may trigger recession or worse, while if it is withdrawn too slowly, it may sustain destructive inflation.
Largely, Labour – like everyone else – has to sit back and hope that the responsible experts, Mark Carney et al, know what they are doing, as the inheritance to a Miliband government of them not knowing is too awful to contemplate. But more generally, Uncut continues to wonder – not least in light of the far-reaching implications of Summers’ recent intervention – whether Labour has a sufficiently developed view on monetary policy.
3. Growth leaves wages behind
What if this doesn’t happen?
“For generations in Britain when the economy grew the majority got better off,” as Ed Miliband told the last Labour party conference. That the majority were no longer benefitting from growth was “the most important thing” he had to say to conference. It’s also a trend for 2014 identified by Prospect. If they are right, then Labour’s ‘cost of living’ campaigning should continue to hit the sweet spot.
But wages are reported as growing at their fastest rate in six years during November. If this trend persists, Prospect will have misdiagnosed a 2014 trend and Labour’s campaigning will need recalibrating. Labour should think through what we’d do in this eventuality before it happens, rather than waiting for it to happen and then reacting.
4. Boom cities
How will Labour ensure that Britain’s cities are booming and not left behind?
Benjamin Barber wants mayors to rule the world. Except mayors don’t exist in most of Britain. He wants this because cities are booming, while nation-states are not meeting the expectations of their citizens. Except cities are not booming in the UK. Among the core cities – the 8 largest cities in England outside London – only Bristol has GDP per capita above the national average.
The economic performance of British cities lags the rest of the country, while in most other countries, the cities are growth engines, outpacing and supporting the rest of their countries. This puts the UK at a significant competitive disadvantage compared to other countries, which is strikingly correlated with difference in governance models: the presence of mayors elsewhere and their relative absence in the UK.
David Cameron had a good idea that he failed to properly sell when he advocated elected mayors at the referendums of May 2012. An incoming Labour government will have to deal with this failure, as well as the persistent problems of urban underachievement that mayors were the intended answer to.
5. Personalised medicine
How does this fit into Labour’s NHS plans?
We know that Andy Burnham supports “whole person care“. It’s not clear whether Labour does. Labour’s opposition to the Lansley Act was as ardent as Labour’s articulation of an alternative NHS vision has been studiously vague. The challenges of health in an ageing society are legion. Vagueness can only get Labour so far. Jeremy Nicholson, Director of Stratified Medicine at Imperial’s Biomedical Research Centre, thinks that personalised medicine is part of the answer to NHS’ problems.
“People think personalised healthcare is expensive,” Prospect quotes him as saying. “In fact, it’s impersonalised healthcare that’s expensive; getting the wrong treatment for the patient is expensive.” While the use of genetic information in personalised medicine may raise moral concerns, the potential is great.
If prevention is better than the cure, then devices of more “measured lives” that monitor activity, sleep, diet and even mood should become more widespread. Which would be an extension to personalisation with, I suspect, fewer moral dilemmas. Notwithstanding concerns about storing data on “the cloud”.
6. Cloud scepticism
How will Labour protect people from new risks?
“Cloud computing” reaches into all aspects of personal and professional communications. Increased awareness over 2013 of widespread government surveillance of internet communications has increased nervousness about this. The uses that private companies put to personal data stored on the “cloud” adds to this, as does the possibility that files on the “cloud” may be permanently lost if not backed-up.
The “cloud” developed outside government and continues to develop at a pace that legislation would probably struggle to keep pace with. Nonetheless, as Labour fights to preserve the welfare state, a protection against the risks of unemployment, ill health and old age, new risks are emerging. As much as politicians and public policy should not overextend themselves, they need to be part of the answer to these risks if they are to remain relevant.
7. The new news
Can Labour communicate in the Buzzfeed era?
In 2013, Grant Shapps became the first minister to post on Buzzfeed and Daniel Knowles of The Economist used the same medium to get to the heart of the problems with the housing market. The new news involves more intelligently crafted images and fewer words. This article is not part of the new news. Politics is, though, fundamentally about getting your message across, so the new news marks change in the essential craft of politics.
8. Peer to peer living
How can this way of living better achieve Labour’s goals?
It’s two and half years since Uncut explained the importance of collaborative consumption. In an era of stretched public budgets and brittle social capital, it offers remedies to both. It should be better integrated into Labour policy.
9. Pop-up everything
Are pop-ups to be encouraged?
In the past six years, Prospect explains, since the financial crisis hit, the practice of a venue or enterprise opening overnight, to thrive for a few days or months, and then disappear, has spread. To the extent that this reflects a taste for experimentation then this seems a good thing. However, if it’s driven by a lack of willingness by businesses to invest and meet the costs of operating over the longer-term, then it seems less so.
Sustained economic recovery requires increased business investment, which can, hopefully, be combined with the experimentation of pop-ups. Which raises a policy dilemma over whether pop-ups should be subject to business rates or not. Perhaps this should be limited to areas most urgently in need of regeneration.
Tomorrow: big ideas for 2014 and what they mean for Labour policy: international challenges
Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut