Ideas for the centre-left: a starter for six

Fabian Review - 26 Sep 2017

There is a spectre haunting the centre-left in Britain. It comes from commentators who are trying to establish a consensus that we have no new ideas. May I begin the counter offensive with a starter for six?

Hardly a day passes without voters seeing the giants of industry making more money by risking our futures. The latest example comes from the insurance companies flogging our pensions to one another. When I took out a policy with the Pru, I expected the company to deliver on that policy. I bought the Pru guarantee. I didn’t expect the company to bargain me away in an effort to boost short-term profits.

And we’ve also seen how Thames Water has shovelled money into the bank account of investors at the expense of consumers, by setting up a separate company to carry out Thames Water’s responsibilities to renew its capital base, but in a way that allows huge dividends to be made rather than investing those payments.

Starter for one, therefore, is to establish a public interest body that will intervene in the market and prevent companies from exploiting consumers in this fashion. It will have its work cut out, so it should be given powers that exceed those held by the Competition and Markets Authority and the Serious Fraud Office. Getting tough to protect the consumer against industrial giants is a number one priority.

Similar sweeping action needs to be taken to protect the most weak and vulnerable sections of Britain’s labour market.

The Taylor Review gives us the beginnings of a layer of protection to be thrown around the most vulnerable workers. A starting point for legislation must be the implementation of the national minimum wage for all workers, defined on an hourly basis of employment duties carried out, rather than a gross weekly sum which too many companies in the gig economy use to steal from their workforce. The new Director of Labour Market Enforcement, Sir David Metcalf, should have the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, the Slavery Commissioner’s unit, and staff from HMRC placed under his direction, to swoop on exploitative companies. Such a decisive change should be made that those who know exactly what vulnerability means in everyday life feel that they are at last being protected.

Brexit could take up a whole shelf load of articles. It is crucial to show, however, that each of the big themes are linked to each other.

We should forget about timetables and deadlines and instead find ourselves a safe harbour from which to negotiate. We then need to build up effective border controls. Behind those border controls we need to ask employers to tell us which skills they currently fill by using EU nationals. This data then must become the basis for an effective skills policy, starting with offering boutique apprenticeships for 10 to 12 weeks which then earn graduates £150 a day or more in their second year. There is already a £2.6bn fund being built up by the apprenticeship levy to pay for this.

Also linked to effective border controls must be a serious welfare reform programme which would have been a nonsense with open borders. As borders are controlled and as skills policy slowly builds up, so welfare claimants must be encouraged to take the opportunities which require them to learn new skills and to work in many cases full time.

A fourth pillar in a transformative centre-left programme is to close the gap in the levels of skills and development among children before they start school. On current trends it will take 40 years to do so.  This class-based inequality, which grows during school years, must be closed by an effective foundation years strategy. Sure Start failed the very poorest parents who were dismissed as being ‘hard to reach’. Money must be spent on more health visitors to engage such vulnerable parents regularly on a one-to-one basis. The research presented in my report, The Foundation years: preventing poor children becoming poor adults, shows that class and income can be trumped by improving the mental health of vulnerable mothers, establishing rich bonding between parents and their children, and helping those families have fun at home which increases the children’s whole skills base.

Next for the centre-left is to take back control of our utilities. We should do this by imposing a levy on the mega-profits of the utility companies. The monies raised by that levy should be given over to a series of national mutuals. Those that are running the industry will continue to do so, but the public interest will be guarded by the mutuals and a share of profits increasingly being brought back into investment and innovation.

In a similar vein, we should move to phase out pension tax relief, especially from the very, very wealthy, by establishing and paying this money into a national sovereign wealth fund. Our petroleum tax was lost into current revenue. We urgently need to build up a capital base of investments worldwide so we begin to re-establish a growing stream of unearned income coming back to this country, for much-needed investment in our own infrastructure and higher living standards.

That is my starter for six: there will be a queue of MPs and others who can provide further ideas for a programme for government.

Well done to the Fabian Society for opening up this debate. We now need a Labour Party that not only listens, but shows it is listening, by incorporating the best ideas into a manifesto for the next election.