The Tories love to talk about ‘building back better’ – but to truly rebuild after the pandemic we need honesty about the past, ambitious policymaking, and much stronger regional relationships.
Much has been said about what the post-pandemic landscape will look like. The government has promised to ‘Build back better’ after the pandemic, and it says a lot about the flexible nature of the phrase that it is also being used across the pond by the Biden administration in relation to a far more ambitious funding plan.
So, what does it mean to ‘build back better’, and how can the Labour Party help facilitate a progressive and fairer future for our communities and our nation as a whole? The answer, I believe, lies in three parts: reclaiming the narrative, bold policy making and fighting for our devolved regions.
Reclaiming the narrative:
I have written extensively about why I think the Conservative narrative of levelling up is both misleading and ultimately hollow. I truly believe that we need to spend more time unpicking the inherent hypocrisy at the heart of this rhetoric, and to passionately challenge the idea that the Conservatives are now the party of investment and working people. The Johnson administration loves to pretend that it has just got into power and is somehow absolved from the sins of the former governments of Theresa May and David Cameron. Let’s not forget that we are witnessing a Conservative Party going into its eleventh year in government. To put that into perspective when the Conservatives were first elected Fabio Capello was England Manager. The Tories have been in power for longer than Instagram has existed and have now governed for longer than Tony Blair was Prime Minister. Boris Johnson was in government alongside May, and since returning as an MP in 2015, has consistently backed austerity policies. Now he claims that under him the Tory party is the party of levelling up. It is a claim that is as nonsensical as it is cynical. The Tories are attempting to rebrand themselves after a decade of gutting public services and fostering extreme inequality and we must not let them get away with it.
Bold Policy Making
Covid-19 is the biggest post-war crisis that we have ever had to face. It has impacted every aspect of our lives, from our work to our social interactions. To generate a strong recovery, the government needs to invest in ways previously thought unrealistic. We need money pumped into local communities in schemes far more ambitious and more transparent than the ‘levelling up’ fund.
The threat to lives and livelihoods is stark. As the IPPR have noted ‘there is potential for medium to long-term ‘scarring’ of the UK economy…If this persists, the ‘great lockdown’ could turn into a ‘great depression’. To but it bluntly, then, now is not the time to be frugal. Labour should be unafraid of calling for an economic recovery plan as relatively ambitious of that of the US. To avoid spending money now is exceptionally irresponsible and it is particularly jarring to have Conservative backbenchers lobbying the Chancellor to cut spending, when they are not even willing to tax massive multinational corporations properly. Finally, within this recovery, we need to champion green infrastructure, and develop policies that are ambitious but also practically benefit working people up and down the country.
Fighting for our devolved regions
The government needs to start listening to regional communities outside of Westminster. Last year, Manchester had to beg for additional funding after being placed in the toughest Coronavirus restrictions, and the image of Andy Burnham being blindsided by a pitiful government funding offer will stand as a reminder of how the government treated the north during a crisis that threatened lives and obliterated livelihoods. We need to focus on fostering stronger relationships with our long-neglected regions. Devolved administrations need to be given the power and the scope to make changes to the local communities that they know best. A one-sized fits all approach to funding will simply not work, especially given the fact that research has shown that places in the North and the Midlands are set to suffer far more severe economic consequences over the next few years. Devolved regional administrations are best placed to apportion funding appropriately, and the government needs to support them on this. As Andrew Carter, Centre for Cities Chief Executive, has said ‘levelling up the North and midlands will not be cheap and will require more than short-term handouts.’ This translates to targeted investment in skills and green infrastructure, as well as accessible and broad job-training schemes. Regional funding should be allocated and judged on independently verifiable metrics, with Ministers staying well away from funding decisions.
When the Tories say that they want to build back better, what they mean is that they want to build back to before. Covid did not create the exceptional social and economic inequality that defines Conservative Britain, it exacerbated it. It is incredibly frustrating that Labour is not able to lead the post-Covid recovery from inside 10 Downing Street, but we must provide a strong progressive voice of economic opposition as we emerge from restrictions. Now is the time for Labour to inform policy and put pressure on the government to build a future that is fairer, safer, and greener.
Andrew Gwynne MP is the Labour MP for Denton and Reddish.