The successful countries of the future will be egalitarian in their ethos and structure, pluralistic in their systems of power, and globally linked at the level of the individual and the community as well as the nation. Modern social democrats must shape the ‘empowered societies’ of 2025, argues David Miliband.
The Labour Conference in Manchester clarified two things for many people.
First, that we need to do a better job at understanding and explaining the changes that have taken place in Britain over the last 10 years. Second, we need to engage positively and actively with the development of a new agenda for the future.
On the first count, the departure of the Prime Minister at some point in the next six to nine months, along with the 10 year anniversary of Labour’s election in 1997, provides the basis for a sustained "reckoning" on the Blair years. This is a vital part of the political jigsaw — not because it is an opportunity for Labour Ministers and supports to reel off ‘lists of achievements’ (though a bit of that would not go amiss), but because across the country individuals, businesses, voluntary organisations, newspapers will draw up a balance sheet on the last ten years. Some will give a D-minus out of ideological or personal antipathy, providing an interesting counterpoint to those who argue that the government has been so pale blue it has failed to annoy the Right. But most will acknowledge significant economic, social and cultural change in the country, political change too, and many will recognise that while all this change is not the responsibility of the Government, a lot of it is.
The Reckoning is important; it provides the foundation for the second task, developing a new agenda for the future. My starting point for that task is the belief that Britain has changed a lot in the last twenty years, but will change more in the next twenty. That change can be reactionary or progressive. Our job is to understand the new world better than the Right, and respond better.
It seems evident that interdependence is the defining characteristic of the modern world — from traffic to terrorism, from the economy to the environment, we are dependent on others for our personal freedom.
I believe successful countries in 2025 will be egalitarian in their ethos and structure, pluralistic in their systems of power, and globally linked at the level of the individual and the community (think cities) as well as the nation. I have called these ‘empowered societies’.
Those of us concerned with the success of this country need to engage with the demands of these requirements — demands that will require us to go far beyond the agenda set in 1997 and followed since then. The Blair era is not some kind of aberration — it is right and successful, more right and more successful than any Labour government since 1945. But it cannot be frozen in stone. The only way to preserve new labour is to change it in fundamental ways — not by moving to the right but by defining clearly what it means to be on the centre-left in the 21st century. In ideological terms this means fusing the traditional social democratic commitment to social justice through collective action with a liberal commitment to individual freedom in a market economy.
New Labour has been good at national leadership, but needs to do better at promoting strong community self-government; good at paying teachers and nurses and police more, but needs to do better at making them feel like real entrepreneurs with the power to reshape lives; good at creating new laws and expectations of social behaviour, but needs to do better at giving young people a sense of commitment to the country; good at keeping inflation and interest rates low, but needs to do better at making the most of the new knowledge economy; good at driving the international environmental agenda, but needs to do better at finding the game-changing drives that shift the country’s carbon footprint (think the Congestion Charge); good at promoting rights and responsibility in the welfare state, but needs to do better at promoting rights and responsibilities across society; good at legislating for constitutional reform, but needs to do better at building a new political culture; good at shaping national policy, but needs to do better at defining the future for our regional alliance in the EU.
Finding the way to make good on these aspirations requires, in my view, first of all distinctive and insightful social and economic analysis, and second real imagination about how to shape social and economic (and political) change. This dialogue is part of that process. The attempt to lift our eyes to Britain 2025 is not an attempt to avoid controversy, but is an effort to get beyond the debate about the number of Academy schools that is optimal.
My interest is in the trends, ideas and ways of thinking that have the potential to shape Britain of 2025. What will the economy be like? What will be the international benchmark for educational effectiveness? How will the ‘new old’ (baby boomers) have redefined the culture of ageing? With 7-8 billion people on the planet, and significant greenhouse gas emissions from simply feeding them, where are the zero carbon solutions for energy and transport?
There is a lot to think about and a lot to do. We need to open the shutters and really understand what is going on, and who is thinking best about how to respond. I am all ears.
David Miliband is Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
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