Baroness Smith: After the malaise, we must offer opportunity and optimism

Posted On: 
22nd September 2019

Labour must lead that drive for a radical overhaul of our national infrastructure, writes Baroness Smith

Supporters at a rally in Birmingham, 2017, ahead of a speech from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

Amid the current chaos and confusion, spare a thought for a small but useful group of professionals – futurologists. A bit niche, but their role of trying to understand and predict developing trends in society to inform long-term planning is now just impossible.

It’s partly that making any reliable predictions about UK politics has become a mug’s game. Boris Johnson has provided us with Trumpesque displays of unpredictability and arrogance. Opponents are to be wiped out rather than tolerated, and certainly never listened to. 

But that’s just the main show; behind the scenes there’s an army of people looking for some degree of stability and certainty in order to map out how best to anticipate and respond to changing needs in our country. A plan for understanding future employment, housing and care needs, the ever-evolving impact of technology on our daily activities, and the way in which the state and markets can together help or hinder people and places.

The prime minister’s draconian removal of the whip from 21 Tory MPs, for insisting on the age-old principle of parliamentary sovereignty, has alienated many more in his party. That effectively reduces Mr Johnson’s reliable support to little more than the ‘payroll vote’ and the at times rabid European Research Group wing – most of whom promote a ‘clean break’ crash-out Brexit.

We have been repeatedly told that achieving a deal would be easy. Even if there’s some semblance of truth that the PM is working for a last-minute agreement, there’s little evidence that his more ideologically anti-EU colleagues would back it. Not that he’s keen to explain himself – shutting down Parliament for a totally unjustifiable five weeks.

However, following prorogation we will have a Queen’s Speech. So with half an eye on an early general election, the government is brazenly rolling out retail announcements. Most of these amount to policy recycling with a small amount of extra funding. The promise of increased police numbers delivers an almost complete U-turn on the Conservative austerity programme. All of that could have been formally announced after a much shorter break and truncated conferences.

Having been so desperate to be prime minister, it seems that Mr Johnson doesn’t want to take the responsibility that comes with the job. Most MPs I’ve spoken to wanted Parliament to continue sitting to try to resolve Brexit. And it is totally and utterly irresponsible for the PM to encourage the narrative of Parliament against the people. MPs from all sides face hostility from those who disagree with them, while trying to tackle pressures far more difficult than anything I can recall.

At some point, our politics will move on but with an enormous challenge to heal the deep fractures that have emerged in our communities and, indeed, families. Beyond good intentions and warm words, this demands a concerted effort led by a progressive government engaged with every level of society to try to build a new hope and a vision of a better society.

Our party must lead that drive for a radical overhaul of our national infrastructure, engaging all who deliver and use public services. Robert Kennedy’s use of the quote that some “see things as they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” is so apt. This can’t just be about government – we need to encourage others to share that dream and ask “why not?”

It might sound whimsical but that’s what successful Labour governments have done when making the case for office, rather than arguments about left and right. A war weary public were enthused by the hope of a new Britain under Clement Attlee; the white heat of technology promised by Harold Wilson engaged those seeking a more socially liberal and forward-looking society; and Tony Blair’s “Britain deserves better” resonated with young and old alike. 

 Although different messages for different times, each followed long periods of opposition, offering opportunity and optimism. Our existing manifesto has the same progressive elements to reinvigorate that optimism our nation is crying out for.

Baroness Smith of Basildon is a Labour peer and shadow leader of the House of Lords