At 155 pages, A New Britain: Renewing our Democracy and Rebuilding our Economy is, if not necessarily the longest suicide note in history, certainly the blandest. Yesterday I wrote about the muddle-headed misery that lay behind the disastrous pledge to scrap MPs’ second jobs in Starmer and Brown’s new report. Whilst you will have to wait a little longer for our Deputy Editor to prepare the firing squad for its constitutional implications, today I shall address the economic elements of The Sorrows of Young Gordon.
A lot of the diagnosis of what is going wrong in Britain’s economy will be familiar to anyone who has read their Paul Collier. Half the UK’s population lives in areas poorer than the former East Germany, parts of central East Europe, and those ghastly Trump-loving, Mountain Dew-gulping, NASCAR-worshipping snake pits of Mississippi and West Virginia. London and the Southeast attract 72 per cent of new R and D spending, 45 per cent of private sector investment, and double the average UK infrastructure spend.
Consequently, only London has higher than average productivity, our economy becomes predominantly unbalanced, and the rest of the country gets left-behind. Starmer’s party plans to address this problem by devolving power to encourage “economic clusters” – more autonomy means a great ability for local areas to work out their own solutions to their sluggishness. The Northern Powerhouse, where are you now?
All this stuff is relatively uncontroversial. It runs very close to the proposals announced by Michael Gove three Levelling-Up Secretaries ago, although shorn of the Renaissance references. As Starmer seeks to steal Sunak’s clothes on fiscal responsibility, the Prime Minister could do worse than pledge his continuing support to efforts to move power out of Whitehall. Ending Britain’s status as one of the most centrally run nations in the free world is one small way in which we can challenge the Attlee government’s deadhead over our politics.
There are therefore a few parts of this screed of which we Tories should take note and could learn from. With that out of the way, we ought to turn our attention to the parts really are abysmal. Our Deputy Editor – the Arnold Schwarzenegger of ‘Muscular Unionism’ – has long been frustrated by Gordon Brown’s doubling down on devolution through his unwillingness to admit it was a mistake. Now SW1’s phone-tossing champion (1997 – 2010) adds to that with a whole new panapoly of constitutional butchery.
Brown was the Chancellor and Prime Minister who defined poverty as 60 per cent of median incomes. He then proceeded to aim to abolish it through various tax credit tinkering to drag people the right side of the line. One could even say he went so far as to leave us uniquely exposed to a global recession, so that the precipitous decline in middle-incomes would help fudge the poverty figures. But that doesn’t seem to have done enough for the ex-PM. He has a new solution: a new constitution.
The report raises the spectre of a Tory government hell-bent on turning back your civil and political rights. Whilst this is a bit rich for the denizen of Downing Street who tried to extend detention without charge for terror subjects to 42 days, it is used as to as a spur to suggest those nasty Tories don’t know where they’ll stop. If they’ll come (if only) for the Human Rights Act – that cornerstone of our constitution since, erm, 1998 – then they’ll have come for public services too.
As such, Brown wants to enshrine ‘social rights’ alongside civil and political ones. If the latter two protect your individual freedom from governments and society, the former define exactly what you’re allowed to demand the state expropriates from society on your behalf. In Labour’s wording, these rights would “reflect the current shared understanding of the minimum standards and public services that a British citizen should be guaranteed” – like the right to health care based on need, not your ability to pay.
Not only does this refresh Conservatives on how genuinely some in Labour believe their squeals about – cue Scouse accent – “Tories privatising the NHS”. It also raises some alarming prospects for future governments of all stripes. In the same way the Human Rights Act created a wonderful income stream for Labour’s core vote of activist lawyers, so too will this measure “level up” the pay-packets of the same class of ambulance-chasers who have so happily found themselves excluded from Starmer’s second jobs proposals.
Every time one part of the NHS is doing worse than another, these rights could enable activist lawyers to launch spurious legal challenges to complain. If that causes our legal system to become even more bunged up, they could complain about that, too. God knows what future governments are supposed to do in response to this. I imagine it will be expensive. They will be constrained by this blatant attempt to bake in the welfare state as it currently exists forever.
Rather than presenting this solely as an attempt to forestall any reform of our creaking health service, Labour point to both Germany and Canada as two countries which already have economic clauses in their constitutions. Neither are positive comparisons. The former East still remains poorer, with higher unemployment and continual depopulation, despite prolonged constitutionally-imposed levelling-up. Canada’s ‘fiscal transfers’ are an ongoing source of resentment between richer and poorer provinces. Hardly a way to end bitterness about politics.
As we know, simply paying poorer parts of the country more will not abolish inequality – or the Barnett Formula would have gone years ago. Instead, it gets them hooked on dependence. The suggestion that “avoiding destitution” should be one of the rights guaranteed suggests Brown has learn little. These proposals do not constitute a new dawn for Britain’s economic agenda. Much like with Brown’s time at the Treasury, this promises radicalism, but the policy is the same old Labour tax and spend.