Bridget Phillipson Labour Member of Parliament for Houghton and Sunderland South
Labour cannot afford to seek solutions from the past for the challenges of today. Instead it needs to reclaim the language of security as it seeks to frame an offer to people about the future of their working lives.
If you represent a seat like mine, you get used to a particular narrative of change and decline. Heavy industries that employed thousands of skilled workers disappearing overseas, wages stagnating, trade unions slowly reducing in density, newer jobs that lack the social status of those they replace, tight-knit families, and fears and concerns about the changing society this new economy has brought. In the years after the European referendum in particular, I lost count of the number of occasions journalists visited Sunderland from London to pick up this story.
Much of this narrative is true, although taken together it can paint rather a misleading picture. There were still more than 4000 people employed in Wearside’s shipyards when I was born in 1983, but five years later those jobs had all but gone; the last coalmine in my constituency closed when I was a toddler; and Labour’s majorities in Sunderland have fallen – albeit with much fluctuation – from the 26,000 majority enjoyed by my predecessor Fraser Kemp in 1997, down to just over 3,000 in 2019. Newer work is often less secure, and while the arrival of Nissan in the 1980s has – unusually for a big city in the UK- provided abundant skilled manufacturing jobs, the shadow of Brexit means people worry more about the future of plant than they did five years back.
The Nissan point is crucial, because one of the things this story tends to leave out is that many of the traditional industries were becoming more and more capital intensive, and employing fewer and fewer people, even when they still existed in the UK, as technology moved jobs from people and also made working life much, much safer. Coal production almost halved in the UK in the 50 years between 1930 and 1980, but the number of people employed in the UK coal industry dropped by almost three-quarters over the same period, with the amount of coal mined per employee in the industry more than doubling (1). Even before Thatcher, technology had changed the extent to which the labour requirements of coalmining structured our communities and our geography.
And that is important, because we need to shape the future and not merely bemoan our past. There is a version of this story which tends to stall, misty-eyed with nostalgia, at this point. It is the Labour version of John Major’s warm beer and invincible green suburbs; the politics of the 1970s Hovis advertisement (2). In its defence, it usually correctly identifies the challenge that the combination of our electoral system and our economic model presents. Working-age people, and the jobs we associate most with the economic transformations of the last 50 years, have become increasingly concentrated in big cities. The Centre for Towns in particular has drawn attention very effectively to how the changing economic geography of our country has had dire electoral consequences for our party (3).
What is sometimes missing, and what needs supplying in any narrative that can lead us to victory, is exactly what we do about it -both what we would do in government to spread power, wealth, and opportunity around our country and how we set out a position over the parliament that engages with the electoral reality we face.
What we cannot do, because it will not work, is to simply seek to re-enact the terms of past victories in places where the composition of the population has changed sharply. We cannot have a policy position which solves the problems but is unattractive to the electors of these seats, or sulk that we need electoral reform first.
There is a wider danger that in focusing too narrowly on places, and on the striking spatial patterns UK general elections so often provide, we lose sight of one of the lessons we should have learnt from the referendum: people vote, not places, and while a focus on marginal seats is absolutely organisationally crucial, our political strategy has to be one that attracts support across the country. Many of the concerns and priorities of the people who we need to vote Labour in 2024 are not actually that different between Darlington and Dagenham, or – to use Faisal Islam’s contrast – between Hull and Hampstead (4).
Furthermore, many of the solutions we need to explore and in time perhaps to embrace do not have a strong spatial pattern: they don’t simply help people in towns but not cities, or vice versa, a point implicit in Claire Ainsley’s analysis of what ‘working-class people’ really means today (5). The changes we need will benefit people in every community: but different people from those who are currently best served by our economic settlement. Martin Sandbu’s recent book, The Economics of Belonging (6), makes this point powerfully: an economy where people are rewarded well for being prepared to up sticks and move halfway across the country is not just rewarding (and disadvantaging) particular areas and particular skill levels, but particular mindsets and personalities. That is why Keir Starmer was right to call last year for us to create “an economy that doesn’t force people to move hundreds of miles just to find a decent job” (7).
Like Claire, the way I prefer to consider these issues, and our response to these challenges is more analytic than nostalgic: it looks at the changes in who is getting paid for their working life, what sorts of workplace they are in, how safe their jobs are, how their concerns are changing, and which of these trends are still unfolding or accelerating.
To me there are five key challenges we need to have in our minds as we think about work, for which we need answers, and which inform the positions and offers we develop to the electorate ahead of the next election. In no particular order they are:
- the move across the world from physical labour to automation and digitisation, a tide now lapping at the shores of service industries;
- the move of employment in our country from spatially extensive manufacturing and extractive industries into city-based service industries;
- the change over the last two generations to a workforce where women can now be found at every level (8), even if we are still not fully equal (9);
- the slow move from employment towards self-employment and from job security to job precarity;
- and lastly our failure so far as a country, as jobs move out of manufacturing and extractive industries, to create jobs in high productivity and high wage industries.
None of these challenges have easy answers, but if we can build a thread of argument for each of them we have a credible story to tell on jobs and security across our country, in opposition and into power, even in the context in which Brexit and its aftershocks continue to give us economic problems of this government’s creation.
On the move to automation and digitisation, we need to see governments grip this change and its consequences – from the slow demise of traditional journalism to the risks posed by opaque automated government decision-making – urgently, and we need to learn from our prior failings. We – both Labour and the Conservatives – did not use the unexpected windfall of 1970s and 1980s North Sea oil to invest in creating a more prosperous future, but instead to defray the costs of our decline. Looking at the public finances today, it seems unimaginable that the next Labour government will inherit such a strong fiscal position, which makes the point all the more pressing. Our capital spending and investment must be focused on delivering the clean jobs not just to achieve our own transition to a clean economy, but to succeed in an international economy. Our urgent need to meet the vast challenge of retrofitting our own housing stock, for example, must never blind us to the need for an ambitious industrial strategy for the exportable, high value, goods and services of the future. We may need more than just the one hydrogen village (10).
Across our service industries and their spatial concentration, we need to learn the unexpected lessons of the pandemic – not in the expectation that everything has changed and will stay changed, but aware of the possibilities of change. Aware of how clear it has become that plenty of jobs can be done reasonably or even perfectly well without physical commuting over creaking transport infrastructure. Aware that the acceleration of the move to online retail means the role of high streets and town centres is probably going to change slowly from being primarily about procuring goods – doing the shopping – towards procuring services – caf’s, community centres, and so on.
Our shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds has already begun to set out some of the ways we need to start thinking about providing councils and communities with the powers to manage their high streets and town centres in future (11). There are going to be wider lessons to which we need to be alert as the restrictions from the pandemic end and we start to see exactly how far our prior ‘normality’ returns: how much city centres fill with people by day and empty by night. As that shift begins, we will need to have a clear story to tell about government’s role in ensuring that the social and industrial changes which do endure see benefits shared by working people as well their employers. Smaller office footprints may mean lower fixed costs, but they also need to mean less time spent travelling. Flexibility cannot be just for the employer, but about time with families and loved ones for us all. And the pandemic cannot be an excuse for the government to resile from investing in improving infrastructure.
And the arrival of automation in service industries, and the steady move of a new wave of tasks away from people, needs to be a spur to do better – to look at the attitude to skills we have in this country, and why exactly generations of government efforts to improve technical skills seem to have had less effect in the UK than in many other advanced economies, and why government skills programme after skills programme stalls or fails. Because one of the lessons we need to learn from our failure to address this in the 1970s is that while service jobs may be more salubrious than manufacturing jobs, they are not necessarily any more secure. It is the skilled jobs in every sector which tend to be more secure jobs, and a focus on skills need to be central to building our future economy.
For all of these challenges, the language of security must be central. In government, we talked of securing Britain’s future. We were clear that security is social, industrial, and economic, rooted in the outcomes that social democratic governments can achieve and sustain. But by 2019, the language and concepts of security had been recaptured by the Tories and used to point at our perceived less secure stance on defence, foreign affairs, and immigration.
We need to take this language back. Security is the crucial frame for the challenges around job precarity and also around women’s growing involvement in the h workforce. Security, at home, in the community and at work, is what enables personal freedom, empowers us to make meaningful choices and means concerns about the future are in the space of things we choose – as individuals and together – and which we can affect. It means aspiring to build a society where the future is something we build together, not something that happens to us as individuals.
By way of example, talking to self-employed workers in my constituency, and talking to unions who have worked hard to organise them, not just the GMB but also Prospect and Community, I am often struck by how – almost by definition – few successful politicians are self-employed, by quite how many women are self-employed (and how that has gone up), and by the means with which people deal with the challenges of self-employment. Intermittent cashflow, poor contracts, sharp practice, proper personal pension provision, and banking costs are questions of security which concern people deeply, but for which they turn not to unions and politicians for collective solutions, but to money expert Martin Lewis, to lawyers and other sources for (admittedly excellent) individual answers and for campaigns. There is a growing space for collective solutions in the increasingly diverse world of working people lives, which as a movement and as a party, we all need to be in.
For over a decade now, our tendency as a party has been to focus on things that have got worse since 2010, on the need to reverse them, and on using the state’s power to spend public money day-to-day to draw a clear contrast with an ideologically driven small-state Conservatism. As it becomes clear that the Conservatives’ approach to public spending might make that approach alone less adequate in the years to come, we need not to desert that focus, but to couple it with a clearer picture of how the state’s other powers – of regulation, of investment spending, and of persuasion – can help us make an offer to people about the future of their working lives which gets not merely their approval, but their vote.
1. UK government statistical data sets, Historic coal data: production, availability and consumption 1853-2019.
2. For an excellent study of the problems the Labour Party’s fascination with nostalgia causes, see Jobson, R. (2018). Nostalgia and the post-war Labour Party. Manchester University Press, Manchester.
3. Warren, I. (2018). What happened in the 2018 local elections. Centre for Towns, Bolton.
4. This was said on television on 28 September 2016, and was picked up at the time by a number of people on Twitter.
5. Ainsley, C. (2018). The new working class. Policy Press, Bristol.
6. Sandbu, M. (2021). The Economics of Belonging: A Radical Plan to Win Back the Left Behind and Achieve Prosperity. Princeton University Press, London.
7. Keir Starmer’s speech to Labour Connected, 22 September 2020.
8. Very thoroughly covered in Roantree, B, & Vira, K. (2018). The rise and rise of women’s employment in the UK. Institute for Fiscal Studies, London.
9. I have written in more detail for the New Statesman about this before – see Labour loves nostalgia. But we succeed when our politics is about the future, 23 October 2019.
10. The Labour party’s October 2020 report, on a green economic recovery, makes these points well.
11. See for example, Anneliese Dodds’ coverage in the Daily Mirror, 24 February 2021.
12. More than seventy years ago, Aneurin Bevan, in his column in Tribune, used the concept of ‘serenity’ to make a not dissimilar set of points: “The background and pre-requisite of this personal liberty implies that the serenities of private life shall not be invaded and disturbed by disharmonies arising from maladjustments in the economic machine” – Bevan, A. (1950) The people’s coming of age. Tribune, 3 February, pp. 3-4.
13. The rise in self-employment being driven by an increase in self-employed women is apparent from a number of Office for National Statistics publications, usefully summarised in their 2018 note on Trends in self-employment in the UK, 7 February 2018.