The stellar cast of writers, array of interesting ideas, and provocative name have ensured that the ‘Purple Book’ has gobbled up column inches in recent weeks on Labour’s future.
Amidst the proposals on empowering parents, creating six new super mayors, and abolishing the Department for Communities and Local Government, the book’s editor, Progress Director Robert Philpot, advises:
“New Labour, too, must itself guard against becoming a conservative force, stuck in the world of 1994 rather than 2011.”
But while the Purple Book avoids that trap, it does little to articulate or explain the world which we now inhabit.
‘Still partying like it’s 1995’ (pdf) is a tour de force which repeats Philpot’s warnings against the left blindly repeating the lessons that were suitable in the mid-1990s, describes how Britain has changed over the last decade and a half, and sets out four broad areas for new thought.
Central to the report are eleven trends that are shaping modern Britain.
To read them all you’ll have to download the report but they include the following critical observations:
First, the labour market is ‘polarising’ with growth in professional and managerial occupations at the top and lower level service sector employment at the bottom
But mid-skill manual and administrative jobs are disappearing. New Labour’s approach put tritely was to encourage huge increases in the supply of skills and hope for the best. But this appears to have reached its zenith.
This places an onus on progressive parties to articulate how they will pursue full employment.
In which sectors will these new jobs come? How can Britain benefit from the growing demand of a fast emerging global middle class? What happens when globalisation or technological change means people lose their jobs – how do we ensure they are helped back into the workforce with dignity as well as a salary?
Second, and consistent with findings of groups like the Resolution Foundation, the living standards of working people are stagnating
Put simply, the share of overall wealth going to pay packets has declined since the late 1970s with average wages failing to keep pace with rising productivity and prices. This suggests that, if it was ever true, trickle down economics has failed with increased wages for bankers and other high paid individuals staying firmly in their offshore bank accounts.
But rather than looking for new tools of redistribution, Britain’s centre left must challenge labour market inequality by looking for a new model of capitalism which disburses wealth more evenly. As such, Vince Cable’s proposals on executive pay are an important step in the right direction.
Third, demographics are changing the structures of society
The age at which women partner and parent is rapidly changing. There were almost 30 per cent fewer births to women aged under-25 in 2008 than in 1988 and nearly three times more births to women aged 35 and over. The average age at which women and men get married has risen by five years from 1991 to 2008.
Meanwhile, older people are the fastest growing demographic group but are divided between those who will enjoy affluence in retirement and those less independent. This means that where the welfare state priorities of the 1990s were health and education, the new priorities must be childcare and social care.
In the introduction to the Purple Book, Ed Miliband asserts:
“…there is a new centre-ground emerging in British politics, one which Labour can and must occupy.”
Cooke’s analysis suggests this is true and that what he calls the ‘new sources of energy’ in the UK are there for the taking – but the changes in Britain are profound and the challenges for policy makers, especially in a time of tightened budgets, should not be underestimated.
But at least we now have a starting point – Cooke’s work will become a source of inspiration for those committed to progressive politics for years to come.