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The Tories' death rattle sounds

The Queen’s speech was a vivid representation of the state into which the Conservative party has got both itself and the country. To have any chance of securing the approval of parliament, the government had to rip the heart out of what was already a pretty faint vision for running the country. Labour is well-placed to harry this government to an early demise; indeed, this is the official opposition’s constitutional duty. But some hard thinking is required on the left too.

Theresa May talked about people who were ‘just about managing’ when she became prime minister. There has been precious little done for such people in the past year. Instead, the phrase is symbolising May’s premiership. Reliant in one way or another on Democratic Unionist party votes, the uncertainty surrounding this government’s future is high.

It is clear of course that Brexit will dominate parliamentary time, hence the two years being given to the various bills in the speech. The eight Brexit bills are likely to attract most of MPs’ attention and demand from them an unprecedented level of scrutiny. This is as it should be because it will fall to parliament to define what kind of Brexit we want, and to decide what kind of society we want to be outside of the European Union, assuming we do leave. Had the government won a large majority it could have imposed its will in these matters. That it did not suggests the British people wanted their leaders to think again.

The period of Brexit negotiation was always going to be a time of uncertainty, which risked affecting the economy. The more uncertain the future appears, the less likely people and businesses are to make long-term plans. That does not mean that investment or other economic activity will grind to a halt, but it does mean activity, and hence growth, will probably be lower than they otherwise would have been. This impact would come on top of the long term consequences of Brexit on growth, due to lower levels of trade, investment, and immigration should we be excluded from the internal market as seems likely. The government could have mitigated the uncertainty by offering a clear vision for the country.

It has been much remarked upon, not least by the chancellor of the exchequer, that the general election was not about the economy. This is wrong. The years of cuts to spending plans and the promise of more remorseless years to come have taken their toll and this was a theme. People can see how they are affecting public services. This represents choices the government has made. It also represents the reckoning from the financial crisis, as we discover just how much poorer a country we are compared to the trends in place before 2008. The economy has grown but GDP per person is not that far above pre-crisis levels. Factor in the unequal distribution of income, wealth, and opportunities and the strains we are experiencing are not surprising. The election may not have featured many debates about forecasts of government debt and GDP growth, but arguably the result repeated the call from electorates across developed nations over the past year or so, including the message of our referendum last year. That is, a demand that things change.

This places a great responsibility upon the Labour party to be the agent of that change. The party could be close to a 1945 moment if it gets this right. However, it is not the case that the nation is having a revival and returning to times past. A call for change is not necessarily a vote in support of more government either; it is more about direction. People are reasserting some timeless values and expressing frustration that politicians are not getting it. In 1945 people rejected conservativism and embraced a Labour party with vision, experience, and detailed policy agenda. To take the next step and show it is ready, and ensure it can endure in government, Labour needs to do more work to develop an economic approach which integrates pro-enterprise policies with measures that give everyone a worthwhile stake in our economic future – whatever our future relationship with the EU.

This article was first published by Progress on 22 June 2017.

Progress, 22 June 2017, 22/06/2017

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