Matthew Taylor looks beyond the Brexit catastrophizing to see if policy making still exists for the UK government.
I am as capable of Brexit catastrophizing as any other member of the liberal metropolitan elite. The endless news and commentary cycle of ‘we may get no deal with catastrophic consequences’ followed by ‘we may get a deal but on EU terms’ followed by ‘we must not surrender to the EU’ and back again to ‘we may get no deal’ makes the country look like it is suffering some kind of ritualistic mental disorder. I continue to fear that rage about what we have done and what it means (and doesn’t mean) could make Britain almost ungovernable. But there is one commonly repeated theme of the Remainer litany which may not be as valid as it seems.
Despite the inevitable political obsession with the EU negotiations, even though a huge proportion of civil servants are bound up with the process and its various permutations, notwithstanding even the lack of a Parliamentary majority this is not a Government that has given up policy making until Brexit is complete. The last couple of months have seen a Budget which both softened austerity in the short term while showing a commitment to investment for the long term, and an Industrial Strategy which, while not earth shattering, provides the basis for a more strategic role for the state in economic planning and management.
Nor is this all. This month has, for example, seen reasonably significant policy statements on, to select a few, local government finance, pensions auto enrolment, leasehold reform, the careers service, road building and funding and even democratic engagement. None of these is earth shattering and none will mollify those who believe the only course of action worth taking is a massive expansion in public investment. However, the pattern that emerges is of a day to day Government which is moderate, somewhat technocratic, and which believes that policy can make a difference albeit incrementally and avoiding controversy.
What we are not seeing is grand plans based on ideological conviction. Many will put this down to the Government administrative overstretch and political weakness. But whatever the reason, perhaps we should be relieved. As I have argued in the past big policy, which aims to shift the equilibrium in a system like heath or education generally fails. Often the effort and disturbance of change is not matched by real world impact – this may, for example, be a fair judgement on the reform package driven by Michael Gove when he was Education Secretary. Sometimes the overall impact is even counterproductive, as many would argue of the NHS reform package implemented by the Cameron Government.
Despite the deep, self-inflicted, wounds of the General Election Theresa May is reaching the end of the year in better shape than almost everyone was predicting a few months ago. This is no doubt a reflection of the divisions among Conservatives and the failure of Labour to push on from its impressive performance in June but still it means the Prime Minister can prepare for the strong possibility of ruling for, at least, the whole of 2018.
The question is whether the Government has the ambition or capacity to turn its policy incrementalism into a political narrative that stands any chance of getting heard against the crashing cymbals of Brexit. We need to believe something can one day be done about our economic frailty, stagnant living standards, social and geographical divisions, threadbare and outdated public services. Despite the activity there is little sense that the Government has the will, energy or imagination to address these deeper challenges. But still we need to hope. You won’t be surprised to hear of my contender for a positive vision; good work.
The Government has promised a response to my Review in the New Year and I am assured that this will be substantive. In particular, amongst many smaller shifts, I hope we might see a commitment to enhanced pay for low waged workers on variable hours, to making it much easier for all workers to have independent representation at work along with rights information and consultation, and to steps toward a national framework of employability skills and job progression. But even if the Government response isn’t everything I hope for, the Review has already had an impact. The idea of good work – that, in the words of the Review, ‘every job should be fair and decent with scope for fulfilment and development’ – seems to have taken wing.
I have found enthusiasm for the principle and the ideas underpinning it not only from trade unions but also from groups as diverse as employment lawyers, charitable foundations, local authorities, business leaders and trade associations. More than good intentions, there is a widespread commitment to research and debate how we can make work better, particularly in the context of accelerating technological change (the RSA is leading player in these debates).
So if ministers return from the holidays with the intention of generating a political story which shows ambition beyond Brexit what could be better than one which combines economic and social goals, which speaks to basic ideas of human dignity and to preparing for the future, which engages progressive trade unions and socially conscious business leaders? With political vision and policy boldness could the Government make good work the country’s new year’s resolution?