Read my piece as published in the New Statesman
I want to challenge my party. Now the Liberal Democrats are resurgent there is a temptation to simply wait while the left and right limbs of both the Conservative and Labour parties tear themselves apart. But that is not how I want to lead the Liberal Democrats. We owe it to those locked out in the cold by globalisation, automation and austerity to show how we could re-shape a non-Brexit Britain to work for them.
I thought long and deep about this while out of Parliament and concluded that many progressives have got it wrong, and that Lib Dems should also sharpen our language and even policies on how we bind the bleeding wounds of a divided nation.
Most statements from “Remain” MPs demand we are tough on Brexit, and rightly so. But we haven’t said nearly enough about being – as that celebrated Lib Dem supporter Alastair Campbell might put it – tough on the causes of Brexit. The Liberal Democrats actually have myriad policies to tackle regional, racial, class and generational inequality. The pupil premium, free school dinners and the national apprenticeship scheme were landmark Lib Dem achievements that have helped profoundly. But we need fresh ways of fighting structural inequality, and then proclaim them.
That must mean (no ifs, no buts) an end to austerity now.
It should be no surprise that so many voted Leave – successive governments, of all persuasions, have often felt powerless in the face of vast global and historic forces. This has left an underclass further cut adrift from the rest of society than at any point since the Rowntree report more than a century ago inspired the New Liberalism of Asquith and Lloyd George to found the Welfare State. Progressive politics needs a re-boot every bit as radical today to give a stake in society to everyone who lives in it. If that were not challenge enough, we must tackle the calamity of climate change and the racist nationalism of Farage and Johnson that fires hate.
So here is my long-term economic plan.
It starts with a green new deal to fight climate emergency with green jobs and low carbon investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency and low carbon technology. We can lever in billions of private capital to pay for this with new climate change risk regulations for the City and a £500m rise in Carbon Levies.
Its second focus would be a new contract with countries and regions of the UK, where largely Leave communities have understandably said “a plague on all your political houses”. Having stopped Brexit, we should invest both the £26bn the Chancellor has put aside against the risk of “No Deal” and the estimated £15bn a year economic dividend from stopping Brexit, to address the shocking divides in the UK, where 6 of the poorest 10 regions in northern Europe are in England and Wales.
Our most deprived regions, towns and communities must see significant economic investment in everything from transport links to skills. But my guess is they’d also opt for more community investment in “place-making”, that makes towns and villages much nicer places to live – affordable family-friendly facilities like swimming pools, playgrounds and parks, provision for voluntary groups like mother and toddler groups and scouts, youth facilities and community centres. They should have the political power and economic resources to make those choices.
Boris Johnson has ludicrously claimed he will have a No Deal Brexit bonus to fritter on tax cuts for wealthier pensioners. Quite apart from the injustice, the economic illiteracy is jaw-dropping, even for him. But as well as calling him out, Remainers need to show how stopping Brexit could transform the lives of the poorest. The needs of the truly vulnerable struggling with inadequate social care and community mental health support should surely come before Johnson’s target audience – Tory Party members.
A third key element of the plan is a drive for a cultural shift in education and training, in how Britain values life chances for every child, young person and adult. This would be built on a major new offer to teachers and lecturers – with their base starting salaries rising to £30,000. And in a clear sign that austerity cannot continue, I will argue that such education investment should be paid for by £5bn a year extra borrowing.
Britain can’t take more austerity. Quite simply, we must offer the prospect of prosperity to those outside London’s enchanted bubbles. Tories have shown no commitment to this, and if they pursue a hard Brexit the economy would crash so severely they simply could not invest. Jeremy Corbyn is ineffectual, because he cannot promise a Remain dividend if he still wants Brexit. He just strikes social poses; he is awake to all that is woke, but he is complicit in Brexit and, on his own terms, that makes him a “class traitor”.
Instead, what if progressives worked with Liberal Democrats to stop Brexit? And with the economic gasp of relief this would afford us, refashion our country into a green leader, where our regions and towns hummed with life and vitality? Wouldn’t that start to unite the country, and tackle the grievances that drove Brexit? Britain needs healing.