Today’s budget is further evidence of a decisively reshaped political landscape – and the stark new challenge facing the Left. After a decade of austerity, the chancellor has announced a significant increase in public spending based on rewritten fiscal rules: an immediate £30bn fiscal stimulus package in response to the demand-sapping effects of coronavirus, an increase in current spending over the parliament, and a large increase in public investment through significantly greater borrowing.
By ditching austerity, the Conservative Party appear to be leaving a critical dividing line of the 2010s behind – underscoring the waste and deep, unnecessary harm of their policies. Despite the narrative around austerity, it’s now clear that there always was an alternative. Of course, the devil will be in the detail, and commitment today can be quickly blown off course tomorrow. But with the chancellor sharply increasing public spending – albeit with the tax and benefit changes within it highly regressive – politics is likely to centre less on debates around the deficit and more on questions of institutional design and the distribution of power within the economy: who has it, how is it exercised, to what ends.
For the Left, this can be fertile ground if met with an ambitious response. A commitment to anti-austerity economics remains vital but is no longer sufficient. Three areas must be pursued in the 2020s that this budget has failed to deliver on: a Green New Deal that decarbonises and democratises, delivering economic justice alongside environmental repair throughout the nations and regions of the UK; a strategy for addressing the growing, multidimensional crisis of care; and a more ambitious politics of work that ensures security and capability are universally enjoyed.
The climate emergency was not matched by an equivalent response in the budget. Recent IPPR analysis showed the UK government must invest an additional £33 billion per year in low carbon infrastructures to ensure we are on track to reach the government’s target of net zero by 2050, a target that itself is inadequate given the UK’s existing capabilities and historic responsibilities. Though there were some welcome elements, the budget as a whole was a missed opportunity to drive a decisive step-change in investment in green infrastructures and industries, and is likely to fall short of even the UK government’s own net-zero target.
A Green New Deal – one that meets a system crisis with a systemic response – is still urgently needed. Any plan worth its salt must address the fundamentals of our economy. Even before the pandemic, the UK was facing a future of historically weak economic performance. Now, the next half-decade is set to be even more sluggish, with harmful consequences on the quality of life for many and for our politics.
But a handful of cherry-picked policies will not meet the challenge ahead at the scale and pace required: what is needed is a policy programme that can reimagine how the state and market, the household and commons, interact to produce and distribute sustainable value.
In place of the economics of enclosure and extraction, we must build a 21st century commons that stewards the resources and assets we all need to thrive, from land and nature to data and digital infrastructures. Instead of concentrated ownership and economic power, we need a democratised market based on a new ecosystem of ownership, governance and control that reshapes how we create and distribute wealth, and rebalances power between capital and labour. Rather than austerity we need an ambitious, investment-led state, anchored in new models of democratic public ownership, as well as a reimagined household economy that challenges social and economic inequalities, supported by the extension of decommodified universal goods and services.
An adequate response to the crisis of care is still urgently required. As the Women’s Budget Group has noted, while borrowing to invest in the country’s physical infrastructure is to be welcomed, social infrastructures from child care and adult social care to education and vital local government services are still in urgent need of proper funding and recognition. Coronavirus, as Emily Kenway has argued, has exposed the web of connections and work of social reproduction upon which all of us depend. The chancellor could and should have done more to invest in care infrastructures – and the Left urgently needs to centre social reproduction in response, shifting the focus of the economy towards one based on common care, nurture and regeneration.
We should not have had to wait for a global pandemic to prompt decisive action to address the stark insecurities that many face in today’s labour market. While the budget rightly targeted support at companies to cope with the demand shock of coronavirus, individuals – especially millions of low earners and precarious workers – have been left with little direct and immediate support. Instead, they have been pointed towards Universal Credit, a deeply flawed system driving people toward food poverty and debt.
What was needed wasn’t simply a temporary set of measures in response to coronavirus, but a comprehensive and permanent change in our approach to economic security for workers and care-givers. From guaranteed sick pay for all to the extension of universal basic services that provide security and dignity for all, we should build an economy where everyone is secure and can flourish; not as a short-term response to crisis, but as the foundational premise of our society.
Politically, we’re no longer in Kansas; the Conservatives have learned to love the deficit. Today’s budget confirms this. Against this, a politics of incrementalism is inadequate. From the climate emergency and stark inequalities that harm all of us to an economic model that is failing to deliver for ordinary people, the case for change remains urgent. An ambitious politics that recognises there is nothing natural or inevitable around our economy – that we have the power to change it so that it meets the hopes and needs of ordinary people and communities – is what is required.