With Britain now facing economic challenges that were inconceivable just a few months ago, it’s worth reflecting on some of the ideas we will need to spur economic recovery in today’s very different world — including from the manifesto we wrote before the December 2019 election.
I remember vividly that collective sense of elation as we saw the hard copies of the manifesto for the first time. The famous photo of workers in Teesside adorning the back cover of the booklet seemed so perfectly to encapsulate the message we wanted to convey.
Ably led by Munira Mirza and Rachel Wolf, we had produced a credible, costed, and deliverable platform aimed squarely at those workers.
It was by no means the most ambitious policy platform, but it hinted at a much more wide-ranging reimaging of the economy than was recognised at the time.
Few people, for example, read much into the hints of more radical tax reform, or recognised the enormity of the green investments we were proposing such as in carbon capture and storage and heat decarbonisation. And almost nobody picked up on the new ambition we had set out to establish a Right to Retrain for adults — a huge new policy commitment.
I hope all of these will form part of the Prime Minister and chancellor’s recovery package in the coming weeks.
Yet for us, as the PM stated at its launch, the manifesto was only a “partial blueprint” for the new economy we wanted to build. Paradoxically, the intention was to campaign in prose so that we could govern in poetry. If returned to government, we were keen to re-explore many of the policies that, for whatever reason, we dropped from the manifesto — not just on tax, but much deeper reforms to education, housing or spreading ownership.
On the morning after the election, I returned to the Treasury to continue working for Sajid Javid — my former boss — and the rest of the manifesto team went back to Number 10. We knew we had to begin implementing the manifesto but also to work on those more transformative measures to deliver for those workers in Teesside and across the whole country. “Levelling up” is the term we used to describe that mission.
Levelling up cannot be done quickly or easily, but it need not be a Sisyphean task.
Today, the geographic, sectoral and demographic heterogeneity of the economic destruction wrought by Covid-19 makes levelling up more pressing than ever. Put bluntly, bringing about a swift end to the mass unemployment which now looms is also also the most powerful way to mitigate those festering long-term economic disparities.
The graduate labour market is being smashed and apprenticeships, placements and other forms of training are also facing a huge drop-off. Sectors where work can be uncertain and low-paid and which often hire young workers — like construction, retail and hospitality — face significant challenges. Social distancing, meanwhile, will make a lot of classroom-based and on-the-job training restricted, more expensive, or outright impossible. Universities, further education colleges and other institutions face heightened financial pressures like never before.
This makes it imperative that a major new training offer is central to any forthcoming jobs package from the Prime Minister and chancellor.
Looking to longer-term challenges, we face persistent skills shortages in key sectors such as construction. Digital and management skills are perennial weaknesses, and a quarter of adults in England aged 16–65 have low literacy or numeracy skills.
Meanwhile, the further education sector has been structurally underfunded for years yet holds huge potential to drive future productivity growth. And as for schools, too many have also persistently underperformed — and that was before the effects of millions of children losing out on half a year of formal education.
Can the ideas in the manifesto help? When we developed the proposal for the new multi-billion-pound National Skills Fund over late-night pasta in Number 11 last year, the purpose was for it to raise skills among people currently in work. After all, 80 per cent of the workforce in 2030 is already in the workforce today, to have any meaningful medium-term impact on productivity, we need to get better at adult retraining.
The government must now retool and scale up the National Skills Fund so that it makes that right to train and retrain in our post-Covid economy a reality — in particular for people coming off furlough with no job to return to.
We must make a transformative investment in further education colleges to fund wide-ranging reform of the sector, support the pay and training of the college workforce, and deliver a proper vocational route for young people. We need to go much further than our existing commitments to seriously upgrade the school estate and teacher training so pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are no longer left behind.
And finally, we need a whole suite of measures to sustain employer investment in training — a vital missing ingredient in recent years, and one that will be all the more crucial as every industry looks to adapt to the changes brought by Covid-19.
This is all just to start. If the skills agenda was important before the crisis, it’s more vital than ever now.
Main image credit: Getty