The bold Welsh Labour policies that should be mirrored by a Labour Government at Westminster
Everywhere I look, I see the legacy of 12 years of poor decisions from Tory Governments that have lurched from crisis to crisis. People crave certainty, prosperity, and a better future for their children. In previous generations this would have been considered a basic request but now reserved for the most privileged.
From the banking crash, and the accompanying burst housing bubble, good housing, well-funded and run public services and rising wages have seemed out of reach.
Since the 1980’s we have suffered from a ridiculously unbalanced economy. Too many politicians bought into the myth that a reliance on the banking sector and rising house prices was good economics. Many saw huge banking bonuses as a positive.
We have allowed companies to behave in a way that is not only unjust but runs completely against what is needed to create the modern market economy that would deliver for everyone. In the current climate, the injustice of the energy market immediately comes to mind.
All this has led to a criminal lack of investment from the UK Conservative Government in infrastructure across much of the country and a staggering growth in inequality.
It is on this platform that we are set to meet some of the biggest challenges we have ever faced; the need to transform our economy to avert climate catastrophe, navigate demographic challenges and tackle obscene inequality. Other significant challenges include the automation of swathes of the economy. Artificial Intelligence will carry out jobs in a few years that we can’t even imagine now.
Ultimately though, I am an optimist. I am unusual as an elected representative as my background is not that of politics, the lawyer, or financial services. I am that most optimistic of people, an engineer.
I problem solved for a living.
Just over two years ago at the start of the pandemic I wrote a piece for Labour List about some very bold policies that I think could help meet these challenges and most importantly offer people some hope.
The three policy areas I discussed were a Green New Deal, a Four Day week, and a Universal Basic Income (UBI). I am realistic and was not calling for implementation, particularly as I was writing ahead of the Welsh Labour Manifesto and Wales simply does not have the financial leavers necessary.
Instead, I called for trials of a four-day week and a UBI.
Welsh Labour’s manifesto the following year contained a commitment to a UBI trial. It was an incredibly bold step. It is worth noting that far from putting voters off, Mark Drakeford’s Welsh Labour recorded their best ever result in a Senedd election on a night the UK Labour party was losing formally safe seats elsewhere in the UK.
I feel like real progress has been made in these three areas and thought it would be interesting to write an update.
A Green New deal is an absolute must if we are to achieve a just transition to a carbon neutral economy. As an engineer I am particularly excited about Wales leading the world when it comes to manufacturing the next generation of carbon neutral products.
Whether this is in energy generation, transport (including the aerospace sector) or retrofitting our housing stock. Delivering this in a way that also tackles the evils of inequality should be appealing to us all in the Labour movement.
I am acutely aware that huge changes in manufacturing and industry have brought with them significant challenges in the past. The way the then Thatcher government allowed deindustrialisation to happen has blighted my community ever since. This is why a just transition is so important. New skills will be required, and people will need the time and opportunity to adapt.
I have been organising meetings between politicians, academic specialists and importantly with industry. Bringing these groups together is crucial. My constituency hosts the Welsh Government backed Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) Cymru and I was pleased they were keen to engage.
Many countries see the opportunity that a green transition presents and once they establish themselves as leaders in these products it can be difficult to break in, we saw this with wind turbines.
Other states are investing hugely, and we cannot be left behind. It is encouraging that Labour’s Shadow Chancellor has outlined plans for huge investment in her Green Prosperity Plan. This investment needs to be substantial enough to ensure the UK leads in the sector but also to address inequality and regional infrastructure disparities as well.
Compare the map of rail tracks across the UK and you will have a picture of what I mean. The disparity between Wales and the Southeast of England is stark and ridiculous. Labour must be brave enough to support the calls of people like Andy Burnham for such inequalities to be addressed and it must trust the nations and regions to spend this money themselves.
As a trained engineer I have a unique insight on skills and training, I completed an apprenticeship and my degree through my employer. I specialised in change management of industrial processes. The just transition to a carbon neutral economy and automation will present a challenge to much more than our manufacturing workforce but it is through that familiar window that I can talk about it best.
Four day week
The need to adapt to these challenges initially attracted me to the idea of a four day week.
We are going to need to give people time to adapt their skill set and retrain. A four day week also has the added bonus of giving people time back and can make a real difference to mental and physical health.
I chair the Senedd’s Petitions Committee that conducted an inquiry into a Four Day Week and recommended the Welsh Government support a Four Day Week trial in the Welsh public sector. You can read about the inquiry and see the committees report here…
This of course would not be far from the only trial to take place. The Four Day Week campaign have been doing a great job in promoting the idea but also in pulling together the many trails going on in the Private Sector. What is striking about them all is the clear evidence of increasing productivity. The UK works some of the longest hours in Europe yet is at the bottom of the productivity league table.
I led the Welsh Parliaments first debate on a four day week, and what struck me was how little its opponents understood how most people work. Just because everyone in politics works 5 days 9-5 they seemed to assume the rest of the world does.
They talked about making up the extra day. In engineering and many other sectors, we operate 7 days a week and people work shifts to cover this. I was flabbergasted that many politicians seemed blissfully unaware of this. They also seemed unaware that until fairly recently a 6-day week was the norm and terms such as maternity leave and paid holiday were also relatively new.
This lack of understanding is why they couldn’t grasp the idea that things could be different.
The Four Day Week Campaign recently announced incredibly positive results from a number of trials in the private sector. Across a wide variety of sectors, wellbeing has improved dramatically for staff; and business productivity has either been maintained or improved. The real proof though is the news that the vast majority of businesses taking part will continue to operate a four day week.
The Welsh Labour Basic Income trial is something I am particularly proud of. We are forging a bold path with a policy that could make a real difference to how we think about welfare provision.
In terms of the pilot, the group involved are care leavers. They do not get an equal start in life and they live in a country where outcomes are rarely decided on merit but on position of birth.
The care leavers trial is available for those leaving care who are turning 18 years of age between 1 July 2022 and 30 June 2023. Providing a monthly payment of £1,600 (£1,280, after-tax) to all eligible recipients choosing to participate in the pilot. This is I believe the most generous basic income pilot anywhere in the world.
Since I wrote the article for Labour List, I led a Senedd debate and worked with campaigners to secure the pilot in Welsh Labour’s manifesto and was able to Chair another Petitions Committee inquiry following a successful petition.
The challenges we face require new thinking and a bold response. Across the UK, Labour are acting to meet that challenge.
The boldness of Welsh Labour under Mark Drakeford’s leadership in Wales can be mirrored by a Keir Starmer led Labour Government in Westminster and the sooner that happens the better.
Jack Sargeant is the Welsh Labour Member of the Senedd for Alyn and Deeside, and Chair of the Petitions Committee at the Senedd.
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