We’re all tired of elections but there’s one final round of voting here in parliament and I am running to become chair of the hotly-contested Treasury select committee.
We’d be failing in our duty if we allowed the Treasury committee to become a tool for settling old scores or for re-fighting the battles of the Brexit referendum; we must look to the future instead.
This parliament will create a new, post-Brexit Britain. We have an unparalleled opportunity to recast the kind of society and economy we want our country to have.
Everyone expects the Treasury select committee to be a fearless inquisitor of powerful ministers and business bosses alike. Rightly, its members and chair are required to be fiercely independent from the people they’re expected to hold to account, otherwise they can’t do the job properly. Being labelled the “establishment’s candidate”, with endorsements from senior business leaders or cabinet ministers, is traditionally the kiss of death.
But, this time, the committee needs to be a lot more than that too. This parliament will create a new, post-Brexit Britain. We have a once-in-several-generations opportunity to define the kind of society and economy we want to be. So the Treasury select committee needs to be more than a modern-day “Star Chamber”; it has to become a safe, cross-party space where the economic foundations of a “post-Brexit consensus” can be laid and where answers can be found to fundamental questions that we haven’t debated for decades.
Questions like how we fix regional imbalances between London, the southeast and the rest of the country. How we dissolve the growing divide between asset-owning older people and the insecure, struggling generation behind them. How we bring about social justice between white and blue collar workers, how much debt it is fair to pass on to younger generations and how we improve our productivity.
The answers matter because Britain’s economy has serious flaws which undermine its legitimacy. At the moment too many people under 35 feel the system is stacked against them, so it doesn’t make sense to work hard or save for their future like their parents did. The Treasury select committee should be at the heart of finding these answers, forging a consensus that will restore our economic legitimacy and stability.
That’s why the committee’s new members mustn’t re-fight the battles of the referendum or settle old scores. They need to look forward, not back, if they’re going to help find answers to these problems. The post-war generation which created the welfare state and the NHS had to build a cross-party “post-war consensus” to make sure their achievements would survive repeated changes of government after they’d gone. the committee has a key role to play in helping to forge a new “post-Brexit consensus” if we’re going to do the same.
Parts of the new consensus are already dimly discernible as the post-election fog of battle starts to clear. If you look past the disagreements about whether to cut borrowings by tax rises or austerity, there’s cross-party agreement that, broadly, we should only be borrowing to finance long-term investments in infrastructure. That means we don’t think it’s fair to pay for day-to-day running costs of key public services like schools, health, police or defence, by borrowing, because it just hands the bills for our lifestyle to our children and grandchildren.
There’s cross-party willingness to look afresh at how we fix regional imbalances between the southeast and the rest of the country too, so everyone has the same chance of living a successful, fulfilling life whether they’re from Somerset, Strabane or St Andrews. So should post-Brexit Britain establish free trade zones in Northern Ireland or Scotland? How do we deliver better access to financial services and broadband for firms and people in rural areas, or outside the southeast’s charmed circle? How can we make the Northern Powerhouse even more powerful after we’ve left the EU? And, for that matter, why can’t we set up lots more powerhouses in the southwest, the northeast or Wales as well?
But there are still far more questions than answers, which shows how far we’ve got to travel before the post-Brexit consensus can be built: how do we build lots more houses so it costs less for young people to rent or buy? If we’ve decided it’s right to keep improving pensions and benefits for retired folk, is it fair to expect an ever-smaller cohort of people under 40 to pay the taxes to fund them? Should lower-earning non-graduates pay taxes to write off student debts for higher-paid people with university degrees? Can we end rip-off tariffs on everyday utilities such as gas or electricity to cut bills for companies and less-well-off families alike? What changes will the Taylor review recommend to make low-paid work more secure and less exploitative, particularly for people early in their careers? Do we need a sovereign wealth fund to provide the patient capital that Britain’s infrastructure projects need? And how do we relentlessly modernise everybody’s skills, as new technologies make existing ones redundant two, three or more times in a working lifetime?
The Treasury select committee should be at the heart of finding these answers, pushing ministers and businesses and holding them to account. It’s a once-in-several-generations opportunity, and we should grab it with both hands.