What is the current state of politics?
Ahead of our political debate entitled “Who does our political system benefit? We are honoured to have Sir Vince Cable, Former Leader of the Liberal Democrats (2017-19) and former Secretary of State for Business, share some words with us.
Thank you for inviting me to contribute to the proceedings at the Festival. I came to appreciate the enormous strides made in the modernisation of Leeds in my five years as Business Secretary. My previous impressions were those of a York schoolboy en route to Elland Road and Headingley and excited by the trams and trolleybuses of the old Leeds.
At first sight the current national outlook is negative and depressing. The economy is in seriously bad shape after the multiple shocks of the financial crisis, Brexit, Covid and the Ukraine War and seemingly stuck in stagflation. Even opposition parties can offer little given the limited room for spending or tax cuts because of the parlous state of the public finances. The commitment to regional ‘levelling up’ which was one of the few clear, positive messages from Boris Johnson’s chaotic period in government has largely disappeared with the effective abandonment of cross-Pennine connectivity and the Eastern leg of HS2.
So, is there any positive news? I would point to several areas in which there is now a policy consensus amongst different parties. The first is that cities are the key to raising productivity which is the key to growth and improving living standards. Amongst British cities, only London and possibly Bristol have outperformed the rest of the country, hitherto, in marked contrast to France, Germany and the USA where cities lead the way. Manchester and Leeds have recorded big improvements but there is much more to be done.
“It has become clear that universities and colleges are key to the life of cities, not merely tens of thousands of students and staff bringing life and spending power to city centres but research facilities acting to stimulate local business through start-ups and collaboration and teaching reinforcing the skill base”Sir Vince Cable
Second, and linked, there is a broad recognition that Britain is horribly over-centralised with Whitehall controls sucking the life out of local government and with no meaningful regional government outside of Scotland, Wales and London. In the last few years, there has been a tentative move to stronger and more independent city regions with Greater Manchester leading the way, then the West Midlands, with West Yorkshire, Merseyside, Teesside and others developing fast. I confess to have opposed the elected Mayor model but now it is there, let it work! Far more needs to be done to devolve tax-raising powers and the ability to borrow for infrastructure and housing development. But the direction of travel is now clear.
Third, it has become clear that universities and colleges are key to the life of cities, not merely tens of thousands of students and staff bringing life and spending power to city centres but research facilities acting to stimulate local business through start-ups and collaboration and teaching reinforcing the skill base. I made myself very unpopular in government by putting universities on a stronger financial footing through fees and by insisting on keeping open immigration routes for overseas students. The next government will also have to be courageous to keep post-school education properly funded even when tax revenue is scarce.
Fourth, after decades of unproductive ideological argument about public v private, there is now a shared understanding that business and government must collaborate. British government and business will stand together or die together in the face of a difficult and fiercely competitive international environment for capital, skills, and markets. The United States, no less, is now leading the way in public-private collaboration for the new generation of data-based and ‘green’ industries. For Britain, that means having a national industrial strategy of the kind I oversaw in government and which governments of all parties have tried but not persisted with. And in tandem with national strategy, there must be a strong local collaboration of the kind embedded in Business Improvement Districts. Yours is an important initiative.
Who does our political system benefit? takes place on 30th September at 14:30, the event is chaired by Krishnan Guru-Murthy with a panel consisting of Tom Brake, Magid Magid, Amber Rudd, and Scarlett West Brook, last few tickets are available HERE.