In the Sunday Times, Robert Colvile argues that our Build Back Better campaign ‘conceals a back door to socialist revolution’. His piece kicks up as much dust as possible in an attempt to hide the fact that most people don’t want to go back to the old ‘normal’ of the pre-COVID era, the ‘normal’ that got us into this mess.
So instead of tackling the ball Colvile goes for the player. The issue, as he valiantly unpicks how the Build Back Better campaign happened (next time just call Robert) is who did it, not why. The whole piece tries to reveal a ‘stitch up job’ of covert left-wing ops trying to sneakily bring down capitalism. Far from it.
As one of the architects of the campaign let me quickly tell you how it happened before going on to the substance of what really matters and what Robert is trying to avoid.
Back in April, a few people who knew each other from centre-left think tanks had a conversation about how we do indeed need to build back better. This probably isn’t a shock. The guiding thought was that this can’t be a left-wing conspiracy but had to be genuinely broad. That means compromise. We eventually found some words and asked people and organisations to sign up. There was no cloak and no dagger. Nothing was concealed. Everyone knew who was doing it and why.
To try and infer that the heads of over 350 organisations were somehow duped into a left-wing plot is laughable. So laughable that Sky News ran the piece not as a cooked up conspiracy but as an important intervention about what happens after the crisis.
The real subterfuge then comes not from Compass or the New Economics Foundation, but from Robert. Why go for the players? Because you don’t want to debate the issues, and the central issue is this; why when approached by two centre-left think tanks did 350 organisations, many of them household names, like the CBI and the Chambers of Commerce, agree to sign a statement that defined what ‘build back better’ means?
And here is the nub of what they willingly and openly signed up to: how to ensure that the health, social care and other vital public services are properly resourced and able to meet our future needs; how to mend the inequalities in our society, so that everyone, no matter their background or race, can live a decent, fulfilling life; how to create secure, well-paid and rewarding jobs for all who want them, particularly for young people; and how not just to build our resilience to future pandemics, but to tackle the climate and environmental emergency already upon us.
That’s it. A new common sense, not an anti-capitalist agenda – because we don’t have one.
But it’s Robert who opts for smoke and mirrors as he tries to dodge the big issues. He knows this is a moment for the state to stand up and be counted. He knows it is a moment for collective action to come to the fore. He knows more than anything that this is a moment when even a Conservative government had to put the interests of people before the interests of profit.
Robert knows all of this. And he is scared of it. So instead of making the case for rolling back the state, for free markets and for competition – all of which he knows are deeply unpopular because they are so deeply inappropriate in this moment of crisis and beyond – he invents a conspiracy.
In all this, what he inadvertently does is shine a light on how we debate, learn and make big change happen.
Conspiracies never work, at least not for long. There is no Leninist shortcut to force the march of history that ends up in a better society. But if you really want to change a society now, in the age of social media in which everyone is connected to everything, to every other person and idea, then your conspiracy is going to have to be an open one. The future will not be imposed, not by Robert, me or anyone, it will only be negotiated.
And in this epochal moment of global pandemics, climate change, looming depression and the march of artificial intelligence – the change is going to have to be big and transformative. Nothing else will do.
Build Back Better is an attempt to create alliances for change that mean we don’t simply slip back to the assumptions, ideas and policies that got us into this mess. Nothing more, nothing less.
Robert should come out from behind his pay wall and debate the issues – tackle the ball – and tell us where he wants to kick it and why. This is an incredible moment to think big and differently. It is a moment to learn from different views and people you don’t necessarily agree with.
Back in the early 1940s a young MP rose to his feet in the Commons and, against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the Second World War, coined the term and therefore the desire for ‘social security’. He was making the case to build back better. That MP was the Conservative Quentin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham. It helped pave the way for the social reforms that both Labour and Conservative administrations enshrined for decades to come.
The creation of a better or good society is not the task of a couple of centre-left think tanks working in the shadows. It is the task of all of us. And that includes Robert Colvile.