Listen to North not just London doomsayers on crisis recovery plan - David Blunkett

WHEN in Opposition, and in the years since leaving Government, I’ve always had a quite simple rule of thumb when addressing major issues.

Rishi Sunak has impressed David Blunkett as Chancellor. Now he needs to deliver a jobs miracle.

I’ve asked myself: ‘What would you do if you were in a position of authority?’ That is why, with the exception of testing and availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), I have been generally supportive of the Government’s approach to Covid-19.

Last month I reflected on the Budget which had taken place the previous Wednesday, and the stand-off between the Home Secretary and senior members of her staff. All this now seems like ancient history.

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Since then we have probably had the equivalent of three more Budgets, in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer and MP for Richmond, Rishi Sunak, has acquitted himself impressively.

Sir Keir Starmer beame Labour leader this week in succession to Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA Wire

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The problems for the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, like her profile, have faded into the distance. In the meantime, we have all been asked to self-isolate and unofficially – the Government don’t like to use this term – been put in semi ‘lockdown’.

Over these weeks, we have seen the most enormous commitment in every part of our lives. From the NHS and social care, through to those continuing to drive buses and trains, the shop assistants putting themselves at considerable risk and local government workers re-adapting, despite their capacity to do so having been drastically diminished over the last 10 years. It is nothing short of a miracle that things are still operating.

Of course, what some of us refer to as ‘civil society’ has always stepped up when things have been at their worst and it is true across the world. People are prepared to go the extra mile.

Pray God that it continues in the months and years ahead, although, to be frank, I’m more worried about the lasting legacy of isolation. It is fine for people to be ‘online’, chatting, Facetiming and all the rest of it, but actually what we are re-enforcing – and in danger of becoming accustomed to – is social distancing rather than social empathy and coming together.

The new ways of remote working will undoubtedly continue when this is over and – with it – less coming together at work.

There will, of course, be upsides in terms of productivity, creativity and innovative ways of facing what was already a major challenge of technological change. Artificial intelligence, robotics, the ever-increasing use of algorithms taking over decision-making, and the readjustment of the skills needed for the years ahead. All of these were already in train and will be accelerated by what has happened.

But there will also be some fundamental questions about the role of Government, the nature of how politics adapts to the new circumstances and, of course, how on earth our economy can recover.

The Conservative Government has had to abandon ideological dogma, adopting and expanding the kind of measures once condemned by them, for example, in the aftermath of the international banking crisis 11 years ago.

The other major political change that has taken place is Labour’s election of Sir Keir Starmer who, with his credible frontbench team, will need to adjust to the new reality.

The hundreds of billions of pounds that has now been devoted to keeping the economy afloat, to keeping businesses in being, and men and women in employment, self-evidently squeezes out alternatives. That will be the reality of our democratic dialogue in the years to come.

How do we ensure that those who so often have been the victims of deindustrialisation, of major global technological change and of austerity, do not end up once again being the losers? That is why, here in Yorkshire, we need to adopt and adjust as quickly as we can.

It will be time for city and city regions, institutions and businesses across the North to collaborate wherever possible. For universities to join up rather than compete for the much-diminished national resources that will be available for the development, not just of science and technology and engineering, but of new ways of delivering services and helping people to adjust to the world of tomorrow.

Talk of ‘capping’ the number of students able to go to university, at a time when young people will have substantially diminished options for employment and alternative routes for skilling, is, frankly, ridiculous. Now, above all, we need not only those university places to be available, but to link with Further Education so that high-level apprenticeships can also be forged out of the post-pandemic era.

Finally, my own thoughts. The sooner we can exit this crisis mode, the better. The sooner we see a recovery plan which moves from helping businesses to simply survive and workers furloughed into a re-emergence of something like normality, the better for all of us. Better in terms of our health and wellbeing, as well as our income and sense of purpose.

This is why the Government must take the widest possible advice available, not just one or two centres of particular scientific expertise in a wide range of academic, business and political voices. We, here in the North, have centres of excellence and inherent wisdom as well as scholastic talent.

Those voices must now be heard and not be drowned out by London-centric, London-focused, media-savvy and – let me say it – ‘doom merchants’ on our television and radio.

As soon as we can, and when the NHS is in a position to test, to reduce the danger of large-scale fatalities, we must provide hope for the future.

In the meantime, at this Eastertide with its message of restoration and hope, I wish the Prime Minister well and an early return to Downing Street and may all of you go well in the weeks ahead.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former Home Secretary.

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James Mitchinson

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