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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

12 observations and moments from 2021

There’s an unfortunate sense of déjà vu in the run up to Christmas and New Year. We both started and will end the year with a lot of uncertainty around the pandemic and on what the coming months will look like.

But much has happened inbetween. Here are 12 observations and moments from the year that was, and how IPPR’s work has sought to make sense of the world we’re in and forge a progressive path forwards. (At Christmas, we’re allowed 12, right?!)

  1. 2021 was the year all eyes were on the UK’s climate progress and diplomacy, with COP26 hosted in Glasgow. While the result was a step forward on climate, the brutal reality is that such small steps, however important, don’t take us all the way to operating within planetary boundaries. As well as scientific progress, what’s needed is a political path forward – as the public have a veto on net-zero. In July, the final report of the IPPR Environmental Justice Commission set out an ambitious but practical plan for what this could look like in the UK, drawing on thousands of hours of citizen engagement from Tees Valley to the South Wales valleys. The citizens we spoke with told us the transition must be fair, and not just stave off the worst but create a better future for all.
  2. The economics of the pandemic called into question the shibboleths of economic policy-making. Governments stepped in to offer security to businesses and workers. In the US, Biden proposed a major stimulus package, recognising the importance not just of physical but social infrastructure too. While the UK government has also recognised its role in supporting the economy, it stopped short of taking the action needed to prevent permanent damage, protect incomes and set the UK on a stronger path to recovery, as we set out in our paper ‘Boost it Like Biden’ early in the year. And, it remains to be seen if the new ‘consensus’ is really a short-term pandemic ceasefire between small-state advocates and Keynesians, borne out of necessity. The word ‘austerity’ may have been scrubbed from political lexicon, but its sentiments can still be found.
  3. The Prime Minister promised to build back better, but so far slogans like ‘levelling up’ - two years into this parliament – remain just that. Building back better will need to be about much more than small pots of money distributed through competitive processes for local government. It also has to go beyond higher spending, to structural economic reform. In a paper from the Centre for Economic Justice, we argued that building a better economy requires shifting power: to employees and workers from employers and shareholders; to companies that work in the interests in society from those that extract from society; to those that are locked out from wealth; and to the UK’s nations, regions and towns from Whitehall. We launched the paper with Heather Boushey, former IPPR visiting fellow and member of President Biden’s Council of Economic Advisors, with follow-up events at Conservative and Labour conferences.
  4. While the priority is of course managing the immediate effects of the pandemic, over the coming years we will also need to learn to live with it, and to make our health system more resilient. Our analysis this year revealed worrying backlogs in cancer and heart care, and a burnt-out workforce – we've been running the NHS ‘hot’.  We set out a path to end the boom and bust of the workforce crisis, and set up the IPPR Health and Care Workforce Assembly to make sure workers’ perspectives are at the centre of our policy recommendations. Covid-19 has shown us that the health of any individual rests on the health of us all, and that health, economy and society are symbiotically linked. We’ve been working on exciting plans to build on these lessons – look out for an announcement in the new year!
  5. The pandemic has reinforced the importance of leaders beyond Westminster in shaping people’s everyday lives and being able to take a different approach to economic and social policymaking. Elections in May saw some of the inaugural metro mayors re-elected, and a new metro mayor – and the first woman to hold that title – elected. IPPR North scoured manifestos and spoke with the Northern mayors’ teams to reflect on how in their first 100 days mayors are using their formal powers and reaching beyond them, and the critical but so far missing devolution agenda needed for any levelling up agenda.
  6. So too, 2021 saw important elections to the Scottish parliament. Keen-eyed manifesto readers would have found 26 policies that have been recommended in IPPR Scotland research, across the 5 main party manifestos, including a commitment from all parties to double the Scottish Child Payment, and the SNP, Labour and Green parties taking up our call for a Minimum Income Guarantee.
  7. The year started with the UK leaving the single market. We highlighted that many EU citizens were likely to miss the EU settlement scheme deadline – risking hardship and discrimination, with lessons from Windrush missed. The government heard us, and took up one of our key recommendations, to protect the rights of EU citizens who had made late applications and were awaiting the outcome. We’re still waiting for them to heed our warnings on the damaging effects of the hostile environment and new rules on No Recourse to Public Funds for refugees, through powers included in the Nationality and Borders Bill. With an increase in asylum seekers driven by conflicts we are inextricably involved in, such as Afghanistan, the UK has a responsibility to create safe and secure routes.
  8. While inflation has pushed real wages down, asset prices have risenwith UK house prices up 11.8% in the year to September 2021. This has big implications for our economy, inequality and politics. Taking just one example, we published research showing that rising housing costs (driven by a greater portion of people renting, paying higher rents) are a key factor in high rates of working poverty in recent years. A growing ‘locked out’ group formed disproportionately of working families with children are being pushed into poverty, while helping to grow the wealth of an inside rentier class of private landlords who receive at least £11.1 billion in state spending on housing support annually. Alongside policy to make sure work pays, greater priority should be given in welfare and economic policy to bringing down the high costs of essentials like childcare and housing.
  9. The year ends with a series of scandals for the government around both inappropriate second jobs and potential Covid rule-breaking at the top, threatening trust in politicians and democratic institutions. Our research showed just how far the UK has slid in terms of trust even before these latest sandals – launched with a frontpage and feature in the Observer in November. Those of us who believe in democracy should be concerned – and only more so with restrictions on protest, ID requirements to vote, and threats to the Human Rights Act all in train. We’ll be setting out what it would take to restore trust in democracy over the coming year.
  10. In 2021, many organisations looked inwards to reflect on the Black Lives Matter shockwaves of 2020 and to consider their role in perpetuating racial injustice. At IPPR, we partnered with Race on the Agenda and Race Equality Foundation, handing over the editorship of our summer issue of IPPR Progressive Review. It’s a brilliant issue highlighting the structure and nature of racial injustice in the UK today, and what we can do about it.
  11. This year, we remembered that seeing people face to face is great! We returned to in person and hybrid events – including 24 events across Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem and SNP party conferences. We had brilliant and energising discussions at all. Here’s hoping the pandemic won’t prevent too many more conversations next year.
  12. Finally, in 2021 we reflected that those of us working for economic and social justice – campaigners, funders, experts – will need to redouble our efforts to create authentic, inclusive, powerful, and strategic change. That will mean identifying the real gaps in our movements, working together and learning from each other in the process. Our research with Runnymede Trust offers insights from four social change movements on what makes change.

Hoping you have a restful and safe break,

Carys Roberts, IPPR executive director