The Radical Middle

We all do it. 

Oh sure, we ‘might join you guys later’ for a drink after work. Even though it’s raining. Even though it’s Bake Off, and it’s bread week. Bread week. Oh absolutely, ‘we must catch up properly soon’ with eyes-a-bit-close-together dad we noticed too late and couldn’t avoid bumping into at school drop-off. The one who wears a Formula 1 baseball cap like he’s about to whip off the rear rubbers on his Fabia diesel in 5.4 seconds. 

There are some things we all lie about. It’s expected. Your colleagues know you’re not coming. They don’t want to be there anyway. They’re missing bread week! Formula 1 guy knows you’re not texting. It’s fine. He absolutely doesn’t want you to. If you did, like some sort of psychopath, it would be a violation of social norms. That’s the deal. They fall into the clear, known category of everyday things that we all lie about.

Oh, and Coldplay. Everyone, everyone, lies about Coldplay.

Don’t @ me, you liar. Maybe you don’t even realise you’re lying. Maybe, like Lawrence Fox or Owen Jones, you have played the part for so long, so immersed in the performative costume you’ve decided to pull on, that you truly believe it. But let me tell you the uncomfortable truth.

You like Coldplay.

I have written some controversial things. I’ve received in response angry, expletive-laden messages, even threats of violence. I’ve taken positions on third rail issues from toxic masculinity to Brexit, from Ukrainian refugees to the Israel Hamas war. But I’m scared, this time. Because, Coldplay.

But deep down, in the privacy of your Spotify history, you know it. You like Coldplay. And Taylor. Of course you do. It’s OK. To quote Good Will Hunting (which is a film you really like, again whether you admit it or not, whether you claim to prefer Birdman, which nobody does) ‘it’s not your fault’.

In fact, it’s fine, because they are the cool ones, really. The real revolutionaries. Who has had more impact on musical taste, the global entertainment industry, the financial health of cities, the direction of popular culture, individual eating habits, tourism, fashion, you name it… Taylor Swift, or whoever won the Mercury Prize? Come on. Put the hair shirt down, Swiftie. Dive in, the water’s lovely and lukewarm.

Herein, though, there is a lesson for progressive politics.

The middle is where change is made. Minimum wage. Same sex marriage. Sure Start. These take their places among Britain’s great tradition of truly radical social policies. The lessons from history are the same. The great reformers, from Gladstone to Peel to Attlee, were not fringe figures. They were not Little Simz (yeah I looked it up). They were Taylor Swift. They were, deal with it, Coldplay.

So, what are the truly radical policies that could command, and would need to rely upon, widespread cross-spectrum support? Not the noodling tweaks of tax thresholds and rail fares, the game-changers. The before-and-after, generation-changing radicalism. The heirs to the grand tradition of British centrist radicalism that spans devolved governments, the NHS, the Great Reform Act. 

Humbly, I’ve got a few to throw in, just to kick things off. Policies that range from politically impossible to culturally unpalatable, from technically complex to financially costly, but I believe would make a real difference, if only we saw them as the generational reforms they could prove to be. Third rails, too long untouched. Right, I’ve got my body armour on, so here we go.

Society: National service. Universal, mandatory and across the public sector.

OK, BOOMER! Look, I like an LBC daytime phone-in as much as the next guy in the back of a cab, but hear me out. Society is broken. The ties that bind are not just frayed, they are invisible. Too many of us never escape our bubbles, our backgrounds, our biases. Our network of friends narrows, our opinions harden and calcify. Meanwhile, our public services struggle for resource and attention. Those who don’t use a specific service, from social care to prisons, simply do not understand why they ought to command investment. National service is the answer. To spend meaningful time, helping others, alongside people from different backgrounds, different places, with different perspectives. To create a shared consensus on the value of the state. To learn valuable skills directly linked to the services we all rely upon, at one time or another. To realise how much we have in common, and to contribute to us having even more so.

Tax & Welfare: Universal Basic Income funded by a 1% Wealth Tax.

MY PEARLS! If this sounds a bit happy-clappy liberal, it’s not. It’s happy-clappy pragmatic. More than that, it’s the only plausible eye through which the needle of post-industrial revolution capitalism must pass in order to survive. Consider the model right now; an ever-decreasing proportion of ever-higher earners are responsible for an ever-growing share of the tax take. Meanwhile, according to the ONS’ latest data, a majority now live in households that receive more in state benefits than they contribute. This is not historically normal. The average figure for 1970-2000 (for which the ONS has data) was that 40% of households were in ‘net dependency’ (their term, not mine), whereas now it’s nearly 60%. 

This situation is dangerous. High earners, comparatively few, subsidising the lives of most of us. Meantime, the truly wealthy, the can-you-wrap-my-Ferrari-in-felt wealthy, the helipad to the superyacht lot, are hiding in plain sight, their assets untaxed. It’s an omni-directional recipe for societal division and it is also, in whichever way you look at it, just not fair.

So, second things first, a wealth tax. Pearls down, NIMBYs. A wealth tax needs to apply to very, very few people. A recent LSE model identified those with assets above £10m (a personal allowance, so £20m per couple) as the threshold after which it would apply. Nobody in that group is reading this. Nobody in that group is reading anything other than Mayfair menus and Maybach spec lists. There are only 22,000 of them in the UK, so the incremental administrative burden of imposing a one-off 1% wealth tax on this small group is estimated at a rounding-error-sized £600,000. Just one measly Rolls Royce Spectre. But the revenue? Even taking into account likely avoidance, evasion and simply buggering off to another jurisdiction (based on historical patterns from elsewhere)? £43,000,000,000. With a B. A BIG B.

Excluding the state pension, this would represent a third of the entire UK welfare budget. Yet, with this double policy, we are not about to start spending more on benefits, because any Universal Basic Income replaces, rather than tops up, current benefits. RIght now, in Jarrow and Finchley, participants in England’s first trial of UBI are cashing their cheques, £1,600 per month to cover their basic needs (food, housing, energy). Whether they need it or not. Whether they want it or not. But no more. Whether they need it or not. Whether they want it or not. No stigma, no negotiation. They’re free, of course, to work to increase that income, on which they’ll pay income tax. Or not. They can volunteer. Or care for others. Or just TikTok the time away. 

Net, net, we save money. A lot of money. The combined effect of a 1% wealth tax on individuals earning £10m and the replacement of our hugely complex welfare system with a UBI of around the £1,600 per month mark is a net saving of £14bn per year. This headroom could even (see, not lefty after all!) be used to reduce the tax burden on those actually earning money as income. Simpler, fairer, less stigmatic. Recognition that the jobs of the future will continue to require, bluntly, fewer of us to work. Radically, almost impossibly, pragmatic.

Business: Big Tech Regulation with Teeth and Talent.

DREAM ON! This feels a bit like regulating whether the word ‘literally’ always has to mean literally, or whether people should be allowed to make video calls on public transport. Sure, it’d be ideal, but that ship has sailed. The horse has bolted. It’s too late.

But here’s the thing, in this instance late is much, much better than never, because the horse in question hasn’t just run off, it’s assumed hitherto unimaginable powers and is in danger of killing us all. Regulating Big Tech requires, though, restricting it. Regulation for now is focussed on the fringes. Only today, the EU celebrated a victory over Apple whereby (and sit down for this) you can un-install Apple’s own apps from your iPhone. Tremendous. This level of regulation is hilariously irrelevant, because it’s devised by those who are not truly aware of the operational realities, intentions and capabilities of these businesses. The change needs to be directional. Rather than regulators being tempted by Silicon Valley’s riches (oh hi, Nick Clegg), we need a regulatory body, supra-national in remit, which recruits from those businesses. This will be expensive. These people’s green juice loyalty cards don’t come cheap. Big Tech should pay for it, via fundamental changes in tax (the implementation of adjusted business rates, for instance, and the need to pay in the market in which revenue is generated), but we all need to accept that this will be resisted hard. By people over whom we have not, to date, shown we have any meaningful influence at all, if we can even find where they are. Finding places, mercifully, did just get a bit easier, now that we can delete Apple Maps.

Government: MPs should be paid more. A lot more. 

INCOMING! Oh, I know, I know. They’re all just in it for themselves. At £86k+, MPs already make a base salary that puts them in the top 5% of UK earners, and if they snuffle themselves to the trough of a government job, they could get towards the 1%. Then, once they’ve covered themselves in mud, they leave and (the selfish bastards) drop into big jobs at (presumably) weapons companies or evil shady banks. They’re all as bad as each other. Pay them more? We should pay them minimum wage, the greedy good-for-nothings. We should pay them in coppers. We should make them pick it off the floor, like animals. Like George Galloway licking up milk.

Here’s the thing, though. Two things are, upon any scrutiny, overwhelmingly clear. The first is that many MPs are not the best and brightest of our society. The mediocrity is not confined to one side or the other. Naivety, laziness, entitlement,  Second, and perhaps a little less obvious but no less true, is that being an MP is, in general, a really, really shit job. It’s crumbling constituency offices, second-class rail travel and relentless social media anger. There are a lot of reasons not to want to do it.

The uncomfortable reality is that £86k, while a lot of money, is not a salary that is designed to attract the top few hundred people in our nation. The current stock of MPs are likely, then, either to work alongside their main job as an MP or to be independently wealthy. For those who have no independent wealth but the earning power in the private sector to bring in many times the income of an MP, we are asking a lot in terms of sacrifice, and offering up a job that is (to remind you) really, really shit.

The answer is fewer, much better paid MPs. Singapore pays theirs north of $1m per year. The barrier to doing so is entirely emotional. But the upside might be fundamental. More committed, more diverse, more representative, harder working, smarter MPs. The very kind of people of which we are, in a nation that most recently presented Jeremy Corbyn vs Boris Johnson as our choice for Prime Minister, desperately in need. So, suck up the envy, bite the lemon, and pay for what you want to get.

Criminal Justice: Prisons, raising the bars 

THROW AWAY THE KEY! Well, maybe not so soon, angry man calling 5 Live. See, central to the ideal of liberal democracy is that all of us, together, are better able to make rational decisions than any of us individually. We are collectively more objective, more able to discern and even silence emotional bias or predisposition. Nowhere is that power more needed and less evident than in our response to crime. In the target-rich environment of what is functioning least well in modern Britain (and, it must be said, most of the West, particularly the United States), our caveman desire for personal retribution and reflexive need for ‘an eye for an eye’ suffering, made manifest in our desire to lock up an ever increasing number of our peers, is a strong candidate for the most broken piece of all.

The UK has the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe, at over 150 per 100,000, and the largest absolute prison population, over 95,000. Both parties have driven this number to such heights. It is up by 80% in the years that span New Labour and the various incarnations of Conservative government that followed. Today, a place at HM’s pleasure costs HM’s taxpayer around £50,000 per prisoner, per year. That’s Eton money. For that sort of investment, and that level of a commitment to the policy and practice of mass incarceration, we should surely be able to point to its efficacy at keeping us safe. We absolutely cannot.

If only it were the case that locking people up merely doesn’t work. Either as a deterrent, or as a way to make society safer. That would simply be a failure of policy. It is sadly much worse. Locking people up in the facilities, with the provisions, for the timeframes, with the frequency and for the crimes we currently do is, quite manifestly, making our society much more dangerous. It’s not just that the reoffending rate is rising, from historic norms around 20% to a new high of nearly one in three, it’s more pressingly that the nature of these offences is changing. Prison too often takes the petty criminal and upgrades them to the dangerous one. 

The result is depressingly predictable given the environment in which we hold this population. With chronic overcrowding and cuts to prison staff, prisons themselves have become increasingly violent, with deaths in prison up 9%, suicides by 24% and self harm in women’s prison up by more than half in the last year alone. That is not a trend, it is an explosion. Nearly 80% of prisons are rated inadequate or poor by the inspectorate. 

Meanwhile, 76% of female remand prisoners, 63% of female sentenced prisoners, 59% of male remand prisoners and 40% of male sentenced prisoners have a diagnosable mental health disorder, compared with 16% of the general population. The Royal College of Psychiatrists are blunt, saying that many ‘thousands are being sent to prison when they need real support’ and that ‘reoffending rates are high and inevitable when people are locked away for a short period while their problems remain unsolved’. Punishment in these conditions, for these people, is not working.

This punitive, in every sense, approach is also the single most cost ineffective solution we could possibly land upon. If so costly and so clear a dangerous failure in policy were to arise any other area of government – one less utterly beholden to our worst instincts as human beings – it would immediately command root and branch reform.

The RCP call for a mere £12m investment in mental healthcare for the prison population, yet even that call has gone unheeded. It’s too toxic. Too unpopular. Nonetheless, we must persist.

A more radical approach has been tried, as ever, in Scandinavia. An approach that truly values public safety as its outcome, restorative rather than punitive justice (including connecting offenders with victims to create personal plans), and almost by happy coincidence is more humane in how it delivers it. Much cheaper, too. All we lose is the animal lust to see those who hurt others, themselves hurt. In Norway, the incarceration rate is a third of ours, with vastly superior outcomes. As you might imagine, they spend 50% more per inmate than we do (Eton can only dream of such fees), with a focus on skills, mental health and self confidence. The net net, though, is a huge saving in overall cost, a safer society and a more productive high-skilled economy. Meanwhile, reoffending rates are falling, even below those historic norms of 20%.

Prioritising rehabilitation, access to healthcare and training for a productive life over the Victorian instinct to throw away the key. Community orders rather than custodial sentences for those convicted of nonviolent crime. Partnership with the private sector to provide pathways into employment after release. The data are overwhelming that this is the approach that delivers safety in society, value to the taxpayer and a genuine chance at a new life of positive contribution to the individual. If we can dissuade ourselves of our darker instincts, we can raise the bar rather than throw away the key.

Radically pragmatic policies. Not easy, not necessarily even popular, but the great reforms have never been either of those things. Government is empowered to make sweeping changes for the benefit of those over which it bears responsibility. With a new one on its way in, perhaps it’s time they rediscovered that power.

 

This column is part of media strategist Alex Hesz’s ‘Mission Messaging’ series for Progressive Britain. If you enjoyed this piece, check out the previous instalment, DeSantis for President. It’s all gone Ron.