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John-Paul Wares

more than just a dad

Brexit: time to concede

‘Taking back control’ of our money, our laws and our borders is dismissed by many as the jingoistic rallying cry that won the Brexit vote. But in fact it is a genuine and considered critique of how the widening scope of the EU has contributed to growing alienation and silencing of domestic debate. It is time to concede as much.

Of course, the EU has been part of a system that has, by many measures, made the world a safer and more prosperous place. It expands our ability to effectively tackle the most complex and dangerous challenges we face: international terrorism, climate change, the terms of international trade, underhand behaviours of some multinational companies. It can turn yesterday’s adversaries into today’s allies.

But this has come at a price. While most would agree with European co-operation on things like security and trade, the scope of the EU has spread beyond genuine cross-border issues.

This may not matter if, for you, international cooperation is a matter of principle and the broad direction of the EU is one you feel comfortable with. But it matters to those who weren’t swimming with the tide, those who felt powerless against it, left behind by it or who are just drowning. While people benefit from a growing economy, feelings of difference or alienation may not surface. But in harder times, they are magnified: how would you feel about the EU if you lost your livelihood because illegally subsidised Chinese steel shut the local factory – and the EU did far too little, far too late to stop it? Or if the pace of change left you feeling out of place in the town you call home? Imagine if, despite your best endeavours, your income was falling while the EU seemed to busy itself with issues of little significance, or worse, to contribute to your problems through the dogmatic application of freedoms that seemed to be driving down your wages.

When power becomes too remote from people and places, even where there are plausible arguments for standardisation and efficiency, and when it is no longer subject to those communities changing their minds, the legitimacy of that power is fatally undermined.  When we bypass domestic politics to forge near-permanent agreements at EU level, we shut out people at home who disagree.

We cannot all see eye-to-eye. But it affects us all when significant numbers of people are not listened to. That is why people voted for Brexit. The leave campaign united people – often with conflicting views – who saw the EU as self-serving, thought ‘this isn’t right’, but didn’t believe change could happen through normal democratic processes. Brexit gave them their chance to say no.

And now the shoe is on the other foot. Those who broadly agree with the direction of the EU, who believe that the benefits of membership outweigh the frustrations; now it is their turn to feel helpless in the face of a seemingly unstoppable political force.

A decade after the global financial crisis there is widespread doubt as to whether politics and the economy are delivering as they should. We as a nation now toy with abandoning fundamental political and economic structures: ‘leave the EU!’ ‘reject capitalism!’. But we must ask ourselves if these really are the only, or even effective, ways to ‘take back control’ or tackle injustice.

What if there are alternative solutions to the problems we face? Alternatives that might be less seductive and more complex, but potentially more likely to succeed – and don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Could we help people assert control over life, community and country by, for example, leading the EU rather than leaving it? Challenging and changing it by scrapping the European Parliament, instead giving national parliaments responsibility for scrutinising legislation; giving immigration controls to parliaments and city mayors; stopping financial contributions that would otherwise return to us with EU strings attached; repatriating powers that lack genuine cross-border justification; shutting down EU bodies of questionable value like the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions? We could immediately transform the European Court of Justice from bogeyman to guardian by giving it a clear mandate to strike down any EU legislation that could sit at national or local level.

If we limited the scope of the EU to only those areas where international agreement is in the national interest, if we devolved political decisions down to nations, regions and localities, the EU would no longer stifle domestic debate. Decisions would more often be bound by the ballot box and less often by EU directive. Such an approach would allow us to meet the demands for greater control and democratic legitimacy, whilst safeguarding those parts of the EU from which we gain: extending the single market into new areas to create new jobs; continuing to push the boundaries of our knowledge by cooperating on scientific research; promoting the EU as an embodiment of our values, standards and way of life in an ever more turbulent world.

Of course, reforming the EU would be difficult to achieve. But more difficult than negotiating our departure from it?

Some will point to times when we have tried and failed to change the EU. Others will say we are right to leave an institution which could become more, not less, integrated. But how can we be more certain of our ability to persuade an EU united in disapproval of our departure, than of our ability to work with others to drive reform?

From the creation of the single market, to expansion eastwards and flexibility for different nations, the UK has a long, proud record of reforming the EU. Europe’s politicians are now debating its future. If taking back control is genuinely about answering people’s hopes – rather than an article of faith – we should have a voice that debate.

Of course, pushing fundamental EU reform would involve concessions: from those who would not want to open up EU-guaranteed policies to domestic change; from those who cling to leaving the EU as a point of doctrine. But we must recognise that our collective strength comes because of our differences, not in spite of them. Neither side must be allowed to shut down debate. The legitimacy and effectiveness of both our political and economic systems lie in the creative tension that diversity brings: a fruitful expression of competing, conflicting and complementary ideas giving rise to a better future.

The leave campaign won the referendum, has earned the right to prepare our departure and the government must work towards this end. But as a nation we should not stop the search for better solutions.

In parallel to EU negotiations, we must hold an open inquiry, ultimately setting out proposals on EU reform that can win support both at home and abroad. How? One option would be to bring together former Prime Ministers, Deputy Prime Ministers and Chancellors who have already made ad-hoc interventions. Another could be for an inquiry led in parliament by the Brexit Select Committee.

From such an endeavour I promise nothing. The outcome would be uncertain. But the task is not impossible. For that reason that the calls of ‘betrayal’ would be fierce: ideological advocates of leaving the EU would see their project put under real and effective scrutiny. But politics must do more than give voice to our frustrations.

Likewise, there is no quick-fix. Genuine debates can be frustrating and time-consuming. For every two steps forward comes one step back. But no matter how expedient silencing opposition can seem, in the end it will always be self-defeating.

Questions are never closed; each generation and each community demand the political space to consider its options and give expression to its ideas – and will deal blows to the establishment if its choices are limited.

Unity does not demand that we fall into line, but that we respect the equality of our voices. Because the conversation that emerges is to our collective benefit: it helps sharpen our arguments; presents us with new evidence; encourages us to see things from the other side. It challenges us to think anew.

Though we may divide by values, identities and priorities, we are in this together. And we are forever bound to those who see things differently by a common purpose: to make life better. In Europe, at home, between parties and within parties, stability will only emerge from the clash of ideas through the constant effort to build, renew and evolve a consensus.

In politics, as in the economy, when winner-takes-all, we all lose. So we must preciously guard our diversity by making sure that losers are not excluded, but encouraged to get up and go again. We must understand that our voice is only guaranteed if we are prepared to defend the voices of those with whom we disagree; that our economic prospects are bright only if the opportunity for success is shared by all.

Because in a democracy the public is the ultimate arbiter – and is allowed to change its mind.

 

After Grenfell: does politics value people?

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower unites us in grief. It cuts through our fear of one another. It shakes complacency from our politics. It challenges our priorities, our humanity.

But only for a moment.

What happened in Grenfell Tower is incomprehensible. The vision of the burning tower is haunting. Every time I see it I am angry and scared; I want answers and I want this never to happen again. Grenfell is a scar on our national conscience like Hillsborough, Piper Alpha and Zeebrugge before it. The ruins, juxtaposed in one of our wealthiest boroughs, remind us of an uncomfortable truth about how much some have and how little others. It provokes tough questions on austerity, regulation, inspection, private and public sector competence. But as yet, we have no answers.

Over time those answers will come. Changes must happen and towers must be made safer; I hope the public inquiry will make sure of that. People may face prosecution. For most life will move on. Politics will settle back into its usual patterns.

But is this enough? Is it worthy of the victims, the survivors and for those up and down the country who rely on the decisions of others to keep them safe?

The public inquiry will not tell us why, when the residents of Grenfell Tower asked for help and warned of the risks, we were deaf to their pleas. It will not tell us why we routinely ignore people living in tower blocks, on council estates, in poor housing, facing safety and health risks, visible and invisible, every day of their lives. Why we have treated them poorly under Labour administrations, under the Conservatives and under local authorities of all colours across the country.

Under Labour’s Decent Homes initiative, tens of thousands of council homes were improved (many with external cladding to improve insulation). Yet in 2004 under a Labour council, a Labour MP and a Labour government, I brought a group of politicians to an estate where a number of residents had made complaints to the local MP. What we saw appalled us. Children’s bedrooms covered top to bottom in thick black mould. Rusted soil stacks seeping human waste into the kitchens of properties below. One block was uninhabitable. The council leapt into action; residents were moved out in days and the remaining blocks on the estate were emptied within a year. But people had been living in filth and squalor for years and their voices had not been heard.

The problem was not a lack of compassion or a lack of money. It was not because of too little or too much regulation. It was not a lack of will or the ruthless pursuit of profit. What was lacking was the means for people in that estate to fix the problems they could see with their own eyes.

Let us find the moral courage not to use this tragedy to rehearse political arguments. Let’s deny our tribal instinct to absolve ourselves of blame while apportioning it to others. Let’s resist the urge to cast the first stone. Before life falls back to its usual routines, let’s ask the hard questions about how well or badly we are treating people affected by political decisions. Do we truly value their contribution? How far should public confidence be a factor when decisions are made? What are we willing to change to make sure people’s voices are heard?

When I see others responding to Grenfell by stoking hatred, I ask why. Hate is not a tiger I wish to ride. Yet people unfurl the old battle plans, provide seductively easy-to-hate figures; set up the witch hunt. Where does this take us? How does this appeal to our common humanity, our shared responsibility to one another? How does it bridge the divides between communities? Are we trying to heal wounds or open them? If you start a war then what you have is war.

Anger, rage, hate. Raw though they are, they are not our only emotions.

We are all grateful for the kindness of the volunteers; thankful for the generosity of those making donations. We live in awe of the bravery of fire fighters; are indebted to the porters, nurses and doctors that gently carry and care for those injured in body and mind.

Faith in one another, mutual respect, companionship, the willingness to walk in another’s shoes however imperfectly and if only for a moment. Empathy cutting across divides of wealth, region and religion knowing ‘there but for the grace of God…’. The tone of our response is one of humanity.

But why is it only our tone in tragedy? Treating people well should be our expectation at all times.

We can draw on our response to set ourselves on a different path where every life matters; every voice is heard; where people are equipped to deal with the problems they see in front of them. Where our better days are still to come.

But this requires reflection. We need to ask ourselves whether our politics and political representation any longer goes far enough, or whether it just shuts real people out.

Truly valuing people’s contribution to and confidence in decisions, means decision-makers telling us less often what they are going to do and instead helping us achieve our goals and ambitions. It means politicians helping communities to generate ideas and providing the support to make those ideas happen.

For council residents this could mean politicians actively supporting them to take control of their neighbourhood, develop local plans and spend maintenance and regeneration funds on their priorities. It means public officials serving the community by facilitating the process, providing professional advice, bringing in support and executing the decisions reached by the community.

I know many who are horrified at the thought of this. And they fall back on the arguments used against every extension of the franchise; that people possess neither the will nor the qualities of knowledge and reason necessary to exercise such powers responsibly. This argument is on wrong side of history.

Others will point to the inefficiency. Perhaps they are right. It probably is more efficient for expert planners to prepare grand designs for the regeneration of vast estates. But to the proponents of efficiency, I ask this: is there anything more inefficient than the hours spent by concerned residents trying to be heard; hours of wasted worry that could be used deciding about how the money gets spent, where the fire doors should go, what to do about the results of the recent safety check on the playground equipment, how to support young people within the neighbourhood. Surely it is better to use that effort to build a better future by giving residents, who today feel as though they are victims of social cleansing, the means to become decision-makers with real control over their lives and a stake in their neighbourhood?

We will find out and fix what caused the fire, where responsibility lies and exactly what needs to be done to make our buildings safe. But we mustn’t then assume that the job is done; we must not move on from difficult questions about power and powerlessness.  And answers to these will not be found in hatred and blame. They will be found in treating people well and trusting them to make critical decisions over their own lives.

ENDS

To donate to the Grenfell Tower appeal and have your donation doubled, please follow this link: https://secure.thebiggive.org.uk/grenfell

For the many, by the few

I have been a member of the Labour Party for most of my adult life. I have campaigned for Labour; stuffed envelopes, knocked doors, held placards and phone canvassed. I have friends who did so at this election and others who stood as candidates and promise to be wonderful MPs. I am loyal to Labour and opposed to the Conservatives. But at this election I was conflicted: I find our manifesto hard to support.

I am Labour because I believe in the universal pooling of risk: that the people of our country agree to support each other’s health, wealth and education. And I believe that from this shared platform our country can thrive.

The Conservatives threaten this. They believe that the burden of risk should fall on you and your family’s shoulders, leaving chance as a major determiner of your lot in life. They strip resources away from schools, hospitals and other institutions that guarantee our shared prosperity. Over the past seven years this has been done under the guise of ‘austerity’, but the cuts are rooted in ideology not economics. The Tories roll back the state in the name of personal freedom, but the effect is to leave people less free. The dementia tax strips wealth from people with poor health; grammar schools separate our children into sheep and goats. Unfairness is entrenched, with rich people shielded by their wealth and the rest surviving on what falls from the table or lucky breaks.

I was politicised in the mid-90s, when the Tories had ruled for more than fifteen years. Rising homelessness and hospital waiting times, prison riots and school funding crises – the characteristics of today’s politics were true then too. This is not a coincidence: these are symptoms of Conservative politics, and make it easy for many of us to vote against them.

But I also see threats in the Labour manifesto.

We argue that that too much power and privilege is concentrated in the hands of the few – multi-national companies and ultra-rich individuals – and we seek to change that. I agree wholeheartedly.

But our solution does not go far enough. Our manifesto simply proposes swapping out big business for big politics: nationalising and centralising so that power is still hoarded, just by a different set of people.

We propose bringing utilities, transport and postal services under state control. And we say this is for the good. But we forget these services suffered from chronic underinvestment, from all Governments, and that people couldn’t vote with their feet. We want to drive businesses out of health and local authority social care, even if they provide a great service. We want to bring free schools and academies back under local authority control, quashing diversity, taking away choice and stifling independence.

Of course, British people are angry at big business. But it is also true that people want business to flourish. Why? Because, we depend upon businesses to serve us, we work for them, we create them to give life to our ideas and talents. For every high profile business misdemeanour, people will have personal experience of local shop, chemist, employer, or yes, their privately owned GP-practice, where they have been treated with care, compassion and respect.

We can all point to inspirational teachers, brave police officers and lifesaving medics. But equally, people know about public sector failures. Mid-Staffordshire hospital; schools (both within and outside council control) excluding students to boost league table performance; local authorities gatekeeping to reduce housing applications; job centres driving people into poverty through poor administration; Rotherham and the Three Girls.

We know from our time in government that choice and competition, at NHS prices, drove up standards in the Health Service[i]. That opening the NHS to regulated private providers increased capacity and contributed to reduced waiting times[ii]. We know that centralised control helped poor services become effective, but we also know that giving autonomy to effective services creates excellence[iii].

In short, people understand that whether something is public or privately owned is no more a guarantor of quality and integrity than it is a guarantor of bureaucracy or corruption.

Yet our manifesto ignores what we have learned in favour of what we’d like to be true. It is predicated on a blind faith in the state, a mistrust of people and a prejudice against profit.

If enacted, our manifesto would contribute to the very problem it tries to resolve. It simply offers a new concentration of power in the shape of an enlarged, all-encompassing state, when we know that far-off bureaucracies leave people feeling alienated and powerless. Thatcher broke the bonds between people and place, allowing vast multi-national companies to undermine local businesses and communities. Distance has eroded trust in power to the point where people no longer believe decision-makers act in their interest[iv]. While living standards rise this can be tolerated, but when incomes stop rising, resentment kicks in and people want to take back control.

The Labour party needs to move on. We must not try to rebuild a machine we know to be broken. We must go much further; we must redistribute power from wherever it is hoarded to give people real power over their own lives.

At times we seem instinctively to know what to do. Shared parental leave, civil partnerships, devolution and personal disability budgets are all Labour policies which liberate us to be able to make genuinely important choices about our own lives. Policies that are embraced by the public and adopted by our opponents – and yet are firmly rooted in our traditions; Nye Bevan is reputed to have said, “the purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away.”

Power concentrations are at the root of many of our most pressing social, economic and political problems: workers incomes have stalled while CEO remuneration soars; ordinary people, particularly woman and minorities, are locked out of the high-earning professions[v]; Whitehall makes investment decisions favouring the south[vi]. Large companies have concentrated their control over markets such as banking, housing, groceries and utilities. And many use their power to dominate: to raise prices or squeeze producers, limit choice or choke supply, lower wages or prevent start-ups and small businesses from competing.[vii]

Redistributing power – whether from the state, big business or the ultra-rich – is the battleground of Labour’s origins. It is also the battle of today; and one which puts us firmly on the side of the underdog.

Redistributing power offers us a radical future as the liberating state; protecting personal freedom and securing diversity, choice, openness, innovation and competition. It gives Labour a platform not only to talk to people about public services, but also about their identity and their aspirations.

How? First we make sure risks are genuinely shouldered by the collective, not the individual. We need to replace our defunct welfare system with a universal basic income that guarantees people are free from poverty. And we need to look again at prescription, dental and other charges that undermine the principle that health services are free at the point of need.

Second, we must support people’s aspirations. People on low and middle incomes should keep more of the money they earn. Instead, tax should target individual and corporate concentrations of wealth and assets. Employees should be able to take shares in lieu of wages and we must make home ownership affordable. Labour should be the party on the side of small business. And, if our economy ever needs another shot in the arm, money should be put into peoples’ pockets rather boosting the reserves of big banks.[viii]

Third, we must make sure that essential services – housing, medical care, education, banking, utilities, transport and news – work for us. Not through public ownership, but by placing a duty on providers to act in the public interest, whether publicly or privately owned. Government must fight for us as citizens, consumers and producers by undoing Thatcher’s work; opening up monopolised markets to start-ups and smaller providers.

Finally, we must properly invest in public services, and at the same time make sure people have genuine control over their lives. Services should serve only one master – those people who use them. So we must be able to vote with our feet: we should decide how to use funds for our care; the kind of school that will suit our children; where to be treated when we’re sick; or what help we need to get back into work[ix]. People with disabilities should be able to transform their lives by taking their benefits as a lump sum rather than a monthly handout.

Where decisions, like investment and immigration, can’t be made by individuals, government must bring them as close to us as possible[x]. Local economies and cultures develop best from the ground up with the consent of the people who know them. People and places thrive where they are free to act on and gain from their initiative, knowing that they are supported by a fair state with effective institutions[xi]. It is choice, competition and diversity, underpinned by proper funding and regulation which minimises the risk and impact of failure, while guaranteeing the autonomy that fosters innovation and excellence.

I don’t write this because I believe it is an election-winning strategy. And I know our manifesto is both popular and talks to peoples’ concerns. But I don’t believe it can deliver on its promise.

Labour must face the world’s future with confidence, by trusting in people. We must not set up a planned and controlled system that gives a false impression of being able to hold back the tide. The job of government is to create a solid base which not only provides shelter but also empowers people and communities to adapt and create their own solutions; to make sure we can all participate in our own and our country’s future.

[i] See presentation by Professor Carol Propper, Imperial College London & University of Bristol, 2014 http://competitionpolicy.ac.uk/documents/8158338/8253850/Carol+Propper+-+CCP+Conference+2014.pdf/7ae37240-4600-4e18-a20d-bef298ee232a

[ii] Financial Times, How New Labour succeeded with NHS policy, 2010 https://www.ft.com/content/168e1278-2b24-11df-93d8-00144feabdc0?mhq5j=e2 (£)

[iii] See Michael Barber, 2008, Instruction to Deliver

[iv] See NatCen study into British Social Attitudes, 2016 http://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/media/38455/bsa30_politics_final.pdf

[v] See Sutton Trust research, 2016 https://www.suttontrust.com/newsarchive/private-school-is-still-surest-route-to-front-rank-of-professions/

[vi] For example, £250 per person transport investment in Yorkshire and Humber compared to £1,900 in London between 2016 – 2021 http://labourlist.org/2017/01/the-brexit-vote-was-a-call-for-devolution-not-increased-powers-for-the-pm-and-whitehall/

[vii] See Hillary Clinton op-ed, 2015, discussing impact of large corporations concentrating control over markets https://qz.com/529303/hillary-clinton-being-pro-business-doesnt-mean-hanging-consumers-out-to-dry/

[viii] See letter to The Guardian, in which senior economists argue that providing money directly to households would provide an effective boost to the economy https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/aug/03/a-post-brexit-economic-policy-reset-for-the-uk-is-essential?CMP=share_btn_fb

[ix] See Adam Lent, 2016, Small is powerful

[x] For an explanation of how a devolved immigration policy could work and how some aspects of the current visa system are linked to particular localities, see https://paulkirby.net/

[xi] See Acemoglu & Robinson, 2012, Why Nations Fail

Out of control? Business, politics, power

‘They’re all in it for themselves. They’re screwing us and there’s nothing we can do. It’s not fair.’

On holiday my family vented about dishonest politicians, greedy businessmen and unresponsive public services. Speaking for themselves but perfectly capturing the mood of our time.

We all had grievances. For me, it was the nurses that tried to keep me from my wife and our struggling newborn outside visiting hours. And the local authority that chose to harangue, rather than help when we kept our daughter at home instead of starting school before she was ready.

For others the unfairness is more frequent, more disheartening and more debilitating: not being able to get a decent, full-time job, or a contract that keeps you in the dark about next week’s wages. It’s the cost of essentials, like energy, housing and transport, rising faster than you can afford. It’s the anxiety about whether your kids will get into a good school nearby, or seeing their confidence drain under increasing demands.

It’s the outpatient appointment in six months for a problem today, the insecurity and indignity of another capability assessment, an elderly relative trapped in hospital because no company will take on the home care costs. It’s watching your community lose the jobs that have sustained it for years. And for some, it’s feeling out of place in the town you call home.

The injustice hurts all the more when we see the excesses of the people making decisions that affect us. Executives who take huge paycheques and dividends when the pension pot is broke. Bankers who risk our money to chase personal rewards. Politicians who fiddle expenses, pay for sex and drugs and break their promises.

It’s bitterly unfair and we feel cheated. So it’s easy to find enemies and scapegoats: benefit scroungers, bureaucrats, fat cats or immigrants; the liberal elite, mainstream media, judges or unprincipled politicians, anyone in the room. Politicians are also the accusers: sneering at white van drivers and flag-wavers as ‘dupes’ and ‘bigots’; business owners ‘fat and lazy’, or ‘predators’.

It’s easy to see a rigged system. And so, we want to take back control, ‘drain the swamp’, dethrone, or deselect. Replace those in power with people we can trust, people like us.

But this is dangerous. Because where there is ‘us’ there is always ‘them’. People are pitted against each other, good against evil, right against wrong, winners against losers. Many are turned off, retreating into their comfort zones. Anxiety is aggravated, not allayed.

And changing the people at the top won’t change any of the pressures to which they answer.

It won’t stop big business paying millions for ‘talent’ and producing quick returns for shareholders by holding down wages, cutting corners on safety and welfare, monopolising markets or evading taxes.[1] It won’t stop politicians jumping to media pressure, delivering knee-jerk, top-down, badly planned and badly executed policies that create rigid and unresponsive services when we most need to be treated with dignity and professionalism.[2]

Power would still be wielded for reasons we don’t understand, by people we don’t recognise, delivering quick ‘fixes’ that often fail us.

To take control, we need to deal with the underlying unfairness. Not ‘who’ has power, but that too few of us have any real power. Taking control means sharing power more fairly and sensibly by putting it into our hands, into the places where we live and to the people that serve us.

Government should be our champion, not our master. Its priority must be to make sure we can decide as much as possible about our own lives. But it must also protect us from excess, exploitation and extremes, both in business and in politics.

First, it must put as many decisions as possible into our own hands[3]. So we have real choices over the kind of school that will suit our children; where to be treated when we’re sick; or what help we need to get back into work. How to use funds for our care, housing or career development. Whether to take disability benefits up front to transform our lives. Whether to use childcare hours for music, sport, languages or parenting classes. Whether to take shares in lieu of wages. We should decide who should represent us as employees on the company’s board, or whether we want to bid for our company if it is to be sold or floated. And, when stimulating the economy, money should be put into peoples’ pockets rather swelling banks’ reserves by simply printing more.[4]

Where decisions can’t be made by individuals, government must bring them as close to us as possible. Local economies and cultures develop best from the ground up with the consent of the people who know them.  More decisions about how to spend money, about welfare and immigration[5], must be made in the places where we live.[6]

Second, we must take control of ‘essential’ services – housing, medical care, education, banking, utilities, transport and news – to make sure they work for us. Not through public ownership, but by placing a duty on all providers to act in the public interest, whether publicly or privately owned. Services need autonomy and independence from Government tinkering, so that they serve only one master – us. Government must break up public, private or contracted-out monopolies so that we can choose services that better meet our expectations. Ideological and bureaucratic barriers must be stripped away so that local authorities, housing associations, mutuals[7], cooperatives, charities and businesses can build houses, open schools and develop better services for the public.

At the same time government must guarantee minimum standards, defend equal access for all and distribute funds fairly between people and places. It must regulate and legislate to protect us as consumers and employees; securing decent jobs and promoting equality. Things will still go wrong with local services and those who exploit their positions will still need to be held to account. Government must make sure that we have good choices and that we can vote with our feet if a service isn’t up to scratch. It must incentivise public service providers to invest in highly skilled and highly motivated staff who care deeply about giving us the best possible service. And of course, government must continue to run services too specialist to open up – like acute and emergency care, services for vulnerable people, defence and foreign policy.

Third, the stock market must work harder for more of us. Government must give more power, greater returns and lower tax rates to long term shareholders, so that companies are incentivised to pay fair wages and invest in the health of their business, their staff and their customers. And with assets rising faster than wages, Government must help more people to own shares through schemes like the Child Trust Fund.

Government will be more people-sized and business more representative. We will be served by people who know us better and understand what we want and need.

Taking control means giving effect to what we think, not what we ought to think. And this means accepting that we are not all the same, that politics is not the application of an absolute truth and that there is no person, ideology or ‘ism’ behind which we can all stand.

Just look at our families. Mine includes Corbynites, supporters of the Countryside Alliance, Brexiteers, feminists, Scots, Unionists, London liberal elites, Mackems, home keepers, a teacher, a nurse, businessmen, an entrepreneur, people of faith and atheists. People who are unemployed, long-term sick, retired, disabled. We are parents, we are children.

All different, but tightly bound by love and loyalty.

Our nation has long been a tapestry of different, deeply held values, beliefs, identities and lifestyles that cohabit, conflict and complement in unequal measure. Together our differences round us, balance us, challenge us and grow us. They are our strength. We all want to live according to our beliefs, but without fear of having our worlds imposed upon by those who think differently.

Taking control should not be an endless battle to hoard power. It means politicians, business leaders and the public finding the trust and the courage to share power fairly.

[1] For an exploration of shareholder value see ‘Beyond Shareholder Value: the reasons and choices for corporate governance reform’ https://www.tuc.org.uk/economic-issues/corporate-governance/economic-analysis/beyond-shareholder-value-reasons-and-choices

[2] For analysis of government failures, read ‘The Blunders of our Governments’ by Anthony King & Ivor Crewe

[3] See ‘The Power to Create’ by Matthew Taylor at RSA on self-expression and decision making, https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/matthew-taylor-blog/2014/07/the-power-to-create-in-about-5-minutes

[4] See letter to The Guardian, in which senior economists argue that providing money directly to households would be an effective policy to boost economy. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/aug/03/a-post-brexit-economic-policy-reset-for-the-uk-is-essential?CMP=share_btn_fb

[5] For an explanation of how a devolved immigration policy could work and how some aspects of the current visa system are linked to localities, see https://paulkirby.net/

[6] For an explanation of how to make government more local see ‘More Human’ by Steve Hilton.

[7]Frank Field MP argues for a NHS & social care mutual here, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/dec/02/run-the-nhs-and-social-care-like-john-lewis-says-frank-field

Brexit letter to my MP

Rt Hon Jeremy Wright QC MP

House of Commons

London

SW1A 0AA

 

Dear Mr Wright

 

Our country is divided following the EU referendum. Our response can either entrench or bridge that division.

As our new Prime Minister has said, negotiations with the EU must fulfil the referendum’s mandate to leave the EU. However, our Government should seek to represent our country as a whole, which also means listening to those who voted ‘remain’.

I would be grateful, therefore, if you could ask David Davis MP, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, to give serious consideration to a devolved settlement, with repatriated powers reverting to the nations and regions wherever possible.

Devolution would mean that regions and localities could have their voices heard – whether they voted ‘leave’ or ‘remain’.

The UK Government could conclude a ‘baseline’ agreement with the EU that would fulfil the referendum’s mandate. Building on that baseline, city-regions and nations could retain the option to further integrate, subject to a local public mandate. Those areas could change their relationship with Europe over time if they wished to.

This option could, for example, allow London to be given tariff-free access to the single market and freedom of movement; to retain passporting rights and Euro clearing. Regional immigration visas could allow a region to limit freedom of movement if it wished to. Open borders in Northern Ireland could be maintained. EU contributions could be regionalised; EU funding is already awarded regionally.

This would be a significant change to our country’s democratic structures as well as EU processes. But it would be a natural progression from the current policy of devolving decision-making to city-regions and nations.

Removing the UK from the EU will be complex. However it is done, it will involve breaking new ground both for the UK and the EU.

Devolution is possibly the only policy response to the referendum that can keep our country together. It could satisfy the different interests of both those areas which voted ‘leave’ and those which voted ‘remain’.

Our politicians must face up to the challenge of leading a divided country. In so doing, our Government must give effect to both leave and remain voices.

We need to consider radical solutions in order to bring the country together and maintain a United Kingdom. Devolution as a response to the EU referendum must be pursued as a serious option.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely

 

 

 

John-Paul Wares

I want my country back

I WANT MY COUNTRY BACK.

Damn. I said it.

I spent the weeks and months before the EU referendum ridiculing this notion as puerile, vacuous. Now I feel it deeply myself. Oh, the irony.

My immediate reaction to the result was fury. I’ve had something stolen from me. I felt bitter. I feared for my family’s finances and my children’s opportunities. Leaving the EU was irresponsible; a reckless gamble no better in my eyes than that of the bankers who had risked and so damaged our economy in 2008. Worse still, it had given succour to extremists who had taken the Brexit vote as a legitimisation of their hate.

But shock gave way to reflection. I looked to those in my family who voted leave and see the world differently. My country is their country too. Some live and will die where they were born, like their parents, grandparents and friends. I love them, enjoy their company and they mine. But I would not choose their life, nor they mine. From time to time they visit my world and I theirs, like tourists, appreciating parts before returning to where we are comfortable.

They are socially conservative, enjoying our country as it was and is. They like to see that politicians are in their service with their ambitions held in check. But they are not political animals; neither are they extremists. They have a legitimate expectation that politicians will represent their views, but are far removed from the political classes. There is not a libertarian, a free marketeer or a radical among them and any attempt to characterise their vote in these ways is wholly inaccurate.

Until now, politics has not been challenging for me. My world view has more or less held sway all my adult life. I am at ease with the huge changes that have taken place over that time. But others are not – at least not with all the changes nor the frequency of them.

Critically, none of us were asked whether we wanted those changes. No general election gave us a choice about freedom of movement or when the EU would make decisions over Westminster. Many in my parents’ generation say that what they voted for in 1975 is not what they see today. In those circumstances is it any wonder that a good number of people have applied the brakes?

So why weren’t we asked? Maybe it was assumed that with time, education and economic gains we would all become global citizens and want the same thing. But this was wrong.  17.4 million people didn’t agree. Until now, their views have been heard but largely ignored; now they have their country back as I am losing mine.

So we are a family divided in a nation divided.

But this is only as it should be. For me, the challenge is not to get us all to agree, but to find a way for different world views to comfortably coexist.

Political parties state their positions and compete for our support. A majority wins, leaving the spoils for the victor and the losers disappointed. But what if, instead of articulating their position, a party articulated ours? What if they embraced division and legitimised our differences? What if a political party could give effect to our different views to help us co-exist?  Could that bind our country together? I believe it could. Together, not in consensus, but in plurality.

But how does that relate to the EU?

Within the EU some countries have the Euro; others do not. Some countries are part of the whole single market, others have preferential access only to specific markets. Some countries have voting rights, others not. If there can be flexibility between states then why not within states?

When trying to work out our approach to Brexit, instead of simply stacking up all EU legislation into ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘maybe’ piles, we could work out which aspects of EU policy – say freedom of movement  – could be overseen by devolved, city and regional administrations[1].

In this way, we could allow some areas within the UK to ‘remain’ while others ‘leave’. We could give the option to further integrate or withdraw via the ballot box at devolved elections. Westminster would only oversee policies that needed national coordination, such as defence or climate change.  People really could ‘take back control’, in a flexible Europe, without risking the minority feeling in tyranny to the majority.

Would EU accept this? At the moment almost certainly not. It would be a colossal task to modernise the EU is this way. But the referendum result in the UK is the first articulation of disenchantment that exists across the EU. For the EU to ward off contagion, it must find the political will to give effect to public opinion. Dogmatically enforcing existing rules risks public support and, ultimately, its own future.

Wouldn’t this approach be immensely burdensome and potentially unworkable? In truth, whatever approach we take to Brexit, there will be an incredibly complex task ahead of us. And I believe that if we do not take the opportunity now to reform our politics, the disaffected minority – on whatever side – will suffer and so too will our democracy.

The referendum has left politics in chaos: our politicians are frozen in the face of a disunited kingdom, our parties are split, unsure who’s side to take and fearful of alienating more voters.

But if we respect and give effect to our different views then no-one need be on the losing side.

The real question for our leaders is not which side to be on, but what they will now try to achieve. If they take sides, our country, our regions and our families will remain divided.

I believe that the party that learns to be excited by our diversity, embraces our complexity and makes those different views a reality, is the party that will heal our wounds.

Despite our differences, I believe that the vast majority of people don’t want to see our nation divided. We can all get our countries back, plural.

And that is a politics I think everyone in my family could vote for.

 

[1] For an explanation of how a devolved immigration policy could work and how some aspects of the current visa system are linked to particular localities, see https://paulkirby.net/

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