‘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. 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.
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. 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.
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, must be made in the places where we live.
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, 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.
 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
 For analysis of government failures, read ‘The Blunders of our Governments’ by Anthony King & Ivor Crewe
 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
 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
 For an explanation of how to make government more local see ‘More Human’ by Steve Hilton.
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