JR Max Wheel
27 March 2011
Ed Miliband sought to engage in the biggest listening exercise starting with the public in Nottingham with up to 2,000 people. This is apparently because he feels that the Coalition is pitting private against public sector and attacking middle class living standards in the name of deficit reduction. Heading up a march was not a wise move, as the outcome has proven: the arguments have become lost in the riot.
Politicians are fond of these “root & branch” reform exercises not merely because it might just throw up some new ideas, but because it also allows them to draw a line in the sand between their preceding time in Government and reinforces leadership legitimacy and rallies the faithful.
OK, so here is a list of things that the “Not the New Labour” Party might consider:
Re-branding: The name is a problem: it harks back to the Marxist 19thC distinction between capital and labour; in fact both are necessary in any enterprise. So let’s try Social Democratic Party or Democrats. This gets away from silly distinctions and makes it clear that we are talking about a centre-left party with strong social democratic credentials and which stands for the individual and their rights and obligations (usually omitted) against erosion by powerful interest groups whether private or public. The Labour brand harks back to an age of flat caps and workers’ marches, it smacks of an industrial past that no longer exists in a post-industrial age. The relationship between Unions and Labour is no longer helpful or healthy.
Economics and finance: No Government can afford to get this wrong, as we have seen in the banking and sovereign debt crises; hence healthy finances are a sine qua non. Some important elements of this are now completely beyond the gift of the individual nation State to resolve. This must be recognised. There should be a major overhaul of the tax system. It needs total reorganisation, with a simple flat tax and rational consumption taxes. There is no reason to have a single corporate tax rate across the UK: differential corporate tax rates in areas suffering from declining business and job opportunities. This would rebalance growth away from the overcrowded South-East. Relocation would then follow naturally and not as a result of Government imposed relocation strategies or pork-barrel policies.
Markets do not always allocate resources correctly and importantly nor do Governments. The best that can be done is to set out clear guidelines for business and enterprise and make transparent what rules are applicable to individuals and companies operating in the UK and not try to micro-manage.
Social Policy: A major re-visit of the welfare state is needed and the way this is funded by Government. This is a critical theme because the existing system IS broken, despite noble aims and has engendered the entitlement society. Someone should listen to Frank Field for once. There are such things as social goods and areas where the market is an inappropriate methodology but – value for money is important since it comes from the taxpayer. Unwinding the mess that is the welfare state is the only sustainable way of actually breaking the dire current system and helping the next generations. There is no reason why we cannot have good education paid for by the State and this is an area where the Coalition free school ideology is flawed. This needs to be accompanied by revaluing the teaching profession and re-introducing discipline in schools. The NHS remains a monster bureaucracy and needs urgent reform, but in a financially disciplined way, not a free for all for outsourcing groups nor a Statist regime which offers no value for taxpayer funding. Again the Government is vulnerable on this area as current reform agenda is ill-thought through and has serious implementation risk.
Taking things away from people, like reordering the benefits system might not look like help in the short-term, but ultimately many universal benefits are inapplicable and badly targeted: is has to be worth more to work than not and to have the funds available for genuine support of less-abled and unemployed: this overhaul must be implemented boldly.
Energy. There has to be a rational agreement on energy production and usage and fast. The mix needs to be agreed by all parties (it’s a very long term decision) and set in stone shortly but it must take into account that energy security and costs are currently a minefield of misinformation. We need a clear view on the “real” costs of green energy, opt for efficient solutions not mega-subsidies to the inefficient wind industry and develop tidal and wave power by major investments- Severn Barrage, Solway Firth. The rest of base load needs a stable basis which is either gas (new storage needed) or even nuclear, yes nuclear (cost of disposal needs to be picked up by Government- as is happening by default in Japan). The Grid infrastructure needs a massive upgrade and all homes should have smart metering. The same argument needs to be applied to water.
Electoral reform. Dump AV – it’s a lousy system as are most proportional systems, focus on a fully elected second chamber. Support a reduced number of MPs in the Commons with revised boundaries. Make the existing system function. Political funding should be on a national levy system and completely transparent- outlaw political donations of whatever kind.
Transport. Reverse the tax incentives on cars towards alternative technologies. Encourage use of trains by a rational fare structure –the current costs of transport favours the car every time or at least road use, via coaches. Major upgrades are needed to all major rail lines and hubs. Aviation needs major reform in terms of its cost, noise and pollution effects. Hub airports need to be expanded, or a brand new airport built as originally envisaged in the Thames gateway (Maplin) to replace an increasingly overwhelmed Heathrow.
Defence. The recent Strategic Defence review was inadequate and flawed and has produced a shambles. We live in a more dangerous world; we need rapid deployment forces, with proper logistics, an expanded navy and air defence force. Trident needs a proper review. Review all MOD procurement procedures. Invest in a proper military infrastructure, from decent housing to equipment.
Europe. No automatic passage of Euro-legislation without proper review by Westminster. Demand major changes to the European Parliament, so that they can become a fully fledged democratically accountable body for purely Europe wide issues, not domestic ones.
The Party needs to examine all its sacred cows and kill-off a great deal of them, as they are either inappropriate to the present world we live in (like redistributive income taxes) or just don’t work or poorly (education & welfare). Above all be bold and radical. These proposals are in our view just as relevant to the present Government too. Do not assume that the State knows best, it does not – equally do not get sucked into the notion that markets are always the answer. In many areas of activity they are the logical means of allocation, in other areas of social goods they can be perverse. Finally whilst consultation is valuable people expect real leadership, not endless focus groups.