It's not about tacking left or right, it's about the future.
24 July 2015
The first Conservative budget for 19 years has come and gone, and it’s clear we’ve got a pretty major problem: despite the colossal unfairness and economic illiteracy on display, and the prospect of more to come, the Labour party appears either unwilling or unable to (a) understand the challenges and opportunities facing Britain in 2015, and (b) articulate a distinctive, progressive, forward-looking story about how to take them on.
In a recent interview for the New Statesman, Chuka Umunna made the case for establishing new incubators of ideas for the centre-left. I think he’s bang on the money. So here’s a bundle of a dozen challenging, super-radical policy ideas to prompt the Labour party to think different.
I’m not so naive as to imagine a bunch of headline-grabbing policies alone would be enough to win the next election. None of them are worked up in any detail (including the numbers, which are all guesstimates). And I’m well aware that implementing even one of them would be tremendously hard, for all sorts of reasons.
But hey, we’ve got to start somewhere.
Take a look, let me know what you think, and chuck in anything else I’ve missed. If there’s enough interest then perhaps I’ll invest some time in turning all of this into something more substantial…
The tax system should be super simple, it should correct market failures, and we should all agree that it’s fair. No biggie, right? Start by replacing excise duties, council tax, corporation tax, stamp duty and the like with an entirely new line-up of taxes that correct negative externalities or capture economic rents. Prime candidates: carbon, congestion, land value, sugar / fat, alcohol and recreational drugs.
Now deal with income tax, NICs and VAT, which together account for more than half of government revenues. Replace them with a progressive consumption tax, with the biggest burden falling on people with the most lavish lifestyles. This could be steeply progressive - 100% (or more) on your second £2 million house, say. We could make implementation easier by looking at income less saving on a periodic basis, and for bonus points use a blockchain to stamp out avoidance.
As well as fairer tax, we also need to sort out welfare. Enough support for a decent life for people who can’t manage on their own, but without all the complexity and cliff-edges arising from the current mess. So scrap the lot in favour of a universal basic income that is paid to everyone aged 18 or over. Double the basic rate for pensioners and for people needing care, and pay a 0.5x supplement to parents for each child under the age of 18.
Speaking of families, we’re in desperate need of more places for people to live. Lift the ban on residential development on the green belts around our big towns and cities, so more homes get built where people want to live and work. Whilst we’re at it let’s also make it easier to convert existing buildings for residential use, and for people and communities to self-build on empty plots.
Heating our homes and getting around are two big sources of carbon emissions, and a carbon tax should do most of the heavy lifting on behaviour change and innovation. But there are other things we can do to speed things up and leave a better environmental legacy for our children. Make it much easier to get planning permission for onshore and offshore renewable generation. And accelerate the transition from petrol to electric vehicles by building a national network of rapid charging stations.
Whilst we’re wiping out petrol we might as well modernise the rest of our national infrastructure. Increase capacity on major roads across the UK, significantly enhance the rail network to better link our major cities to each other as well as to London, and back two new runways at Heathrow. And then fix the most important infrastructure of all, by delivering fibre and / or 5G mobile broadband to every home and business in the country.
Universal, fast broadband is no good if people don’t know how to use the web. Put basic digital skills on a par with reading, writing and arithmetic, and make a one-off investment in training for everyone who is currently offline. And with everyone using the internet it’ll be more important than ever to safeguard our privacy, prevent the bulk collection of personal data, and put a stronger oversight regime in place for surveillance.
To secure economic prosperity in the digital, global economy we need to double down on science and technology. Start by integrating digital tools and thinking into every subject at every school. Require all students to take STEM subjects to at least 16. Significantly increase investment in R&D at our best technical universities, and fund a major new set of prizes to focus the best minds on solving the great scientific challenges of our time.
Investing in education will set us up for the future, but we need more talent now if we want businesses in the UK to grow into world leaders. Education is one of our greatest exports, so boost it further by giving every foreign student at our universities the right to stay and look for work. Scrap the net migration cap and instead make the UK the most welcoming place on the planet for talented people to live and work.
Immigration from Europe is already a thing, of course - that’s part of the point of a free market in goods, services, people and capital. The European project might be bogged down in bureaucracy, but its fundamental purpose is sound. Return the UK to the heart of Europe, working alongside France and Germany to pool, share and defend our common interests and make Europe a global exemplar for progressive values.
Just as the UK needs a reimagined relationship with Europe, so our nations need a reimagined relationship with each other. Draw a line with a new Act of Union that recognises the strength of our common endeavour, secures those aspects of government policy where pooling and sharing across the UK makes sense, and provides crystal clarity on devolution for the nations (and perhaps large regions of England). This would need to go hand-in-hand with a new and fit-for-purpose mechanism to allocate funding.
As we think through the scope of the UK and devolved governments, we need to bear down on the scale of the state and prepare our public services for the next twenty years, not the last twenty. So make all public services digital-by-default, and build bureaucracy-busting digital platforms that can be reused across the public sector. Open up APIs so that third parties can take services to people, rather than asking people to come to government. And put a decent chunk of the savings back into front-line staff, where the human touch is more important than ever.