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Six new policies for Starmer the centrist

As shadow cabinet ministers submitted manifesto wish lists this week, it’s time to remember where truly radical policy is built…

Image: The New European/Getty

The hallowed “middle” – it has become almost a cliché to say it’s where elections are won. Blair. Macron. Merkel. When in power, the aim is to build lasting change. Minimum wage, same sex marriage, Sure Start – new, effective social policies come from centrist government. Great reformers, such as Gladstone, Peel and Atlee, all occupied the middle ground.

So, what might today’s great centrist policies be? Not just the tweaks of tax thresholds and rail fares, but the generation-changing ideas, to sit alongside devolution, the NHS, the Great Reform Act? Here are six contenders:

1—National service

Too many of us never escape our bubbles, our backgrounds, our biases. Meanwhile, public services struggle. Those who don’t use a specific service, from social care to prisons, simply do not understand why they require investment. National service is the answer. National service would allow people to spend meaningful time alongside people from different backgrounds, different places, with different perspectives. It would help to create a shared consensus on the state, and teach valuable skills directly linked to the services we all rely upon. It would help people to realise how much we have in common.

2—A wealth tax and universal basic income

An ever-decreasing proportion of ever-higher earners are responsible for an ever-growing share of the tax take. Meanwhile data from the Office for National Statistics reveals that a majority of people now live in households that receive more in state benefits than they contribute. This is an historical anomaly. Between 1970-2000 an average of 40% of households were in “net dependency”. Now it’s nearly 60%.

A situation in which fewer high earners subsidise the lives of an increasing proportion of the population is dangerous. It’s a recipe for societal division and it is also, in whichever way you look at it, just not fair.

A wealth tax would apply to very few. A recent LSE model identified those with assets above £10m as the threshold after which it would apply, only 22,000 people in the UK, so the incremental administrative burden of imposing a one-off 1% wealth tax is estimated at £600,000. Yet, even taking into account likely avoidance, evasion or simply leaving (based on historical patterns from elsewhere), the revenue is £43bn.

Excluding the state pension, this would be the equivalent of a third of the entire UK welfare budget. Yet, with this double policy, we’re not necessarily spending more on benefits. A Universal Basic Income would replace, rather than top 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).

The combined effect of a 1% wealth tax on individuals with £10m+ in assets and UBI of around £1,600 per month saves £14bn per year, which gives headroom to reduce the tax burden on incomes.

3—Regulate big tech

Encouraging appropriate economic and societal contributions from big technology companies has proven challenging and, sometimes, impossible. Regulation often lands on the fringes. Rather than regulators being tempted by Silicon Valley’s riches (see, Nick Clegg), we need a regulatory body, supra-national in remit, which recruits from those businesses. This will be expensive. Big Tech should pay for it, via changes in tax (the implementation of adjusted business rates, for instance, and the need to pay in the market in which revenue is generated). This will be resisted, by people over whom we have not, to date, shown we have any meaningful influence at all.

4—Pay MPs more

At £86,000, MPs are in the top 5% of UK earners. When promoted to a government job, they approach the 1%. The argument to pay them more is not popular, and it’s easy to see why. Memories of moats, duck ponds and suitcases of wine are hard to scrub from the public consciousness.

Two things are nonetheless true. The first is that many MPs are not the best and brightest. Second, and perhaps less obvious but no less true, is that being an MP is not a wonderful life. It’s crumbling 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 £86,000, while a lot of money, is not a salary that will 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 not all that attractive.

The answer is fewer, more empowered, much better paid MPs. Singapore pays its MPs more than $1m per year. The barrier to increasing MPs’ pay is entirely emotional, but the upside might be fundamental, as it would result in 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.

5—The NHS

The NHS has too few beds. It also has too few doctors – 50% less per 1,000 of population than Germany, for instance, with an average in the OECD of 3.7 per 1,000 and the NHS providing 2.9). The IT systems are creaky, there is a total absence of social care into which to discharge those no longer needing emergency treatment and a critical undersupply of primary care for those who may not need it in the first place. Our cancer diagnosis and treatment delays are an embarrassment and elective surgery waiting times lag those of other comparable nations. One in ten of us – a number equivalent to the population of Manchester and Birmingham combined – is waiting for treatment right now.

The NHS needs money, of course, but it also needs change. It was not designed for our older, more complex population or for the advances that have made the once intractable, treatable. The King’s Fund has taken the lead on where the radical middle might find just such a platform for reform.

We need to drag primary care into the modern world. GPs must be brought into NHS employment. We need preventative healthcare. We know what kills in the long term and we know how to change behaviour via tax, regulation and incentives. Salt, fat, sugar, lack of exercise, the mental health burden of social media – these must all form part of any reform.

There’s no escaping the biggest change. We need to pay for it. Centrist governments justify change by pursuing what’s fair for everyone. NHS funding is a minefield of unfairness. Missed GP appointments alone are estimated to cost the NHS over £300m per year, and outpatients over £1bn. Duplicate costly medication, costly treatment resulting in ignored preventative advice, abusive behaviour and even the destruction of equipment are all rife. If you cannot treat the system well, you should not be able to expect that it will always treat you well. If we’re to ask some people to pay more, as we should, we should demand of others that they waste less.

6—Prison reform

Liberal democracy works because we’re collectively more objective, more able to discern and even silence emotional bias or predisposition, than we are as individuals. Nowhere is that power more needed than in our response to crime.

The UK has the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe, at over 150 per 100,000, and the largest absolute prison population. It is up by 80% in the years that span New Labour and the various incarnations of Conservative government that followed. A place at HM’s pleasure costs HM’s taxpayer £50,000 per prisoner, per year. With that commitment to costly mass incarceration, we should surely be able to show it keeps us safe. We absolutely cannot.

It doesn’t work as a deterrent and it does not keep society safer. Indeed, locking people up in the manner, with the frequency and for the crimes we currently do is making our society more dangerous. The reoffending rate is rising from historic norms of around 20% to a new high of nearly one in three. The nature of re-offences is changing. Prison too often takes the petty criminal and upgrades them to the dangerous one.

The result is predictable. With chronic overcrowding and cuts to staff, prisons have become increasingly violent, with deaths 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.

Meanwhile, two thirds of female sentenced prisoners and more than half of men have a diagnosable mental health disorder, compared with 16% of the general population. The Royal College of Psychiatrists state that “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”. The RCP asks 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. It’s an approach that has public safety as its objective, and is focussed on restorative rather than punitive justice. That approach is more humane, effective and cheaper. All we lose is the animal lust to see those who hurt others, hurt. In Norway, the incarceration rate is a third of ours. They spend 50% more per inmate than we do, with a focus on skills, mental health and self confidence. The result is a huge overall saving, a safer society and a more productive high-skilled economy. Reoffending rates are falling.

The aim should be to prioritise rehabilitation, access to healthcare and training for a productive life, and to move away from the Victorian instinct to throw away the key. Community orders should be preferred to custodial sentences for people convicted of nonviolent crime and government should work with the private sector to provide pathways into employment after release. The data shows overwhelmingly that this approach makes society safer, gives value for the taxpayer and gives offenders a genuine chance of a new life.

Radically pragmatic policies such as these are not easy, not necessarily even popular – but 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 administration on its way, perhaps it’s time they rediscovered that power.

Alex Hesz, a political consultant and former global chief strategy officer at Omnicom Group, is an author for Progressive Britain

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