Could this be a very different kind of general election? Has the ground shifted in British politics? I really don’t know. But as we embark on yet another election campaign, I long to see a different agenda take hold in British politics. Here are seven things I would love to see in this election:
1. A new debate about human rights. So much of the agenda of the past twenty years has been about human rights, tied to the equality agenda, which is really a political correctness conformist agenda. The Human Rights Act 1998 has enshrined the European Convention of Human Rights in UK law, but whether this has ever done anything to extend the concept of human rights is debatable. Many of the rights stated have existed in English law for hundreds of years. The Human Rights Act has done a lot for prisoners’ rights, and has made the job of the prison service much worse, even though we were not a brutal prison regime pre-1998. Also, foreign nationals so often don’t get deported at the end of their sentence because they have a right to a family life and their new girlfriend and baby conveniently lives in Britain. The Human Rights Acts has certainly advanced the LGBT community’s rights, because the focus has been on the more fashionable, politically correct rights of self-expression and identity, while it has failed to guard the most basic right of all, the right to life. In fact, the right to life is being steadily eroded. An unborn child can be destroyed simply because it has Downs Syndrome, and that can happen right up to birth. We would not do that to someone disabled at some point in their life, so why would we do that to someone who has a genetic abnormality that does not prevent them from enjoying a full, educated and integrated life in the community. Please can we have a debate in this election on the human right to life. If we did, it would be a massive change to the political agenda, but it is the most precious right of all.
2. Please can we discuss tax and spend in an unselfish way. Because politicians are afraid of the other side putting up ‘tax bombshell’ posters whenever they talk about raising taxes, tax never gets properly discussed at elections. It is an unwritten rule is that you only talk about taxes when cutting them if you are a Tory, and you only talk about raising taxes on the richest if you are Labour. Neither is honest or realistic, and the LibDems said they would put a penny on income tax, but then were ready to spend it several times over. It isn’t because the public wouldn’t vote for someone honest on tax. It is just that the other side will scaremonger and the press will vilify, and no one has the nerve to do it. For six years George Osborne claimed to be administering austerity, yet he presided over a massive hike in the national debt, because taxation fell way short of government spending. The Cameron government should be remembered for failing to properly reel this in. They relied too much on economic growth to solve the problem, and at the same time presided over some very generous deals given to higher rate tax payers, schemes that had previously operated right through the years of New Labour. The income tax system is hugely complex, and needs wholesale reform, but fear prevents politicians from trying it. For example, the film industry gets tax breaks from government. Why? The film industry makes loads of people into millionaires. These people, actors and directors alike, can then invest their earnings in other investment schemes, such as the Enterprise Investment Scheme which allows you to set up to £1 million of your income against your income tax bill! Those that use this scheme can end up paying less than the ordinary tax payer who pays 20%, AND they then go on to earn a return on their investment anyway. It is time to end such schemes, certainly phasing them out over the next Parliament. Tax breaks skew the market, and favour the rich. They shouldn’t be the reason why people invest in companies and projects. The return on the investment should be their only reason for investing. Please can we have a reasonable debate about tax, balance the budget and cut out the perks that skew the system towards the rich.
3. Can we please debate how we reform local government. Local government does some great work: education, highways, planning, housing, social services, environmental health, cemeteries and so much more. Yet only 25% of its funding is raised through Council tax. The lion’s share comes from central government, cutting the link between the politicians we elect to administer it and the taxes we pay them to do it. Local councillors can always blame central government for what they haven’t got, and so many strings are attached to what they get that they feel little responsibility for what they do. In the age of fully computerised government revenue collection, it ought to be possible for local government finance to be based on the income tax system, and for each local authority to set its own income tax. Other taxes, such as excise duties and fuel duty, could be levied locally as well, vesting more power and accountability in the hands of local politicians. There should be a direct link between taxes raised and money spent, and local politicians should be trusted to do both. Once that is done, local government will be genuinely local, and people will see the need to participate in local elections.
4. Can we stop idolising the NHS? It is a shibboleth of postwar politics that we must never touch the NHS. It must not be criticised, as though any attempt to change it is always going to hit the poor and be a mean plot by the rich. I agree with the principle of healthcare being free at the point of need. But we did not just invent free healthcare in 1947. There were local authority hospitals, and charitable foundations with public funding, and many ways in which healthcare was provided for the poor. Also, other countries, such as France, provide healthcare for all citizens without hospitals all needing to be nationalised. The joy of the NHS is that we don’t have to worry about payment. The tyranny of the NHS is that it must be one system, with vast numbers of managers and bean counters, box tickers and computerised nursing. When I was in hospital as a child, nurses walked the wards tending to their patients. Today, when you walk into a ward they are sitting at a desk looking at a screen. Is it possible to break up the NHS into district general hospitals, and let each one be locally run, free from a national bureaucracy? They could be run on a mutual, non-profit basis with the money (paid by government through the GP) following the patient, run by doctors who prioritise clinical need, and who are able to choose their own drug regimes and recruit, retain and value their nursing staff, rather than be continually interfered with from Westminster. Where local hospitals have had scandals that have hit the headlines, I wonder whether in many cases it is because staff feel lost in the system, and answer to someone somewhere else that they do not know and never see. We need local health services, not a National Health Service.
5. Can we get on with reforming the House of Lords? We have the largest second chamber in the world, with some 850 peers entitled to sit in the upper house. The only elected peers who sit there are the hereditaries, who elect a band of their own to represent them. The rest are all appointees, many of them former cabinet ministers whose careers faded long ago. The House of Lords is becoming a nonsense, and Mrs May needs the courage to say she will replace it. How could she do that? We need a Senate to be an independent-minded, revising chamber. It should not be the heart of government, and a rival power base for the Commons. The House of Commons must remain the centre of legislative power and a government must have a Commons majority. The Senate therefore needs a different electoral system. My suggestion is that we should divide up the country by its historic counties (which go back to Saxon times), and let each county elect multiple senators. If a county has 400,000 voters, each voter gets 4 votes and elects 4 senators. This would break the grip of the party system, because voters would be voting for the candidate more than their party. They would have the power to split their votes between different parties, and independents would be more likely to stand in an atmosphere that favoured the candidate rather than the party. This would produce a revising chamber of about 300 senators, with senators who have a more personal mandate and will therefore think more independently, thereby building on the best aspects and traditions of the House of Lords. It is long overdue, and leaving this issue to fester will only bring the Lords into further disrepute.
6. Can we make something of the Commonwealth? When we entered the EU in 1973, half the Commonwealth had only just gained their independence, and it was still very much finding its way. At a time when we could have used our influence to build traditions of good governance and the rule of law, we allowed ourselves to be distracted by the common fisheries policy, VAT and the Single Market. We also had to put up tariff barriers that have iniquitously beggared our former colonies in Africa. Now we are leaving the EU, can we please start thinking about how to make the Commonwealth a force for good? We are the ‘anglosphere’, and almost every country has fashioned its system of law in the English common law tradition, so we have so much in common. Yet too many Commonwealth countries are beset by corruption, and by rigged elections such that a peaceful handover of power almost never happens. These are the countries whose economies could be so much bigger than they are, if only we could spend some of our foreign policy attention helping them work through the issues of good governance, and establishing a gold standard of government ethics that is followed across the Commonwealth. But will any politician talk about this during this election?
7. Please can politicians bin their autocues. OK, so this isn’t a policy issue like any of the above, but it is a symptom of the posturing and spin that preoccupies the political class. Jeremy Corbyn stands at a lectern, his head flicking from side to side as he flits between the two autocues, never looking at the camera in front of him or the audience all around him. It conveys the idea that he is being worked from behind, that someone else is in charge, and that so long as the Duracells don’t run out, this frightened bunny will keep on wagging his head. All politicians do this, even Barack Obama, with his remarkable powers of oratory. It tells the audience they don’t matter because the cameras are here. I don’t know a single preacher who uses an autocue, and for a good reason. We actually want to get to the heart and soul of our hearers. Isn’t that what a politician wants to do? Few if any politicians since Tony Benn have really harnessed the power of oratory to convey their message. They churn out soundbite speeches with all the soul and charm of a Soviet housing scheme, and then they wonder why no one engages with the political process. We need politicians who can lead. In the 1945 election, Randolph Churchill, the great War leader’s son, stood as Tory candidate in Preston, in those days a constituency that elected two MPs. The other candidate was Julian Amery, fresh from his exploits in Yugoslavia. They were both to make a speech at a rally, and just before they stood up Randolph asked Amery if he could take a look at Amery’s notes. Churchill took them and promptly ripped them up. ‘If you can’t stand up and say what you need to without notes, you’re not going to be much of a success as a politician’, he explained. OK, so they both went on to lose that election, but I think the point was really valid. How many politicians today can stand up and connect with an audience, command their respect and move them by the power of their arguments? Tragically few!
This is a time for fresh faces and fresh ideas, and above all for integrity under God