Sunday, 27 May 2018
Unpopularism (some policy thoughts for conservatives)
There's a media caricature of conservatism as being a sort of red-faced, reactionary creed. And, at times, we do sound like the angry bloke at the bar as he moves from beer onto double whiskies - "send 'em home, stop 'em coming, hang 'em, flog 'em, blame the parents, close the borders, scroungers, layabouts, druggies". For all of his modest manner, politeness and media-savvy approach, this is pretty much how a lot of folk see the Rees-Mogg tendency.
Now I really am a conservative, probably more of one now than I've ever been, and this means that we need to take one of David Cameron's cute observations - "there is such a thing as society, it's just not the same as the state" - and ask what is means in terms of policy. We should also recognise that our social problems seem to be pretty resistant to both the left liberal's "give everyone a nice hug" approach and the reactionary's "kick them up the pants, the lazy oiks" policy platform.
Anyway it seems to me that we should start thinking about those social problems - social mobility, inequality in health and education, housing, community, crime - as conservatives. We should also draw on the actual evidence as to what underlies the problems and how a conservative outlook can make a big difference. None of what follows is economic policy, all of it is intended to strengthen social bonds, reduce barriers between people and places, and provide some pointers to a society based more on the idea of community than the one we have right now.
Crime and Punishment 1 -Shut down prisons. We lock up too many young men and, in particular, young men from less privileged backgrounds. This isn't just bad for those young men, it's bad for their partners, their children and for society. We should stop doing this, close down a load of prisons and make prison more effective. Prison doesn't work as a deterrent and acts to destroy families while damaging society still further.
Crime and Punishment 2 - Legalise pot. If your place is like mine, then hardly a day passes without a proud announcement from the local police about another cannabis farm they've found. Have you noticed how this is reducing the number of folk smoking weed? No? We're losing the war on drugs. With appropriate safeguards, licences and taxes legalised cannabis (and maybe some other drugs too) would immediately end a huge criminal enterprise with all its attendant violence and unpleasantness.
Families 1 - Pay childcare to mums (or dads). We're spending billions (getting on for £10 billion) on providing parents with childcare subsidy. Since the evidence tells us that full-time, attentive parenting is the best development environment for a toddler, we should make that money we currently pay to nurseries and pre-schools also available to mums or dads who opt to stay at home to raise their toddlers.
Families 2 - Divorce reform. OK, we're better off than the Americans as we don't have 'no fault' divorce but it's still probably too easy to get a divorce especially where there are children. We should reform the system so that the interests of children is central to any decision. And those interests must be guided by the evidence telling us that being raised by a single parent is one of the best ways to screw the life chances of those children.
Families 3 - Incentivise marriage. You know why we have marriage? Love and all that jazz innit. Nope - marriage exists to stop men leaving once they've fathered a child. And forget all the religion stuff - every single society on earth has marriage in one form or another. Marriage works because is places a social stigma (sometimes enforced by a familial big stick) on men who abandon women with children. As the evidence on life chances for children born outside marriage tells us, not having married parents is bad for children. We should incentivise marriage through the tax system and, for the least well off, introduce a specific benefit payable to married couples.
Education 1 - school place lotteries. Grammar schools are one of our things as Conservatives. We love them despite the evidence telling us that they make barely a jot of difference to overall educational attainment or social mobility. If we want working class kids to do better then we have to mix them with middle class (and posh) kids rather than, de facto, herding them into separate schools because of social sorting by house price. So rather than grammar schools, let's have school place lotteries thereby creating better social mix in schools to the benefit of those working class kids.
Education 2 - fund more extra-curricula activity. Non-classroom stuff is really important - sport, music, art, debating, clubs - and we've been gradually squeezing it out (mostly by pulling funding and expecting parents to pay). We should fund activity like music, dance and school sport directly and pay the teachers who support extra-curricula activity more money.
Health - merge 'clinical commissioning groups' into local councils. Clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) are the bodies that hold local budgets for the NHS. We've already created 'Health and Wellbeing Boards' to make them at least talk with the local council. We should go further and put all the health and care commissioning under the local council - it would be more accountable, more transparent and might result in some creative, community-based health initiatives.
Housing 1 - scrap the 'green belt'. All the evidence, wherever you look in the world, tells us that policies constraining the supply of land in large, growing cities result in unaffordable housing. Let's abolish anti-suburb, anti-sprawl policies and focus instead on a planning system that actually protects special, beautiful, and environmentally-important land rather than a huge blanket consisting mostly of agricultural monoculture with all its attendant ecological negatives. This won't make housing cheap overnight but it will set a direction for more supply of land, more homes being built, more variety and a chance for young people to aspire to own a home.
Housing 2 - extend the right-to-buy. Right-to-Buy was the single biggest transfer of wealth from government to people in our history. We need to extend right-to-buy to all social housing with similar incentives to those offered to council tenants in the 1980s. And we should give tenants of privately rented homes the right to buy when a landlord seeks to sell the property - again with a discount similar to that offered to social tenants.
And finally - scrap beer duty for drinks sold in pubs. The pub is the heart of the community - how often does some politician tell us this (usually while having their picture taken with campaigners opposing yet another pub closure). Well pubs are places where people drink beer, that's their primary purpose. So why, if pubs are so bloody important, do we slap a massive additional tax on those drinkers? Scrap the beer duty (and probably duty on cider and wine but not spirits) for the on-trade.
As I said - unpopularism?