I have written before for Labour Vision about the need for the party to embrace new ideas – to look forward to the 2020s and 2030s, not back to the 1980s and 1990s, for its platform.
Some of the responses I got have led me to this corollary – just because an idea isn’t currently party policy, doesn’t make it a ‘new idea.’
Perhaps I should have expected this. Our policy debate is too often an exercise in combing through the fine print of past manifestos and haphazardly jamming them together like Dr Frankenstein, marvelling at the resulting incoherent monster. Still worse is the constant riding of hobby horses and plain bad policy – you know the ones I mean, those pet ideas that one member in your branch insists on raising as the answer to everything despite it being an unworkable mess and/or extra-strength voter repellent.
So, call me Ash – here are five ‘evil dead’ policy ideas that Labour needs to set on fire, decapitate, bury in an unmarked grave and salt the earth so they never grow again.
Universal Basic Income – it’s quite trendy at the moment to suggest this is an idea that’s time has come. The fact that people have been saying that since 1795 and it’s never been implemented on a meaningful scale anywhere should tell you all that you need to know. It’s mainly advocated by trendy, bearded Londoners who quite fancy jacking in the day job and really having some time to dedicate to their pottery. Superficially this one looks prescient and future-proof – robots are coming for our jobs (it’s always robots) so we’re going to have to give everybody a basic subsistence income to make up for the lost income… and then what? This is the bit nobody’s ever explained to me. Fine, an algorithm has taken my job, and you’ve given me £70 a week UBI to compensate me, but I’m a working class single mum with three kids (hypothetically, obvs), so what good is £70 a week? Even advocates of UBI freely admit that in order to fund a version which doesn’t even replace Housing Benefit and tax credits (the whole point of UBI supposedly being to replace other benefits), the basic tax rate on earned income would have to climb above 40%. Good luck selling that, and good luck making it add up in a world where fewer people are earning much money because robots have taken their jobs. Basically, if you want to get to grips with what automation will mean for the labour market, let’s get to grips with it, but UBI is the policy equivalent of offering someone a free storage lock-up to make up for the fact you’ve just burned down their house.
Proportional Representation – see also ‘progressive alliance.’ Some Labour people will tell you that this is our only electoral hope. Such people should be repeatedly hit on the nose until they promise to stop talking absolute nonsense. Yes, the polls are bad right now, but fiddling with the constitution because we’re not very popular at this precise moment is short-sighted, self-serving overkill. Aside from that, it’s based on two flawed premises. First, that somehow governance would be improved by making it more like Belgium, where coalition negotiations last ten times longer than elections and nobody really notices when the government changes, and second that PR would get rid of all that ugly manifesto compromise and allow people to vote for a ‘pure’ party that’s written a warm, fuzzy, ‘principled’ manifesto. It might, sure – but then all you’re doing is postponing the messy business of compromise and trade-offs on principle until after the election, and instead of letting people vote on a coherent, consensual programme that you’ve worked out in advance, you’re doing all of that behind closed doors and then presenting the electorate with a coalition that literally nobody voted for. If there were any evidence that countries with PR were inherently better governed or their electorates more engaged in the democratic process, this might be worth discussing – but there isn’t, so it isn’t.
Graduate Tax – this one’s been around for as long as tuition fees and the fact it’s never made it into a manifesto should tell you something. First off, by asking graduates to pay a new tax in perpetuity, you’re raising the possibility of some of them having to keep paying it long after they’ve met the cost of their own studies, which they don’t have to do now. Second, I don’t think it’s that progressive to ask a graduate on £30k to pay an extra tax that a non-graduate on £200k (they do exist) doesn’t have to pay. Third, most of its advocates tacitly accept that a lot of graduates wouldn’t ever make enough to pay the tax, which puts the sums in question. Finally, it relies on the Treasury promising to use the money raised to pay for higher education and absolutely never, ever diverting the funds to a politically popular and expedient alternative like nationalised railways or state-run cat cafes or something (the latter is, as an aside, an excellent idea). Even if relying on the Treasury to do something it’s never managed to do with any tax, ever, wasn’t a brave call, if you’re arguing for the cost of higher education to be met in a progressive and redistributive way, that’s really an argument for finding it from general taxation, not a graduate tax. Everybody in politics who has ever looked at this – from Brown to Cable to Balls – has come back and said “file under ‘feasibility comma lack of.'”
Scrapping Trident – even Corbyn realised this wasn’t a goer. This comes down to the difference between multilateral disarmament and unilateral disarmament. Multilateralism has seen non-proliferation and arms reduction treaties like New START, which by 2021 will reduce the number of operable warheads held by the US and Russia by half. Unilateralism was practiced by South Africa, Ukraine and Khazakstan among others in the early 90s – their disarming didn’t reduce the stockpiles of other nuclear nations by a solitary weapon. Nobody is advocating a nuclear exchange, seriously, but if you actually want to “see a world without nuclear weapons,” as Corbyn has said, you’re probably better off trying to get everybody to give up theirs rather than walking away from the table. Pretending we could spend the money saved on the NHS is also as scurrilous a lie as the Leave campaign’s claim-on-a-bus. Trident is, for better or worse, a key plank of our national security strategy – if it went the hole it left in that strategy would have to be filled. It’d be filled with more carriers, planes, tanks and troops (which would likely cost more than Trident over their lifetimes), not whichever motherhood-and-apple-pie idea the CND have put in their latest press release.
Bringing Back Clause IV – if you love symbolism over substance, this is the issue for you. Never mind that literally nobody outside the party cares, the current Clause IV doesn’t preclude any Labour Prime Minister nationalising anything and the old Clause IV was routinely ignored by leaders when it suited them, if you fancy dying on a hill for something that doesn’t actually have a meaningful policy impact, you’ll find a lot of people willing to join you on this one.
Stopping Brexit – if you like symbolism over substance but don’t mind the rewritten Clause IV, why not try to stop Brexit? That’s not the answer for Labour either. Call me old-fashioned, but actively putting ourselves on the wrong side of half the people who voted in the largest political event in British history doesn’t seem like a path back to power.