I don’t often stray into politics on this blog. It’s really just my chance to write about some of the things close to my heart, whether that be food, books or, as is often the case, the place where I grew up and where I live – the Sussex Weald. However in May I will be standing for parliament in Bexhill and Battle for the Green Party and I think that I ought to say a little about why I’ve taken that step. My primary reason for doing this is simply to give people in the area who share similar values a way of expressing those through the ballot box.
So what are those values? Above all, as a Green, I believe that we should build a fairer, more equal society, where the state is servant and not master and where it works for the good of all and not just a few. That means that the proper role of the state is to do what we, the people, tell it to do.
If we want it to provide health services, free at the point of use, that’s its job; likewise defence or education, transport or welfare support. If we vote that the state makes smartphones then that’s what it should do. However most people understandably want to leave making smartphones to Apple, Samsung and co and allow the state to focus on delivering our priorities as well as possible, things that are best done for the common good and not self interest – things like the NHS.
Yet over the last thirty years the idea that the free market does everything best has come to be an article of faith across most of the political spectrum; an unquestioned ideology. Moreover public services are increasingly seen, first and foremost, as an opportunity for business.
We risk forgetting that the point of a public service is to provide a service to the public to the best possible standard for a given cost.
The NHS, for instance, is one of the cheapest health services in the developed world, and for the quality of care provided, the most cost effective. Americans pay, on average, two and a half to three times as much per head for healthcare but outcomes and care are worse.
The East Coast mainline produced a surplus for the exchequer when the government nationalised it – more than £200 million in 2012/13 – and yet it was re-privatised and taxpayers are paying private rail companies more than £2 billion a year in subsidies while they put up fares and make bigger profits. If an essential service can be provided better and cheaper by the state and generates revenue to pay for other services, why let private companies run what are, in effect, monopolies? There’s no competition and so no obvious case for privatisation.
Moreover political parties have taken to using private sector provision of public services for dubious reasons. Not only does it allow them to pass the buck by passing responsibility for services to a third party – a third party that often uses commercial confidentiality to avoid proper accountability and scrutiny, but by signing contracts with businesses to provide services it allows one government to bind its successors to its decisions in a way that is really undemocratic. It’s zombie government – voters may have thrown out an unwanted party and its policies but it continues to dictate policy regardless from beyond the political grave.
Where people see opportunities to innovate, create new products or services, open up new markets, meet unforeseen needs, private enterprise can work very well. The entrepreneurial process can often be inspiring and I’ve worked with plenty of start-ups and growing companies where the seat-of-the-pants process of building a new enterprise has been exhilarating. But where we, the public, have no option but to use a service, be it mobile phones, trains or water or power or banking, all too often companies exploit monopolies, or form what are in effect cartels to stifle competition, to screw the consumer. Even Adam Smith recognised that; “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”
So what I’m arguing for is not a large state or a small state but a limited state whose boundaries are set by us, one that does what we tell it to so long as that is concordant with principles of justice, fairness, democracy and human rights. I’d like to see the state stop freelancing and going to look for things to do that we don’t want it to do. I’d like to see it butt out of our bedrooms and our email accounts, stop spying on campaigners, cease fawning over oligarchs, financiers and multinationals and focus on our priorities.
Where there are effective monopolies over essential utilities, for instance with the railways, I’d like to see them taken back into public ownership. Where there is a real possibility of cartelling in essential sectors there should be at least one player working in the public interest. So at least one energy company and one retail bank should be nationalised and used to make the market and force competition on the others where cosy, shared interests have previously predominated. That practice might be extended to other essential sectors where competition doesn’t seem to be serving the public.
I’d also like to see a state owned industrial bank on the German model to back employee buyouts and make strategic loans to encourage small and medium sized enterprises that provide good local jobs and pay their taxes to boot. I want to scrap trade treaties like the TTIP that would allow companies to sue the UK if we pass laws to stop them misbehaving.
Above all I want public service providers acting in the public interest and properly and publicly accountable. If that’s incompatible with private sector involvement then we should curtail its involvement.
As a Green I believe we should be promoting the fundamental equality of all our fellow citizens; that all should stand the same before the law, enjoy the opportunity to make the most of their talents, to live, laugh, love and loaf as they please, and to have their interests defended with equal vehemence by the government of the day. By that token the needs of the businessman, stockbroker and banker are no more or less important than those of the teacher, hospital porter, pensioner or jobseeker.
I believe in government of the people, by the people and for the people, where ‘so celestial an article as liberty [is] highly rated’, where business can thrive on its merits and not at the expense of consumers, employees, the environment or the exchequer, where we educate our children to live a full life and not just for the world of work and where we put wellness and not just statistics at the heart of our healthcare system. It’s time we saw capitalism for what it is – not markets or trade; both long predated what we know as capitalism – but the exercising of power through money. Call me old fashioned but, for all the flaws in our electoral and parliamentary system, I prefer one person, one vote to one dollar one vote. And finally, being a Green and believing in the amazing things we can do when we work together, I want us to recognise that our future ,and that of our children and their children, rests on our working together to protect the world we live on from exploitation, destruction and the catastrophic effects of climate change. These seem enormous and insoluble issues. But, in truth, they’re manageable if we take them on with the same verve as we did the defence of democracy against fascism in the 1940s or the effort to put a human being on the moon in the 1960s. And we will either overcome these looming disasters together or we will succumb together. I vote we show future generations that we can put self interest aside and work for the common good.