The British political scene is both chaotic and crowded. That makes it hard for anything new to gain a hearing. The din of Brexit and its opponents is drowning out almost everything else in the policy field, while everyone with an opinion on that great matter is fairly well served with political parties already. If you want Brexit, you vote Conservative. If you a softer Brexit, you can vote Labour (if you can understand their constant zig-zagging). If you want to Remain, you can vote Liberal Democrat. The Scottish National Party can hoover up all the soft Brexiteers and Remains in Scotland. That makes it all the more pressing for a new party to build an eye-catching policy platform.
So what could The Independent Group put up that is striking, fair and above all likely to work? If they are to make their name as fairly centrist, eclectic, populist ‘sensibles’, dedicating to doing what works on Rooseveltian or New Labour lines, they might only get one turn in the public’s attention. So they have to be radical – hard to do if one of the very reasons for forming a new grouping in the first place is the established parties’ journeys off to the margins.
On the other hand, any new departure allows you to think about problems in a fresh light – and modern Britain has plenty of those, spread fairly randomly around the traditional Left-Right axis. Here are four: Britain’s desperate need for increased housing supply; the country’s lagging productivity; and the lapsing of the local public sphere into decrepitude.
Let’s take those in order. Since the turn of the century, we simply have now built enough houses. We are now hundreds of thousands of housing units behind what we need even to make up for new family formation. Although new building is edging up, it’s only coming back to levels that will keep us running with the same shortages that we’ve got now. At the top end of the income distribution, that means families who can’t move up the chain; in the middle, people doubled and tripled up with their own parents even as they have children, as in the 1950s and 1960s; and at the bottom, the despair and hopelessness of temporary accommodation.
We need a housing drive based on powers akin to a wartime emergency: to break through bottlenecks, provide massive volume increases for every type of tenure, and to plan for new cities based on existing settlements, as well as new towns. Labour talk a good game on this front, without much detail about how they would provide the acceleration we need; and with a nod and a wink to preserving sections of sterile and useless Green Belt that holds us back. A new party should be brave enough to break the stalemate.
Secondly, our productivity performance is pitiful. To some extent, this is inherent in the fact that the UK is a service economy where productivity is hard to measure. Things might not be quite so bad as the raw figures suggest, as recent revised data has suggested. But there is still a problem here. One way to address this is an increased emphasis on Further Education and skills training, but that will only feed into better and more efficient lives at work over the very long run – if at all. It is certainly better to spend precious resources here than in replacing tuition fees, but that will not help over the short- to medium-term.
Another policy change that will help is to move from taxing income to taxing wealth. Sacrificing higher rate tax relief on pensions would raise many billions to use to cut taxes for young people on lower wages, or to spend on infrastructure projects that might help to raise productivity. This is especially the case in terms of regional productivity: investment in inter-city transport that allows people to move around quickly and seamlessly without having to go via London would vitally assist the growth and success of businesses across the Midlands and the North of England. A cut in National Insurance could be funded via a Land Tax on inputed rental incomes – and there are lots of ways that taxes on wealth can be slowly increased without causing any rapid or unexpected consequences. As the Resolution Foundation has recently pointed out, increasing council tax bands at the top end would help; freezing Inheritance Tax thresholds would assist further; so could ISA allowances. If we really believe that work should pay, and that will incentivise people to take more out and put more in, then we have to take the political pain of taxing the older and the wealthier to help the younger and poorer.
Lastly, and unlike most European countries, Britain – and particularly England – is a highly centralised country that tries to impose one set of ideas and remedies on the whole country from the centre. Recent initiatives, such as the creation of city and regional mayors and the so-called Northern Powerhouse initiative, have not gone nearly far enough in breaking the chains of Whitehall and Westminster on local democracy and planning. The Independent Group should look into a far greater, and ongoing, level of devolution that will allow citizens to feel as if they have real power over their lives.
The near-decade of austerity that we have now lived through has really only sought to hand ‘down’ the responsibility for making cuts. As we hopefully move forward into a more expansive fiscal era, that might be able to change. Far too few Ministers understand the enormous damage that has been done by the vast cuts that local government has had to absorb. The closure of libraries, youth centres and even public toilets has been felt as a massive attack on people’s standard of living. If regional authorities were allowed to borrow more, and were allowed more control over raising new taxes, as well as being given a slice of the new revenue from increased wealth taxes, that will allow them to renew the public realm and make people’s everyday lives feel more engaged and more secure.
Here, then, are some of the ideas that the Independent Group could consider and foster: a massive housing drive across the board, unencumbered by the sacred cows of static land use planning that have held us back too long; a move from income taxes, and towards the wealthier and older paying more to free up space for the entrepreneurial economy; far greater powers for regions and city-regions to free themselves from dependence on London. There is a great deal to plan, and to do. Once the Brexit debacle is over, it will be time to begin.
Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a string of books and articles about economic and social policy since 1945, including The Paradoxes of Progress: Governing Post-War Britain, 1951-1973 (2012). He is now beginning a book on the economic and social policies of the Blair governments between 1997 and 2007.