For a radical progressivism

In an age of extremes, liberal progressives are naturally inclined towards moderation and gradualism. But it’s time for bolder ideas to address injustice and shift power.

Anthony Painter Adam Lent
6 April 2019, 8.34am
Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn
PA Images

We are in a radical moment. The planet is burning. Inequality is biting. Nationalism is on the rise.

Resurgent but nostalgic ideologies, from statist socialism to the nationalist right, will fail to meet these challenges. The former saps freedom and innovation; the latter is obsessed by vilifying ‘enemies’ rather than providing real answers. At their extreme edges, they both pose a serious threat to democratic norms and practices.

However, the alternative of incremental reformism is in hock to vested interests and insufficient to the scale of change needed. Liberal institutions, domestically and globally, are fundamental and require robust defence against attack from extremes. But progressive liberal ideology has too often left injustices unaddressed and this has sometimes helped fuel those very extremes.

An approach is required to symbolise a break from the technocratic and complacent progressive mindset of past and present. The starting point must be to respond to the deep and widespread sense of exclusion from political and economic power that drive ever-mounting frustration, anger and division.

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To take a decisive progressive turn will require millions of conversations, close to home and online. Policies are not enough but ideas are necessary to help shape these conversations and provoke wider inspiration.

Here we present some ideas that help to turn the dial of deep inequalities of economic, social and political power in modern society working within a progressive tradition. We call this approach Radical Progressivism.

The core principle: power shift

There is one core principle at the heart of Radical Progressivism: power shift. This, we believe, is the historical goal that drove the great causes of human freedom and democracy in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Over the last few decades, however, we have drifted into a system that has radically shifted power in the wrong direction. Political elites, the super-rich and giant corporations have gradually exerted a tightening grip on the big decisions that affect people’s everyday lives.

Both the state and the market have become an ever more intrusive presence in lives. Market and state failure in the form of climate change threatens the welfare of species including our own. The public sector has become both privatised and increasingly coercive: not least for those who need greater social and economic security. New artificially intelligent technologies - developed by governments and businesses - risk behavioural manipulation for all the benefits they would bring.

As such, Radical Progressivism judges its own ideas, style of politics and policies against one measure: do they genuinely shift power from those who currently hold influence and wealth to those who do not?

Five ways to shift power

We believe that contrary to progressives’ natural inclination towards moderation and gradualism, policies need to be bold and radical with the capacity to disrupt political debate. We think there are five approaches that can help secure a fundamental shift in power.

Citizen wealth

Being wealthy not only means you live a healthier, longer life with greater opportunities, it also means you have more political influence. Economic inequality, now beginning to grow again, is directly linked to growing disempowerment and vice versa.

Concentrations of wealth should be taxed along with data transfers from UK citizens to large digital companies and carbon emissions by big polluters.

● The receipts from these taxes should be used to establish a citizens’ wealth fund which will redistribute tax receipts and investment returns to citizens earning below median income in the form of basic income payments. This will greatly enhance the power of millions of people to make choices about their employment and whether to save, spend or study in a way the wealthy take for granted. The fund could also invest in key economic and social infrastructure such as housing.

Global online platforms which use their monopolistic power to exploit consumers and distort public debate should be broken up into smaller distinct companies as the US Senator Elizabeth Warren has advocated. If the UK were to remain in the EU, action against these and other monopolistic companies would be far more effective.

Worker power

Despite the rise of labour and time-saving technologies, people are working longer hours in ever more demanding jobs. In addition, the gradual erosion of employment rights has increased insecurity. Some of the growth in self-employment has added to this insecurity where such workers do not have market power. The resulting powerlessness that is now an ever present feature of too many workplaces must be reversed.

● Generous tax breaks and transition grants should be introduced for companies that implement a four-day working week or reduce overall working hours by one-fifth with no cut in salary.

● A new levy on the proportion of non-standard contracts that make up an employer’s business should be introduced. This could be applied or tiered in accordance with the size of firms. The proceeds would go into a workers’ fund to support training, professional and financial advice and support. The apprenticeship levy would also go into this fund and support new individual personal training accounts for all workers and moved away from a heavily bureaucratic apprenticeship system. This system would also cover the self-employed.

● A significant innovation fund should be established to support the development of new forms of worker support. The fund will support worker power in the workplace by helping the union movement and new methods of worker organisation respond to a labour market transformed by technological change. New laws should enhance workers’ right to be heard and to organise - including digital ballots.

Citizen power

Democracy is about guaranteeing that people have influence and power over politicians. However, outside of elections politicians answer far more to their party leaders, party donors and the media than to the voters. This must be rectified if democracy is to be meaningful.

● A new law should be introduced requiring all elected representatives to consult their constituents on the major decisions they take and to make sure their views are represented in Parliament or the council chamber. These deliberations should be conducted through evidence and dialogue rich consensus-building processes.

● Voters will have the power to recall an MP or councillor whom they feel is not adequately representing their consensus views.

● The House of Lords should finally be abolished and replaced with a permanent citizens’ assembly with identical legislative powers.

Local power

Too much political power is concentrated in London marginalising other areas and denying them capacity to grow their local economies. The remoteness of decision-making in London also makes it impossible to involve millions of people fully in the big decisions that affect their lives and the places they live.

● Power over tax, borrowing, welfare, education, health and planning rules should be devolved from Whitehall and Westminster to local areas - without onerous strings attached - with councils taking the lead on policy development and implementation. Further powers should be devolved to the nations of the UK.

● These powers should not be dispensed in the traditional way. The expectation should be that much deeper forms of local democracy should be developed including citizens’ juries, participatory budgeting, and devolving budgets to individuals and communities.

Parliament should be moved from Westminster to Birmingham. We need a modern, inclusive functioning Parliament and for power to be transferred from London: this would be a substantive and symbolic move in that direction. Westminster is irrevocably tarnished by MPs’ expenses, austerity and now Brexit.

Investment for all

London and the South East have enjoyed the lion’s share of infrastructure investment for too long excluding millions of people from economic growth.

● A multi-billion pound Beyond London Investment Fund financed by long-term bonds should be established to massively enhance transport connectivity outside London and the South East including bus networks, on-demand transport systems, and completing the northern stretches of HS2 and HS3 as quickly as possible. Fears that these investments will benefit London to the detriment of other cities are too fatalistic; but strong support for inclusive economic strategies in our major cities will be needed as well as visionary local collective leadership to avert this risk.

● The infrastructure fund will also be used, alongside funds established by local councils and the citizen wealth fund, to increase the supply of new affordable homes throughout the country.

● The returns from these infrastructure investments will be invested into the citizens’ wealth fund and used to further boost basic income payments.

Manifestoes aren’t the answer and this isn’t one: it’s an attempt to help open out a desperately needed new democratic dialogue about a new progressive vision that rejects ideological dogmatism and authoritarianism and instead values empowerment, inclusivity and freedom. Indeed, to make these changes meaningful, democracy will have to operate in far deeper, consensus-building ways locally, nationally, and internationally.

These initial power-shifting policies are five possible signature approaches for a Radical Progressivism that is alert to the scale of the challenges we face and the radical possibilities of the moment. Little else on offer currently is.

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