A ballot spoiled

Is there still a party out there that cares about people? If there were, here's what they would do.

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David Hills
28 April 2015

Flickr/Javier Díaz Barrera. Some rights reserved.

I’m staring at my poll card, realising that, for the first election in over 20 years, I don’t know how I’m going to vote. In the past, I’ve usually voted Liberal Democrat, more from optimism than expectation, but the Lib Dems in government didn’t really work out how I’d hoped. Their role has been to hold the playground bully’s coat rather than hold him back.

The problem is that the mainstream parties seem to have responded to the rise in prominence of UKIP not by repudiating their views but by instead attempting to outdo each other with the nastiness of their policies. I doubt I’m the only person who now feels left behind by the mainstream parties’ stampede to the dark side. Is there still a party out there that cares about people? Where is the party that will take action to… 

Stop destroying the NHS

This goes further back than the past five years of painful, expensive reorganisation, the privatising of services while pretending you’re not, and the Health and Social Care Act that absolved the Health Secretary of responsibility for the NHS. It also encompasses the disastrous Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes that are now bleeding the NHS dry, like taking a mortgage from Wonga.

The principle here is not simply that the NHS must be free at point of use, though that is an important part. It must also be run solely for the benefit of patients. Introducing a profit motive causes a conflict of interest that inevitably skews priorities, to the detriment of care. The impetus of profit-making companies is to provide the minimum treatment possible at the lowest possible cost. This is incompatible with providing the best treatment, and fragmenting services makes it increasingly difficult to provide integrated, multi-disciplinary care.

The private sector cherry-pick the most profitable services, parasitising the rest of the health service, and then walk away if things don’t work out as profitably as they hoped, leaving us to pick up the pieces. The contracts under which they operate make it very much harder to understand how well they are performing or to hold them to account. This is the death of patient safety and of effective healthcare.

The outgoing government wants the NHS not to become a political football. It’s a bit late for that, after they’ve spent the last few years kicking it about the field, and a bit rich, considering they’re now trying to sell our football to their mates.

The National Health Action Party formed around this issue, but they’re only able to stand in a few constituencies. So, the rest of you: stop selling off the NHS, get us out of the PFI deals, and let clinicians take a part in finding the best way to run our health service. And fund it properly.

But while we’re talking about privatisation…

Stop selling our stuff

Since this is chiefly a Tory policy, I’m going to put this in terms a Tory would readily understand.

Imagine if your butler or your housekeeper decided without your permission to sell all your furniture, how would you feel? Pretty aggrieved, I would think. Yet the government have been trying to sell off anything and everything – Royal Mail, the probation service and prisons, hospitals and schools, often at fire sale prices, and all without our permission.

There appears to be no foundation for the assumption that the private sector runs infrastructure more effectively than the public sector, perhaps even the reverse. I think there’s now a strong case to be made that key infrastructure and services – rail, power, water, justice, education, health – should always be in public hands.

We need big investment in all these areas. Farming them off to private companies doesn’t prevent us having to pay for that investment, it just means that the companies cream off some of our money as profit margin before spending not quite as much as we need on investment. Power generation in particular is chronically under-invested at the moment. Let’s sort it out before the lights go off.

While we’re about it, we need to reject TTIP, which would put too much power in the hands of corporations and would potentially make any privatisation irreversible.

The East Coast Mainline shows how the public sector can take repeated private sector failure and turn it into a success. What do the government do? Sell it off yet again. Nice work.

Pay people their benefits

Do you know where clamping down on benefit fraud comes on my list of priorities for the next government? About 967th, somewhere behind the standardisation of regulations for the height of privet hedges.

Benefit fraud accounted for an estimated 0.7% of the total benefits bill back in 2013. This is a tiny proportion of the cost of benefits and, given the recent sustained squeeze, I’d be surprised if it is going up. It is not sufficient basis on which to justify building a whole edifice of draconian punishments and sanctions and a Kafkaesque set of rules that seem perversely designed to deprive people of the help they need.

The current system of benefits seems predicated on the idea that anybody claiming benefits is a scrounger and we should try every means possible to avoid giving them anything. I’d like to see this reversed; benefits should be a basic entitlement for people in need, and we should be making it as easy as possible for them to claim and retain them for as long as they need to. Our current system disproportionately harms the most vulnerable.

The argument against making it easy to claim benefits is that people would abuse them and claim for things they don’t need. Well, if we should see people claiming benefits for duck houses, moats or ovens for the kitchen of their second homes, we can come back and talk about this again. Until then, pay the bloody benefits.

I would much rather a few people received some benefits to which they aren’t entitled than have anybody starve. Which leads me to…

Feed everybody

I don’t know why this even needs to be said. I don’t understand why, in one of the world’s richest nations, we should need food banks at all, let alone see a massive increase in their use.

MPs – if a single child in your constituency goes to bed hungry tonight, you ought not to be sleeping comfortably yourself. We mustn’t leave it to charities and goodwill – it is a basic human right to have enough food to eat.

For there to be mass poverty and hunger, in the UK in the 21st Century, is a stain on our society. When the House of Lords rejects sharing caterers with the Commons because they are concerned the champagne won’t be good enough, it is – in the current climate - a stain on our government.

So, a challenge to our next government: sort this out, and until you do, no booze for you.


Teach everybody

A good education is an investment in our future, so scrap tuition fees and fund our educational establishments properly. While we’re about it, end the encroachment of the private sector in state education, and get a proper hold of the independent schools sector. Also, importantly, our schools should be inclusive, so end both religious selection policies and effectively compulsory religious worship in schools.

I realise that benefits and education cost money, so…

Sort out the tax system

All individuals and companies should pay a fair rate of tax according to their income. Everybody. That means we all live under the same rules and the same system. No non-doms, no companies registered overseas through franchises or other convoluted arrangements to avoid paying tax. If companies turn over billions in this country, they pay tax on those billions.

I don’t think anybody truly believes that rich individuals or companies will leave the UK if they are forced to pay a fair rate of tax. Even if they do, fine, they’ve parasitised us for long enough.

While I’m on about employers paying their fair share…

Pay a living wage

Make sure all employers pay a reasonable living wage. If they don’t, we end up having to top up low wages through benefits, meaning we end up subsidising big employers who aren’t paying their employees fairly for the work they do.

Sort out immigration

I care about immigration. I really do. I care to make sure we have some. This country depends on foreign immigration, and immigrants contribute to our economy. Our culture is vibrant and strong because of, not in spite of, immigration.

There is a lot of bleating about “benefits tourism” but is it even a real thing? It is hard enough for native English speakers who have lived their entire lives in the UK to navigate the benefits system, let alone a new arrival. It takes a huge amount of courage and resourcefulness to move yourself to a different country and learn its languages and laws well enough to make a home there. I know I would find it hard to do; it’s not a dream of the lazy.

And as for health tourism? Leaving aside the strong evidence to suggest that “health tourism” – such as it is – is possibly even a net earner for the UK economy, and treating UK people abroad is far more expensive than the equivalent cost to the NHS, I want the health service to treat every patient that presents to them. Every one. This the only humane thing to do in a modern, progressive society.

I accept that working out how to deal with mass migration is difficult, and that when there is a refugee crisis it can be hard to know the best thing to do. But here’s something really, really simple.

Don’t leave people to drown.

We are part of the global community, we share responsibility for what happens on this planet, and these are human beings, dying in their thousands because of some misguided plan pour discourager les autres.

Stop spying on us

Privacy is a basic human right. The revelation that our own security services have been spying on us all should be a wake-up call, but the mainstream parties have just nodded along with new laws and new powers to pry further and further into our private lives. Our security services appear to have got the idea that if they are capable of doing something then it is perfectly okay for them to do that thing, and Parliament are currently letting them off the hook, even passing laws to make their existing illegal behaviour legal. This has got to stop.

Surveillance should only be targeted at individuals about whom there is a genuine suspicion, not a blanket data grab, and only permitted when a judge gives the okay. In a culture where the phrase “if you’ve nothing to hide you’ve nothing to fear” is bandied around, the main thing you have to fear is the people doing the surveillance.

Spying on everyone will not protect us from terrorists, but it is an amazing tool for oppressing minorities and stifling disagreement. So stop it.

While we’re talking about basic human rights…

Protect the Human Rights Act

Again, I don’t understand why – in the UK in the 21st Century – it should even be necessary to defend basic human rights such as privacy or freedom from torture. But…

Don’t torture people

The news that the UK may have been complicit in acts of torture is… well, words fail me. So let me make it clear: torture is never justified. Do you hear me? Never justified. This is not an episode of 24, and you are not Jack Bauer.

Speaking of human rights…

Ensure everybody has access to legal representation

The savage cuts to Legal Aid have denied the protection of the law to large numbers of people. The law is not – must not be – the preserve of the rich, yet this is what it has become. This is not about big fees for fat cat lawyers, it is about access to justice.

While we’re on the subject of the law…

Stop breaking the law

For the Ministry of Justice under our Lord Chancellor to be found to have acted unlawfully even once would be atrocious. For him to be found to have repeatedly acted unlawfully is astounding. There is no excuse – our Government must follow the laws of the land.

Still on the law…

Stop legislating for your moral hang-ups

The extreme pornography law, David Cameron’s much-trumpeted internet filters; these things feel less like an attempt to address genuine problems and more like an attempt to foist a particular view of appropriate sexuality on the rest of us. These things are less likely to help and more likely to do harm.

Therefore, before taking a step, you need to have good evidence

Use evidence-based policy, listen to experts, understand the science

Any Greens reading this article must have been thinking their party was doing pretty well at meeting this checklist list so far, but I suspect this is where we part company, since their policies on nuclear power, GM foods, medical research and general woo are a triumph of ideology over evidence. So get in the sack, Green Party.

It’s getting fairly boring seeing policy being made on prejudice or assumption rather than evidence. Before you pass laws, get some expert views and listen to them. Conduct research and understand what it tells you. Perhaps some compulsory stats training for all MPs would help too. Maybe this would help prevent things like the execrable Saatchi Bill getting as far as it did. It also means an end to having homeopathy/full-moon-means-no-blood-clotting idiots on the Science and Technology committee, as well. Seriously, it’s embarrassing.

Reform Parliament, and stop being so damn corrupt

Spend any length of time following politics, and particularly watching the business on Parliament TV, and it will very soon become clear that our political system needs radical reform. Our unelected upper chamber (containing an anachronistic group of bishops), the deliberately adversarial way in which business is conducted (including the schoolboy behaviour in the Commons), none of this reflects well on our democracy. Our voting system is screwed as well. I don’t know how to fix this; should we have an elected upper chamber, perhaps based on proportional representation? Is the party system part of the problem? I don’t know, but what I do know is that our politicians need to start setting a better example, and behaving more in keeping with the importance of their posts.

This starts with MPs having no second jobs. An MP’s role is a full time one if it is to be done properly, and holding other jobs is a conflict of interest as well as a distraction. I’m all for paying MPs a decent wage, perhaps more than currently, but that wage is the wage they get: no top-ups for being a director of some defence company or private healthcare provider. You work for us, or them, not both.

Expenses? I’d build a block of furnished flats in London and supply every non-London MP with one. No expenses for personal homes, second or otherwise. You can have travel and subsistence expenses, and that’s your lot.

Above all, remember that you are our employees. You’re not in charge of this country, we are.

Political parties should not be allowed to accept donations from non-domiciled donors. If they’re not prepared to live here and pay taxes here, they don’t get to buy privileged influence over our politics and our laws.

Don’t be afraid to admit your mistakes

We all make mistakes. Admit them, learn from them, move on.

That’s it

There’s more, of course. Social housing, defence, freedom of and from religion, leaving the BBC alone – but at the risk of ending up spending another thousand words going “Oh, just one more thing…” this list is enough to be going on with.

Oh, just one more thi-

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