Reducing Poverty

Government expenditure on benefits, subsidies and services fulfils many purposes, of which alleviating poverty is only one, which makes any focus on poverty reduction complex.  The following though, might be regarded a minimum set of measures relating specifically to poverty:

  • Providing an income sufficient to pay for necessary consumables (e.g. food and energy).
  • Meeting some or all of the costs of housing of a minimum standard for those with no or a low income.
  • Basic healthcare that is either free or, where there are charges, they are set at the minimum necessary to discourage waste.
  • Free education of a reasonable quality for children.

Income may be provided by a minimum wage, in-work top-up payments, retirement pension, or unemployment/sickness/disability benefits, or some combination of these.

Various other benefits, subsidies and services exist for other purposes.  Transport may be subsidised in order to promote economic productivity.  Education may be funded to a higher level of quality for the same reason.  More than just basic healthcare may be provided free because it is in the interests of the general population to do so.

By the same token, the level at which the minimum wage is set, or the value of in-work benefits, may be determined by a desire to maximise the size of the workforce rather than just to bring people out of poverty.

The important point is that if poverty reduction (and, preferably, poverty elimination) is the most important task facing our society, then it is the measures targeted specifically at this objective that should be prioritised when making choices about government expenditure.  The advantage of such clarity is that, in a time of troubled public finances and a natural unwillingness on the part of the electorate to entertain higher taxes, the goal of poverty reduction can be pursued without inciting insuperable economic or political difficulties; though it may be at the expense of other public policy objectives.

Citizenship Education

Subjects studied at school still reflect academic disciplinary categories that have existed since Victorian times if not before.  In many ways, the education offered by a school in England (state or private) provides better preparation for life as a member of the Georgian gentry than as a 21st century citizen.  The abnormal cultural universe inhabited by schools is off-putting for social groups that are not historically accustomed to this type of discourse, and also generates adults who have had little introduction to the practicalities of modern life (perhaps the odd cookery class, but that’s about it).

There is therefore a clear case for giving much greater prominence to classes in everyday citizenship for school children.  A number of areas come easily to mind:

  • Personal and household finances.
  • Use, care and maintenance of common equipment in the home.
  • Cycling and driving.
  • Use of IT packages that are common in the workplace.
  • DIY
  • Cooking
  • House work.
  • Personal health and hygiene.
  • Establishing and maintaining relationships

These all constitute basic skills and knowledge necessary for functioning in society.  Demonstrating competency in these areas should therefore, arguably, be a requirement for leaving compulsory education at 18.  Why should the rest of us have to put up with the consequences of being around people who do not have these basic skills and knowledge?  And why should people experience the handicap of being without these proficiencies in adult life due to an inadequate education?

Requiring children of both genders to acquire and exercise these skills should also, hopefully, work against any reliance on a single gender to carry out particular domestic responsibilities.

Apart from these practical skills and knowledge, there are also educational tasks involved in equipping citizens to play a proper part in the running of their society (even if these particular capabilities are not requirements of everyday life).  These include:

  • A broad understanding of democratic institutions and processes.
  • An overview of key political and economic concepts.
  • A general ability to interpret statistics.
  • Learning basic facts about the nation’s geography, history, society and economy.

Again, competency in these areas could be a requirement for exiting compulsory education, so that we can all have confidence that our fellow citizens are exercising their democratic rights on the basis of a reasonable understanding of our society.  Individuals from overseas seeking citizenship could be tested on exactly the same competencies, thus arriving at a level playing field for all those wishing to be part of our nation.

All of the above would, of course, take up a considerable amount of classroom time to the detriment of other subjects (although there is come commonality between existing academic subjects and the topics listed above).  This would mean less time spent on English literature, algebra, descriptive biology, the history of medicine, and the like.

First Past The Post

One of the accepted laws of political science is that first past the post electoral systems lead inevitably to two party systems.  If either the progressive or conservative ends of the political spectrum present the electorate with multiple choices, then votes are split between them, allowing the other end of the spectrum to romp to victory.  Creating ‘broad church’ parties that encompass different shades of progressive or conservative opinion, but which give voters only a single option, is the rational and common response to this situation.

In such a two party system, voters with out-and-out progressive or conservative views can be, and often are, taken for granted.  The battleground is then for those voters with mixed or undecided views; and parties’ political platforms may be formed to appeal to those voters, at the expense of orthodox progressive or conservative policies.

All of these accepted norms of political life now, though, look in doubt in England today.  There were two non-progressive parties (Conservatives and UKIP) each picking up millions of votes in 2015, and yet the Conservative Party was able to form a majority government.  Since then, the Labour Party has been formulating policies that represent the traditional views of the most hard-core Labour (or even to the left of Labour) supporter; with little or no concern as to how attractive such policies would be to other sections of the electorate.  Why have these shifts in behaviour and outcome occurred?  Contributory factors would appear to be:

  • A loss of willingness on the part of core supporters to see their dearest held convictions being ignored for electoral reasons. Thus the creation of UKIP and the capture of the Labour Party by the far left.
  • A more fragmented electorate with concerns that transcend normal right/left divisions e.g. that combine a dislike of immigration with resentment of the rich.
  • The growing importance of personality rather than party in politics, causing considerable fluctuations in voting depending upon the relative attractiveness of party leaders.
  • The rise of Scottish nationalism and an antipathy on the part of English voters to allowing Scottish nationalists to have any say in the government of England.
  • The loss of trust in the political establishment arising from a deep and lengthy recession that originated in the financial sphere.

In this changed environment, the ability to form (or even the benefit of forming) the coalitions of differing interests and views that were the Labour and Conservative parties of old may have been fatally undermined.  The Conservatives are managing to hang together for the time being, but could yet fall aoart due to disagreements over the nature of Brexit.  While the Labour Party faces either a split or the total defeat of one wing of the party.

Pursuing progressive politics therefore requires a different approach.  Compromising progressive views to form a party with those of a more orthodox, socialistic left-wing persuasion no longer looks feasible nor desirable.  Creating a competitor for progressive votes to a left-wing Labour Party is not, though, necessarily a recipe for electoral defeat.  The fragmentation of the electorate and the other developments listed above create a situation in which a social-democratic, progressive party (particularly one encompassing the Liberal Democrats) can realistically hope to gain power or to hold the balance of the power.  Better that than being tied to a probably unelectable Labour Party espousing policies that are largely irrelevant, or downright harmful, to the interests of the English nation.

Another accepted wisdom of first past the post systems is that they bring stability and certainty to government, compared to the shifting coalitions and dodgy dealing engendered by proportional representation.  The history of Britain since 2010 makes this argument difficult to sustain.  Instead, it is PR that could restore some semblance of order in our political life, by allowing the different sections of the electorate to be represented properly within the House of Commons and so return the centre of gravity of democracy to Parliament and away from referenda and Momentum.