Taking back control

First of all an apology for any regular reader who has noticed a lack posts from me over the last few weeks. My excuse? I’ve simply not had the time – too busy enjoying myself, first at a big party to celebrate my wedding a year ago, then with a few days away, and finally with a weekend in London. A lot has happened politically over this time, and there is the potential for things to get even more interesting, so I had better knuckle down and start writing!

As I write the first round results of the Tory leadership contest have just been announced. This contest, and potentially the next General Election (which could follow in the Autumn) seems to be focussed on tax policy. With the exception of Sunak, most candidates seem to be calling for ‘a return to Tory values’, and particularly for a reduction in taxation. Some candidates have even been explicit (though honest) in talking about the corresponding necessity to reduce public services and expenditure. The rationale behind this policy is the belief that its more efficient and fairer to give individuals the power to choose where and how they want their money spent. This is a rationale based on an understanding of the individual as an atomised, rational decision maker. It is a rationale that is deeply flawed.

What actually happens is that power is transferred not from the government to the individual, but to big business. Because we are encouraged to regard ourselves as consumers, to spend our money in line with the marketing and advertising that most appeals to our sense of need, money (and power) flows to big business. The more profit a business makes the more it can invest in shaping our needs and wants, and the more it controls our desires the more profit it makes. This consumerism, the dominant social attitude, has been described as buying what we don’t need, with money we haven’t got, to impress people we don’t know. And to make matters worse, and assuming that the business is UK based, because there is low taxation, little money flows back to government. In a nutshell – the rich get richer and the poor become trapped with little access to publicly funded services.

From the Tory perspective low taxes are associated with a small state and is contrasted to the large state of socialism and left-wing bureaucracy. From this angle power is firmly with ‘the state’ and the individual is seen as powerless. This is a persistent image which, whilst largely false, the Labour Party has not done enough to challenge. I say largely false because historically there has been an element of truth to it. Either way Labour always seems to be on the back foot with this accusation and unable to offer an alternative scenario. This simply allows the image of the atomised consumer to dominate our thinking. An alternative scenario, however, does exist – and its one that is much closer to the reality of our lived experience.

This alternative also focusses on the individual, but not the atomised, competitive individual of the consumer ideology. Instead it views the individual citizen as both social and cooperative. It views individual citizens as highly interactive within their community and highly interdependent upon their fellow citizens. It is that aspect of our communities we saw when the Covid pandemic first struck and whenever there is a disaster or social emergency. It is an understanding of the social individual that whilst based in actuality is suffocated by that of the individual as consumer. Which is a real shame, because if we could only allow this understanding of the social individual to flourish we could make a true transfer of power, one that would allow us to be free from both faceless bureaucrats and big business.

How? Well first of all we need to start encouraging greater direct citizen participation in decision making and government. I truly believe that if ordinary citizens had the opportunity to come together to discuss important issues and make decisions that directly affect their communities their degree of engagement would grow rapidly. One way forward would be to start experimenting with the idea of citizens assemblies. This would need to be accompanied by the devolution of power to the lowest possible level of government. Yes, central government may need to retain power over certain aspects of our lives (much as even those of a Tory small state would) but a great deal could be devolved down to regions, counties, towns and cities, and even to local communities.

So how would this affect taxes?. Even though, ideally, local government would be responsible for it’s own local tax collection (under the control of local citizens) central government would still need to both ensure sufficient tax was collected to maintain national level services and infrastructure and that those large corporations that had not been replaced by local cooperatives paid their full contribution. Whilst the overall tax burden would not go down (it can’t if we want to maintain a functioning NHS for example), and in all likelihood would need to be raised, because its distribution would be much more in the direct control of service users it would be viewed as a positive, not a negative.

Brexit was ‘sold’ to many people in this country with the phrase “taking back control”. People, the citizens of this country, quite naturally want some sense of being in control of their lives and somehow were led to believe that shrugging off the perceived bureaucracy of the EU would allow this . Instead, power is increasingly being passed to big business and the rich. People have no more control now than they had when we were a member of the EU. But this could change if we started to trust citizens to make more decisions themselves. Not decisions about which fashion brands to buy but decisions about local planning issues and how local schools are funded, decisions about the funding of local buses, decisions about the supply of local food and energy. If we could start to nurture this direct involvement I believe people would start to realise, to directly feel, their interdependency on their fellow citizens, and would begin to realise that they really could genuinely take back control.