A brief summary of six policy areas

I recently found this website, which has profiles for candidates standing in the 2015 general election. For party candidates, it gives a brief outline of their policies in six areas: The NHS, Economy and Taxes, Immigration, Benefits and Pensions, Rights and Crime, and Environment. Under my profile, it had nothing listed for these. I contacted the website and offered to provide the information, and they said that if I published my policies, then they could publish them on their site, but they would each have to be less than 400 characters. So, here they are:

The NHS

Renationalise all parts of the NHS that have been privatised, and commit to keeping the NHS fully nationalised thereafter. Spend more on mental health to reduce longer-term economic and societal costs. Provide more public information to enable and encourage people to better look after their own health.

Economy and Taxes

End austerity measures by raising taxes for those who can afford it and clamping down on tax avoidance. Measure economic success in terms of wealth of individuals, particularly the poorest in society, rather than economic growth for its own sake. Reward companies for minimising the wage ratio between the highest and lowest paid employees.

Immigration

Invest more in housing and infrastructure to cope with a growing population. Cooperate internationally to reduce global inequality so that we can create more reciprocal freedom-of-movement agreements with other countries without negative effects for any of the countries involved.

Benefits and Pensions

Introduce a Citizen’s Income – a guaranteed regular payment to all citizens regardless of circumstances. This would replace jobseekers’ allowance and would be paid for by changes to income tax brackets.

Scrap contributions-based state pensions, so that those who were unable to contribute as much in their working life do not have to suffer the consequences of this in their old age.

Rights and Crime

Have a full review of laws brought in under the umbrella of anti-terrorism legislation that may infringe on our civil liberties.

Reserve prison for criminals who pose a physical risk to society, and concentrate more on prevention and rehabilitation rather than punishment for its own sake. Remove the ban on prisoners voting.

Environment

Renationalise energy so that we can commit to spending more on renewable energy and reducing fossil fuel use without worrying about profit. Renationalise public transport and commit to providing a better service to reduce congestion on the roads, carbon emissions and pollution in general.

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Against TTIP – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, commonly known as TTIP, is a potential agreement to enable freer trade between the EU and the US. But it has a lot of people worried for a lot of reasons.

The agreement is supposed to make it easier for corporations to do business. But one of the concerns resulting from this is that public services, including the NHS, would become open to US companies under the deal, and that the existing privatisation of services such as rail and energy would become irreversible. Whether we renationalise these services should be up to our country’s democratic process, not up to the details of an EU/US deal.

There are also worries that corporations’ rights under the deal would trump those of national democracies, and that companies would be able to sue governments if they brought in any legislation detrimental to them. For example, Swedish energy company Vattenfall sued the German government over its decision to decommission nuclear power plants, and American tobacco company Philip Morris sued the Australian government over the introduction of plain cigarette packaging. This sort of thing could become more and more common under TTIP, or simply result in governments not bringing in legislation that would be in the interests of their citizens for fear of being sued.

Another concern is that our food standards would have to be brought in line with America’s, which in some cases would result in a lowering of standards. There are indeed many concerns. But are these genuine fears or are they just scaremongering? The European Commission website has a question and answer section on the TTIP deal, and it addresses most of the main concerns. If you take the answers to all the questions at face value, then it would seem that we have nothing to worry about. But should we take them at face value? In short, no. The problem is that negotiations are being held in secret, and we would simply have to take it on trust. But this is not close to acceptable in what is supposed to be an open and transparent democracy. One of the least convincing answers on the European Commission’s website relates to the question of secrecy itself:

“Are the negotiations being held in secret?

“For trade negotiations to work and succeed, you need a certain degree of confidentiality, otherwise it would be like showing the other player one’s cards in a card game.”

What? In this analogy, who are the players in the card game? The EU and the US? But the secret negotiations are between the EU and the US! There are no other “players” to keep the “cards” from. In any case, the analogy is not satisfactorily explained, and the question is not adequately answered, if you consider it answered at all.

This is not supposed to be a negotiation about a specific trade between two private companies (who might reasonably want to keep certain details secret), but a negotiation about how trade in principle should take place. And this should be fully open to democratic and public debate. The answer they have given is in no way satisfactory. The fact that I have read it and am none the wiser as to why negotiations should be secret demonstrates that it is not a satisfactory answer. It is a glib and dismissive answer from the official European Commission website and it gives me no confidence in the process whatsoever.

In conclusion, regardless of what good and bad may come from TTIP, every aspect of it should be open to proper public and democratic debate and not be forced through in secret. There are genuine concerns about the irreversibility of privatisation, including of the NHS, and about companies’ ability to sue governments for bringing in legislation that is detrimental to them. TTIP seems to be in the interests of big businesses rather than in the interest of countries or of individual citizens. Of course, if we were to take these complaints to the European Commission, we’d probably be told that we’d misunderstood how TTIP is going to work. But how can we understand it when the details are secret?

For these reasons, I am against TTIP.

Spending more on international aid

Politicians recently voted in favour of a commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on international aid, despite opposition from some MPs. I would argue that when it comes to giving aid to those who are worse off than us, national borders are arbitrary, and we should be just as concerned with global poverty as with poverty within our own country. Looking at it that way, 0.7% actually seems a very small amount.

The UK, by several measures, has the sixth biggest economy in the world. Even if we look at GDP per person, the UK is generally ranked from 24th to 28th, which is still well above average. It is worth explicitly stating that for those of us who are born in a rich country such as the UK, it has not been through merit. Much is made of inequality in the UK and how it’s not right that those born in poorer families have far fewer opportunities in life than those born in rich families. But the same logic applies for those born in poorer countries. And this is why we should not begrudge money sent to other countries in the same way that we should not begrudge the welfare state within our own country.

International aid is not simply about sending money abroad. Many of those who leave poorer countries are the better qualified people, such as doctors, and this can lead to a “brain drain” leaving these countries in a worse state than before. Richer countries are often keen to take the “brightest and best” from poorer countries, without considering the effects on the countries that are being left behind. This is not to say that people should be prevented from leaving their home countries for a better life elsewhere, but the richer countries should not be actively trying to poach these people, and we can counteract this in any case by sending people qualified in the relevant areas (with the necessary financial incentives) to help provide the essential services and build up the infrastructure of poorer countries.

By helping other countries approach the level of wealth that this country enjoys, we would also be helping ourselves. Where there isn’t a wealth disparity, the freedom to travel from one country to another is seen as an equal and mutually beneficial arrangement between the countries involved. So the more we help the poorer countries to become richer and reach our own standard, the less resentment and fear (whether warranted or not) there would be about immigration. It is bound to be a slow process for many countries, but the sooner we start and the more effort we make, the better for everyone.

Sending aid at the right time to countries that need it can also save us money. When there are natural disasters such as the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, or Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, a lot of money is sent to the affected countries in aid. But if these countries had previously been helped to build more secure infrastructures to protect against such devastation in the first place, it would have saved a lot more in the long run, in both human and economic terms.

As a comparison, the UK spends about 2.3% of GDP on its military, which puts the 0.7% spent on international aid into context. For developed countries to spend 0.7% of GDP on international aid was a target of the UN Millennium Project. But this is supposed to be a minimum, and while the recent vote in the Commons was a step in the right direction, I would push for more. Given the levels of military spending and the levels of global poverty, I don’t think spending 2% of GDP on international aid would be excessive.

Animal exploitation and suffering

It is often said that we’re a nation of animal lovers. But I think it’s safe to say that as a nation we hold rather contradictory views to towards animals.

For example, many people have a pet dog or cat that they treat as one of the family. We often hear about their personality and their distinctive quirks. The idea of killing dogs or cats seems morally abhorrent to many people. But on the other hand many of these very same people will happily have other animals killed so that they can eat them. Pigs are very intelligent animals, and there seems to be no moral argument for eating pigs but not dogs or cats.

As another example, a lot of people protested about the live animal exports from Brightlingsea in Essex back in 1995. I found this surprising because animals are kept in poor conditions as a matter of course without such protests. It just seemed to capture the public’s imagination, as did fox hunting, which was subsequently banned. Fox hunting, however, has unfortunately reared its ugly head again.

I am a vegetarian myself, although not yet a vegan. But I am attempting to move in that direction given what happens with dairy cows and calves as well as the hens and chicks involved in egg production. In short, males calves and chicks are of no use to the dairy and egg industries respectively, so they are killed off.

It would be unrealistic to expect everyone in the country to turn vegetarian or vegan overnight, but I certainly think that it should be made easier for people, and there should be new legislation guaranteeing higher standards for the conditions that animals are kept in, with regular inspections.

To make it easier, all food sold should be labelled as vegetarian, vegan or neither. We would therefore need proper legal definitions of vegetarian and vegan, and there should never be any ambiguity when buying any food product.

In addition to this, I think it’s quite reasonable for all foods that aren’t primarily meat products to be required to use only vegetarian (and where possible vegan) ingredients. For example, sweets are often made using gelatine, which comes from the bones and connectives tissues of pigs or cows. But this is unnecessary; they can easily be made without this ingredient, and frequently are. Cheese is often made using animal rennet, which comes from calves’ stomachs. But this is also unnecessary. Indeed, most supermarket cheese is now made without animal rennet. But some traditional cheeses still use animal rennet, including some whose methods of production are protected by EU legislation making them compulsorily non-vegetarian. This includes Parmesan and Gorgonzola. However, we should not let tradition get in the way of progress – after all fox hunting was banned. There are still Parmesan- and Gorgonzola-style vegetarian cheeses available, so banning animal rennet would cause no great dietary hardship. Of course, these cheeses are still not vegan, but being vegetarian is still preferable to the alternative, especially if the laws on the conditions animals are kept in are updated.

There should also be no more subsidies for animal farming. Meat is more expensive to produce than food from plants, and uses more resources, making any reduction in meat production good for the environment. We also do not need to eat meat, nutritionally speaking. There is certainly no need for it to be actively encouraged and subsidised by the state.

Finally, all of this does not just apply to food. Not wanting to exploit animals or cause them to suffer does not begin and end with what you put in your mouth. Indeed, toiletries and footwear are often labelled as vegan, and I think that this extension is logical and should be taken further. As with food, other products should be required to explicitly state if they use any animal ingredients. And as with food, any animal ingredients that have a reasonable non-animal substitute should not be permitted.

It will take work to get the legislation exactly right, but I think that now is the time to make a start.

Nationalising housing rental

I argued in my last post that we should have a Citizen’s Income to guarantee a minimum amount for everyone in the drive to eliminate poverty. On top of that, the essentials for living need to be affordable. For example, I have previously argued that we should nationalise energy. Essential utilities should be publicly owned and provided by the state to ensure that they will always be affordable and profits won’t be siphoned off by for-profit companies.

Another basic requirement for living that needs to be reasonably priced to help rid ourselves of the poverty scandal is housing. Everyone needs somewhere affordable to live, but those who rent often do so at the whims of private landlords, who can charge what they like, and evict people for spurious reasons. For example, landlords can legally discriminate against those on benefits even if there have been no problems with their payments.

I also said in my last post that most people do not work in jobs that are directly related to making produce that is essential for our survival; we are a country that can easily produce above and beyond the survival essentials, and yet we still lack in these areas. More houses need to be built, and the government needs to commit money to spend on it. We need to concentrate on essentials before luxuries.

In some ways, the case for nationalising housing rental is stronger than the case for nationalising utilities such as gas, electricity and water. Making money simply by owning property is a perfect example of what is wrong in our society. Landlords make more wealth for themselves simply by passively having wealth in the first place. This creates a bigger gap between the wealthy and everyone else, fuelling inequality and poverty. We need to break this vicious circle. Not only that but they are subsidised by the state! They are also the biggest beneficiaries of housing benefit, so it is the public’s money – our money – being used to create a bigger gap between rich and poor.

Setting strict limits on what rent can be charged, as happens in some countries such as Germany and Canada, would be a good start, but nationalisation of housing rental should be the ultimate goal. Housing is a basic essential that should be provided by the state.

Of course, an outright ban on private tenancy might seem an extreme move. If someone has a spare room in their own house, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for them to have a paying lodger. And I wouldn’t be looking to stop this. It is houses that are purely owned for renting that I am concerned with. To start, the government needs to start building more houses and set its own rate for renting. This way, rent limit or not, landlords who charge high prices would simply be priced out of the market. But in the long term, houses that are owned purely for renting purposes could be compulsorily purchased by the government, and then let out by the government. Compulsory purchase orders are nothing new. They are often used to evict people from their own homes that they actually live in, for roads or other developments. Compulsory purchase of landlord’s rental houses is very minor in comparison as it would not force anyone out of their own home.

Is this illiberal? I would argue not. Land ownership more than any other sort of property ownership intrudes on the freedom of others. If I own some item, say a bike, then yes, it uses some the Earth’s natural resources (the material it is made of), but in the general scheme of things this is negligible, and it does not really mean that there is less stuff for other people. But land ownership is different. Land is limited in a much more obvious way, and I also think that there is on an intuitive level less of a right to claim ownership of it – to privately own part of the country. Often it has just been passed down through the generations, having initially been acquired through arguably dubious means. And the land ownership inequality we have in this country is enormous. According this article, 69% of the land in Britain is owned by 0.6% of the population. According to this article, 432 people own half the private rural land in Scotland. And according to this article, a third of the country still belongs to the aristocracy.

In any case, I’m not suggesting an outright ban on private land ownership. People who own houses that they live in would have nothing to worry about under my proposals. But people who own part of our country for no other reason than to passively make money from it should not be allowed to do so.

Introducing a Citizen’s Income

It is the Green Party’s policy to have a Citizen’s Income – an unconditional set allowance for all citizens. This is a policy that I agree with, and while I am standing against Paul Jeater from the Green Party in the General Election in May of this year, I think it is right for rival politicians to work together when they have similar views and not simply disagree for the sake of it. To quote from the Green Party’s website:

“Citizens’ Income

EC730 A Citizen’s Income sufficient to cover an individual’s basic needs will be introduced, which will replace tax-free allowances and most social security benefits (see EC711). A Citizen’s Income is an unconditional, non-withdrawable income payable to each individual as a right of citizenship. It will not be subject to means testing and there will be no requirement to be either working or actively seeking work.

EC731 The Citizens’ Income will eliminate the unemployment and poverty traps, as well as acting as a safety net to enable people to choose their own types and patterns of work (See EC400). The Citizens’ Income scheme will thus enable the welfare state to develop towards a welfare community, engaging people in personally satisfying and socially useful work.

EC732 When the Citizens’ Income is introduced it is intended that nobody will be in a position that they will receive less through the scheme than they were entitled to under the previous benefits system. Children will be entitled to a reduced amount which will be payable to a parent or legal guardian. People with disabilities or special needs, and single parents will receive a supplement.

EC733 Initially, the housing benefit system will remain in place alongside the Citizens’ Income and will be extended to cover contributions towards mortgage repayments (see HO602). This will subsequently be reviewed to establish how housing benefit could be incorporated into the Citizen’s Income, taking into account the differences in housing costs between different parts of the country and different types of housing.”

This Citizen’s Income would obviously go to the very rich as well as those who really need it, but readjusting the income tax brackets accordingly would effectively cancel this out. This would be simpler than means testing, and because everyone would receive it regardless of their personal circumstances, there would not be any stigma attached to receiving it.

But wouldn’t this encourage people not to work? I don’t think it would. People out of work do in most cases receive money from the state anyway, and the Citizen’s Income simply guarantees this and removes any uncertainty. More importantly, most people out of work do want a job, and not just because it means they wouldn’t have to make regular trips to the job centre. The lecturer in this video discusses and rebuts the potential problems such as the possibility that people might decide not to work. In summary, he says that most people are worried that other people would give up work, but that this worry is misplaced because very few would want to give up work themselves.

Since humans took up agriculture thousands of years ago and settled in permanent locations, we have been able to produce goods more effectively and haven’t all had to spend our lives simply hunting or foraging for food and making sure we have some sort of shelter for the night. This is why nowadays most people have jobs that seem to have no connection to making things that are essential to our survival. Given this excess, we should all be able to live with a certain amount of comfort and without every person having to be in work at any given time. And yet, many people still live in poverty.

On top of this, we’re told that people have been getting exponentially wealthier, so why is it then that people still have to work the same number of hours just to have enough to get by? Well, even if the average wealth per person has gone up, inequality has been increasing, so this means that many people haven’t seen any increase in their own personal wealth, while those at the top have taken more than their fair share.

The Citizen’s Income should go some way to addressing this by providing everyone with this basic minimum allowance. By having a Citizen’s Income, people would be able to pick where to work without being forced into undesirable and exploitative jobs through necessity, and they would be freer to choose their own paths in life. There is enough wealth in the country to allow for this, but it is currently very poorly distributed. It is time for this to change.

The voting system that I am advocating for parliamentary elections

I previously discussed a few possible ways of how you could have a fair proportional national election, and in my last post I promised to commit to a single system to advocate. I had five criteria for such a system:

1. Voters should be able to vote for any candidate from anywhere in the country. It would be a national election.
2. The system should be proportional at a national level.
3. There should be no systematic bias against independent candidates.
4. The ballot paper and voting system should be relatively simple for the electorate, so people can still just turn up on the day and vote as they do now.
5. The system should, as much as possible, favour a reasonable geographical spread of MPs.

For it to be possible to vote for any candidate standing in the country – of which there would be thousands – there would have to be some increase in complexity. We just have to make sure that it’s not too great an increase, and that any increase in complexity is offset by an even greater improvement to our democracy.

The system I am advocating is essentially a simplified version of Jameson Quinn’s PAL system, which you can find described here and here. I will describe my simplified version in this post.

The ballot paper would be largely as it is now. All candidates would have a nominated constituency and their name would be printed on the ballot papers for that constituency (with their party name if applicable). People would be able to vote for one of these candidates exactly as they do now, and the process would be just as simple for them. Alternatively they could write in underneath the name of any other candidate standing nationally to cast a vote for them. Each candidate could also have their own code to distinguish between those with the same or similar names. The other option open to voters would be to rank the local candidates listed on the ballot paper.

Writing in candidates’ names on the ballot is not a new phenomenon, and it has been done frequently in American elections. For example, in 1928, Herbert Hoover won the Republican Massachusetts presidential primary election as a write-in candidate on his way to becoming president of America. Similarly in 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt won the Democratic New Jersey presidential primary election as a write-in candidate on his own way to retaining the presidency.

The election would work as a Single Transferable Vote (STV) proportional election. In STV, voters would normally rank the candidates, and their vote can be transferred from their top preference to their lower preferences if their top preference is eliminated or elected with more votes than needed. But in this system, it would be unrealistic for someone to rank a large number of candidates whose names are not even printed on the ballot paper.

Instead, candidates would all have their own pre-declared public ranking of the other candidates. Then, instead of your vote being transferred to your own second or third choice and so on, your vote would be transferred according to your favourite candidate’s ranking. Voters would have the option of ticking a box to say that they do not want their vote transferred in this way. These voters can still take part in the ranking process, but they would be limited to ranking the local candidates printed on the ballot paper, by writing the rank number next to each name. The entire country would be treated as one super-constituency, and the 650 seats would be allocated according to the STV method.

Instead of candidates individually ranking all other candidates, candidates from the same party would be ranked equally in a given candidate’s list. However, independent candidates can still be ranked anywhere. This simplifies the process somewhat. This also stops parties from effectively having a priority list that all members of the party would be expected to use, with the party leader top and so on. A party candidate’s ranking would always have the other candidates from their own party ranked immediately behind themselves. For example, a party candidate’s ranking might look like this:

1. The ranking candidate (every candidate is automatically top of their own list)
2. The rest of the candidates from the ranking candidate’s party
3. An independent candidate
4. All the candidates from party A
5. All the candidates from party B
6. Another independent candidate

And so on. Candidates would not be expected to rank every other candidate standing nationally. They can stop at any point, and any ranking below an entire party of candidates would be largely irrelevant after the vote is diluted into an entire party. The above list would effectively be:

1. The ranking candidate
2. The rest of the candidates from the ranking candidate’s party

An independent candidate’s ranking could look slightly different as they might rank several independent candidates before the candidates for a particular party. For example:

1. The ranking candidate
2. An independent candidate
3. Another independent candidate
4. Yet another independent candidate
5. All the candidates from party A

And as before, any ranking below the candidates of an entire party would be unlikely to affect the result.

Is it reasonable to allow candidates to rank the other candidates on your behalf? I think it is. If you vote for a candidate, then it would generally be because you like their policies and would trust them to vote for what you would agree with in Parliament. Allowing your vote to be transferred according to their ranking list is simply the first act of representation that you are conferring onto them. If you agree with a candidate’s policies, it is likely that you’ll also agree with the policies of candidates that they also agree with and that they therefore also rank highly. Also, because candidates’ rankings would be published in advance of the election, voters can use this information as part of their decision process in determining who to vote for. And as said, voters can also choose not to allow their vote to be transferred, and rank just the local candidates themselves, or simply vote for one of them.

Who would be my MP? People wouldn’t have one official MP; they would be able to contact any one of them. Supporters of a party may want to write to the geographically closest MP to them from that party, and parties might have their own boundaries defining which of their MPs covers which area. But there would be nothing official within this system that determines who your MP is. This gives people the freedom to write to the MP that they think is best suited to their particular concern. Currently, there is a high chance that your MP is someone that you didn’t vote for and don’t think represents you very well. This is a big downside to having one local MP who officially represents you. The system I am advocating is much more flexible.

If this system is implemented, then in the future, further features could be added. Ideally it would be possible for voters to rank any of the candidates standing nationally, and how to implement this simply could be discussed once the main system is in operation. Perhaps this would be possible if computer voting ever came in. Another alternative would be to give candidates scores rather than ranks. But that is for another day. To summarise the system:

The ballot paper for a constituency lists all candidates who have nominated that constituency. Voters have the following three options:

1. Cast a vote for one of the listed candidates
2. Cast a vote for any other candidate in the country by writing their name at the bottom
3. Rank the listed candidates

Before the election, every candidate will make a publicly available ranking list of the other candidates. Candidates from a particular party would always be ranked equally in a given candidate’s list. Candidates from the ranking candidate’s own party would always be top of the candidate’s ranking.

If a voter chooses option 1 or 2, then they also have the option of ticking a box to say that they do not want to use their preferred candidate’s ranking list. In such cases, their vote will not be transferred if their preferred candidate is eliminated or elected with a surplus of votes. If they do not tick this box, then their preferred candidate’s ranking is used as the voter’s own ranking list. The country is treated as one super-constituency with 650 seats, and the election proceeds as an STV election.

Let’s have a look again at the five criteria that I wanted an electoral system to fit.

1. Voters should be able to vote for any candidate from anywhere in the country. It would be a national election.

Allowing voters to vote for candidates by writing their names on the ballot paper, as I am advocating, is the simplest way to obtain a single national election where every voter is free to vote for whichever candidate they like.

2. The system should be proportional at a national level.

Having the whole country as one super-constituency and using STV with votes transferred according to candidates’ ranking lists or voters’ rankings of the local candidates would allow this to happen.

3. There should be no systematic bias against independent candidates.

Unlike party-list proportional elections, this system allows independent candidates to stand equally alongside party candidates. Because votes can be transferred, your vote is not wasted by voting for someone who is unlikely to be elected. This means that unlike First Past the Post, voters are not forced into voting for one of the main parties if they want their vote to count.

4. The ballot paper and voting system should be relatively simple for the electorate, so people can still just turn up on the day and vote as they do now.

The system would still be very simple for voters. They can vote exactly as they do now. They would also have the added option of writing in any candidate standing nationally, or ranking the local candidates, as they would have done had Alternative Vote been adopted.

5. The system should, as much as possible, favour a reasonable geographical spread of MPs.

Local candidates would still appear on the ballot paper for each constituency, and voters would be able to rank these candidates, meaning that it would still be very easy to vote purely for local candidates if people wanted to vote on local issues.

This system retains enough simplicity and dramatically enhances democratic power, and that is why I am advocating it for use in our Parliamentary elections.

With a view to standing in the 2015 UK General Election, I will be posting about relevant topics on here.