Opinion: Government for the Long Term
Updated: Apr 29, 2020
Government for the Long Term
The Covid-19 pandemic has raised a lot of questions such as why didn’t the UK Government react quickly enough and why didn’t they see this coming. The truth has now been revealed in a leaked confidential Cabinet Office briefing that in fact they did see it coming as they were warned for years that they needed to prepare for a pandemic virus and have a robust plan to deal with the social and economic consequences. Stockpiling PPE among other measures were recommended to Ministers and then swiftly ignored.
In University of Buckingham’s Vice-Chancellor Anthony Seldon’s opinion piece ‘The British sta
te has long been unfit for purpose. Now everyone can see that’ published in The Guardian on 15th April 2020 he argued that “A Department for the Future is long overdue” and “long term thinking needs to be at the heart of government, which has been chronically unable to think beyond the next general election”.
While I have said for some years now that long term planning for the welfare and wellbeing of its citizens it the whole point of a government, it goes far beyond just decentralising power back from Downing Street to Whitehall departments or setting up a new department for the future as the article suggests.
The rot really set in when Thatcher came to office in 1979, completely obliterating the post-war consensus and taking any notion of a caring or compassionate society with it. In the 41 years since we have been fed a strict neo-liberal diet of private sector good, public sector bad. Nearly all of the gains of the welfare state, nationalisation of key industries and Keynesian economics are all but gone without so much as a second glance back by successive Tory and New Labour administrations.
A defining policy of Thatcherism was the Housing Act 1980 that gave local authority tenants the right to buy their house. It’s not difficult to understand why the policy was popular at the time. For many it was an affordable way onto the housing ladder with the generous discounts, up to 60% of market value offered to long term tenants. Security of accommodation, being able to remain there in retirement, something to leave the kids etc. However, its long-term effects have been catastrophic for housing, not to mention its effect on workers lack of willingness to take collective action to better their terms and conditions as they now have mortgages to pay and could face eviction.
Approximately 4.5 million homes have been sold off since 1980, bringing public housing stock down from 6.5 to less than 2 million. More than half of which are now being rented out by private landlords, 71% in Milton Keynes. This is based on the number of landlords registered so the true number could be much more. In addition, 36% of right to buy houses sold are now rented back to local councils by private landlords at twice the cost of social rents. This has been extremely bad value for both the taxpayer and tenants as not only were we hit with state assets being sold off on the cheap but we are now paying double the cost of rents in housing benefit payments.
Tenants that cover the full rental cost themselves are paying much higher rents in the private rental sector, further reducing their ability to gather a deposit to buy their own home in what can be described as an inflated house price bubble. With only 1 in 5 homes sold off having been replaced the supply of public housing has been severely restricted resulting in council waiting lists going through the roof with each areas list in excess of 10,000 plus.
The real beneficiaries of the Right-to-Buy policy was not tenant come home owners or Thatcher’s stated vision of creating a property-owning middle class but private speculators. Even ordinary working-class people were getting in on the action where not only were they buying their own homes but that of their parents as well. In the age were divorce was now socially acceptable an enterprising individual could scoop up their Ma’s, Da’s and elderly relatives’ homes and make a tidy sum. The purpose of housing was no longer to create homes for people and their families but it was a commodity to be bought and sold for profit.
This is just one example of where bad public policy resulting from short term neo-liberal thinking in government has left a damaging lasting legacy for us all. There are numerous more such as Private Finance Initiative schemes in schools and hospitals, Public Private Partnerships in utilities and infrastructure, the list goes on and on.
Not only should long term planning not be contained to just within one new department but it should be central to every last branch of government from cabinet to council and the civil service to arm’s length bodies. This raises the question of the parliamentary democracy and economic system itself being fit for purpose.
Can government really make decisions for the long term when they are restricted to four of five-year terms, forcing them to come up with eye-catching election gimmicks for their manifestos? Is it not better to have a participative democracy where voters are actually engaged in the issues, know their representatives personally and have a stake in the outcome?
Under a Socialist economic system, as everything is collectively owned for the benefit of all, it eliminates the capitalist hoarders of our homes, schools and hospital buildings. Puts people back in charge of new road projects and housing programmes. Treating public assets as assets for the common good rather than a commodity that can be bought and sold making wealthy people even richer than they were already. Only this direction of travel will secure the future proofing that should have always been inbuilt into the state already.