Issue 114: 2017 07 20: The Price Of Politics (John Watson)

20 July 2017

The Price Of Politics

What do we get?

By John Watson

What are our politicians for?  We, the British public, pay the salaries of 650 MPs at £74,000 a throw, and that is before expenses, the salaries of assistants, accommodation and all the rest of it is taken into account.  In the case of ministers, the bill is even higher, and although £149,440 may sound cheap for a Prime Minister, there are lots of other ministerial and shadow ministerial salaries which fall on the taxpayer, not to mention attendance allowances for the House of Lords.  Then there is local government too, authorities up and down the country who clad their tower blocks in the wrong materials.  Not to mention Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish assemblies, all keen to show how cleverly they wield the devolved powers.  Welshmen insisting on other people’s children learning Welsh.  Scots worrying more about devolution than the standard of their schools.  No doubt the Northern Irish do something fairly foolish as well, although for the life of me I cannot quite remember what it is.

What a playground for the second rate this is (and that reminds me that I’ve left out the MEPs), but we still haven’t come to the end of it.  For every politician there are civil servants to match, ferreting away at the nuts and bolts of government.  God knows how much the whole thing costs.   It must be billions and billions and billions.

And what exactly do we get?  A certain amount of entertainment as we watch a real-life version of “game of thrones” unroll on our screens?  Is May fatally damaged?  Does Johnson have claws under that shaggy exterior?  Will Corbyn’s romance with the young and cool lead inevitably to Blair-like delusions?  These are the questions which the nation discusses over its breakfast table as though they were the important issues of the day.  But they are not.  They are merely part of the political process.  The real question is what that process delivers in terms of living standards; how it meets aspirations; whether policies are well and efficiently executed; whether the practical issues which confront the citizen are being intelligently addressed.  As dissatisfaction with government seems to be particularly strong among the young, let’s look at one or two of the problems affecting them, as examples.  First the shortage of housing.

On the wall above my desk there hangs a cartoon by E H Sheppard which shows a builder looking at a hod on which are placed 750,000 homes.  The caption is “The houses that Jack ought to build”.  The cartoon appeared in the magazine Punch in January 1946 and in those days the concern was not how to house young people but how to house returning servicemen.  Still, the question was not as different as all that from today’s.

The Government is to spend £3.7 billion on 140,000 new homes by 20/21.  That is all very well, but at a time when government expenditure is constrained by austerity, it can only be part of the answer.  The other part must be to look at the way houses are provided, to enable them to be erected more cheaply and quickly.  One way of keeping costs down would be to increase pre-fabrication.  They did that in the 40s with some success and indeed nowadays prefabrication is an important feature of the market in New Zealand where houses are often bought in kit form by a purchaser who buys the site quite separately.  In fact so separate are the houses and sites that you will see lorries carrying wooden buildings which are being moved from one place to another.

What works in New Zealand will not necessarily work here.  The climate in Britain is generally a bit colder and the wooden constructions suitable for the southern hemisphere may not be substantial enough to face the English winter.  Nonetheless it is not obvious why designers could not get round this and provide top quality and well insulated buildings.  Indeed there is an excellent precedent in commercial property.  One of the features which distinguished the development of Canary Wharf was the speed at which buildings were erected.  Much of that was achieved by increasing the amount of work which was carried out off-site.  Why can’t something similar be done in the residential sector so that the speed at which homes are made available is not be held up by capacity in the construction industry?  Then it would just be a question of how quickly sites could be made available to receive the buildings, something which could surely be tackled through the use of compulsory purchase powers.  Come on, British designers.  Forget your garden bridges and produce some innovative ideas for prefabs!  That is what we actually need and surely we are entitled to look to our politicians to encourage it to happen.

Then taking things from the other end, there is the question of over-housing.  Estate agents will tell you that the number of sales is low at the top end of the market and that that is partly because the high levels of stamp duty land tax now payable prevent people from downsizing.  In a sensible market people would move to smaller houses as they grew older, leaving those with most accommodation available to young families.  Now, with each move costing them tax at a rate of up to 12% (on the margin over £1.25 million), they do not wish to downsize more than once.  How much more sensible financially to install a chairlift and leave a few rooms unoccupied.  A tax which freezes the housing market is not a good tax.  Clearly it needs to be looked at again.

Solving the housing crisis, however, is not enough to allow young people to meet their aspirations.  There is the whole question of university debt and a vicious circle which goes like this.  To get access to many top jobs you need to have a degree.  To get a degree you need to take on financially crippling amounts of debt.  Unless you are very well paid indeed the debt prevents you building the life you aspire too.

Back in the 1970s neither limb of this conundrum was in place.  In those days it was far more usual for people to go into business or into the professions without a degree at all.  A degree was one route – and a free one.  A longer course of practical training was another.  Now the degree costs money and the alternative route is all but gone.  It would be rare indeed to find someone at the top of the professional tree without a degree, whatever the quality of that degree might be.  The degree has become a badge needed for success which means that universities have a captive clientele.  That is why almost all of them have been able to charge £9000 a year, an infusion of funds which has fed many an academic gravy train.  There are two steps towards unwinding this.  The first is to back away from the idea that everybody needs a degree.  More on-the-job training needs to be provided and it needs to become again a recognised route into the professions and large companies.  Second, it needs to become cheaper to obtain a degree.  The level of fees needs to be frozen at the present level and the interest rate should be reduced to the cost of government funding.

No doubt there is plenty wrong with the solutions suggested above and many readers will be able to think of better alternatives.  Nonetheless, they illustrate the type of practical problems with which the body politic should be wrestling constructively and cooperatively.  Does our party system encourage it to do so?  If not there is something wrong with it.  A political system which does not try to meet the aspirations of the people (and it isn’t just the young: try infrastructure, health and care – all worries for everyone) is not giving value, particularly galling if it appears that the reasons why it fails to do so is bickering among those involved.

As the current political mess continues to unfold, the protagonists would do well to reflect on this.  It may be very entertaining for us to watch them all leaping through rings like performing seals to secure political advantage but it is not what we pay them for.  It is their job to ensure that the country is sensibly administered and if that means working together then that is what they must do.  The public will be entitled to take a harsh view of those who put political manoeuvring before the national interest.


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