The Brexit referendum has poleaxed our national politics and caused millions of us to think deeply and emotionally about our divided society. My wife and I have been reflecting on what’s happened to the nation in our own lifetimes. When we were little, between us, we had two grandfathers working on the Liverpool docks and two in Sunderland, one at the shipyard and one at the pit. Their jobs disappeared in the 1970s and they were forced into early retirement. None of them were romantic or nostalgic about the tough lives they’d led. But when docks, shipyards or pits close, whole communities collapse. Many of those communities still look shattered 40 years later. Our fathers, like many other intelligent but poor boys, failed their 11-plus. Fortunately, both won a good apprenticeship, one an electrician, the other a gas engineer. Those skills gave them mobility. Unfortunately, my father’s took him to work in one of the many brand new factories in Skelmersdale New Town. In the early 1980s, in its very first decade, Skelmersdale totally collapsed. It still looks shattered 30 years later. When my wife and I met as Oxford students in the mid-1980s, it seemed the most natural thing join picket lines in the miners’ strike, standing up for threatened industrial communities. It didn’t work. By the early 1990s, we were living in the Nottinghamshire coalfield as the final pits were closed, devastating our local communities. Many of them too still look shattered 25 years later. Now we live in a, literally, completely different world, in the most prosperous part of the south of England. Not many people here know what life is like in those shattered communities of the North and Midlands. And vice versa. When we return to the North, many of our family and friends have little idea just how good life in the UK can be, for some.
I think we all need to urgently get comfortable talking about the rights of the White Working Class to have a better future. I make no apology for adding and stressing the word “White”. It hasn’t been racist to stand up for better opportunities for ethnic minorities. And it isn’t racist to stand-up for a big slice within the ethnic majority which finds itself an economic and social minority. If this group is not recognised for the problems it has, we can’t be surprised if some of its members assert themselves in unpleasant and racist terms. The political class has to name this race and class problem for what it is and deal with people on their own terms. It is not about white superiority. In many ways, the White Working Class is getting an inferior deal. Their wealth, health and opportunities are unacceptably poor. Social mobility isn’t working well for individuals. Nor are the attempts to ignite the dynamism of many shattered communities. Let’s take the example of poor white working class boys, who now achieve the worst exam results at schools. Much lower than, for example, poor Bangladeshi or African boys. The worst problem is for poor white boys in poor areas. Their results are 60% worse than for poor white boys living in better-off areas. This is indicative of the risk of concentration effects in a depressed community with low aspirations, tolerating poor public services and losing its best talent to more dynamic areas. Many shattered communities abandoned the Tories back in the early 1980s, leaving Labour to become a complacent monopoly, until the SNP, UKIP and (pre-Coalition) Liberal Democrats appealed to disappointed Labour voters. Now instead of the Blairite and pseudo-Blairite hunt for swing middle class voters, the moral imperative of our political times is to appeal to the the white working class vote with positive, liberal and Unionist policies which they can rightly believe will make their future better. That’s about inspiring aspiration, creating opportunity and fairly sharing the rewards. As a minimum, that must now include White Working Class rights to: world-class healthcare, home ownership, controlled immigration, great education, a better labour-market and a powerful political voice. Let’s take those in turn.
The NHS is the best peacetime expression of our national solidarity. Free healthcare for everybody whenever they need it, no questions asked. For 93% of us, we are genuinely all in it together. But for the less well-off, that solidarity matters even more. If the NHS isn’t good enough, they can’t opt for private medicine. In the Brexit debate about who we are in the world and how secure we feel, the NHS was a rallying point for those wanting to protect British institutions from external threats and those worrying that the future will be worse than the past. Many people were motivated by the Brexit hopes that £350m per week could be diverted to the NHS, that pressure on services would be relieved by reducing immigration and that we could have fewer foreign staff in the NHS.
People are right to worry about the future of the NHS, especially when the general public finances are still weak and now face fresh challenges. It will need a lot more money in the future. But even if we didn’t still have a large deficit, the public has shown little electoral appetite for higher taxes or increased public spending. So how can we help working class people feel more secure about, and more in control of, the future of the NHS? One answer would be to remove the NHS from general taxation. We could rename National Insurance “NHS Insurance” and hypothecate it to the NHS. It’s raises about enough to pay for the NHS. We could increase it to close the current gap, balanced by a cut in income and business taxes to neutralise the effect. NI, with its mix of employer and employee contributions, is a good basis for a health insurance system. It is a progressive tax and we could be make it more so in the future. NHS tax and spending decisions would be removed from the Treasury’s control of tax and public spending. Instead they would be decided on the basis of national need and the public’s willingness to fund healthcare through this dedicated tax. It would also mean that the public could choose a political party which was broadly committed to low taxes and low spending in other areas, without worrying about the consequences for the NHS.
People are also right to worry about the dependence of the NHS on overseas doctors and nurses. It is a visible that sign that the supply of medical staff in the UK is broken. We have the highest proportion of foreign-born doctors in Europe. 35% of our doctors are from overseas, versus 11% in Germany and 5% in Italy. 22% of our nurses are foreign-born, compared to 6% in France and Spain. But it’s a bigger problem than importing our staff. We just don’t have enough medical staff, whatever their nationality. In terms of doctors per head, we rank 24th out of 27 in Europe. Our totally inadequate services for people with mental health issues and chronic illnesses are held back by a shortage of staff with the right skills. On top of that we have persistent unfilled vacancies for medical staff. Not having enough staff and appearing to be scraping-by with foreign recruits are corroding public trust that national politicians are looking after “their” NHS. We need to do something dramatic. That could be, for example, a doubling of the numbers of doctors in training. Or a massive programme of training mature adults to be nurses and therapists, as an alternative to the university based systems which lock so many British adults out of the chance to get a great job. These investments could be funded through the NHS Insurance tax.
Leaving the EU will give fresh impetus to making sure that non-UK citizens pay, and are seen to pay, their fair share when they use healthcare services in the UK. The current systems for checking entitlement and charging for services are not robust enough. But it’s not just about cash. We need to recognise that the NHS is our agreed way to ration scarce medical resources. It is an act of social solidarity to trust the NHS to make the best use of its fixed resources. We accept the price we pay in waiting lists, queues, rushed services and eligibility limits. It’s not enough that a short-term migrant has paid a few months taxes or that a medical tourist has paid handsomely for an operation, if the effect is to consume fixed resources which are then unavailable to British people. That undermines the long-term social solidarity which binds us together in an NHS. The solution is to increase capacity (more doctors, more hospitals, etc) , transparently funded by the additional income we receive from shorter-term immigrants and visitors. This could allow us to grow our economy, by earning large overseas revenues from medical tourism and, with digital medicine, from overseas patients.
We also need to acknowledge that White Working Class people have worse health than other groups. People live shorter lives and those lives are more likely to be blighted by chronic illnesses, some of which have become synonymous with poverty. Solving this problem is partly about inspiring people to lead healthier lives and that will take time. Right now there is an urgency to transform the support available to people whose lives are already being limited by their chronic conditions. There are millions of working-age people who are not working because of their long-term illnesses and disabilities. Whether it reading the statistics or just taking a walk around the neighbourhoods, it is staggering how blighted by chronic illness and disability some White Working Class communities have become. The neglect of this group should shame Governments of all colours over the last four decades. Disabled people can be empowered to lead full-lives and, in many cases, to improve their condition. Far too often they are not. We have a set of services which are fragmented and incoherent, operated with too much paternalism and bureaucracy. The spend on this group is massive, across DWP benefits and services, GPs, out-patient clinics, social services and housing. But in too many cases (like mental health, muscular-skeletal diseases and neurological services) people have no access to the high-quality therapeutic support they need and deserve. We need now to pull the fragmented benefits and service provision together and put disabled people in charge of their lives and the support they receive. We should urgently trial, and then roll-out, the different ways that we can do this. That includes : Personal Budgets (which give people the chance to make their own decisions on how the money is spent and makes providers compete for their custom) and Accountable Care Organisations (which meet all the support needs of a person in one integrated package). We need to expand the Peer-to-Peer online support available to people with different conditions, alongside a massive investment in R&D in assistive technologies. And we need to put on hold the punitive systems of sanctions, which add insult to injury for disabled people who cannot find the support they need to make the most of their lives.
Actually, the 52% vote for Leave understates British concerns about immigration. Even more people are really worried about immigration. Whilst there are differences of view within the Leave vote about future immigration policy, Leavers are united in believing it should be a British-determined policy. In the cold light of day, it is obvious that European freedom of movement feels like an existential threat for people who feel economically insecure and democratically ignored. It is disempowering to be told that 455m Europeans are entitled to come to a country of 65m as they wish and to have equal rights to jobs, housing and public services from day one. Particularly, if politicians have previously promised that the actual numbers coming here would be much lower than they have been in practice. No matter how many economists explain that it is good for the economy, that doesn’t answer the question of “Why can’t we decide on who comes to our country?”. It’s not inherently racist or illiberal to want to do that. Canada and Australia are great, tolerant countries with strict immigration controls, which engender public support for very high levels of immigration.
So a key response to Brexit must be to give people a lot more democratic control over immigration. However, it is clear that different parts of the country either want or need different levels of immigration. Getting to an immigration policy that’s acceptable to the whole of the UK looks very challenging. London’s role as the world’s most successful city is inseparable from the fact that four out of ten Londoners are foreign-born. And London is in favour of high immigration. In the last decade, Scotland has managed to reverse its long-term population decline by attracting immigrants. But there are areas with virtually no immigration. And they are often the most opposed to the UK being open to immigrants.
One answer would be to let the devolved nations and English city regions make their own decisions about immigration policy. Visas could be tied to particular locations within the UK. In fact, that is mostly the case already for non-EU immigration. For non-EU immigrants, their right to study or work in the UK is tied to a place at a specific college or university or to a job with a sponsoring employer. If they leave the course or the job, their visa ends and they have to leave the UK. Their visa for Edinburgh University or a job in Edinburgh is in effect a Scottish visa. It’s entirely feasible for the Scottish Government or the Mayor of London to decide on immigration policy for students, workers and entrepreneurs. If Lincolnshire doesn’t want many immigrant workers, but is keen to have more university students, then it could decide that democratically in Lincolnshire. Our national systems to fund health and education mean that money will follow the numbers of residents and taxes are currently being localised to respond to local economic growth or decline (e.g. business rates, Scottish income tax). Areas could compete through policy. So, for example, Liverpool City Region might tackle its shortage of 25-34 year olds through attractive work visas for graduates. Visa-holders would, of course, be free to travel around the UK, but they would need to live and work/study in the region which awarded the visa. A balance could be struck between nationally uniform policy (e.g. for elite sports people) and local flexibility. The system would be administered nationally and in practice be little different to that which is operated for most non-EU immigrants.
Housing was a big issue behind the Leave vote. This had a different character is different areas. But it included: the declining prospects of home ownership for many; housing costs rising whilst incomes are stagnant; the proportion of young people obliged to live with their parents; high housing costs pricing people out of moving to areas of greater opportunity; unprecedented numbers of foreign workers in the construction industry; bleak social housing estates. And we can’t deny that immigration has had a negative impact for some people. Up to half of the extra demand for housing has come from immigration and the supply of housing has been chronically unresponsive to our rapidly growing population. That wasn’t the fault of immigrants. It was the fault of long-term failures in housing policy. But that doesn’t mean people are wrong to be angry about their housing options. It is also true that the availability of skilled and mobile East European workers removed the need for the UK construction industry to train, employ and better reward British workers. We need to help more British people to get the skills they want to thrive in the construction industry. We also need to recognise the regional problem. Construction levels are likely to remain highest in the most successful areas. We need to help people in more depressed areas to benefit economically from that construction.
Building and selling homes is easy. It’s the politics of building new ones, where people want to live, that is hard. We’ve tried the line of least resistance for the last few decades. There have been few revolts about development, and there have been too few new homes. Existing Conservative policies on housing have been held back by two principles, which are highly admirable but which, in the current situation, are dysfunctional. The first has been to decentralise decisions on housing supply to the most local level. This is clearly not delivering enough houses. Nor is it likely to. If we look back over the last century, there were two periods when we built serious numbers of housing. One was the 1930s when there were no planning controls and the other was the 1950s and 1960s when Government (local and central) was directly and massively involved in major construction projects. In the 1950s and 1960s, housing was driven forward by strategic authorities, not local district councils. It was mostly the big County Councils (including London which even led major developments well beyond London). They were locally accountable, but not paralysed by parochial resistance. In getting back to serious numbers of new houses, I don’t think there is anyway we can revert to no planning controls. So the only other proven option is for Government-led construction. And that brings us to the second of the current principles defeating progress – that we should leave housebuilding to the market. But that won’t work. Even if Government (local or central) granted lots of planning permissions, private sector developers wouldn’t build them in the quantity or at the pace we need. In our current system, private sector developers aim to keep house prices stable or growing, which means slowing down their construction to keep supply scarce. The opposite of what we need. Yes, we need, over time, to fundamentally change the incentives for house builders to make the market work better. But in parallel and right now, we need to get houses built in large order quickly, to make up for decades of under-supply. And the urgency is not just about housing demand. It’s also about having a weapon to fight a forthcoming recession. Whether or not Brexit triggers a recession, we are due (on the balance of probabilities) a recession in the next few years. A major housebuilding programme is a perfect response. The construction of 100,000 homes in a year adds 1% to GDP and employs 240,000 people. If we committed to building an additional 200,000 homes per year for 5 years, that would lock-in an extra 2% of GDP per year and nearly half a million jobs throughout the period.
There is nothing, but political will, to stop us building a couple of million extra homes in a hurry. The demand is there, suitable land is plentiful and we could reshape our economy by doing it. There are choices about the policy for an immediate massive programme. But it could include these elements:
- Government can finance the major housing developments directly to ensure that a couple of million market homes are completed rapidly and it can take on the risks of any delay in selling or a reduction in prices due to rapid increases in supply. There are lots of technical options that make this easy to do. Government can also cash-flow the new infrastructure ( transport, hospitals, etc) ahead of the houses. We should remember that the Treasury got all its money back from the New Towns it financed.
- Big new permissions could be granted by more strategic authorities. In England, this could be through existing national powers (of the kind that created the London Dockland Development Corporation or the Milton Keynes New Town) or the new City Region Mayors. These powers include the right to grant permissions, to compulsorily purchase land and do the building. The other national governments in NI, Scotland and Wales have similar powers to act strategically.
- Social homes could be sold on the open market when tenants decide to move on and the money raised (about £90,000 per property after the debts are paid-off ) is more than enough to subsidise the building of a brand new, better social home for each one sold. This alone would be big enough to build 200,000 extra homes every year for 20 years. There would be no fewer social homes, only better ones.
- We could move to greater off-site construction. A big planned programme would allow us to set-up major employment sites in deprived parts of the country, to manufacture most of the homes which are then put-up in high-demand areas. Outside the EU, we would no longer have the current limitations on such state intervention to stimulate a new industry.
- A massive apprenticeship programme could be created for people of all ages, but especially the young. Without EU restrictions on labour, we could build a new generation of British builders.
Of course, for every one delighted with their new more affordable home and for every new skilled builder, there will be people unhappy that new homes are being built in their area. In my experience, this is a time-limited reaction and people do get used to the change. In the short-term, though, the parochial politics is fiercely hard to deal with. There will also be a negative reaction from the highly-profitable big builders and those who want to profit from over-priced land.There is a need for really strong political leadership, nationally and in the strategic authorities, to manage this reaction. (Perhaps, we need to help this with more of the profit from land sales going as private compensation to those most affected). At some point, though, houses need to be built. Currently, we are only deferring the political fight, at the expense of today’s disillusioned young people, and their families, up and down the country.
Life chances for the White Working Class are not good enough. We don’t yet have all the answers. But we do have some of them. There needs to be an aggressive, urgent programme of bringing those solutions to the White Working Class. And a parallel track of experimenting and searching the world to find fresh solutions.
As Michael Gove once said, a place at a good school should be seen as a Civil Right. An inalienable and universal right. We need a national, urgent response to any denial of such Civil Rights, in the same way that JFK intervened in the 1960s to impose Civil Rights on reluctant States. After 25 years of serious school reform, we can’t keep waiting for some areas to get their act together. In 25 years, inadequate schools will have let down five generations of 11-16 year olds. Whilst primary schools have improved across the country, progress in secondary schools is unacceptably poor in too many areas. But we know what to do. London has shown the whole world how to reform schools serving poor communities. The success of many London schools in the most challenging circumstances is simply stunning. The risks of going to a school where most pupils are disadvantaged have been eliminated. Half of pupils on free school meals in London now get five good GCSEs, compared to one in five in 2002 and one in ten in 1987. But in Knowsley it is still only one in five. In Greater Manchester, it is less than one in three and in Liverpool one in four. There are great successes in the North. Newcastle, like London, has 85% of schools rated good or outstanding. But in Knowsley, for example, there are no secondary schools which are good or outstanding, in spite of massive public spending on its schools. The Government urgently needs to mandate a London-style, no-holds barred transformation in each under-performing White Working Class area across the country. It should be flexible on the means, be it the arms-length trust that worked in Hackney, the local authority leadership that inspired Tower Hamlets or the Ark-style academy chains which offer parents a trusted brand. It’s time for pragmatism, not dogma. The time for patience, however, has passed.
But education up to 16 is not just about schools. Affluent families complement schools with a wide range of educational opportunities. That’s one of the reasons working class families are at a disadvantage. There is an urgent need for Government to offer more than schooling. Digital platforms provide the chance to inspire and engage young people outside school. Why don’t we have an Open School to mirror the Open University’s success? Sesame Street had more impact on poor kids’ life chances than expensive nursery education. So, why don’t we invest in exciting digital content. The National Citizen Service is a great way to bring young people together at 16. But we need a bolder, bigger extra-curricular programme that starts at the age of 7 – a sort of Duke of Edinburgh Award on steroids.
The education offer to working class youngsters after the age of 16 is simply not good enough. It is morally wrong to allow colleges and universities to recruit students to courses which offer poor value in terms of improved life chances. It is heart-breaking to see working-class students embark on 2 to 5 years of full-time education when the routes they are taking have a high probability of failure. They are often sacrificing several years of wages, taking on large personal debts and missing-out on better career routes to pursue courses that are clearly a bad bet. It is morally right to turn this around. For example, student loans could be conditional on a ‘credit rating’ for each course, excluding those courses with high dropouts, low entry standards, poor degrees and insufficient earnings premium. That might exclude 20% or more of current courses. Beyond universities, we see only one in three FE colleges are good or outstanding and only half of apprenticeships get a positive rating. We should accelerate the policy switch from full-time FE courses to on-the-job training by putting more of the funds and choices into the hands of students and employers. We need to transform online training, perhaps with a massive Open College to build on what the OU has done in HE. We also need to upgrade and expand apprenticeships. Apprenticeships should not be seen as a consolation prize for non-academic young people. All of the top jobs (in law, medicine, accountancy, etc) are based on a formal apprenticeship, of supervised on-the-job training. As well as improving access for working class youngsters to these esteemed jobs, we need to replicate the esteem of these traineeships in other apprenticeships. We have that already with some technical employers, like Rolls Royce in the aerospace industry. And we mustn’t constrain working class youngsters to the vocational education on their doorstep. In the same way that they are fully supported to travel to university anywhere in the UK, they should be supported to move anywhere they choose for a high quality apprenticeship or FE programme.
Creating better life chances is not just about improving educational opportunities. We need a powerful new Employment Regulator, whose job is to liberalise the employment market and to break down the barriers that limit the careers of working class adults. The Employment Regulator should be tasked with ensuring that everybody in the Labour Market has the ability to earn the most they possibly can and it should actively remove any unnecessary barriers to their ability to do that. This would mirror what competition regulators do to ensure that any business has the right to compete in markets where vested interests or out-of-date rules get in the way. Let’s use the example of Adult Social Care. It currently employs 1.6m people. This is predicted to grow to 2.6m by 2025. It is a huge employer of the White Working Class. Too often, the jobs are badly paid, the work is alienated by a mix of bureaucracy and exploitation, and the occupations are seen to be a dead-end with zero progression. Sadly, nobody is on-the-case to make it work better for this vast number of hard-working people. A muscular Employment Regulator would look at, for example, the fact that 700,000 home care assistants earn just £7.20 out the £15 which is paid (by local authorities and private clients) for an hour of their time. The Regulator might step-in to replace the current alienated employment system with online, on-demand systems where clients directly choose and then rate their carers, ensuring that much more of the fees go to the staff, rather than being lost to them in both agencies and public sector providers. But the Regulator should also be empowered to remove unnecessary restrictions on what people can do. In the case of social care staff, many of the care tasks which they could (after additional training) perform are off-limits to them and reserved for nurses. Nurses have to be graduates with a comprehensive medical training. This creates an artificial gulf between who is allowed to provide services and who isn’t. The Regulator could de-regulate and open-up the supply of care services, giving working class staff the incentive to upgrade their skills and the ability to earn much more by providing services currently restricted to a scarce group of professionals. The Regulator should also be tasked to steer the best course through technological disruption. Let’s look at the 700,000 drivers, many of whom are White Working Class. In the foreseeable future, many vehicles (cars, lorries, buses, vans, etc) will no longer need a driver. Right now, technology (like GPS or on-demand marketplaces) mean that traditional restrictions on who can work as a driver are out-of-date. It is one of many areas where we need a Regulator who can ensure that disruption happens to benefit consumers, but who is also charged with creating the best opportunities for the disrupted employees. On the side of disruption and the disrupted. And using disruption of the status quo as a force for good for the working class.
I have tried to illustrate some of the policy ways that our national politics could respond to the needs of the White Working Class. There are many others and there will be better solutions than mine. What matters right now is not the specific proposals, but the process of listening, engaging and creating a shared political agenda for the White Working Class. One which provides hope and opportunities for a better future.