Starting to Unpack the Plan


This is a set of thoughts which arose from a few conversations around exploring what we might do, in the context of thinking about setting up a new political party.  (Why think about starting a new political party?  The idea came from here.)  Every political party is a coalition, but there needs to be some central core; the core of the party being described here is that it is built around the vision, values and practices of this web site and community.

Those who were involved in the initial discussions about this web site / community talked about the members of the community supporting each other in the various activities we are involved in, and also about the possibility of working together on some joint activities.  A new political party, if it ever happens, would be one of those joint activities - arising out of this community, for those who want to be involved.  We will, of course, celebrate when any of the good ideas being shared here are picked up by any group, and perhaps they will be of more value if we manage to encourage the existing political parties to recognize them and commit to implementing them.  But perhaps we don't want to leave it to others, in the hope that they will do what needs to be done to promote justice and peace, and stop the world burning up.

In seeking to unpack this idea a little further, the two key aspects are the structures and the policies.  The most important part, and the most difficult, is the first - essentially, how would decisions get made?  But most people are far more interested in the policies, and these are also important.

1.  Structure

There needs to be some basic beliefs, which get fleshed out in the structures, policies and practices.

1a.  Leadership

We do not want or need a leader.  There needs to be someone who is a spokesperson (authorized to speak on behalf of the group) and a representative (who9 can meet leaders and be present at important events).  We naturally want to find a leader, but all our experience suggests that leaders fail us, and we tend to pin far too much hope on finding the right leader to steer us through this time of crisis, whatever the crisis may happen to be at that time.

We don't know how to solve the problems of our day, so we repeatedly choose someone who claims to have the vision and ability to steer a course between the rocks on each side.  We give the chosen leader power, and rely on their character, strategy and ability to give us what we need.  We are almost always disappointed, but are often willing to believe their excuses why they were unable to make life better for the majority of the population.

We need to be suspicious of power and people with power - even when the power is ours and the people are us.  The idea of placing our future success and safety in the hands of one person is absurd.  It is even more absurd when we have to choose between several different people, each with their own vision and plan, and 'everything' depends on choosing the right one to lead us.

What we need is not a specially anointed and gifted person to lead us - and even if we did need such a person, the chance of finding and selecting them is remote.  Anyone who wants to exercise power over everyone else is probably not the kind of person we should entrust with that kind of power.  What we need is a reliable and effective CEO: someone who can guide the decision making process, especially when decisions are urgently required, to balance long and short term objectives and help good and wise decisions rise to the surface, and then work with the managers and technical experts to find the best way to implement those decisions - to ensure that real progress is made, while recognizing that circumstances change, and decisions sometimes need to be revisited (see The Parable of the IT Project).

1b.  Listening and Talking

We need to learn how to talk about things which matter.  This will not just happen by itself, so we need a strategy.  We need to talk about important subjects, so we need to learn how to talk about important subjects in a constructive and productive way.  We need to frame issues helpfully, and find the best language to discuss them.  This community and web site is one practical tool: through using it,  we can seek to learn these things.  We hope that finding fresh ways of discussing important subjects will draw more people into the conversation.

Talking must start with listening.  We need to listen to everybody, not just those we like or agree with.  But we don't listen in the same way to everyone, or about everything: specifically, we recognise that facts, feelings and values are all important, but they are not the same; they each need to be handled appropriately, and what it takes to speak with authority about each one is different.

1c.  Putting Faith in its Place

Both facts and faith are important.  The relationship between them is key, and we probably need to explore this.  Every political movement is based on a set of beliefs which motivate people but cannot be proved, so they are based on faith.  We need to be honest about this.  The facts matter, and identifying what they are and what they mean must be a priority; then the faith can connect in a productive way with the facts.  This does not happen automatically - people still claim to believe in Marxism, but Marx made a set of predictions, and those predictions failed.

We believe in building a secular state - not one where religion is excluded, but one where all beliefs are allowed to co-exist on a level playing field.  But accepting that someone holds a belief, and respecting that belief as valid, is not the same as allowing them to practice their belief exactly as they would wish.

We recognize the importance of spirituality. The spiritual aspects of life are important: we do not only care about material objects and money. Economics matters, but it does not matter more than everything else.

1d.  Individual and Group

Individuals matter, but so too does society, and the many other groups we belong to. How we balance individual (and group) preferences and beliefs and society values is a major challenge.  Democracy, when insensitively operated, can be a dictatorship of the majority, removing the ability of minorities to be different.  Diversity is good, but needs to have careful boundaries.

1e.  Open Books

Trust is vital, which means two things: doing what you promise (which means, of course, only promising what you can do), and transparency in your decision making and operation.  Are there limits to where and how this principle should be applied?

We are talking here about the functioning of the proposed political party.  If the party gets into government, then there are valid limits to transparency: some negotiations will need to be conducted in private, the operation of the Secret Intelligence Services, and some aspects of Police activity are three obvious examples.  The effective oversight of these areas is a significant challenge.

1f.  Principles and Practicality

Both principles and practicality are important.  There is no point in having principles if they cannot be implemented, and there is no valid reason to implement policies unless they are designed to do something worthwhile.

In principle, we should always be ready to consider a better way of doing things: if anyone can suggest a better plan, we are interested.  But, in practice, some things are more important than others, some changes are more urgent than others, and we will never have the capacity to coonsider everything as quickly as we might wish.  Being honest is more important than pretending to be perfect.

The curent suggestion is to build two sides to the party: one (mainly democratic) looking at the principles and policies we believe to be good and important, the other (mainly experts) looking at what can be achieved, and the best way to implement the policies.  Like everything, this is up for discussion...

1g.  Confidence and Checking

To move ahead and create anything, you have to have the confidence that you are right.  But to avoid messing up, you need to check your assumptions and change your principles and plans if need be (we are back at The Parable of the IT Project).  In this context, it's worth noting The Sin of Certainty by Peter Enns, but note there are some valid criticisms in the response, Is Certainty Sinful? 

1h.  People before Ideology

Seeing policies and parties in terms of the political left and right framework is sometimes helpful, but there is no reason why a political group must consistently choose solutions which fit on one side and reject solutions from the other side.  And rejecting a simplistic left-wing or right-wing approach does not constitute a centrist approach.  In any case, the traditional left-right spectrum is completely inadequate as a way of understanding the political choices we have to make (see Politics: Some Underlying Issues.)

Policies should be chosen by their results and effectiveness (how they affect people and the planet), not by their ideological purity, and there is no 'one size fits all' ideology which offers the best answer to all questions in all circumstances.

1i.  The Market

We are not anti-capitalist, partly because nobody can agree on a definition of capitalism, and partly because nobody has yet come up with a better alternative - the solutions on offer at present have only been found to work in some particular contexts.  There will continue to be marketplaces.  It is the job of the government to establish the framework (laws, standards and culture) within which the markets will operate, and it is our responsibility to ensure that the framework which we create produces sustainable markets and promotes welbeing more than simple economic growth.

Of course, the continuing role of markets in many areas does not mean that they are always the best way to allocate resources: the capitalist market model has been imposed in many places where it is not needed and does not benefit the people concerned.

1j.  Morality (or Ethics?)

It seems to matter which of these two terms we use.  But, whichever it is, there are a couple of important points.

  • When we talk about morality, we are talking about something (we believe to be) real, not just a social convention.
  • The relationship between morality and law is a complicated one; you should not confuse legality with morality, but an effective law needs to be morally acceptable to the people it applies to.

2.  Policies

As we have already noted, the core of the political party being described here is that it is built around the vision, values and practices of this web site and community.  Many of the relevant topics should be listed on the Social Challenges page, but some  thoughts from recent conversations have been noted below - all the ideas below are only suggested starting points for further conversations.

2a.  Electoral Reform

The deep changes we need will involve constitutional change - and that will not happen without electoral reform.

2b.  Immigration

We believe that immigration is a good thing.

  • It is good in economic terms: the UK economy needs foreign workers, both temporary and long term.
  • It is good in social terms: we gain from knowing people with different cultures and ideas.
  • It is both absurd and cruel to prevent asylum seekers from working.

But this does not mean that immigration should be unregulated.

  • We have a moral obligation not to encourage a 'brain drain' from countries which need skilled and gifted people more than we do.
  • Some people come to the UK because we have a reputation for being a fair and just society, so let's do what we can to make that true elsewhere.  We also have a moral obligation to do what we can to prevent the problems which cause people to leave their homes, especially when we contributed to those problems.
  • The problems associated with immigration are mostly a result of high levels of new people concentrated in a few areas: the previous residents feel they are outnumbered and living in a foreign culture, and some of the immigrants can manage without learning the host language or culture.

There are some key questions which need to be addressed.

  • How should decisions be made about applications from migrants and asylum seekers?  An arbitrary target doesn't work, but what does work?  How do other countries solve this problem?
  • All immigrants should (presumably) be expected to learn English, but what aspects of UK culture should they be expected to adopt?  How far is it healthy and helpful for people to retain their original culture and customs?  What are the non-negotiables of British values and culture?
  • More fundamentally, we need a real conversation and greater clarity about what it means to be British, and to become British.  This will involve many British institutions and people abandoning their current racism, but it will also involve many newcomers choosing to identify far more with their adopted country.

2c.  Healthcare

The NHS should be properly funded, and effectively managed.  An 'internal market' is a poor management technique in this context.

Some discussion of the purpose and scope of the NHS is probably needed: it was set up with some assumptions which no longer work.  A key aspect of this rethink is the relationship between NHS and private healthcare.

The NHS should run as a real service to the society - with spare capacity, so health needs are generally met without NHS-imposed delays.  Good health is a benefit to society, and the aim should be to deliver that benefit, not to run as efficiently as possible.

2d.  Justice

Large parts of the justice system are only available to people with money- and those with money can, for the most part, avoid serious punishment if they are caught.  This seems to be an aspect of reality which is unlikely to change a great deal, but are there ways to mitigate it?

2e.  Defense

There are very few objections to an effective defense force - the moral issues tend to come when you consider attack rather than defense.

There do not seem to be many political issues here: our commitment to NATO constrains a great deal in this area.  The one big obvious question is: does the UK need to retain our independent nuclear deterrent?

2f.  Social Services

The big issue here is the poverty trap - and Universal Basic Income seems to be the best way to tackle that problem.

2g.  Prison

If the main purpose of prison is to reform people, it is doing a really bad job.  It makes no sense to spend a great deal of money turningpeople into wrose citizens and better criminals.  Research shows that long prison sentences have little impact on crime. Time in prison can actually make someone more likely to commit crime.  the re-offending rate is bad, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it is actually much worse than we think: in prison (the 'university of crime') young criminals are taught by older, more experienced criminals how not to get caught - when people leave prison and never return, this does not necessarily indicate that they have gone straight.

2h.  Economy

Increasing social equality has been shown to deliver massive benefits to everyone (see The Spirit Level), so the economy should be managed accordingly; in the medium term, this is the best way to respond to the cost of living crisis.

The traditional analysis divides the economy into three parts: the Public Sector, the Private Sector and the Voluntary ('Third') Sector.  But some services are natural monopolies, monopolies form a distinct part of the economy, and they need to be managed differently from the other sectors.  Water, Gas, Electricity and Railways are four obvious monopolies: pretending otherwise is a political fiction which benefits a few managers and shareholders, but not the customers or the country.

The pursuit of economic growth, as we currently understand and measure it, is a global disaster: we cannot sustain ever-increasing use of finite resources.  The world needs to cut back on Carbon - and not just Carbon! - and because we in the West have produced to vast majority of the problem, we in the West must implement the greatest reductions.

The economy should also be rebalanced towards things which benefit people, which will require the introduction of a new economic measure to replace GDP, which does not distinguish between economic activity we want to encourage (like farming) and economic activity we want to stamp out (like road accidents).  Simply 'making money' is not an economic activity we want to support, which means that much of the financial activity of the City of London will need to be progressively scaled back.

A possibility to explore: can we separate out the role of the stock market in providing the finance needed for businesses to start and grow, from the gambling which investors use the stock market for?  It is possible to introduce a minimum period shares must be held for, before then can be traded again?

2i.  Happiness

We have talked in the past about the possibility of making happiness a national goal, but wellbeing is probably a better indicator (see Happiness).  But while wellbeing seems to be reasonably well understood for an individual, it is much less clear when we are thinking about a society.  And wellbeing of the people within the country should not be pursued at the expense of the wellbeing of the planet and all the other people on it.


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