Please note: this article is a work-in-progress and I'm constantly updating it as I refine my thinking.
Modern politics seems very messed-up to me. Too much debate focusses on personalities, sound-bites and empty gestures designed to tweak the emotions, rather than substantial policy decisions. Political parties spend time more time attempting to paint their opponents as impossible to vote for, rather than on justifying their own policies. And too much of politics has become tribal loyalism to the "left", "right", "conservatives" or "labour" — meaningless labels that distract from the real debates we need to have.
In the words of one of the architects of the NI peace process...
"Real politics shouldn't be about waving flags, it should be about developing the standard of living of all sections of your people." — John Hulme, Nobel Peace Prize winner.
I believe that political debate should be about policies and not labels. Rather than ascribe a whole set of policies as "left" or "right", I believe that we should think about the specifics of each challenge, unencumbered by tribal alegiences.
With the above thoughts in mind, I present here my personal priorities for debate. I've tried to write these ideas in a way that could be adopted by those of any tribal political affiliation.
My manifesto priorities cover six areas:
”Sometimes we just simply have to find a way. The moment we decide to fulfil something, we can do anything. And I’m sure the moment we start behaving as if we were in an emergency, we can avoid climate and ecological catastrophe. Humans are very adaptable: we can still fix this. But the opportunity to do so will not last for long. We must start today. We have no more excuses." — Greta Thunberg
Climate change is real and we need to do something about it. If we don't, we threaten our children and our grandchildren's futures. Left unchecked, climate change threatens to increase global insecurity, increase migration, threaten habitats and dramatically reduce bio-diversity. If there was only a small possibility that climate change was real, there's a good reason to act. But the evidence and consensus amongst mainstream scientists is strong. We need to act.
But we need to green our economy not solely because it's the right thing, but because a shift to a green economy can also be the right economic action. Covid has ravished our economies and businesses — we need to invest and rebuild, so why not invest and rebuild green whilst we're at it?
Luckily, it seems that all mainstream UK political parties now back action on climate change. With the UK government now committing to reduce carbon emissions by 78% by 2035, the emphasis shifts from vague promises about the future, to who has the most credible plans to make that happen.
Ultimately, money will be what makes the green revolution a reality, for two reasons.
Fossil fuels are themselves subsidised to the tune of billions. Those subsidies are becoming increasingly hard to justify and are likely to be repositioned to support sustainability and carbon-neutral forms of power.
Investors have cottoned-on to the fact that putting money into fossil-fuels is now a high-risk adventure. Just read investment bank BlackRock's letter to investors.
"the investment risks presented by climate change are set to accelerate a significant reallocation of capital, which will in turn have a profound impact on the pricing of risk and assets around the world... Because sustainable investment options have the potential to offer clients better outcomes, we are making sustainability integral to the way BlackRock manages risk, constructs portfolios, designs products, and engages with companies. We believe that sustainability should be our new standard for investing." — BlackRock’s Global Executive Committee
Money makes the world go around — and it's rapidly shifting to sustainable investments because of the risk associated with doing anything else.
Building a green economy is also about building new skills and employment opportunities. It's like we're at the dawn of the steam age — the Robert Stevenson's and Isambard Kingdom Brunel's of our era will define our futures in the same way that their ancestors built industrial Britain. Elon Musk and Tesla have made Electric Vehicles (EVs) a reality and created a marketplace and industry that didn't previously exist. The as yet undiscovered leaders, industries, technologies and companies of the Green Era will define our national futures.
The clean energy transition should not be viewed as a problem, but as an opportunity to build a new economy and for Britain to take a global leadership position.
However, too much of today's politics has been about grand headline-grabbing announcements that in practice put off the investment and difficult decisions for another day.
”The real danger is when politicians and CEOs are making it look like real action is happening when in fact almost nothing is being done apart from clever accounting and creative PR.” — Greta Thunberg
We need action now, not words today and action tomorrow. And we need plans designed to bring about change quickly (which probably entails some short-term pain), not plans designed to please voters and win elections. In short, we need politicians ready to take hard decisions that build a better future, not politicians looking to win a short-term popularity contest.
These plans need to cover three areas:
We need to move to EVs sooner rather than later because that gets rid of a big source of carbon emissions. But also, petrol/diesel cars are never going to be clean — belching pollutants into our communities should cease because the technology to do so now exists.
EVs are on the cusp of a revolution, tipping over from expensive play things of the rich (£80k Teslas) to affordable run-arounds for mast (sub-£30k VW's).
So far EV excitement has been around £40k+ performance cars from manufacturers like Tesla. These aren't the solution, because they're too expensive for the vast majority of people. Cheaper, sub £30k, cars are just emerging onto the market now.
But as we transition to electrically-powered transport, we also need to ask if the private car is the right model for all our needs. eBikes and scooters can fulfil many needs, whilst de-cluttering our urban environments. It might be that many uses of cars can and should be replaced by alternative forms of transport. If so, we can redesign our streets to focus more on walking, cycling and scootering — with less pollution and greater safety. But, of course, such a transformation will upset some vested interests and not be without controversy.
To be noted is that the EV and eBike/scooter markets are still in their early stages. They are many confusing options for consumers to choose between and it's often difficult to fully compare costs. Much needs to be done to educate consumers about the choices and their implications, because confused consumers frequently will struggle to make significant purchase decisions.
But we also need to foster the manufacture of EV technology and supply chains locally here in the UK. 180,000 people are employed directly in car manufacturing in the UK and the industry represents 13% of the UK’s export of goods. That’s a significant industry that’s of great importance to the UK’s economy.
The future of our car manufacturing industry is directly threatened by the shift to EVs. It’s threatened because the development of EVs and associated technology - not least self-driving abilities - requires access to large amounts of money, technical expertise and manufacturing supply chains.
Tesla is most famous as new and important entrant to the car industry. But it’s not the only one — new EV-only Chinese firms like Li Auto, Nio and Xpeng are building some mightily impressive EVs. And they aren’t the only ones. These firms are backed by vast amounts of capital, employ some of the world’s brightest software engineers (because a car is increasingly a software platform) and are closely located with complex supply chains essential to EV manufacture.
Can a traditional manufacturer like Jaguar Land Rover or Nissan UK compete with this? It’s not practical to import major components, like batteries, because rule of origin checks would likely not classify the resulting vehicle as being UK manufactured, with significant tax implications.
The only practical response is to foster the creation of local supply chains here in the UK, which critically starts with the creation of battery gigafactories. There are early signs of some movement on this, but we need to do more.
UK car manufacturing is going to need access to a lot of capital and get to grips with its need for software and AI engineering skills. And we need to find a way to foster the creation of local supply chains, rather than relying on the import of parts. That’s a set of big and complex challenges that call for a strategy broader than that of a single firm. If we don't act, the transition to electrically powered transport will be a transition away from UK manufacturing and towards Chinese, Korean and other localities.
Let's face it, our buildings in the UK are wildly inefficient. Rattly old windows, uninsulated floors and solid walls are all too common. Even new builds have, in a global context, flimsy insulation. Look at how homes in cold Scandinavian countries and super-insulated through necessity, to get an idea of how far we have to go. We need a major building insulation initiative to transform the energy efficiency of homes and offices alike.
But we also need to move away from burning carbon-based fuels (gas, coal) to heat our buildings. Super-insulation, heat pumps, solar panels are similar technologies can be used to both reduce demand and fulfil it in a green manner.
However, this is a difficult thing to achieve because it requires dramatically more investment than the loft-insulation schemes of the past. Houses will likely require 10's of thousands of pounds of remedial work — how this is funded and incentivised needs much careful thought.
Wind, wave, solar — these technologies make the green economy possible. Only by generating carbon-neutral electricity can we power our homes, offices and transport systems.
The UK already has a good start, but there is much still to do. The headlines tell us that on some days up to 60% of electricity generation is from wind power. However, a quick real-time check at the time of writing shows it to be less than 10%. Clearly some days are windier — and sunnier — than others.
The big news is that carbon-neutral power generation continues to decrease in cost significantly, with the latest estimates predicting it will soon be half the cost of using fossil fuels.
"Electricity generated from wind and solar is 30-50% cheaper than previously thought, according to newly published UK government figures... electricity from onshore wind or solar could be supplied in 2025 at half the cost of gas-fired power, the new estimates suggest."
We need a lot of generating capacity to meet traditional demand, but also to power our new green transport systems and displace the use of fossil fuels in our homes. The good news is that this new capacity can actually be green and cost less.
But we need to run fast in creating that capacity — there's little point in heating our homes and powering our cars with electricity if that power isn't generated cleanly. Simply shifting the burning of fossil fuels to a power station does nothing to address climate change. The whole green economy is based on the assumption that we can generate carbon-neutral electrical power, so continued progress on this is critical if we are to succeed.
If renewable energy is cheaper, it's no longer a question of if, but how quickly, we transition.
But there's a lot of vested interests that will muddy the water and try to frustrate a carbon-neutral transition. The biggest risk is from lobbyists, politicians with an eye on post-political careers and political parties concerned about financial donations that help them win elections.
But climate change is an emergency — we cannot allow the vested interests of the fossil economy to slow our transition. We need bold policies, incentives and investment to create a rapid and dramatic transition. Doing so will reduce our cost of power, save the environment and build the skills, experience and businesses that place the UK in a global leadership position. It's the job of government to create that environment.
I favour tougher regulations that neuter the influence that vested interests have on our politicians. Why should shadowy private companies, that make sizeable donations to gain influence, influence which policies are put to us?
COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of a great healthcare system. The UK's NHS is a well-loved institution with both huge benefits and some difficulties. When politicians of all hues wear NHS pins, we know that both the institution and principle of "free at the point of use" are here to stay.
But COVID-19 has left our treasured healthcare system in crisis. Waiting-lists are the longest since records began. And the big reduction in cancer cases seen over the past year is speculated to be people putting off getting issues investigated — meaning we have a looming crisis of cancer cases that’s about to hit us as lockdown is eased.
It’s clear that working through the waiting lists and clearing the backlog caused by COVID-19 needs to be tackled as a national priority, in the same way that COVID-19 itself was. If we can upend the healthcare system to manage COVID-19 cases, we can do the same to clear the backlog of appointments that it caused.
The NHS, as a single centralised system, has benefits that are not often talked about. As one of the world's largest purchaser of drugs, it's able to exploit its scale to negotiate supply contracts at significantly lower cost. For example, the cost of insulin for diabetics is between 5.7 and 7.5 times lower in the UK than the USA. Similar price disparities, in favour of the UK, can be found across a whole swathes of healthcare products. This is a great basis on which to build a modern and cost-efficient healthcare system... but we do need to modernise.
Right now, a number of dramatic new technological breakthroughs promise to utterly transform the nature of healthcare. How we get to grips with these changes and work out how to exploit them is now key. As a single national healthcare provider, the NHS has the capacity to tap into these changes for the good of every citizen. But we shouldn't underestimate the challenges in doing so.
Digital technologies promise a revolution in how we monitor and manage our bodies. Smart watches that routinely monitor our movements and heart-rate are likely to soon be able to read blood-glucose levels and maybe other body chemistry too. Machine Learning promises to help us read scans and tests at scale, making it practical to mass screen our bodies for a variety of illnesses. All of this fuels a new kind of preventative and predictive medicine — rather than waiting for someone to fall sick, we gain the ability to intervene earlier based on warning signs in the data. Potentially transformative, but a whole new ball game — with challenges around data ownership, the need for partnerships with technology vendors like Apple, Samsung, etc and integration needs between the NHS systems and consumer-owned devices and data.
COVID-19 has not only highlighted the critical importance of vaccination, it's accelerated the introduction of a powerful new tool. mRNA vaccines are a new way to engineer vaccines — instead of injecting a weakened version of a virus, mRNA teaches our cells how to make a protein — or even just a piece of a protein — that triggers an immune response. These vaccines can be engineered very precisely and with lower risk that anything we've seen before. The signs are that mRNA vaccines can be used to attack a whole variety of illnesses, including challenging ones like cancer and HIV
We stand in the foot hills of a healthcare revolution driven by technology. With a central NHS we have the latent potential to exploit that in ways that more distributed systems cannot. How the NHS is funded and focused on leading this technological revolution will make a big difference to many lives.
The UK is still a very divided society in terms of opportunity. Areas of deprivation, frequently associated with historical inequality, persist.
A close relative of my family originated from Ireland and migrated for mining work in Scotland during the potato famine. Census and news reports of the time report terrible poverty, alcohol-fuelled crime and hugely over-crowded living conditions in the area of Scotland they migrated to. A simple check of the same area today shows that poverty and crime persist. Children brought up by parents in poverty have their life chances dramatically limited. A few escape, frequently through education and the attainment of a better job, but many do not. If you're brought up in a life of drugs and crime, there's a vastly increased risk that you will fall into the same bad habits. And then, of course, the same happens for your children. Breaking this cycle must be a national priority.
And the way to break this repeating pattern is through education. Well educated children gain the potential to create a better life for themselves than their parents had — meaning their children, in turn, have better opportunities.
However, today's educational system does not seem to be making the break with the past that we need it to. My personal experience of my daughter's IT education at school, for example, was depressing in the extreme. An uninspiring government-mandated curriculum, taught by uninterested and unskilled teachers, results in a predictable outcome — kids turned off, rather than on, to the possibilities of IT careers.
Similarly, our schools are not preparing your people for the opportunities that exist. Why aren't schools consistently fostering entrepreneurial skills, so young people have the ability to create their own jobs and businesses? Why aren't schools turning out software engineers? Why aren't schools educating young people about the potential for machine learning algorithms and teaching the hybrid mathematical and programming skills needed? Why aren't schools teaching young people about jobs outside of their community norms and traditions? If we want the child of an unemployed South Wales ex-miner to become a city trader or digital entrepreneur, for example, they need to be exposed to knowledge that's far removed from their community's day-to-day experience.
Our schools should be exposing young people to new ideas, new technologies, to the latest business opportunities, to how to network with others and how to build businesses. Entrepreneurship can be a career, but it's not one that our current school system prepares people for — or even introduces as a possibility.
Education is the building block of life chances and creates the skills and attitudes we need to build our economy and compete on the global stage. It's how we break generational cycles of underachievement and inequality. We need to do much better and modernise attitudes, the curriculum, the skills of teachers and better foster a "you can be whoever you want to be, if you just work hard" attitude in our young people.
COVID-19 has highlighted the enormous influence that digital technologies are having on our societies. Remote working, remote education, online shopping, video conferencing — without these things it's impossible to imagine how we would have survived the pandemic.
But more than that, digital technologies are part of how we rebuild to spread opportunity to all. If fewer people commute to offices every day and if we don't need to get on a jet to attend a business meeting, we might be able to reduce our transport needs. And if more of business is conducted online, it means that where you live is less important than what you can contribute. That means less focus on big city living and potentially spreading opportunity to more remote or disadvantaged areas. "Levelling up" has been much talked about in recent times and perhaps the digitisation of business is what can make a bright young thing on a Newcastle council estate an equal of the docklands-living city slicker.
The concept of broadband being an enabler for social mobility places it not in the camp of something that's critical to society.
"Broadband (or high-speed) internet access is not a luxury, but a basic necessity for economic and human development in both developed and developing countries." — The World Bank
We take it for grated that everyone has access to electricity, running water and waste disposal. These are the basics of modern life and we wouldn't accept a situation where deprived parts of the country didn't have access to these services. So why should we accept big disparities in terms of access to bandwidth?
Low digital bandwidth equates to reduced access to remote working and educational opportunities. It limits life chances. Bandwidth has become an essential part of today's society, in the same way the electricity, water and drains have always been.
If we want an equal society, we need to find a way to get high bandwidth to remote Scottish islands, down winding farm tracks and to villages as well as towns. Our ancestors found a way to finance getting a copper phone cable to every home — we need to find a way to do the same for fibre-optic cables. If we do, we can spread opportunity to everyone. If we don't, we risk creating a new division in society — between those who do and do not have access to bandwidth.
However, not everything associated with digital society is good. Social media has fuelled and amplified sources of misinformation, rumour, argument and conspiracy. Conspiracy theories and fake news mess with the uptake of vaccines and, by implication, people's lives. And disinformation spread at election time undermines our democracy. These are serious issues.
The issue of disinformation is a challenging topic and potential solutions are sometimes perceived as impinging on the right of self expression. But we cannot afford to surrender to the forces of fake news — too much is at stake. News literacy, where we are taught how to spot and deal with misinformation, is an especially important area. It feels that resources like the News Literacy Project could form the basis of a new citizens educational programme taught in schools and more. We certainly need new life skills to help us deal with social media and fake news and this shouldn't be left to chance.
The pressure of social media is felt especially acutely by children. In previous generations the pressures of the school yard ceased at the school gates. But not now — social media perpetuates the petty squabbles and social pressures into a 24x7 phenomenon. This cannot be healthy and we need stronger protections for young people. The fact that large numbers of under 11's have Facebook accounts, despite the the minimum age being 13, tells us there is a problem.