31 December 2012
The Roman God of the new year, Janus, had two faces looking opposite ways – he had to look back to the past and on in to the future. Any new year’s message surely has to do the same – so in looking forward to hopes and fears for 2013, we really have to start with 2012.
What will history remember? The Olympics, perhaps; the Greek debt crisis, maybe, although 2012 may not be the label that sits against it; the death of Lonesome George, the world’s last Pinta Island tortoise.
But what history may record for 2012 is that it was the year in which the economic ideas that have been regarded as gospel, scarcely challengeable in mainstream discussion and embedded at the heart of government, academia and business for decades, were declared failed, their capital zero. It was certainly the year in which the voices against this clearly failed model, from Occupy and UKUncut to the Transition Town movement, became even stronger and more certain.
As the British economy bumped along on a wobbly foundation of low-pay, insecure work; as the instability of the banks continued to pose a huge, unbridled threat; as the public came to recognise that multinational companies were scooping up the meagre spoils of the economy and shipping them off into tax havens; as G4S clearly demonstrated the failure of the outsourcing model – built on the basis that the state carries the risks and the contractors could fail with impunity; it became clear that we need a radical change in direction.
On the global scale, as the Arctic sea ice shrank to astonishing lows, as the bounty of nature continued to shrink visibly before our eyes and food prices soared in response, as industrial farming methods continued to deplete our soils and pollute our oceans, it became even clearer that rapid change had to be made to our ways of life.
Instead of believing that we could run Britain on the basis of casino finance and outsourced services, shipping or flying in everyday essentials, leaving millions uncertain where next week’s rent or next month’s mortgage payment was coming from, it became clear that we must rebuild a proper, balanced low-carbon economy.
It’s become clear that we need to bring food production back to Britain – to restore the ring of market gardens that until recent surrounded our towns and cities, encourage allotments and city vegetable patches and fruit trees, to ensure that our green belt is protected, not buried under car-dependent sprawling suburbs. This was the year in which local food growing clearly became an essential to help feed the poorest in Britain.
It’s become clear that we need resource-efficient local manufacturing, making the essentials of food, clothing, shelter that we need close to where they’re needed. Small positive steps are being made. Over the year I saw small enterprises starting to build this new model of business, from Who Made Your Pants in Southampton, to Furniture Divas in Oxford. But the barriers are many, and need to be slashed down.
And it’s clear that we need to reshape our energy use and energy production. First, we clearly need to get truly serious about energy conservation (including providing warm comfortable homes for everyone, built to the standards much of the rest of Europe takes for granted). Second, we need to move towards a decentralised, community-owned, flexible and resilient energy production system – on- and off-shore wind, solar, small hydro, anaerobic digestion, waste biofuel, tidal. Third, we need to provide a decent, affordable public transport system – and look at ways we can reshape our economy to eliminate long, miserable, pointless commutes.
All of these changes need to be built on a very different business model – not giant multinational companies emptying out our high streets, importing low-quality, non-durable goods made in dreadful sweatshops, wasting vast amounts of our limited resources. Instead we need strong localised economies, built around small businesses and cooperatives, with decently paid staff offered jobs on which they can build a life.
If I had a magic wand, I would wave it and say, let’s deliver that by the end of 2013. Of course I don’t, and the changes will take more than a year, more than a decade. But my wish for 2013 is that we can identify it as the year in which Britain made serious strides towards a new economic model, a new direction.
Let’s start with a crackdown on multinational companies – make them abandon the use of tax havens and pay fair taxes (as their small business competitors must) and ensure that they pay all of their staff a living wage and offer stable conditions – ending zero-hours contracts and anti-social, exploitative shift patterns. And go on with a serious legislative effort to end the risks of the banks again costing us hundreds of billions – separate the high street banks from their gambling “investment” cousins, install a financial transactions tax, work to promote local banks and credit unions, and insure an effective green investment bank can provide the funds we need for essential work.
Let’s move on to an Energy Bill that puts conservation at the heart of energy policy, that encourages small-scale renewables under community ownership. Add in the renationalisation of the railways as a start towards a sensible, integrated transport strategy, while abandoning the costly, inefficient HS2 plan.
Then let’s act on the NHS – protect our cost-effective, efficient, fair system – keep it publicly owned and publicly run where it is now, and bring back in house as soon as possible the outsourcing to inappropriate profit-driven multinationals. After that, start spreading out to public services. Having made the minimum wage a living wage, and ensure decent conditions for workers, any “efficiency, cost-effective” claims for outsourcing across the public sector will disappear. As contracts expire, workers can be brought back in house – democratic accountability restored and money put into essential services now cut back.
Then we can deal with poverty – starting with pensioners. People who’ve contributed all of their lives shouldn’t be living in poverty. Let’s bring in a basic £170/week pension that would immediately lift all pensioners out of poverty. And a minimum wage being a living wage would help many workers, while the abolition of the dreadful Atos “fitness to work” scheme – GPs understand the health of their patients and their needs best would take great stress off the ill and the disabled.
Then housing – there’s 300,000 empty private sector homes to be brought back into use, and 37,000 council homes; we’d need a decent regional development policy to help with that. Much simpler – let’s give the growing army of private tenants greater security of tenure, enforce decent housing standards on their landlords, and encourage a new generation of housing co-ops in which people can work through their own housing needs.
Then some quick and sensible measures – abolish Trident nuclear weapons, immediately bring home British troops from Afghanistan – make us leaders in peace, and save some significant cash along the way.
There’s much more I’d like to add in – the abolition of university tuition fees, the restoration of an EMA-type system, but that’s enough to be going along with for one year.
Of course, there’s no sign of this Coalition government heading in any of these directions, of understanding that the convictions to which they continue to cling are now mere intellectual driftwood, heading fast towards a smashing reef.
But Janus was the god of beginnings and transitions, and we can turn to that image as January begins and hope for change, plan for change, campaign for change. That’s what increasing numbers of British people have been doing over 2012, and more will join them in 2013. I look forward to working with the many, the 99%, who are increasingly prepared to take on the 1% and their representatives.