Life

The Tories Are Wrong – You Can Have Nice Things

This election we've been told that functioning social services and a decent social safety net are beyond us. But that's not true – we just have to look just beyond our borders.

by Imogen West-Knights
11 December 2019, 9:00am

Photo by Emily Bowler

Imagine a future in which your children are fed at school for free. Imagine a future in which their childcare is provided free, too. Imagine paying reasonable rent, and never worrying about an unexpected and unfair utilities bill. Imagine booking a train ticket, using your free wifi, to see a friend on the other side of the country for 20 quid instead of a hundred. Imagine a future worth imagining.

These are not impossible day dreams, but manifesto pledges made in the Labour party’s manifesto this election. Perhaps predictably, the right wing media and the opposition have labelled this vision as “unrealistic”. It’s too much, it’s too fast, it’s too much state intervention. One Daily Mail columnist declared that he had never seen a more “unrealistic, dishonest and downright destructive” Labour manifesto as the party’s “105-page, multi-billion-pound borrowing spree”.

The strange thing is that these proposals are already reality, elsewhere in the world in similarly developed countries. South Korea has state supported full-fibre broadband. Rail is widely nationalised across Europe. Labour is proposing to bring the UK into line with countries like France, Germany and Sweden in terms of both the level and nature of public spending. Why are we not aware of, or not interested in, their example?

I lived in Sweden for 18 months. There were things that I liked about the country, like the quiet and swimming in the archipelago, and things I didn’t, like expensive groceries and dark winters. But the thing that struck me the most about living there was seeing proof that there is another way for society to operate.

One young couple I know have always struck me as the most representative example of the kind of things that are possible there and are not here. Last year, one of them was undertaking a second undergraduate degree in radio production, and the other was an as-yet unemployed graduate from a gender studies masters. They lived in an apartment in central Stockholm, with a spare bedroom, and were seriously considering having a baby. That was a realistic proposition for them, because they had a home they could afford, good job prospects, a health service with a maximum per person charge of around £100 a year, and the prospect of over 15 months worth of combined parental leave. In the words of Danny Dyer, it still freaks my nut out to this day.

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The author in Sweden (Photo by Ben Lennon)

Ninety-five per cent of people will pay no more tax under the Labour proposals; only those earning over £80,000 will see any increase at all. But let’s look at what kind of tax rates our neighbouring countries impose. Someone earning a gross salary of £100,000 pays around a 59 per cent tax rate in France, 45 per cent in Sweden and 41 per cent in Ireland. In the UK, it’s 34.3 per cent, and Corbyn’s proposal is to raise it to 45 per cent. And yet the narrative is that Labour want to tax people to a ridiculous, unprecedented degree.

On the other side of the balance sheet, there’s public spending: what these tax increases are intended to buy us. At present the UK spends 21 per cent of its GDP on public services. France, Germany and Sweden all spend between 4 per cent and 10 per cent more. Even economic researchers the Institute for Fiscal Studies admits that "much of Labour’s vision is of a state not so dissimilar to those seen in many other successful Western European economies".

We can’t simply transplant policy from other European countries. Each country’s economic profile is unique and it would be facile to pretend otherwise. Nor would that even be a utopian solution: centre-left countries like Germany and Sweden are facing their own struggles; it’s well documented that Sweden’s social welfare state has been eroding slowly over the past few decades. But in quality of life terms, the country is still leaps and bounds ahead of the UK.

You hear a lot these days that a Labour government would drag us “back to the 70s”. In the 1970s, the UK had the second lowest level of inequality in Europe, second only to Sweden. Today, the UK has the fourth largest income disparity in Europe. The CEO of Lloyds earns 237 times what their lowest paid staff member, and austerity in the UK has led to levels of poverty described by the United Nations as “patently unjust”. A child born in the UK is twice as likely to die in childhood than in Sweden.

I think there’s something insidious, and deeply English, behind the general ignorance that high tax, high public spending countries with similar economic profiles to the UK even exist. Nothing about growing up in England gives you a sense that it is merely one in a world full of diverse and interesting nations. I have a strangely vivid memory of thinking, when I was about seven years old, that it must be sad for people who don’t live in England, because it is the best and the most important country. I’ve often turned that memory over in the intervening years, wondering where I got the idea from. But it seems obvious to me now that I got it from everyone, all of the time.

I have heard highly educated people from England claim that the UK is the only country in the world with a national health service. I’ve heard them say that they don’t understand why Irish people would dislike the English. Of all the countries in Europe, England has one of the lowest requirements for schoolchildren to learn foreign languages. When Guardian columnist Owen Jones interviewed people at the Conservative party conference, a woman told him that we needed to leave the EU because the UK has a “very strong” culture, unlike other places in Europe. I do not think these things are unrelated.

Labour’s spending plans are ambitious – five years is a short time to make all of the changes they are proposing to make. But they’re not unrealistic. The problem is not with Labour’s plans but with our insular national outlook. The problem is that we have allowed our conception of what is “realistic” to be limited to whatever Britain, the country that expends so much energy trumpeting its superiority over the rest of the world, is currently offering. A government that imposes slightly higher taxes for the already very wealthy is realistic. A government that cares about supporting the most disadvantaged people in our society is realistic. A government that takes radical steps to look after our planet is realistic. The proof is just beyond our own borders, but we’ve never been very comfortable looking there, for fear of catching sight of our own reflection.

@ImogenWK

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