An appeal to Natalie Bennett

Natalie is excellent as the public face of the Green Party, but may I offer a couple of tweaks? She comes across as radical, yet sensible and near enough to the mainstream to dispel notions that we are flaky, one-issue, hair shirt or any other gibes that may be thrown at us. OK, OK, I know how easy it would be to put a foot wrong, but there are two issues which she could mention. One is relatively safe and easy, with minimal risk, the other admittedly more difficult, but with potentially high rewards, and a pathway to a new vision.

The easy one is not positioning ourselves quite so firmly as Old Labour, an impression that I think Caroline Quinn managed to make stick last Sunday on Radio 4. It is perfectly true that an ecologically sustainable society must have a true sense of us all being in it together – a truly inclusive society. It will appear, and be much closer to the Old Labour vision than the one which became prevalent in the Thatcher years. But the Green Party could – I say must – approach Old Labour’s sworn, mutual enemies in sorrow, not in anger.

As Readers of this blog will know, I want Zac Goldsmith on our side. To Old Labour, Zac is the epitome of much that is wrong with society. In my open letter to him (blog post 16th November) I suggested that there is a massive gap in his thinking. He may find this a preposterous allegation in view of his ecological credentials. Zac is the nephew of Edward Goldsmith, who stood in 1974 as a parliamentary candidate for what became the Green Party. They have both edited ‘The Ecologist’, and I agreed with every word they wrote in that capacity. But Zac does give the impression of not yet realizing the social justice implications of the search for a sustainable society. The trouble is, there is a huge swathe of the British public who will follow Zac along the road to a more rounded eco-view – or not, if the Green Party chooses to maintain a hostile stance.

Over the years I have canvassed thousands of conservative sympathisers who were well heeled enough to want to save the planet for their grandchildren, but who failed to see why they should subsidise scroungers, or what social security had to do with the environment. They were repelled by the notion of smashing capitalism. The Sedgefield by-election in 2007 (Blair’s resignation) was illuminating. Their only experience of the Green Party had been in European elections. A small team of us knocked on every door in three polling districts known to be Conservative in character (from 63 polling districts altogether). The conservative assumption was confirmed at the count. The Green vote was 1.2% overall, but in the three canvassed wards it was 6%. Bear in mind that only half the doors were opened, and we normally only spoke to one person. I did not mention the Citizens’ income. My simple spiel was that the Green Party wanted to save the planet for future generations, but the only thing we could guarantee was higher taxes on better off people like them. Would they please give us the publicity that a significant vote would provide.

That is my own experience, but there is hard evidence. In the 1989 European Election we averaged 15%. Where? Our best result and one of the Tories best results – Sussex. Our worst and their worst (in England) – Tyne and Wear. Former Old Labour Green Party members reject this as out of date. The correlation ceased abruptly once the Green Party used the resulting publicity to position itself on the left. But these past and future allies or their now adult children with broadly similar attitudes and views are still there. This is not the place to rehearse the part the Citizens’ Income can play in the process of persuading and educating them. It is all in my blogs and my book. I know it isn’t easy. Natalie can’t afford to upset Old Labour GP members – they too may need to be helped out of their comfort zone – but this process of rapprochement needs to start soon if extreme weather events are not to render this gentle debate irrelevant.

The riskier topic is the benefit cuts. The parliamentary debate would have been the ideal moment, but there will be others. Iain Duncan Smith has left a time bomb under his own desk – Dynamic Benefits (2009)

Again, I have covered this extensively in my posts and blog pages. Overall, Dynamic Benefits is as dodgy a document as you would expect from an IDS inspired think tank. Nevertheless, huge chunks from the first 150 or so of its 370 pages could be cut and pasted unamended under the title “The case for a Citizens’ Income”. The graph on the top right of my blog shows it in a nutshell. The rest of Dynamic Benefits is a skilful  – and still successful – attempt to make sure such a conclusion is not noticed.

Caroline Lucas and Jean Lambert are terrified of any mention of the Citizens’ Income. OK, let’s start with the bad news cold turkey. Jobseekers Allowance for most adults is £71per week. A typical council flat rent in Leeds is around £63 per week. So as an absolute minimum, we give every adult £134 per week. My post on 7th December points out that £25 could reasonably be added as a fair share out of tax breaks, which are worth little if you earn less than the threshhold, £72 per week to those in the 40% tax bracket, and even more to higher taxpayers. But we don’t need to start from there. When opponents try to deride the idea, we shall re-quote the appropriate passages from Dynamic Benefits and point out that anything less, and those narrowly missing out on benefits are having more of their income clawed back than bankers and premier league footballers. We throw the question back: what do critics suggest? The present government’s plans?? There is only one ‘Universal Credit’ – the Citizens’ Income. Instead of the question “What would be the fairest tax and benefits arrangements?”, Dynamic Benefits asked: “What is the minimum we must do to prevent those not working from being better off than those who are?” The government plans fall short even of the limited proposals in Dynamic Benefits.

The message is simple enough: Means testing is a tax on the first bit of everybody’s income. This is massive to the unemployed and all who only just miss qualifying for benefits. For nearly everyone else it is irrelevant, which is why this monstrous injustice still goes unnoticed. Look again at the graph. You can forget environmental worries, or even arguments about who would bother to work and why. All the Citizens’ Income does is shift this tax equivalent from those at the bottom to those better able to bear it.

Incidentally, although redistribution through the tax system will be important, it can be cushioned by resource taxes, as explained elsewhere in my blog:

I wonder what Zac Goldsmith and those he might lead will make of this. It will mean some relief on higher personal incomes, but it could involve the re-nationalization of what should be common resources, not just oil, as in Alaska, but water, broadband spectrum . . . To some it must look rather like what Marx would have said today. I would settle for private companies keeping some of the profits, but that some should help fund the Citizens’ Income. As I say, we must approach capitalist sympathisers more in sorrow than in anger.

Again, the full picture needs a book to explain, but this approach opens the way to a completely new vision of society. In the 1960s, there was much talk of a ‘leisure society’, because of automation. It never happened. It should have and could have, if the Citizens’ Income had been in enough people’s minds then. There really is no need for a preoccupation with work, everybody having to work, and so everybody having to be found a job at a living wage. That is out of date growthist thinking. The whole nasty workfare edifice can be exposed as not only unnecessary, but totally misguided. Why pit the lame, the halt and the blind in competition with the able bodied for jobs that are in short supply, especially in a recession?

In passing, no one seems to have spotted that it was the fact that means testing is a tax which inevitably created such a muddle in the clawing back of Child Benefit from high earners. It should be left as a universal right, and paid for by higher taxation generally.

I am aware that this will be difficult at first. There will be a pain barrier to go through in the early stages. But one group who should welcome this approach is the anti-workfare protesters. They are focussed on the barbarity of the cuts, but until means testing is removed, the government and its media allies can get away with presenting it as allowing skivers to live a life of Riley. ‘Scroungers’ Charter’ and ‘Poverty Trap’ are equally possible descriptions of the same phenomenon.

Finally I shall be bringing this topic to the Green Party conference. It is among the D motions. Please, Green Party readers, tweet everybody to prioritize it. Among my wildest dreams is mass protests carrying placards of the graph above.

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