The final firework of the New Year’s display had hardly cast out its colours before the first political spat of 2019 exploded on Twitter. The display was a 'betrayal of democracy', proclaimed Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen, angered by the EU colouring that lit up London. UKIP MEP Roger Helmer likened it to flying 'the other side’s flag'.
New year, same old politics. Not even a day of international celebration can pause the mud-fight that is modern politics, but perhaps the New Year's traditions themselves hint at a way to begin dragging ourselves out from the mire. Maybe the answer is to copy the self-deception of those promises to eat less, drink less and exercise more. Maybe it is time our politicians, together, made a resolution. Not something general and empty but simple and challenging. This year, let’s be honest.
It is easy to say that politicians are never honest, or so the conventional wisdom goes, but the resolution is not about the one-off refusal to answer an interviewer’s question. The small lies are symptoms of a deeper rot, it is about the dishonesty of a political class that refuses to defend its decisions in the open. A class that would rather sneak policy through than discuss it in public – this poisons our political discourse, and, more importantly, our ability to govern.
Take tuition fees and the Liberal Democrats infamous U-turn in support of them. The U-turn likely cost the Liberal Democrats 49 seats, but it has also cost a lot more. The lie made tuition fees toxic, scaring away skittish politicians and staining a sensible policy.
The truth is that tuition fees are, overall, positive. Making payment private meant caps on student numbers could be lifted. In response, the number of students studying for their first degree has risen by 27.6% since 2007. Additionally, the entry rates for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have risen across the board - in England, they increased from 13.5% in 2009 to 20.3% in 2018.
Besides the growth in admissions, the burden to the students is often overblown. In England and Wales, repayments begin only once the payee’s income is over £25,725 and the loan is cancelled after 30 years. Given that the average non-graduate salary in 2017 was £23,000, if a student is earning over the threshold it is likely due to their degree. The fees are not really debt but a gratuity for a service that will benefit the recipient for life.
Of course, tuition fees have their faults – the collapse in part-time students is one. Yet, the political fear of debating them openly means small faults are ignored until they become fatal. Instead, politicians make knee-jerk decisions that cause greater damage, such as when Theresa May raised the repayment threshold, hoping to stem Corbyn’s popularity amongst students. In reality, all it did was make ONS reclassify student loans, adding £12 billion to the deficit overnight.
A more honest politician could defend the policy while addressing its drawbacks. Done well, acknowledging the imperfections of a policy gives the benefits greater legitimacy. It allows for healthy scrutiny to resolve the downsides and improve an already good idea.
Reflecting on the benefits of tuition fees for disadvantaged students would be a good place to begin solving the 45% of the value of loans that will not be repaid. If a policy is already progressive, why not make it more so? Progressively increasing payments with income seems a sensible fix, so those who benefit the most contribute the most.
The same honesty lacking from the tuition fee debate is also lacking from the welfare debate. Universal Credit is another sensible policy hamstrung by politics’ obsession with opaqueness. Originally supported by charities, like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, to lower poverty, it instead causes tragic rises in rent arrears and food bank usage wherever it is implemented.
Why? According to the National Audit Office, an overly ambitious timescale and unfamiliar approach led to £34 million of IT write-offs. In turn, a poorly designed system has created delayed payments, made worse by a stingy Advance Payment plan. Political dishonesty about the timescale and cost of such a complex project, in other words, created a despicable mess for which the poor are expected to suffer.
Perhaps if politicians were honest about the scale of investment required to switch to Universal Credit, the system would be properly implemented. Then, rather than causing wanton pain, Universal Credit would work as intended, delivering better, cost-effective help to the poor.
The same logic applies to our most pressing national issue too. Had our politicians acted honestly before 2016, it is unlikely that we would now be stuck in the Brexit mess. Since politicians treat voters with contempt, it is no surprise voters treated their warnings with contempt. Our current national crisis has many culprits, a cowardly political class is foremost amongst them.
86 years ago, at the height of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president of the United States. At his inauguration, before addressing an unprecedented national crisis, he first spoke of honesty: “This is pre-eminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly.”
As FDR knew, and as any alcoholic will tell you, fixing a problem is impossible without first honestly acknowledging it. Now, entering 2019 whilst faced with an unprecedented national crisis, it is time we did the same. For this year at least, let’s be honest.