Most of us are potentially only one medical incident, one redundancy, one relationship breakdown, away from disaster, from precariously relying on the sofas of relatives and friends, or a life on the streets.
I was given 10 minutes to provide a recipe for the way forward for Britain at a recent Sheffield Festival of Debate event at Freeman College. I boil it down to a list of just three ingredients: security, diversity, democracy.
First, security. The lack of security is a driving force for misery, a feeder of mental illness, and the foundation of a lot of the consumption that’s damaging the planet and feeding inequitable distribution of resources.
Most of us are potentially only one medical incident, one redundancy, one relationship breakdown, away from disaster, from precariously relying on the sofas of relatives and friends, or a life on the streets. Many face an old age of desperate scraping and scrimping.
With a wholly inadequate state pension, and even for those who have a private pension no trust in financial markets to deliver, many think that a bigger, fancier house is an insurance for their old age, whether they need or even really desire all that extra space or not.
With a steep ladder of inequality - causing untold damage no matter which rung you are on, as The Spirit Level set out so well - in many workplaces, if you’re not on the way to advancement, you’re at great risk of being on the way out.
That means you have to be seen a go-ahead, promotable type, chatting at the coffee machine about your long weekend in Dubai, and clad in this season’s must-have fashion.
So what can we do? I suggested three practical steps, first a universal basic income – the certainty of food on the table and a roof over your head, not subject to the vagaries of insecure employment, benefit sanctions or the work capability assessment.
We also have to greatly reduce the steepness of the ladder of inequality - the Green Party policy of a 10:1 ratio from the best:worst paid would be a good step to that. And we have to stop treating housing primarily as a financial asset and go back to policies that ensure a secure, genuinely affordable, comfortable home for all – in short, building council housing.
Food that won’t cost the Earth
Second, diversity. We’re in a land - a life - of monoculture. Exams force students into total conformity with the dictator of the marking scheme. A teacher once told me he couldn’t afford to teach his potential A* students a single thing that wouldn’t get them a mark, because if they wrote it in an exam, they’d lose the mark those words might have garnered.
Six mass builders cover swathes of the land with little “tickytacky boxes that all look just the same”, which people buy because there’s no alternative and you have to get on the housing ladder. Theresa May’s hostile environment for migrants is chasing out - and discouraging from coming - many who do or could contribute hugely to our society.
A handful of supermarkets dominate our food supply, that most basic of life’s essentials. Four crops supply more than half of the calories we eat, grown largely from seed supplied by a couple of giant multinational companies that also supply the pesticides and fertilisers used in their production.
To change that, we need to transform our farming and food distribution. As the authors of Miraculous Abundance have demonstrated in France, you can grow a huge amount of diverse, healthy food on 1,000 square metres, creating jobs and business opportunities.
The food won’t be as cheap in cash terms as the supermarket sugar and fat-packed processed pap (it will require a real living wage for workers) – but it won’t cost us the Earth. It will come to people direct from the farmer, or through small local businesses – able to compete (and win) against the giants once the true cost of the supermarket model is borne by those profiting from it, rather than the rest of us.
Give democracy a chance
We need an education for life, not schools forced to become exam factories, and genuine opportunities for lifelong learning.
And building the kinds of homes that people and communities need – council homes, on brownfield sites and zero-carbon, combined with a regional development policy that rebalances the economy of our nation so many empty homes can be brought back into use. We need diversity of opportunity, not jobs focused on London and the biggest regional cities.
And to recognise that it is in the interests of justice, as well as human rights, that we say, “refugees and migrants are welcome here!”
Finally, what we need is democracy. At another Festival of Debate event last week I heard a cry of despair I’m hearing all too often these days: “democracy gave us Trump and Brexit”. Oh no it didn’t.
It was a lack of democracy. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in the US, people voted Brexit through a rightful impulse to “take back control” after finding that the two-party system created by our 19th-century first-past-the-post electoral system didn’t give them a way to control their communities and their lives.
What are generally agreed to be the most effective, balanced, and environmentally friendly wealthy nations in the world, the Scandinavians, also have excellent democracies, in which votes match seats and decision making is far better than in our see-saw, media soundbite-driven culture. Before we give up on democracy, we should try it.
Chains of centralisation
And that democracy needs to be local, genuinely visible and under our control. You’ll often hear people raging about their local council and how it’s failing to meet their needs (and as in Sheffield, they often have good cause).
But while in England that’s also blighted by the failed electoral system, it is also hobbled in chains of centralisation.
Only around a tenth of government spending is by local government, increasingly going on statutory responsibilities that Westminster mandates.
The democracy, as the Green Party has long demanded, has to start with the local, with power and resources referred upward only when necessary.
Natalie Bennett is a member of Sheffield Green Party and former Green Party leader.