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Practical Progressives: policies from a humanist think tank

By Simon Bowden, Paul Entwistle, and John Kingston

Simon, Paul, and John are members of Dorset Humanists' Practical Progressives group which met in 2023 and 2024 to consider a range of practical policy proposals to make the UK a better and fairer place and to inform humanist thinking about politics. This month, we present their proposals and voting results on three major areas of reform: the electoral system, the health service, and equality and democracy.

Introduction by Simon Bowden, a retired BBC journalist

I'm a co-founder of “Practical Progressives”, a politics discussion group set up in Dorset Humanists in 2023. I'd like to explain why I think “Practical Progressives” flows naturally from my humanism.

Our group does not aim to support any single political party. But it's been looking at ideas for reform which might make our society fairer and more prosperous and able to run more efficiently. Members of our group have a wide experience of life and we know that political reforms can have unexpected downsides. Who could argue with the ideals of communism – or fail to be aware of some of the terrible outcomes of that philosophy in practice? So there is an emphasis on practical ideas.

This has been my personal journey. I was brought up as an atheist from a toddler – and this made me feel odd at school. I was always aware that some big moral questions would be asked of me. We came from a left-wing family – my mum was an Anarchist. We went on “ban the bomb” marches. We mourned when Labour lost elections. I was brought up knowing that Britain was very unequal – and with the aspiration that we should move towards a society where everyone was treated the same.

By various means and strange paths, I won a scholarship to Oxford. I was there from 1969 to 1973. It was a very political time. A lot of students were much wealthier than me. Their mantra seemed to be: “We’ve got to smash the system”. And “Forget Stalin and Soviet communism. We’ve seen the future. It’s here in Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book!” Also “Who’s coming down to join the picket line at the Cowley Motor Works? They’re out on a strike again!” I reserved my judgement on these fashionable far-left ideas, but I was also struck by the heavy right-wing bias in most of the newspapers. So I actually became a journalist to try to find out what was really going on.

I also followed my stepfather in attending Quaker meetings. It seemed to be a way to acknowledge that some human values were sacred, but they weren’t dependent on any dogma or creeds. In particular, the Quakers were in favour of promoting peace, even as far as pacifism for many of them. And they believed in “that of God in every man”. In other words, a belief in the inherent worth of all human beings, who ALL deserve to be treated with respect.

So when I started coming to Dorset Humanists meetings, I assumed that these were the sort of values that would be associated with the group. A concern for the welfare of others and a desire to make the world a slightly better, fairer place. There had recently been a talk on Tom Paine and the Rights of Man by David Warden – and that seemed an excellent starting point.

I now personally think that most moral issues boil down to a tussle between: “What I feel is best for the world” and “What I feel is best for me and my family”. I think often the sane decision means finding a balance between the two. I am not going to give up using petrol or gas power this year – but I may vote for politicians who will do more to support international efforts to limit global warming. I will try to limit the number of times I fly away on holiday. I will try to use less clingfilm!

Humanism gives us the gift of intellectual and moral freedom. What are we going to do with it? Personally, I think most humanists are seeking to build a moral understanding – and are naturally reformist in outlook, rather than just seeking to buttress or improve their own wealth and social position. And I do believe that the latter viewpoint is the underlying rationale of the political right. And the reason that it enjoys such huge financial backing from the very wealthy.

What follows are three topics that we have discussed in our group – and the votes we took afterwards on which ideas we could support. And which we couldn’t!

The topics are electoral reform (proportional representation), the National Health Service, and democracy and equality considered together. Next month, we will bring you our deliberations on housing, modern monetary theory, and trade unions.

Arguments for proportional representation by Paul Entwistle

Paul’s background is in finance. He has a longstanding interest in philosophy and political economy which he has been able to develop in retirement. He is a member of the Liberal Democrats.

I’m sure that readers of Humanistically Speaking know what proportional representation is, but to be sure, here is a definition from Wikipedia: “An Electoral System under which geographical and political subgroups or parties in an electorate are reflected proportionately in the elected body. All votes contribute to the result”.

The political philosopher John Stuart Mill was an influential early champion of proportional representation. He wrote in 1861: “In a really equal democracy, every or any section would be represented, not disproportionately but proportionately”, adding that unless the minority was as fully represented as the majority, “there is not equal government but a government of inequality and privilege… contrary to the principle of democracy” (sourced from The Constitution Society). Put another way, this means that all voters should have an equal opportunity to affect the outcome of an election, which our system most emphatically does not do.

It is not widely known that in 1917, the UK came within seven votes of adopting PR. Lloyd George and the Commons, up to their necks in vested interest, argued against whilst the Lords, perhaps not seeing the irony in their situation, argued for PR, and were of course ultimately defeated in 1918.

Bringing us up to date, of around 120 countries aspiring to some form of democracy, virtually all except those which the UK has controlled have adopted a form of PR. First Past the Post (FPTP) is very much a British disease. We famously share our voting system with only one other state in Europe – Belarus, which is not perhaps the best company to keep! Let's look at seven key shortcomings in a FPTP system:

  1. FPTP gives us minority governments. In the last half-century we have only had minority governments, and even apparent landslides won by Thatcher, Blair and Johnson were only based on around 44% of votes cast. Tough on the other 56%. Similarly, many MPs have minority votes. Surely, we need a system where more than 50% actually want our Parliamentarians?

  2. FPTP gives a hefty winner’s premium to ensure that these minorities get 100% of the power. This is bad in itself, but it also means that there are big losers. For example, one of the biggest anomalies is the contrast between the LibDems and the SNP, whose results are wildly different just because of geography. At the 2019 election, the LibDems with 11.5% of the vote got just 1.7% of the seats. The SNP with 1/3 the number of votes got 4 times the number of seats (3.9% got 7.4%). So an SNP vote was worth 12x a LibDem vote, and the LibDems were effectively disenfranchised. All 3.7 million of them. This is not democracy!

  3. Millions of votes are ignored. We surely want a system where ALL votes are seen to count. Obviously, turnout would improve if that were the case, when currently so many rightly complain that their votes are wasted.

  4. Duverger’s Law dictates that FPTP degenerates to a perpetual two-party system, because of the many wasted votes. This effectively crushes innovative new parties, and ensures moribund and conservative (small ‘c’) politics.

  5. Votes can be widely distorted by tactical voting – meaning voters are compromising and not adopting their first choice of candidate.

  6. Parliaments are decided by about 1/8 of the electorate in marginal seats. The remaining 7/8 of voters are largely ignored in our system, and the extra money and resource focused on winning marginals can seem pretty close to corruption, with frequent overspends by parties.

  7. Safe seats can have very low MP turnover – younger and more vibrant candidates will wait in vain for an opening. Under PR, new patterns of voting are encouraged and new parties have a chance of survival.

Now it's true that various forms of PR can seem complex, although the Electoral Reform Society has a clear recommendation: the Single Transferable Vote system. However, I'm confident that since the rest of the world can handle it, that we can come up with a suitable methodology for the UK! I can confirm that our Practical Progressives group voted unanimously in favour of a change to PR, with most favouring the STV option.

Summary points

  • FPTP denies the essence of democracy

  • FPTP crushes new parties, disenfranchises minorities, is easy to manipulate, governs by see-saw and creates disaffection with politics

  • We need deliberation, collaboration, negotiation, compromise, consensus and a steadier long-term perspective. Probably including Citizens’ Assemblies to help determine policy

  • We need vibrancy, not the sad picture we currently see

  • A majority of the electorate is now in favour of PR, and so are all UK parties except the Conservatives. PR’s time has come!

Further reading

The Electoral Reform Society is a highly-respected independent organisation leading the campaign for your democratic rights. Its website carries detailed analyses of election results, and explains the many shortfalls inherent in our current voting system, and how they can be solved using PR.

How did the Practical Progressives group vote on PR?

  • Are you in favour of some form of PR in general elections? Unanimous 10 YES

  • Are you in favour of the preferred method recommended by Paul and the Electoral Reform Society, namely Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies? Equal split 5 YES, 5 NA (NA means not yet decided or it's too complex or it needs more thought)

Five proposals for National Health Service reform in England

The National Health Service (NHS), revered for making healthcare accessible to all, stands at a critical juncture where slipping performance underlines the urgency of systemic renewal. Unconstrained by traditional fiscal limitations and motivated by a commitment to public wellbeing, innovation can redirect the NHS from unsustainable paths. The NHS should move away from being a political battleground. In this section, the Practical Progressives group is presenting a high-level framework for addressing some of the pressing challenges faced by the NHS. It is intended to initiate further dialogue rather than serve as an exhaustive list of solutions. It underscores the need for systemic changes that prioritise public well-being and operational efficiency, aiming to inspire a movement towards a more sustainable and effective national healthcare system. These proposals are drawn from an original talk by Dr Barry Newman, a retired intensive care consultant. Humanistically Speaking published a long article by Barry in March so here we are only providing some headline proposals:

  1. Establish an Independent Healthcare Conduct Authority (HCA), akin to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which would oversee both public and private health services. This independent body would enforce quality standards, regulate practices, and remain unbiased by political agendas, ensuring that incremental reforms are based on evidence and best practices rather than political expediency.

  2. Integrate the NHS and social care: Integration of the NHS and social care is crucial for streamlined, patient-centred service delivery. Although regional Integrated Care Systems (ICS) initiated in 2022 represented a positive step toward this goal, its potential is hindered by complex reporting lines and ambiguous authority. Placing these systems under the directive of a National Healthcare Authority would ensure clarity in roles and responsibilities, enhancing coordination with various trusts and care facilities within their jurisdictions. This more collaborative framework is pivotal for bolstering coordination and enabling effective resource use, leading to improved care for patients across the healthcare network.

  3. Establish an integrated approach to resolving bed blocking: The scale of the “bed blocking” problem in the NHS is significant. As of January 2023, there were reports of 17,303 patients in NHS hospitals in England who no longer met the criteria to reside in hospital, meaning they were fit for discharge but could not leave due to various reasons, primarily the lack of available care options outside the hospital. This issue often leads to a substantial number of occupied bed days that could otherwise be used for patients requiring acute medical care. This chronic issue requires a comprehensive strategy including the development of halfway homes, hybrid housing, assisted living facilities, and enhanced home care services. This approach should support patients who no longer require acute medical attention but need varying levels of support. Incorporating robust personalised IT solutions for data analysis and automated care can optimise resource allocation and patient flow, ensuring complex health and social needs are continuously met.

  4. Management training reform: The NHS must evolve its management to be as dynamic and specialised as the medical services it supports. The system, at times bogged down by an intricate and top-heavy administrative hierarchy, stifles the essence of patient-centric care. A shift towards a leaner, more efficient management structure is required where the role of management is redefined as facilitative rather than authoritative. Managers should focus on empowering doctors, nurses, and support staff, providing them with the tools and autonomy they need to excel. Performance evaluations should emphasise continuous improvement and adaptability, steering clear of rigid adherence to bureaucratic and often unrealistic metrics.

  5. No-fault medical claims: Implementing a no-fault medical claims system could reduce the substantial costs currently allocated to litigation over medical errors. This system would promote an open culture where professionals are encouraged to report incidents without fear of litigation, crucial for enhancing patient safety and care standards. The proposed Health Care Authority (HCA) would have a pivotal role in this system, setting compensation levels with expert legal advice that are appropriate to the nature of incidents, focusing on fair and consistent outcomes rather than individual case litigation.

How did the Practical Progressives group vote on NHS reform?

  • NA means not yet decided or it's too complex or it needs more thought

  • Should the NHS and social care be run as a combined system? Unanimous 7 YES

  • Should there be an independent board of experts to run the NHS at arms length from politicians to stop it being a political football… Unanimous 7 YES

  • To provide more resources for the NHS would it be a good idea to follow France and Germany in having an element of [statutory] private insurance?  3 NA 2 YES 1 NO

  • Should there be No Fault compensation settlements for medical negligence claims – based on need of claimant and allowing full disclosure? 6 YES

  • Should managers have to belong to a professional body that could strike them off? Unanimous 7 Yes

  • Introduce some small, means-tested charges for visiting a GP or non-urgent visit to A&E for example, to make people think about it and slightly limit the flow? The poorest people would not have to pay. 2 YES 2 NA

Democracy and equality by John Kingston

John is a retired IT Project Manager and a member of the Green Party

Democracy and equality are, of course, subjects that have consumed the lives of many greater minds than mine. But in this very short essay my aim is first to show that equality matters and secondly that improvements to our democracy are needed to help it to be achieved.

Clearly, absolute equality between humans is neither achievable nor desirable. We are all different and we are born with different characteristics and abilities. In every society around the world there are of course variations between people in very many ways, including in their level of economic prosperity. However, there is very good evidence that societies which have lower differences in economic prosperity score better on a great range of measures of health and societal measures than those with wider gaps between the richest and poorest.

Perhaps the best known study of the correlation between the degree of economic inequality in societies and the well being of the members of those societies was conducted by epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and published in their 2010 book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Their initial interest was in the relationship between illnesses and economic prosperity. Their findings were that there was a very marked relationship between a wide range of societal indicators and the degree of economic inequality within those societies. Wellbeing was less related to absolute wealth than to the degree of variations in wealth. This is strikingly illustrated by indices such as life expectancy, literacy, infant mortality, mental illness, homicides, drug addiction and many more, plotted as a graph on which there is close to a straight line relationship between the severity of these problems and the degree of economic inequality in countries around the world. It is no surprise that the USA is at the top of both the inequality quotient and the level of problems, with the UK close behind. The Scandinavian countries and Japan are at the other (and preferable) end of the line.

So how can we improve our place on the graph?  Where does democracy come in? There is an apparent paradox between the fact that every citizen of the UK has an equal vote (apart from convicts and members of the House of Lords) and yet they do not have a track record of electing governments which promote a more equal society. In the early 19th century, when the Chartists were demanding votes for the working class, the great landowners were scared stiff that if the poor were allowed the vote, their wealth would not last long. In response to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, in which 80,000 people had gathered to demand the vote, Shelley wrote these famous lines:

Rise like lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number

Shake your chains to earth like Dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you

Ye are many – they are few.

Yet when eventually all adults achieved democratic equality, it did not result in a markedly more equal society. Why not? In the 2019 UK General Election, Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party slogan, taken from Shelley's poem, was “For the many, not the few”.  But the many did not elect him.

In “Wealth Inequality and Democracy” (Annual Review of Political Science, May 2017), Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage suggest that “Wealth equalising policies may be absent if the democratic process is captured by the rich”. In Britain there is much evidence that this is the case. In particular, those educated at two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, and at fee paying schools, have a hugely disproportionate influence. This is detailed in the Sutton Report “Elitest Britain” (2019).

7% of the UK population attend fee paying schools, but they account for 39% of the cabinet, 65% of senior judges, 59% of permanent secretaries, 52% of diplomats, 49% of army officers, 44% of newspaper columnists... Less than 1% of the population attend Oxford and Cambridge universities, but they account for 71% of senior judges, 57% of the cabinet, 56% of permanent secretaries, 51% of diplomats, 44% of newspaper columnists. If we are to make Britain a more equitable country we need to reduce the dominance by the elite of government and our major institutions.  At our meeting on this subject we considered a number of reforms which could help to do this.

How did the Practical Progressives group vote on 15 proposals to make Britain a more equitable country?

NA means not yet decided or it's too complex or it needs more thought

  1. I accept the evidence that health and social problems are worse in countries with higher levels of inequality. (Life expectancy, maths and literacy, infant mortality, homicides, imprisonment, teenage births, obesity, mental illness, social mobility). Source Wilkinson & Pickett. The Spirit Level 2009 UNANIMOUS: 7 YES

  2. I accept the evidence that Britain’s elite are disproportionately drawn from people who’ve been to private schools, or occasionally grammar schools, and who have been to Oxbridge. The elite include members of the Cabinet, MPs, top civil servants, judges, journalists (especially those writing opinion columns) UNANIMOUS: 7 YES

  3. We should abolish private schools and grammar schools – very difficult in practice. Plus grammar schools may well add value MAJORITY: 5 NO, 1 YES, 1 NA

  4. We should greatly widen access to the best educational opportunities MAJORITY: 4 YES, 1 NO, 1 NA

  5. We should abolish the House of Lords and in the meantime, remove the right of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition to create new peers. MAJORITY: 4 YES, 2 NA, 1 NO

  6. We should replace the House of Lords with a smaller second chamber, selected either by voting or by a truly independent appointment body, looking for a wide range of talent and experience. BIGGER MAJORITY: 5 YES, 1 NO

  7. We should abolish the monarchy, replacing it with an elected President. Very difficult. Regrettably, the monarchy is loved by many. Y to the aspiration. SLIGHT MAJORITY for NO: 2 YES, 3 NO, 1 NA

  8. We should have a truly slimmed-down monarchy which is not simultaneously a huge landowner, cementing the position of other giant landowners and aristocrats. MAJORITY for YES: 3 YES, 2 NA, 1 NO

  9. Reform the financing of political parties, to make it fairer – to reduce the extent to which rich interest groups can buy influence. UNANIMOUS: 7 YES

  10. Regulate the targeting of political propaganda to individuals, through digital media ALMOST UNANIMOUS: 7 YES, 1 NA

  11. Introduce digital democracy, to make it much easier for everyone (especially young people) to vote. Voter registration should be automatic. UNANIMOUS 7 YES

  12. Tax wealth, and close some of the legal loopholes (family trusts, cover companies) UNANIMOUS: 7 YES

  13. Increase inheritance tax, currently paid by only 4% of estates. ALMOST UNANIMOUS: 6 YES, 1 NO

  14. Stop multinational companies who make big profits in Britain basing themselves nominally in a tax haven like Luxembourg, to avoid paying tax in the UK UNANIMOUS: 7 YES

  15. Reverse laws severely restricting the right to hold peaceful protests. ALMOST UNANIMOUS: 6 YES, 1 NA

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