I’ve heard some unexpected things at political events over the years but a call for class warfare at a Progress event had all the probability of a demand for immediate introduction of the euro at a UKIP rally. It came as the young and articulate crowd at the Progress political weekend engaged in some red-sky thinking as part of a dragons’ den style session on switching spending entitled How do we pay for our progressive agenda? The dragons sitting in judgement were Angela Smith MP, Peter Kellner of YouGov and Joe Steer of the BVCA, with Progress strategy board member Mandy Telford chairing.
The radical call was made during a debate on Catherine Vallis’ proposal to abolish charitable status for private schools to fund an industry of ideas. It’s unfair to subsidise the private sector to the tune of £100m when we could use the money so much more effectively to boost industry, argued Catherine, for example through greater investment in innovation and the renewable energy sector. Labour, of course, legislated in government to ensure public benefit from charitable status for private schools but the new proposal was nevertheless approved by a clear margin. The view of Progress members was that elitist schools are still not delivering enough to the wider community to justify the generous tax breaks still bestowed on them by the state.
Before that, a slim and svelte Stephen Longden had railed against the UK’s growing obesity problem and proposed ending the zero-VAT rating on unhealthy processed foods to fund incentives for losing weight. The current VAT system on food is a bit of an illogical mess, as George Osborne pointed out before slapping a new tax on pasties last year. Chocolate body paint is currently zero rated, highlighted Stephen. Clearly the potential health benefits of using that particular product are not due to its nutritional content.
Perhaps nervous of accusations of a nanny-statism and a repeat of the pasty-gate saga, those present voted down the proposal. A particular concern was the rising price of food under the Tories and the impact of even higher prices on the worst-off. I found this verdict a bit short-sighted as eating healthily can be pretty cheap if the right cooking skills are taught and used. Using the tax system to price in some of the costly burden to the state of poor diets is a legitimate way of encouraging healthier choices. Suggestions that processed foods are poor people’s foods and we shouldn’t seek to interfere was rather reminiscent to me of John Reid’s patronising claim that we should let the poor smoke as it’s one of their few pleasures in life. With the Tories contracting out policy in this area to the purveyors of processed food through their failing voluntary ‘responsibility deals’, there is scope for Labour to act here to promote public health.
The final proposal from Alvin Carpio was to provide interest-free loans to apprentices and interns as a way of giving a helping hand to young people at a time of catastrophic levels of youth unemployment. Alvin’s announcement of his preferred funding mechanism – an increase in interest rates on student loans – brought a sharp intake of breath from the assembled attendees. There was great support in the room for action on the issue, and for creating more apprenticeships given that only five per cent of UK firms currently provide them. However, most were reluctant to back ever-higher costs on students given the recent imposition of fees of up to £9k per year by the government. A lively debate followed on whether the wealthy part of the baby boomer generation have collectively been taking the rest of us for a ride for decades, but in the end the proposal was comprehensively defeated.
And what can we conclude from the session? Regardless of the merits of the individual ideas, the modernising strand of Labour thinking is looking to the future and confronting the difficult choices on spending that will face the next Labour government. Not exactly class warfare but always conscious of Labour’s primary purpose of increasing equality and extending opportunity.
Phil Jones is a Labour councillor. He tweets @PhilJones79
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