To Change Direction We Have To Change The Rules

I’m a black belt in jiu jitsu. The style I practice has one main rule – stop when someone signals they want you to stop. It’s a self-defence style, not a sport. There’s nothing fair about self-defence. You only need it when the odds are against you. You’ll only ever be attacked if the aggressor thinks they can win. They might be stronger, or armed with a knife. You might be outnumbered. There might be tables and chairs in the way. We trained with that in mind. Practitioners developed realistic expectations about what success looked like. They learned to deal with chaos. It’s excellent preparation for politics. 

Some martial arts are competition focused. Competitors are matched on grade, gender and weight. If you innovate, and break the rules, the referee will penalise you. They’re every bit as demanding as jiu jitsu, but more specialised. 

The rules change a competitor’s approach. If punching someone in the face is an illegal move, as it is in some striking arts and most grappling arts, then protecting your face is a waste of energy. This becomes a trained reflex. If groin strikes are illegal, you’ll not learn to protect your groin. If headlocks are illegal, you won’t learn how to get out of a headlock. 

This too is a good analogy for politics. How we measure success determines the policies we pursue. Consider school league tables. Testing kids becomes more highly prized than nurturing their learning. Obviously, teachers are well aware of the problem but are compelled to comply with the rules. 

We have a mental health crisis in our schools. I’ll repeat that last sentence again. We have a mental health crisis in our schools. Just as it’s hard to accept that a martial arts expert might never have learned how to evade a punch in the face, it’s mind boggling that education policy has fostered this crisis. 

The North East is repeatedly at the bottom of inequality league tables. Health, wealth and life expectancy are all lower here. Our ability to raise money is limited. For instance, the business rates in London is £940 per person. In the North East it’s £300. Local taxation is not the answer. Levelling up requires more fundamental change. 

As Mayor of the Combined Authority, I’m on the hook to create jobs and economic growth. I’ve made a cracking start creating jobs. But growth is a one-dimensional measure. Between 2010 and 2018 Britain had a 34% increase in GDP. We also had a 42% increase in knife crime, a 169% increase in homelessness and a 3900% increase in food bank use. A one dimensional focus on growth will not solve our problems. 

We need to tackle many problems directly, and that means investing to save. Prevention is better than cure. But the rules discourage us. 

Why should we invest in cycling, for example? It’s the right thing to do, and I support it. It improves people’s health, reduces congestion on the roads and improves air quality. But unless it leads to economic growth, I get no credit from the Treasury. I have to divert money from education and job creation. 

But healthier people saves the NHS a fortune. It leads to better lives. It mitigates the massive costs of climate change. All the evidence shows that exercise makes us happier. And in the long term it increases productivity. 

We need a system of devolution that allows us to keep the savings. Everybody knows that crime, ill health, congestion – all these things cost us dearly, financially and emotionally. But we operate in silos. 

The Covid crisis will mean a cohort of disadvantaged youngsters will struggle with their education. If we can support them into meaningful work by the age of 19, and get the financial reward from it, we could invest in their training. We’d have the incentive that Treasury funding would repay us, so we’d invest upfront. It works financially, and it’s socially just. 

This is how we can level up. The rules affect the outcome. To change direction, we have to change the rules. 

Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 11.5.2020