There but for the grace of god go I

We must do better than this.

Your task is to design a society.  Its tax systems, justice, education, health, and so on.  But there’s a twist.  You don’t know in advance what part you will play in that society.  Philosophers call this a Veil of Ignorance.  You don’t know your gender, race, age, height.  Whether you’ll have a disability. 

You might be born to loving parents who take you to the park and help you with your homework.  Or into a family with a Dad in prison.  You might be happily married, or a woman trapped in a violent relationship.  Maybe you’ve been a victim of knife crime, and live with the trauma. 

You don’t know your abilities.  You might have a talent for art.  You might be academically gifted.  You might, like 50% of people, be below average at exams.  You might live in a deprived area, where drug pushers target your kids. 

Be honest: would you be confident playing that lottery in modern Britain?

The IPPR report, State of the North, was published last week.  “The north of England – like the rest of the country – is currently beset by deep and severe divisions,”  it says. 

In the North East alone, 330,000 workers earn less than they need to live on.  89,000 of our people were given emergency food parcels last year.  That includes 33,000 children.  167,000 women born in the 1950’s have had their pension rights pilfered.  17,000 kids are taught in oversized classes.  37,000 kids in working families are in poverty.  201,000 people waited more than four hours in A&E.  Violent crime has risen by 27%.  Knife crime by 92%.  Since 2010, the North East lost 2,021 police officers. 

But they’re statistics.  Just this week I saw a man in a green sleeping bag on a bench in Jesmond.  He was there the week before.  Would you swap your life with his?

I spoke to a woman in early 60’s who’d had her pension age pushed back by the government.  She had to go back to work as an apprentice on a building site, climbing scaffolding for minimum wage just to pay her rent.  Her joints ache every day.  I know of parents torn between using payday lenders or their kids being bullied because they won’t get a genuine NUFC strip for Christmas.    

Later this week, you get to choose who designs that society. 

 You could choose Boris Johnson, who said, “The modern British male is useless.  If he is blue collar, he is likely to be drunk, criminal, aimless, feckless and hopeless, and perhaps claiming to suffer from low self-esteem brought on by unemployment.  If he is white collar, he is likely to be little better.” 

His plan for supporting single mams?  “If having a baby out of wedlock meant sure-fire destitution on a Victorian scale, young girls might indeed think twice about having a baby.”

Does that sound like the architect of a secure future?  Or his plan to boost prostitution and crime?  It’s a throwback to Ebenezer Scrooge who said, “Are there no prisons? And the workhouses, are they still in operation?” 

Or you could vote to make Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister.  A man who told me, “We need to stop this idea that society is all about competition.  It’s simply unsustainable to have a system where only the most talented do well and everyone else struggles.  Everyone has something to offer.” 

So let’s design society where top 5% pay a bit more tax.  If you’re on £80,000 or more, it’s in your enlightened self interest to pay for Sure Start, for a working probation service, for better schools.  For more kids grow up to be scientists and doctors. 

Next time you see a victim of drug abuse, face sallow from the cycle of shoplifting and prostitution, think there but for the grace of God, go I.  She was once a new born baby with her whole life ahead of her.  Collectively we have failed her.  It’s time to face up to the future, and build a society that works for everybody.  Vote Labour this Christmas.    

This article was first published in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday 9th December 2019

Do we simply turn our heads, and look the other way?