Curse of tribalism shackles progress

Published by The i paper (29th May, 2023)

Eleven years ago I travelled to Texas to meet some people who sparked a political revolution that swept the United States by turning prison reform into a conservative cause. The key player was an unlikely champion of social justice.

Jerry Madden, a white-haired fan of president George W Bush, described himself as “a typical Texan Republican, which makes me very conservative when viewed nationally”. He was an engineer by training. When put in charge of the committee overseeing prisons and told they needed to spend another $2bn building thousands more cells, he paused to examine if their policy of locking up more and more people was working.

His conclusion was that they had created “a totally broken system” in the toughest state of a nation that imprisoned more offenders than any other country. Texan incarceration rates had tripled in two decades. He saw how they kept on jailing the same people while failing to tackle underlying problems such as drug addiction, alcoholism or mental health concerns.

Madden decided that this was both a damning indictment of state failure and a huge waste of public resources. So he reached across the tribal divide to his Democrat counterpart and they agreed to divert funds to rehabilitation schemes in order to reduce recidivism, thus cutting crime and detoxifying political debate on this issue.

One critical aspect of this reform stuck with me: how two politicians from different parties sat down and worked out areas where they agreed – the need to cut crime and reduce spending – along with their areas of disagreement. They parked their differences, often profound on issues such as the causes of crime, drug reform and length of sentencing, to focus on trying to fix deep-rooted and systemic problems.

The pair were driven to that point by financial realism – and perhaps it was fortunate both were in the twilight of political careers – yet their solutions were bold, especially in the highly-divided world of their nation’s democracy.

Such an approach goes against the grain of our own relentlessly tribal politics too. Both main parties pretend they possess policy solutions to major problems while declaiming their opponents as deluded fools. Yet they shy away from serious reform in risky areas and consistently fail to deliver solutions to key concerns, resulting in crumbling public services.

The NHS staggers from crisis to crisis,  social care struggles to cope with surging demand, far too few new homes get built. Our rising prison population also has hideously high recidivism rates. Each inmate costs £48,000 a year and Britain has the highest incarceration rates in western Europe, yet the numbers behind bars are expected to soar another 20 per cent by 2027 as politicians compete to win headlines by looking tough on crime.

No wonder voters despair and are left so infuriated by Westminster’s self-serving games. There is plummeting trust in political leadership and lack of faith in their ability to resolve problems the public can see all around them. People are fed up with the tribal games, the hollow boasts, the partisan jibes, the tedious jousting.

Yet MPs can bridge political differences on select committees and behind-the-scenes on campaigns. The Tories even promised to pursue cross-party talks for social care reform in their last manifesto, but it is another broken campaign pledge.

This curse of tribalism, dismal caution and fear of controversy shackles efforts to salvage our public services. So here is a simple suggestion for Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer. Why not make genuine attempts to find common cause on one or two key issues? Follow the lead of those two veterans I met in Texas by working out key areas of agreement while parking any policy differences that might frustrate reform.

Think of the difference it could make for millions of citizens and massive savings for taxpayers if they actually fixed a few glaring problems in health or housing, criminal justice or social care, instead of remorselessly seeking political advantage by demonising the prescriptions of rivals.

You might think this sounds naive in our adversarial two-party system, especially with a general election on the horizon. Yet there is another example from abroad showing the tantalising possibilities of an unexpected bipartisan approach.

New Zealand faced familiar urban problems of soaring house prices, rising population and shortfall of new properties. After Auckland successfully removed some planning restrictions to boost housing density, similar measures were put forward nationally to foster more development. The reform, predicted to double the number of new homes and tackle nimbyism, was passed 18 months ago.

Now The Spectator asks: “Has New Zealand found the key to the UK’s housing crisis?” Yet this bold measure was unveiled and backed by both main parties. Such was the seriousness of the housing shortage with among the world’s highest price-to-income ratios that two combative parties put aside traditional differences, a political logjam was broken and the issue lost much of its political sting ahead of an election this year.

“When there is a housing crisis, you need to lay aside some of your differences,” said Megan Woods, Labour’s housing minister, announcing the plan. “Homeowners and non-homeowners all know the property ladder has been pulled out of reach of too many people,” said Nicola Willis, the National Party housing spokeswoman sharing the launch podium. “Our housing shortage is fuelling inequality and robbing younger New Zealanders of hope.”

It would be nice to think our own political leaders might demonstrate such wisdom with a more consensual stance. Instead, even a mild suggestion from Starmer to loosen outdated restrictions on building in the green belt sparked a storm.

Politicians should remember that democracy is precious and depends on public trust, while real leadership involves more than insults, slogans and stunts. They should seek to heal divisions instead of always stirring them up – and sometimes, at least attempt to work together for the sake of their nation.

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