Dear England

26 June 2016

Dear England,

You have another decision to make. A decision about the sort of country you want to be now the referendum has been decided:

You can ask your politicians to keep on administering the country much as they always have, while working to find an institutional home for the various things currently done by the EU. That is quite a task. More than enough to keep parliament busy (especially while also trying to deal with whatever fallout the referendum has on borders, the economy, society and a divided country).

But will it be enough? Enough to make England the sort of place you want it to be? Enough to heal a divided, and in places, angry country? Enough to fix the mistrust in politics? Enough to keep up with an exponentially changing world where the digitisation of everything is creating huge questions about the future of every aspect of society?

The fact is that many of our laws look out of date, and many of our institutions do not look fit for purpose - and judging by the referendum campaign - are not trusted, are not understood, are not effective and feel remote.

We could all find ourselves back here in 5 or 10 years without any of these things sorted out, anger focused not on the EU but some other target.

There is an alternative though.

We could try and find find something to unite around: a shared patriotic, progressive mission building something new, to redesign how we run our democracy for the 21st century.

Finding a shared mission might be the only thing that can unite the country, and I’m convinced it is the only thing that can address the issues that immigration is a proxy for (ever more hard-line policies on immigration will only embolden those who call for the hardest of lines).

For this to work, every institution would need to pledge to renew itself, every sector of society examined. Below are a few examples of the questions you could be asking, if only you choose to.

## Political Parties

People increasingly display multiple and often vague political allegiances. At the same time, people have the most spare time in human history, and technology has given us the ability to organise large numbers of people, and to communicate with them, at near zero cost.

But political parties are still operating a ‘Get Out The Vote’ strategy. Get the message right (truth optional), knock on the right doors and that’s it.

That parties see ‘A Vote’ as a thing to be ‘Got Out’ is symptomatic.

Every political party, but especially the Labour party, need to articulate what it means to be a political party in the digital age. Not in terms of short-term political victory, not in terms of left-vs-right, but in terms of national interest : how should politics be operated in the UK?

## Media

Media organisations (both new and old) are optimising for people to reinforce their beliefs in social media bubbles. Politicians are following suit. In places, this made the referendum debate look indistinguishable from that of conspiracy theorists.

By any measure, the media failed you during the referendum debate. But how do you want the media to operate? What regulatory and ethical framework do you want for the media in the age of Facebook?

## Income and welfare

The welfare narrative of the last parliament stigmatised many and framed the debate about welfare and tax in terms of ‘strivers and skivers’. Hopefully, the post-referendum voting analysis means income inequality as an issue can no longer be ignored.

But you, England, need to decide what shape you want the tax/welfare graph to be. Everything from guaranteed incomes to flat-taxes to new tax bands could be up for grabs, but only if the way we have the conversation is renewed, in terms of the shape of that graph.

As a country, we are in a good place to be able to do this - the UK has a real-time tax reporting system and a highly flexible (in legislative terms) welfare framework.

## Government accountability

The EU, in the context of the referendum, may come to be seen as a warning about what happens when a government institution is not understood by people (either because it is too complex, feels too remote, or it is obfuscated deliberately for short-term political reasons).

For people to trust government, it is not enough that it provides a good service, it needs to be understandable and accessible for people to feel that they have any agency (especially when things go wrong).

You have an opportunity to demand a new contract between those elected to administer services and those that use them. For example: as more services are delivered digitally, it is possible to put information about what elected officials and what organisations are accountable for a service, at the point of use.

You also have an opportunity to look at every sector - train companies and academies for example - and ask “is this accountable enough”?

## Digital national infrastructure

That non-profit organisations like Democracy Club are having to build and operate the infrastructure needed for a democracy in the digital age (basic things: like lists of who is standing for election!) is symptomatic.

Despite lots of good work in recent years, many of the systems we use to operate the country are just not fit for purpose and are rarely designed to empower people.

You could wait for things to get incrementally better, or you could demand that the government treats building ‘Government as a Platform’ as a national priority akin to HS2, and with a focus on designing for empowering individuals as much as ease of use, so people start to feel more agency and ownership.

## Devolution and reform

Whatever you think of the EU, it has provided a counterbalance to the power of the government. At the other end of the scale, in local government, many of the recent reforms that have been billed as ‘localism’ were actually about letting local government find where to make cuts, or about centralising power in Whitehall.

Outside the EU, we will be left with power concentrated in the House of Commons (soon to be smaller), and real electoral power concentrated in a few constituencies.

Do you really want so much power concentrated in one place? Will it really be good enough if, at the end of the whole process of leaving the EU, you haven’t also decided what to do about the House of Lords, about hyper-local-devolution, or about voting reform?

It used to be easy to point at things that looked like progress. That seemed to stop sometime around 2008. Equal marriage and the Olympics now feel like the last gasp of a period that was more optimistic. Regardless of how you voted in the referendum, it is hard to disagree that there is a lot more uncertainty about today and a bit less optimism.

The only faint hope seems to rest in creating something positive: a rolling, democratic, progressive, English revolution. Something that everyone can feel part of. Something that everyone can unite around and might just restore some trust (so hopefully, we never again find ourselves in this situation again).

This was written as a contribution to the #DearestEngland project