Tianjin Binhai Library in China. Photo: Getty
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In a cool public library on Australia's hottest day, I revisited what the state can offer

What would we stomach paying for separately and explicitly that currently comes bundled as a “free” public service?

If the state could start over, what would it make free and what would it charge for? Two recent experiences made me revisit that question, alongside the observation that big tech companies are getting richer by extracting small payments from customers too busy to notice.

It was 57 degrees Celsius inside the Sydney Cricket Ground last month. Parts of New South Wales topped the state’s highest recorded temperature. As I went off to commentate at the ground, the streets were busy with ambulances ferrying people to hospital who had collapsed with heat exhaustion. I was concerned about my wife and two children (both under five years old) stuck in our rental apartment, which didn’t have air conditioning.

Ed Cowan, the former Australian batsman, suggested a remedy. “They should all spend the day at Woollahra public library.” I was sceptical, to say the least. A broiling day cooped up in a stuffy public library?

But Ed was right. When I joined my family at the library in the late afternoon, they were in high spirits. Yes, the public space was safely air-conditioned, but that was the least of it. The library is cool in every sense, a kind of interior garden designed to encourage a love of learning. The returns desk is a gap in a lush green bank of real plants. Toddlers arrive at their selection of books via a giant slide. The staircase has a shallow rake and soft steps that double up as seats: it’s inviting to climb, but forgiving if someone falls. Imagine Scandinavian public investment and social cohesion reworked for a sunny place: this is Woollahra public library.

If it sounds more like a chaotic playground than a library, think again. It’s not sombre, but the mood is still calm. Professional writers escape to the quiet corners. Undergraduates cram for their exams on the higher floor. I can’t remember visiting a more impressive new public building.

Yes, Woollahra is a wealthy suburb (although not everyone in the library was rich, by any means). And it’s obvious, given how the modern state is already overstretched, that there can’t be libraries costing more than £3m in every corner of every city. Nonetheless, as we walked back to our apartment, I reflected that when I had been anxious and needy, the state had sheltered my family. Not a hotel or private club, but local government.

That the experience was openly available made it even better. If I ever pick up a parking ticket in Woollahra, I’ll know it is going to a worthy cause. My sense of debt was not just financial – how much would I have paid for the service had it been a straightforward commercial offer? – but also more abstract. The state had provided a service – “free” but unforgettable – that I couldn’t have imagined, even if I’d been happy to pay for it.

It’s easy to celebrate lovely experiences that come without a charge. What of the converse: what would we stomach paying for separately and explicitly that currently comes bundled as a “free” public service?

I pay £7 each time I park at the local train station, “plus a 20p service charge” if, as I always do, I pay by mobile phone. (That is a dubious add on, incidentally, because I’m saving the car park money by using my phone rather than requiring a paper ticket from the machine.) Totted up over the year, £7.20 is not a negligible sum. It’s much more, for example, than road tax, which comes in one annual lump and I always slightly resent. With the parking fees, in contrast, the size of the unit influences my preparedness to shrug it off.

I’m far from the first person to turn that insight into a business idea. When Apple charges me 79p each month for iCloud storage, I do not rush to my laptop and start deleting old photographs in order to reduce my data requirements and hence avoid the charge next time. Perhaps I should, but I don’t. Over the course of a lifetime, the accumulation of those 79ps is good business for Apple. It prices the service below my sensitivity.

Something similar happens when I park at the station. It is necessary and not exorbitant, so I put up with it. However, while I pay £7.20 to park on a small piece of tarmac, I don’t make specific payments relating to the miles of tarmac I drive over to reach the station. I pay-as-I-park, but I don’t pay-as-I-drive. Why should a driver pay only for a stationary car and not a moving one?

We all bridle at new charges, but usually accept the new status quo when it becomes normal. I would accept explicit road taxes if government could find a way to extract the money easily, ideally in small units. It would be the inverse of the Woollahra experience: not free, but forgettable.

Such a scheme is not out of reach. Gergely Raccuja, a 27-year-old graduate of University College London, won last year’s Wolfson Economics Prize for showing the benefits of replacing existing road and fuel taxes with a single, distance-based charge. The weight of the car, how environmentally “clean” it was, and the miles it had covered would determine the charge, to be levied by insurance companies. Raccuja’s scheme projected both a change in driving habits and more money for the Treasury. If people are prepared to cough up for measured mobile phone data, they would eventually get used to metered payments for road usage.

Good businesses keep loyal customers by levying payments that seem unobjectionable, while providing services that appear to be good value. In the same way, government faces a dual challenge: improving the ratio of income (taxes) to resentment, while simultaneously providing more satisfactory services.

In recent decades, huge energy and intelligence has focused on the latter. Perhaps there is now more mileage in trying to improve taxes. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left

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I'm not going to be General Secretary, but the real fight to change Labour is only just beginning

If Labour gets serious about a new politics, imagine the possibilities.

For a second time, I was longlisted for the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party this week. For a second time, just as in 2011, I was eliminated in the first round. The final shortlist now consists of two veteran trade unionist women leaders, Jennie Formby of the Unite union and Christine Blower - formerly of the National Union of Teachers and the Socialist Party. I met them both yesterday at the interviews; I congratulate them, and look forward to hearing more about their ideas for Labour party renewal.

Last week in both the New Statesman and LabourList, I explained why I thought we needed a General Secretary “for the many”. I set out a manifesto of ideas to turn Labour into a twenty-first century campaigning movement, building on my experience with the Bernie Sanders campaign, Momentum, Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and other networked movements and platforms.

I called for a million-member recruitment drive, and the adoption of the new “big organising” techniques which combine digital and face-to-face campaigns, and have been pioneered by the Sanders movement, Momentum, Macron and the National Nurses Union in America. I set out the case for opening up the party machine in a radical but even-handed way, and shared ideas for building a deeper party democracy.

I noted innovations like the Taiwanese government’s use of online deliberation systems for surfacing differences, building consensus and finding practical policy solutions. Finally, I emphasised the importance of keeping Labour as a broad church, fostering more constructive internal discussions, and turning to face outward to the country. I gladly offer these renewing ideas to the next General Secretary of the party, and would be more than happy to team up with them.

Today I am launching LabourDemocracy.net, a new digital democracy platform for the Labour movement. It is inspired by experience from Taiwan, from Barcelona and beyond. The platform invites anyone to respond to others’ views and to add their own; then it starts to paint a visual picture of the different groupings within the movement and the relationships between them.

We have begun by asking a couple of simple questions: “What do we feel about the Labour party and movement? What’s good, and what’s more difficult?” Try it for yourself: the process is swift, fun and fascinating. Within a few days, we should have identified which viewpoints command the greatest support in the movement. We will report back regularly on this to the media.

The Labour movement is over 570,000 members, thousands of elected representatives, a dozen affiliated unions and millions of Labour voters. We may disagree on some things; but hopefully, we agree on far more. Labour Democracy is a new, independent and trustworthy platform for all of us to explore our differences more constructively, build common ground, and share ideas for the future. I believe Labour should be the political wing of the British people, as close to the 99 per cent as possible – and it will ultimately only be what we make of it together.

Yesterday I spoke over Skype with Audrey Tang, the hacker and Sunflower Movement leader who is now Digital Minister of Taiwan. Audrey is a transparent politician, so she has since posted a video of our conversation on YouTube. I recommend watching it if you are at all interested in the future of politics. It concludes with her reflections on my favourite Daoist principle, that true leadership leaves the people knowing that they have made change themselves.  

This General Secretary recruitment process has been troubled by significant irregularities, which I hope the party learns from. The story is considerably more complex and difficult than is generally understood. I have spent considerable time in the last week trying to shine greater light on the process in the media and social media, and encouraging the national executive committee, unions and politicians to run a more open and transparent process. I even started a Change.org petition to the NEC Officers group, calling for live-streamed debates among the candidates for this crucial and controversial party management role. I very much hope that there is no legal challenge.

Most importantly, the last week has exposed a significant fault line in Labour between the new left and the old left. When Jon Lansman of Momentum entered the contest against the “coronation candidate” Jennie Formby, many people read this as a fight between two factions of the old left. But Jon’s intent was always to open up a more genuine contest, and to encourage other candidates – particularly women – to come forward. Having played the role only he could play, he eventually withdrew with dignity. His public statements through this process have been reflective of the best of the new politics. And despite our very different political journeys, he kindly agreed to be one of my referees.

There has been plenty of the old transactional machine politics going on behind closed doors in the last couple of weeks. But out in the open, the new left movements and platforms have shown their strength and relevance. Momentum emailed all its members encouraging them to apply for the role. On Facebook Live, YouTube and podcasts like All The Best, the Novara Media network has been thoughtfully anatomising the contest and what it means for the future of the left. Even the controversial Skwawkbox blog finally agreed to cover my candidacy, and we had a constructive row about the leaked memo I wrote for Corbyn’s office back in December about how to win the next election using data, organising and every new tool in the box.

I am worried about the old left, because I feel it is stuck in a bunker, trapped in a paradigm of hierarchical power and control. The new left by contrast understands the power of networks to transform conversations and win hearts and minds.

The old left yanks at levers, and brokers influence through a politics of fear and incentives. But this tired game is of decreasing relevance in this day and age. The new left has the energy, the reach, the culture and the ideas to build a new common sense in this country, and to win decisive victory for Labour and progressives in the next general election – if the old left will partner with it. 

I am keen to help. So are many others. I hope we can start to have a more constructive and equal conversation in Labour soon. Otherwise an exodus may begin before long; and no-one wants that.

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is a co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at Change.org, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of Labour in 2011.