Saturday, June 28, 2008

The customer is always right

There are many different terms used to describe someone who hasn't got a job. The trade unions talk about 'unemployed workers', tabloids write about 'scroungers', government officials measure the number of 'claimants'. Each of those different terms reveals a different way of thinking about unemployment.

James Purnell, the government minister in charge of Work, has a way of talking about this which I think is new. When discussing people who are out of work, he talks about 'customers'.

His speech to the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion highlighted the doublethink involved in welfare reform. At one moment he was talking about how "people know what they need. People know what works best for them. We need to give them the ability to act on that knowledge...Most unemployed people want to get back to work and we should trust them to choose how," and yet at the next, "We explicitly set out to restrict the choice of claimants, by making benefits contingent on certain conditions."

Then he highlights the success of the public sector, "Their record is pretty remarkable with 60 per cent of JSA claimants leaving benefit within 3 months. And over 90 per cent in a year. And it’s been achieved through fundamental but largely unheralded reform," and then boasts that "DWP is already the most outsourced in Whitehall...The use of private and voluntary providers for us is not revolutionary, its business as usual."

The result is a set of policies which do have some good ideas. The basic idea is to let "customers" choose from a range of different providers who are able to offer support which is personalised to particular needs, whether it is providing more skills training, help with childcare, transport or whatever. It is also going to be easier for new providers who have innovative ideas about helping, say, ex-offenders or people with drug and alcohol addictions find work to establish themselves.

But there are two really serious flaws in the approach that Purnell supports. He says that he is not being ideological, but the very use of the word "customer" is deeply ideological. Reducing unemployment isn't the same as running a supermarket - in many parts of the country, more support for one person won't increase overall levels of employment, but will mean that they get a job and someone else doesn't. A focus on "customers" puts the emphasis on individual behaviour, rather than on structural causes of unemployment.

What's more, the welfare reform debate has become detached from the reality of what it is like to try to find a job and the reality of what many low waged jobs are actually like (not many people who actually have to live with the consequences of his policies would agree with the way Purnell describes the current situation).

Purnell wants partnership working between the state and employment providers, but the essential voice that is missing is that of the "grassroots", of unemployed workers who could tell these people what things are really like and when they are missing the point.

Or, to put it in terms which James Purnell might prefer better - if you want to reduce "worklessness", listen to your customers.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Knowing right from wrong

Via Liberal Conspiracy, the Daily Telegraph reports on the almost unimaginably horrific and tragic case of an 11 year old Romanian girl who was raped by her uncle and only discovered she was pregnant after 17 weeks. Romanian law only allows abortions up to 14 weeks. She was examined by two different medical panels in Romania, the first of which recommended that she should be able to have an abortion, the second turned it down on the grounds that the pregnancy was 'natural'.

Twenty pro-life Christian Orthodox groups threatened to press charges if the girl was allowed to have a termination in Romania on exceptional grounds. The girl's mother is quoted as saying, "Panel after panel, meeting after meeting. In the meantime, my poor girl gets more and more terrified. The last thing she needs is more talk."

Someone in Britain heard about this, and has paid for the family to fly to Britain for the abortion to take place here. This is a tribute to the compassion and humanity of the (anonymous) donor. It is also a small light in the darkness that Britain is a country where someone in this kind of desperate situation can come and get the help that she needs. I think most people in this country, on hearing of what this little girl has had to endure, would think it right that our laws and our doctors do what they can to help.

But not everyone thinks like this. Take this repellent little Tory, who left a comment on the story:

"Excuse me? Since when was it the responsibility of the UK to pass judgement on abortion laws in other countries, and since when was it the responsibility of the NHS to help those who are not even resident in the UK? If this case goes through, the UK will become ‘abortion central’ for everyone in the EU who disagrees with their own national abortion laws (which, given that the UK has a much higher limit than almost every other country, will be quite a few people).

And guess who is going to pay for these abortions? Yes, you guessed it, we will - British taxpayers."

Of course, he got his facts wrong (the taxpayer won't be paying, for starters). But it's not about that. How much do you have to lack in basic human decency in order that when you read that story, your first thought is about the cost to the taxpayer??

I do think this is a symptom of a wider problem. There is a multi million pound industry which manufactures outrage about what an immense and terrible burden it is to have to pay taxes, and spews out propaganda about how the greatest danger to our way of life is from immigrants. Over time, this outrage and propaganda twists people's minds and undermines basic morality, sympathy for those who need our help and compassion.

As another commentator wrote in response to the twisted Tory rant:

"Good. Let them come. Let them come and have medical procedures that are outlawed by unethical laws in their own country...Let them come and demonstrate that they’re not going to stand and be victimised by bullying tactics by the lobbyists in their own country. Let them come and show that the UK ’s abortion laws, while still stupid, are what women want and need.

And let us accept them. We have a human rights responsibility here."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Reducing discrimination

It's often quite a good sign when critics of a new policy choose to pretend that it is about something else entirely. So, for example, the Daily Mail and others are pretending that the Single Equality Bill which Harriet Harman announced today is about 'Positive Discrimination', giving women and ethnic minorities the chance to get jobs ahead of better qualified white men.

But the bill doesn't allow for that. What it does is to give employers the reassurance that if they have two candidates of equal merit (say, who have scored equally highly at interview), then they can pick on the grounds of diversity without having to fear getting sued. So a primary school where all the teachers are female can choose to hire a male teacher rather than an equally qualified female teacher on the grounds that it is good for children to have both positive male and female role models. Or an employer can make sure that their staff are representative of the wider community and of their customers. There is nothing forcing employers to do this if they don't want to.

The media, of course, has its own way of deciding how to 'break the tie' between equally qualified candidates. Preference is given to the candidate who has relatives who already works in the media, or who has independent sources of income and can therefore afford to work as an intern for several months. No wonder the response to Harman's proposals has been so ferocious.

The other measures in the bill also seem sensible. As a taxpayer, I want to be sure that my taxes aren't being spent by public sector organisations, or private companies which receive public money, in a way which discriminates by paying women a lot less than men. This bill will mean that they have to audit and publish people's salaries, so that this problem is less likely to happen. Replacing 116 different pieces of equality legislation, including 35 acts, 52 statutory instruments, 13 codes of practice and 16 European Commission directives with just one Bill is a good idea. And outlawing particular kinds of age discrimination against older people is important.

While this is all sensible, moderate stuff, there are ways that it could be amended to help reduce discrimination still further. Most part time workers are women, and part time workers are on average paid less per hour, more likely to get sacked and have fewer employment rights. There is an assumption built into the law that mothers will take time off to look after their children when they have a baby, when parents should be able to choose how to split the year's parental leave between mother and father. Childcare costs are too high, and yet childcare workers aren't paid enough. Lots of working-class women and men get stuck in low paid jobs with no opportunities for progression, while the highest earners get inflation-busting pay rises.

In one way it is a shame that the debate is going to be about what the Single Equality Bill is not, rather than what it actually does include and how it could be extended. But the response was always going to be like this - based on a combination of misrepresentation of what is proposed with the return of the oh so hilarious jokes about political correctness.

It is nice to see a government minister who doesn't duck this challenge and tells people the truth which lots of them don't want to hear, that women are paid less, that this is a result of entrenched discrimination, and that the government is going to try to do something about it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Discrimination not dependency

Yvonne Roberts argues for everyone to have a decent minimum standard of living, and that without this, rhetoric about social mobility, or small targeted grants, won't achieve much.

It's a good argument, and it feels mean to nit pick, but the underlying tone is based on the incorrect assumption that people on very low incomes are behaving irrationally, and that the task for policy-makers is therefore to set up the correct set of incentives to change this. There's actually an even more interesting story than the one Roberts is aware of in all of this.

Roberts cites (but I don't think has actually read) some research carried out by ATD 4th World. I don't think she's read it because she goes on to write about how services like parenting classes and nutritional advice for poor families 'inculcate dependency'.

ATD 4th World are a very interesting and admirable organisation. One way in which they are different from, say, the Young Foundation, where Yvonne Roberts works, is that they are all about people living on very low incomes speaking for themselves. Their view is that the efforts and experiences of people living in poverty should be the starting point in anti-poverty initiatives.

One strand of their work is about working for better services. So, for example, one project they run is about training social workers to understand poverty better, with some of their members going into training colleges to run sessions. They do this because they found that a lot of very poor families were having their children taken away from them when in fact the problems in the family were not caused by abuse, but by the effects of poverty. Better trained social workers were then able to work more effectively. They've got a report called 'Getting the Right Trainers' which is well worth ordering.

Another example might be a teacher who sees one of their pupils come into school late every day. One kind of teacher might shout at the pupil and give them a hard time. Another might be kind and understanding, but blame the parent who they assume can't be bothered to get out of bed to get their child to go to school. ATD 4th world's research shows that both of these responses are often based on prejudice, and it's just as likely to have been the case that the parent had been up early, cajoling and encouraging their child to go to school even though the child didn't want to and was scared because they were being bullied.

The research that Roberts quotes found that the services which very poor people use are ones which they often find "unhelpful, unapproachable, complicated to use or even untrustworthy."

Bad services discriminate against people. They are a major cause of sickness, and drain people's time, energy and self confidence. In some cases they neglect when help is needed, in others they intrude when support and understanding is needed. But one thing which they don't do is 'inculcate dependency'.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Tories lying about pensioners

Via Guido, the Tories have just produced an Annual Report on Gordon Brown, which you can download here. This is part of their strategy of ending Punch and Judy politics attacking him personally.

It is clearly a compilation of everything that the Tories think is bad about Gordon Brown, in a sort of 'let's throw in everything regardless of importance or coherence' kind of way. So, for example, one of the criticisms of him is that he wished Scotland good luck in a football match, but then they got beaten by the reigning world champions Italy, and another is that he pursued policies which the European Commission didn't like. Another six pages are taken up with quoting newspaper articles where people anonymously say that they don't like Gordon Brown. And there are four pages of pictures, which are seriously on the level of 'here he in a picture which makes it look like his hair is on fire, even though it isn't.'

There aren't many facts in this document. But there is one which the Tories seem to think is so good, it appears twice. They claim that pensioner poverty is 100,000 higher now than in 1997, and cite the DWP report to prove this.

But the thing is, the DWP report says nothing of the kind. There are two ways of measuring poverty over time. One is a contemporary measure, and one is to compare income held constant in real terms as of a particular date. The former compares how many people are in relative poverty at any given time, whereas the latter is a better measure of how poverty levels in one year actually compare to those in a previous year.

On the constant in real terms measure, poverty amongst pensioners has fallen by 1 million (2.4 million compared to 1.4 million). On the contemporary measure before housing costs, which is presumably the one the Tories are using, it fell by 100,000 (from 2.3 million to 2.2 million). If you look at the situation after housing costs, levels of poverty fell even more dramatically, by 1.8 million on the former measure, and 800,000 on the latter. But I guess the Tories didn't realise that some pensioners might actually have to pay housing costs, or something.

So living standards amongst pensioners have increased substantially since 1997, and levels of inequality are lower, though there has been a smaller reduction because most other people got richer as well. And Tory researchers can't read a table (it's page 161, if you are interested).

What's so interesting about this little example is that it shows that the Tories either aren't prepared or aren't able in terms of basic competence and reading comprehension to have an honest debate about the issues and so are instead relying on smears, personal attacks, and making claims and crossing their fingers that no one checks them.

While there are indeed people who will anonymously slag Gordon Brown off in the newspapers, and photos which make him look a bit silly, if you move away from these weighty issues to trivia such as 'has Gordon Brown helped poor pensioners' or 'have Labour done better than the Tories did when they were in charge', you get a rather different picture.

The other side of the story

The Observer reports that migrants are planning to form a new political party to stand in local and national elections in order to campaign for welfare benefits for jobless migrants. The immediate cause of this is the planned withdrawal of free healthcare for people who have travelled from their own country to get operations more quickly and at a lower cost than they would otherwise have been able to. So the taxpayer ends up paying for free treatment for nearly half a million foreigners, and services are apparently at 'saturation point' as a result.

Astonishingly, neither the Telegraph nor the Daily Mail's websites are covering this story. Or maybe it is not so surprising.

Because the country in question is Spain, and the migrants are British.

Friday, June 20, 2008

A tale of two ministers

Two government ministers provoked unexpectedly hostile reactions recently with comments that they made. One did so by trying to have a proper discussion about an important issue, the other by repeating some political-class gossip.

Good Old Boy Number 55 Tom Harris MP wrote about how we are now richer than ever before, but not happier. This got picked up by the Daily Mail as 'extraordinary outburst as minister tells credit crunch Brits to cheer up'. But it's actually sparked quite a good discussion on his blog, here, here and here.

Inevitably, there's a certain amount of 'I am miserable because we live in a dictatorship, that is why we the people are going to vote you out' sort of dribble amongst the comments [tip to Tom: if you delete those comments it will make those people happy as it validates their sense of living in a neo-fascist police state, and it also improves the discussion for the rest of us]. There are also others who agree with Tom and think the Daily Mail is being ridiculous. Perhaps most importantly, there are some very good comments from people who are finding it tough to cope at the moment, making points which government ministers ought to listen to and act on.

This is exactly the sort of thing which politicians should be encouraged to do more of, starting off discussions about interesting and important subjects rather than just lowest common denominator statements aimed at not causing offence amongst the professionally outraged.

And then there is Labour minister Andy Burnham, who is quite rightly having to do a most entertaining grovel to the director of civil liberties pressure group Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, after repeating bits of Westminster gossip about her influence on David Davis. Shami's response was an object lesson in how to respond politically to potentially damaging smears. Rather than ignore them and hope they go away, bring it out into the open on your own terms and turn the tables.

I get that, as Sadie points out, it would be more in line with Liberty's general principles if she just shrugged Burnham's comments off and made a joke of it rather than threatening legal action, but by doing it this way she got masses of press coverage and guaranteed at least another day's worth of discussion about civil liberties and the David Davis by-election. If it discourages this kind of 'banter' in the future, then all the better.

There is, of course, a good tradition of people who work for Liberty or its predecessor becoming Labour representatives, though recent policy developments have made that less likely for the moment. But the idea of a job swap where Shami Chakrabarti became a Cabinet Minister, and Andy Burnham go off to work for Liberty (no transfer fee paid or received) is incredibly appealing.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Two cheers and a challenge for James Purnell

There are few phrases which make the heart sink like 'James Purnell gives a speech on welfare reform'. At a Progress meeting, no less.

But yesterday's speech drew some clear dividing lines between Labour and the Tories on welfare policy, with Labour on the centre-left of the debate, and the Tories way out on the right.

He described the Tory idea of the 'broken society' as being about picking on 'imaginary groups usually named after television programmes', minorities which are easy to stigmatise. They claim that there is this massive problem, but then announce that they are powerless to fix this problem because they want to roll back the state. They take their inspiration on welfare systems in which the main incentive to work is fear. And the nearest they came to any solutions is to say that the voluntary sector will sort everything out, but Tory-run local councils have been cutting the budgets of voluntary groups.

Purnell said that Labour's alternative to this is about using the powers of the state to sort out specific problems which are affecting real people. This approach has had many successes in reducing poverty over the past ten years. It is also important to learn from countries like Denmark and the Netherlands which have very high employment rates. So the next steps are to offer more support in return for people taking more responsibility. A more generous welfare state, Purnell argues, requires something in return. For example, the government will offer people more support to get a job, but people have a responsibility to look for and take work.

It's genuinely nice to hear a government minister draw a clear difference between the Tories and Labour on welfare reform, with Labour setting out the case for collective action to reduce poverty and increase employment, rather than just say that the Tory plans are bad because they would cost more, or that the government are already doing what the Tories say they want.

The test, though, will come when the government publishes its welfare reform white paper. The evidence of the last few years shows that when the state offers more support, people do make good use of it. For example, higher benefits for lone parents have gone hand in hand with more of them getting jobs. The 'something for something' rhetoric, however, if not implemented carefully and with compassion, can end up with unfair consequences. One danger from recent changes due to come into force later this year will be that disabled people end up having the amount of money they have to live on cut because of the whim of a bureaucrat. With welfare policy, it is not just the overall theoretical framework that matters, but all the things which often bore politicians, the technical decisions about how to implement a policy, the local knowledge to ensure it works well, the 'poverty proofing' to ensure that no one ends up worse off and so on.

Perhaps above all, though, it will be interesting to see if Purnell and his colleagues have the courage of their convictions. The active state can help people get jobs and can help reduce poverty, just as he says. The problem at the moment is not that it is doing too much, but that it is doing too little, that's why poverty is increasing. There would be a lot of support for some really bold action. Perhaps unusually, there's a recent comment on Labourhome which sums this up well. An article had suggested that welfare reform should include longer parental leave, shared between parents; free universal childcare; rights to flexible working hours, including parents to stay at home when children are sick; and pay audits to crack down on unequal pay. The comment was:

"I agree with all of this. I doubt there would be many on the left or right of the party who would disagree. So why on earth haven't we implemented it?"

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Voting for doctors

I went to a bit of the Compass conference, and heard Ken Livingstone, Polly Toynbee and Jon Cruddas speak, all of whom were entertaining and had some good ideas about new ideas which would help make Britain fairer and more equal.

Instead of bringing some of these ideas to a wider audience, Neal Lawson decided to write an article for the Sunday Times in which he chose some of his own ideas about how to make our society more free or equal. The problem is, well, have a look:

"But what if we are given a collective ability to motivate the staff to perform better? Then we can improve the big things about public services, such as an underperforming school, for the whole community and not just be confused consumers struggling on our own. School governors, if properly trained and paid, could perform a much deeper role. And what if the headmaster or mistress was elected by the local community? That would serve as a huge incentive towards improvement. The same approach works for the local GP surgery." (my emphasis)

This is almost satirical in the way that it takes a principle far beyond absurdity, to the point of arguing "the problem with my doctor is that he is unelected and has no democratic mandate". It is a little bit like the stereotype about how after the revolution everything will be decided by workers' committees, that somehow elections for headteachers or doctors would drive up standards according to some mysterious process which Neal doesn't explain. There is masses and masses of evidence about how participatory democracy can complement representative democracy and help to improve public services, all of which appears to have passed him by.

But it shows up quite clearly a big problem with Compass. Many of their conferences and high profile supporters are very good and include people who are knowledgeable about what they are talking about, but there is absolutely no quality control whatsoever. Fundraising e-mails for pamphlets in the run up to elections, stupid gimmicky marketing speak and off the wall policies undermine the good things that they do. If they stuck to the good stuff, they'd be much more effective and have many more members.

Different kinds of change

There are two quite amusing criticisms of Barack Obama. The first is that he doesn't have any policies. This appears to be based on the fact that unlike other Democratic Party candidates in recent times, he doesn't give speeches which are long lists of policies aimed at particular interest groups, identified by polling and focus groups. Instead he gives speeches which inspire people and make them more likely to vote for him.

Happily, the internet isn't just something which helps Obama raise money, but also somewhere where he puts information about his policies. After searching on his website for nearly 10 seconds, I managed to find the bit with his policies. There is a page here with summaries of his views on 20 different policy areas, each of which has their own page with more detail, and link to detailed plans and speeches on the issue.

So some critics have dropped the line about how he has no policies, and instead complain that he does have policies, but that none of his policies are conservative. The 'thinking' here is that he claims that he wants change, but only the kind of change that would be different from what Bush did, rather than policies which Bush and McCain would support. Real change is about doing the same, not doing something different!

Here's one from the Independent website RealClearPolitics. The author says that Obama will struggle to win the election unless he can 'slaughter some liberal sacred cows', and says that Obama should support school vouchers (even though most of the public oppose them), make it easier for people to own guns, and realise that the United Nations is Very Bad: 'Petty tyrants and anti-Semitic gasbags have long since corrupted Turtle Bay. Even when you take out the riffraff what remains is an ineffective peace-keeping body whose guiding light is reactionary anti-Americanism.'

The USA already has a President who believe all of those things, and he is very unpopular. They have a candidate for President who also supports those things, and he is losing. And they have a candidate who opposes those things, and he is winning.

What the 'Obama has no policies' and 'Obama has the wrong policies' arguments have in common is that they exactly contradict the available evidence. And, hopefully, people brought up on the idea that the only way lefties can win is to adopt right-wing policies and arguments will watch and learn.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Getting out the vote

There has been a lot of debate amongst liberal lefties about whether or not it is a good idea to support David Davis or not in his election campaign. Whether or not you think the end of opposing the plans for detention without for 42 days justifies the means of joining the ranks of the Tories, Lib Dems, Henry Porter, the BNP and UKIP in backing Davis, though, it doesn't really matter. David Davis is going to be re-elected.

But what will decide whether this has any impact on the debate about 42 days and the wider issues of civil liberties is what the turnout is.

If it is very low, then the government and media will conclude that people don't think it is a big issue, that Davis' stunt has backfired and so on. If it is roughly comparable to the turnout in the local elections, then there is a bit more of a case that people think it is as big a deal as who runs their local council, but even that won't impress many people.

But if the turnout is similar to or even higher than at the last general election, then it will really make people in Westminster reconsider their assumptions.

Setting up campaigns called things like 'Democrats for David Davis' is one thing, but it will be interesting to see how many of the people who regard this as a tremendously important issue on which our liberties and freedoms hang would actually be up for doing any of the unglamorous but important campaigning activities that might actually make a difference in raising turnout, speaking to people in the constituency face to face or telephoning them to encourage them to go and vote, making sure that people who are away on election day have postal votes, delivering leaflets to raise awareness, offering people lifts to and from the polling station on the day itself and so on.

The other implication of this is that it is as important to try to get people who disagree with Davis to go and vote as it is to get his supporters to do so. Politics can be a funny business sometimes.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Migrants Resource Centre

Really nice article by Mark Haddon about the Migrants Resource Centre, including a bit about the work that my friend Nazek does:

"My host at the Migrants Resource Centre (MRC) is the indefatigable Nazek Ramadan, who herself fled the war in Lebanon in the mid-Eighties and runs many of the projects at the centre. Nazek is like a particularly efficient big sister, and when Sergey lists the people to whom he is most grateful over the past few years, Nazek comes in just behind God, and just in front of Mario Marin Cotrini, the MRC's legal adviser.

The centre does exactly what it says on the tin. It offers refugees and asylum seekers advice, practical help, language lessons, a crèche, computer access and a place to meet other people in the same boat.

Nazek and her colleagues, however, realise that one of the biggest problems asylum seekers have to face is the way they are portrayed in the media. Everyone I spoke to at the centre said they were treated well by the public until they admitted that they were asylum seekers. One of them said he was relieved when he became destitute because the public treated homeless people better than they treated asylum seekers.

Most of those who write about asylum seekers have never met one. So Nazek set up a media group, in order that journalists could talk to asylum seekers, and asylum seekers who wanted a voice could talk to journalists.

Nazek hasn't yet risked exposing the members of the group to anyone from the tabloid press, but they have had a fair number of cynics through their doors, all of whom have gone away converted, one of them so moved that they asked a homeless refugee to come and live in their spare room."

Worth adding to this that the media work is only part of the Empowerment Project which Nazek runs, other pieces of work include an anti-poverty group, a housing network and an integration project. It's one of the really good things about the centre that as well as providing the basic services which asylum-seekers and refugees need like a creche, language courses, legal advice and employment training, it gives them the opportunity to be involved in developing policies and being given the power to campaign themselves to change the unjust and unfair laws.

Get promoted, get evicted

For a few months, government ministers and their favourite thank tanks have been explaining how the problem with social housing is that not enough people work, and there is a need to promote mixed communities.

So it was a bit of a surprise to see the New Local Government Network call for families who are living in social housing and earning more than £2,000/month to move out to make way for more needy people. After all, £2,000/month after tax is very roughly the household income for two people each working full time and earning a bit less than the average wage. This policy is a pretty clear attack on hard-working families who aspire to work for more than the minimum wage. Following Caroline Flint's idea of 'work or get evicted', this is 'if you get promoted, you'll get evicted'.

The rationale is that families in this situation can afford to move into the private sector. The very same report, however, urged councils to be given powers to offer financial support to homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages. Many of these struggling homeowners will have incomes considerably in excess of £2,000/month (in some parts of the country, people on that salary couldn't even get a mortgage).

The underlying assumption is that living in social housing should only be for people who can't afford anything else, and that people should aspire to move on from social housing and become home-owners. But many people, particularly at the moment, want nothing more than somewhere decent to live at a price they can afford. Rather than trying to play off lower and middle income earners against each other and turn social housing into a special needs service, a much better idea would be to build enough new homes both to help people in desperate housing need and give the majority of people on average incomes a genuine choice about whether they wanted to buy their own home, rent from a private landlord, or rent from the council or a housing association.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Speak Your Brane Party backs Davis

Making the best of a bad job, Iain Dale comments on the vast gulf between 'people in the Westminster Village' who are anti-David Davis, and what he calls the 'real world' - "BBC Viewers on the Have Your Say website, or the Telegraph website, or the Mail, or the Guardian, or the Independent. Reaction on most of those sites is running 80-20 in favour of David Davis."

The confusion of 'the real world' with 'people who leave comments on the Have Your Say website, Comment is Free, and the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail websites' is the same mistake made by Sir Roderick Spode and the Black Shorts, updated for the modern age:

"The trouble with you, Davis, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the internet by going about leaving comments about ZaNu Liebor and the Magna Carta, you think you're someone. You see them writing "At last a politician with a backbone who is prepared to stand by their convictions!!" and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: "Look at that frightful ass Davis swanking about wasting our money! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?""

Best of all, it is possible that this will be an election where there is one candidate supported by the Tories (sort of), the Lib Dems, the BNP, UKIP and the Speak Your Brane Party of 'BBC Have Your Say' commentators and that candidate might actually be preferable to the alternative (though I'm sceptical about whether Rupert Murdoch will actually end up doing his Silvio Berlusconi impression and stand a candidate).

Is there really not any room in this election for a candidate who could say, "Like David Davis,
I don't believe in locking people up for 42 days. Unlike David Davis, I also don't believe in killing them".

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Good Old Boy #60

Good Old Boy of the day has to be David Davis, unlikely hero of the libertarians.

This is a new and interesting way for the Tories to come up with their policies for the next election. If this is how they get on with each other while they are 20 points ahead in the opinion polls, it suggests that it will get really, really nasty when they actually have to take some decisions. This is all the more the case now that Davis has just acquired a new fan club of people who are very good at strident denunciation and regard any compromise as betrayal.

There's a certain amount of support for what Davis has done from leftie liberals, which is kind of understandable in light of the campaign on 4 weeks detention without charge rather than 6. But I don't it would actually be awfully clever of liberals (of whichever party) to rally behind someone who supports such liberal causes as the death penalty, scrapping the human rights act, indefinite detention without trial for asylum-seekers, boot camps for young people, and getting rid of 'so-called hate laws'.

Lastly, on Davis' own terms, Labour definitely shouldn't stand a candidate in the by-election, because, by definition, if they do then it won't be about the single issue of security vs freedom as he wants. If Mr Jones of Haltemprice supports interning terrorist suspects for at least 42 days, but actually cares more about the issue of road tax, then his vote for Davis would dilute the 'single, simple message' that Davis is looking for.

But if there were an Independent candidate who was prepared to stand for the other side of the argument, then it could make for a really interesting election with a proper debate about some important issues. And, I think I know just the man. Step forward, Cllr Byrom.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Much more than 42 days

One thing which didn't get mentioned much in the debate today about 42 days is that there is currently an all party consensus in favour of detention without charge or trial for an unlimited period of time.

As Tim pointed out, there are many people in this country who have committed no crime, but have been detained for months or years just because they are asylum-seekers or migrants. There's clear evidence that this has causes immense suffering and mental health problems, and it affects thousands of people. far more than the numbers who will be affected even if tonight's stupid policy gets passed by the House of Lords. It's a cruel and vindictive policy with much less to justify it than detaining suspected terrorists.

The big book of imaginary Sun readers

The Financial Times has been doing some analysis of who is most fed up with Labour and why, here and here. Amongst more affluent voters, Labour isn't actually doing too badly - levels of Tory support are nowhere near the levels that they were when the Tories were last in power.

It's amongst the less well off that there has been a much bigger swing. In 1997, over half of 'C2' voters ('White Van Man') backed Labour, now the Tories are actually leading amongst this group of people. Amongst the poorest voters, unskilled workers and the unemployed, Labour were 12% ahead in 2005, but are now level with the Tories.

This is a sign of how far New Labour has shifted from its early days. Back in the mid 90s, the key group of 'swing voters' which New Labour aimed to win over were skilled working class voters. They had been a part of the Labour core vote before 1979, but had switched to the Tories under Thatcher. The fact that more affluent voters also turned away from the Tories to support Labour at this point was nice, but these were never an essential part of the New Labour election-winning coalition.

In large part, the reasons for the swing against Labour is to do with the economy and people's earnings. The income of most poorer households has been falling since 2006, and even since 2001 most of the growth in the economy has found its way into the pockets of the better off, according to analysis by the Institute of Fiscal Studies. The average increase in incomes of Great Britain plc has been 2% per year over the last few years, but the median household has only been getting better off by 0.8% per year.

In addition, New Labour in government have some pretty strange ideas about what swing voters like and don't like. I got an e-mail from John the other day who referred to it as a strategy based on the 'Gollancz book of imaginary Sun readers' - giving bankers billions of pounds to try to keep house prices unaffordable for most people, giving public service functions to the private and voluntary sectors to run less effectively and/or at a higher cost, implementing the European Union's policy agenda such as closing post offices, making it easier for skilled migrant workers to come to the UK to compete for low wage jobs and letting violent criminals out of prison without serving their full sentences. Whatever the merits of any of these policies individually (and there are good technocratic or moral reasons to support many of them), they aren't exactly targeted at appealing to people who read the Sun.

The irony is that most leftie activists who are involved with groups like Compass or the Labour Representation Committee are totally against New Labour's approach of abandoning traditional Labour values to appeal to swing voters. And yet many of the policies which lefties support are actually much more in line with the priorities of the swing voters than either New Labour or David Cameron's Conservatives.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A handout is a hand up

The number of people living in poverty in Britain rose in 2007. This included small rises amongst people under 60, which the government had expected, and a larger rise amongst those over 60, which they hadn't. So what went wrong?

When Labour came to power in 1997, they decided to stick to the Tory spending rules. This meant that the number of people earning less than 60% of the average continued to increase, as it had done for the past two decades. So Labour decided to do something about the fact that the rich kept getting richer and the poor kept on getting poorer.

Their plan was this. They would make sure that people could get jobs, and that those jobs would pay people better than being on benefit. And poor children and poor pensioners, who obviously couldn't work, would get higher benefits.

They tried this for about five years, roughly up until the General Election in 2005. And it worked quite well. Many pensioners who had lived all their lives with hardly any money found that they were better off than they had ever been. And lone parents in particular found that they were more likely to be able to work and also had more money to look after their kids. For the first time ever in British history, someone aged over 60 was less likely to be poor than someone under the age of 60, while record numbers of lone parents found jobs. It's worth comparing this with, say, the USA, where levels of poverty have rocketed since George Bush took over (worth remembering whenever you hear David Cameron put forward Bush's policies for tackling poverty).

But there were still problems. More people were in work, but many of them were still living on less than 60% of the average - work wasn't lifting people out of poverty. What's more, many adults weren't able to get jobs, and their benefits were getting to be less and less in real terms. In addition, many people who were entitled to receiving benefits ended up not being able to, or being penalised by the complicated and badly designed way that they were awarded.

And between 2005 and 2007, increases in benefits for children and pensioners didn't keep up with the rise in average earnings, or with the huge increases in the cost of living caused by things like higher fuel bills. And this led to the rises in poverty which were announced today.

In 1997, New Labour talked about giving people 'a hand up, not just a handout'. But this is a false choice. Greater 'handouts' in the form of higher welfare benefits, whether they are called child benefit, child tax credit, winter fuel allowance or pension credit, have transformed people's lives and given them exactly the 'hand up' that they need. And for all the mythology about 'generous benefits' which supposedly made people decide to watch daytime telly instead of getting a job, it was exactly the people who were getting the biggest increases in benefits who were the ones most likely to get a job.

To have a proper debate about poverty and what needs to be done to reduce it, it is absolutely vital to know that one of Labour's greatest successes in their first two terms in office was the thing which no government minister will dare admit - they put benefits up for poor people and it worked.

Good Old Boy #59

Let no one say that the Labour Party does not listen to the people.

Three weeks ago, the people of Crewe and Nantwich said that having a go at top-hat-wearing Tories was a Bad Thing.

And Labour listened. And they learned.

And today it was announced that Cllr Les Byrom, a top Top Hat Wearing Tory (here, receiving his CBE from Her Majesty the Queen) had chosen to join This Great Movement Of Ours because the Tories were playing politics with issues which should be above petty party politics, such as the security of our nation and appointments to the Merseyside Fire Authority.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Compass conference bingo

On Saturday, the leftie campaigning group Compass are having their annual conference, 'Born Free & Equal'. There are apparently over 700 people going, most of whom are billed as speakers at one or another of the fringe meetings. If you are going, I can strongly recommend a game of 'Compass bingo' to enliven your day. Simply pick five of the words or phrases from the list below, and cross them off when you hear them. When you've crossed off all five, just call out 'the Good Society' and you've won!

Any suggestions for other good phrases, please leave in the comments, here's a few to start you off:

New Labour is dead
Social recession
Nordic countries
Robin Cook
civil liberties
as we set out in our pamphlet
David Cameron setting the agenda
not new enough and not labour enough
failed strategy of triangulation
Barack Obama
Ken Livingstone
I read in the Guardian that
reform of the voting system, need for
demonising young people
pandering to swing voters

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Things not to worry about

As a general rule that, people who support some new policy ought to have at least one good reason to support it.

Largely on this basis, and despite the fact that this means I'm on the same side on this one as John Major and Henry Porter amongst others, I'm with the minority of people who don't agree with the government that suspected terrorists should be detained for up to 42 days without being charged.

Matthew d'Ancona, writing in favour of 42 days in the Sunday Telegraph, reveals that government ministers have taken to quoting from Michael Gove's book 'Celsius 7/7'. That's a variant on the rule above, in that anyone quoting Michael 'Melanie Phillips lite' Gove certainly doesn't have a good argument to make.

This leads on to the comments, where the 'debate' between the 'readers' pits those who think the Muslims are taking over against those who think that the government, like all socialist regimes, are creating a police state. But amidst the gloom, there is this gem, from 'AndrewG':

"As if to prove a point, it appears that the Pakistani Ambassador to Norway regards people who draw cartoons as "terrorists"

There is the danger.
How long before Brown and chums give in to pressure from outside and start declaring anyone who dare to criticise islam as a "terrorist" ?"

And so the circle is squared, and racist and paranoid libertarian can once again be united. The government wants to detain suspected terrorists without charge for 6 weeks because it wants to lock up all the people who criticise Islam. Of course.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Good Old Boy #58: Unity is strength

I really liked this story. It's from a Democrat activist in Alabama who supports Obama:

"I got to the meeting and began the process of hugging the people I knew and introducing myself to the ones I didn't. Someone came up and grabbed my arm. "Mr. C___ was looking for you." I didn't know a Mr. C___, but I had helped organize the night's festivities (we were going to eat dinner, watch the primaries and discuss the upcoming voter registration drive) and I guessed he must be one of the people I'd called. She pointed him out to me -- an elderly black man in a bright orange baseball cap -- and I wound my way through the crowd to introduce myself.

"Mr. C____? I'm [cishart]. You were looking for me?" He was every bit of 80 years old, a thin man with weathered skin and a dignified air. He smiled at me, one eye blind and clouded over, the other bright and sparkling. "Are you the one that called me about the meeting? I just wanted to know if I'm at the right place." I assured him he was and we chatted for a moment before I wandered off to say hello to others who'd come in.

A little later, I was deep in conversation with a woman about my age who was there with her husband. Her husband happened to be chatting with Mr. C. so the four of us ended up sharing a table for dinner. I sat down next to Mr. C. and his face lit up. "I want to show you what I've got," he said, and reached into a plastic pouch to pull out a thick stack of forms and a yellow highlighter. They were voter registration forms he'd picked up that day from the board of registrars. He flipped through the stack, showing me where he'd gone through each one, highlighting the required sections. "I'm ready to get to work," he said.

The four of us chatted over dinner about all things Obama, about how excited we were, about how much work it would take to swing Alabama for Obama. We talked for awhile about the best places in the city to plan voter registration events. Mr. C. patted the stack in front of him. "I'm planning on handing these out in churches and to people I know," he explained. "I'm not about to help McCain get elected by giving them to people if I don't know how they're going to vote." Still, a little later, he said to make sure I called him whenever we were planning a registration drive. "I'm looking forward to working hard this summer."

Eventually the conversation turned to Hillary. We expressed our anger over how she'd run her campaign, the damage she was doing and how ungenerous she was being. Well, three of us did. Mr. C. had gone quiet. The other woman and I talked about how much we hated the media's impression that Hillary controlled a block of white, middle-aged women. As white, middle-aged (ish) women, we found that particularly annoying. Occasionally people at other tables weighed in with their agreement, but Mr. C. still stayed quiet.

A few minutes later, the couple across from me moved over to chat with someone else. I was finishing the last bit of my meal when Mr. C. spoke for the first time in several minutes. "I like Hillary," he offered quietly.

I turned to face him and his eyes were troubled. "Me and my family," he said, "we've always been close with the Clintons. They've done a lot for us." He paused. "I'm not going to say anything bad about her."

I didn't know what to say. Looking into his eyes, I knew this man had seen and experienced things I could never fully comprehend. He had been a black male, in his prime, in the South, during the civil rights movement. He had lived his life, raised his family and taught school in Alabama in a time when simply being a a black man in the South could be deadly, much less a politically active black man. This man had heard and experienced Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech in ways I could only try to understand, and it was clear that he felt the full import of Barack Obama's nomination down to his bones.

And yet he couldn't, he wouldn't be bitter about how it had all happened. He wouldn't let himself be angry over the things Hillary did or didn't do or say in this campaign, because for him none of those things erased the very real good that she and Bill Clinton had done in the past. And he understood that nothing she said or didn't say this night could tarnish the importance of what was happening. Barack Obama, a black man, was the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. The only thing that was important now was getting him elected.

As Barack is fond of saying, one voice can change a room, and if one voice can change a room it can change a group, if one voice can change a group then it can change a community, and that one voice can then change a state and change the country.

Mr C.'s voice changed me Tuesday night. It reminded me of what I'd forgotten in all my righteous bluster. That unity doesn't come from a place of anger. Unity comes from the concious choice to put aside petty differences to focus on what's important."

Vote Cameron, get Bush

Happy days. Via Sadie, a copy of a Tory strategy document has leaked, explaining what their 'serious plan' is for government, and what their priorities will be.

And it turns out that their big idea is that Thatcher-style social reform is needed, to get rid of state interference in society, just as Thatcher got rid of state interference in business.

You may think that this sounds familiar. As, indeed, it is. It turns out that the inspiration for the Conservatives' social policies, the ones that they are going to bring in if elected, is George W. Bush's 'compassionate Conservatism'. If you've not come across these before, Bill Clinton aptly summarised them as "I want to help you. I really do. But you know, I just can't".

So just at the moment when everyone in America, whether Democrat or Republican, is competing to explain how different they are from George Bush, the Tories over here are planning about how to introduce his failed ideas to the UK.

Cameron's idea that the way to make things better in Britain is for the government to get out of the way, stop helping people and leave it to charities is going to be a tough sell anyway because most people intuitively want the government to do more to sort problems out and to provide better services, not to do less and stop doing things.

They are riding high in the polls, but the Tories still have the problem that the ideas that their activists believe in actually don't work, and have been proven not to work in the USA. That their intellectual inspiration for how they would govern appears to be George W. Bush is something which I hope as many people as possible find out about.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Good Old Boys #57: 2 Good, 2 Bad

Two Good Old Boys from the state of Montana.

First up, Democrat Brian Schweitzer. He's governor of Montana, and a possible choice to be Vice President. More about him here:

"[I]n addition to being a strong speech-giver, Schweitzer is a gifted quote-machine. He regularly delivers the glib, funny ways of both explaining his position on policy and mocking his opponents for their unreasonableness. It's hard to think of a more effective way of developing popularity among voters who think of themselves as uncomplicated common sense types. His most notable one-liner is actually a counterpose to the legacy of national Clinton branding of the Democratic Party: "Gun control is you control your gun and I'll control mine." It's glib, it's memorable, it communicates exactly where he stands, it's populist.

It matters when you can give voters lines like that, because the real sell-job is one regular voter to another. When one guy in the barber shop says, what do you think about this guy Schweitzer, is he one of those Democrats who want to take away everyone's guns? The other regular guy remembers that line and repeats it, and now the first guy just learned Schweitzer's position even if he's a low info voter. Low info voters are the voters with whom Obama has the most trouble. None of the names bandied about in the VP talk are in Schweitzer's league when it comes to this ability.

This way of speaking is not accidental. Schweitzer has made an amateur study of right wing radio, to understand how to turn the effective glibness those toxic hosts use for their own benefit into his advantage. Schweitzer is a hell of a smart guy. A soil scientist and rancher, he spent 6 years in Saudi Arabia working on irrigation projects. He speaks fluent Arabic and has an intuitive grasp of the region based on real life experience."

The other Good Old Boy is Bob Kelleher.
Sometimes a Democrat, sometimes a Green, since 1964, Kelleher, an 85-year-old Butte attorney, has run for public office 15 times, losing all but once. His single victory came in 1971, when he was elected as a delegate to the 1972 convention that rewrote Montana's state constitution.

And earlier this week, the Republicans in Montana picked Bob Kelleher, ahead of five other Republican candidates, as their candidate to take on the Democrat Senator in November's elections.

Waste not, want not

David Craig is a man who writes books about public sector waste, primarily in the areas of consultancy and IT systems. He has written an article advising David Cameron on how to save money called 'the easy way to save £50 billion'. He says that it is possible to do this without harming public services.

When someone has an argument like this, I tend to look to see if what they have to say makes sense in the areas where I know a little bit about the subject. I know nothing about IT consultancy procurement, so I'll skip the bits about reducing use of IT consultancy, and pick it up at the point where he argues that we should:

'Impose a three-year pay freeze on all public-sector employees earning more than £50,000 a year, tax their retirement lump sums and introduce a special pensions savings tax to make their generous pensions self-financing rather than paid for out of our taxes - about £2.5bn.'

Highly paid public sector employees are an easy target, but one thing worth remembering is that a bad manager in the public sector has the ability to waste enormous sums of public money, and a good one to save similarly large sums of money. Compare the best headteachers, local authority directors or top police officers to the worst, and the point is clear. So Mr Craig's idea of 'forcing all the talented managers out of the public sector and into the private and voluntary sectors' is more likely to involve greater levels of waste, certainly won't save anything like £2.5 billion, and will have a substantial negative effect on the public services.

Next up is, "Reduce benefits fraud, halve the number receiving invalidity benefits and make housing benefits only payable after the age of 21 - probably another £10bn."

Nice use of the word 'probably'. Halving the number of people receiving incapacity benefit is either just about changing the name of the benefit and paying people less or getting them into work. If the former, then there's an effect on public service (making sick and disabled people poorer), if the latter, it actually involves spending more money, not less. Throw in an increase in the number of young people sleeping rough and it's another terrible idea.

Skipping the EU, the next one is "Cut the number of non-teaching education staff by 30 per cent - at least another billion."

a.k.a. 'sack loads of teaching assistants and make teachers do masses more admin'. If you want a laugh, mention this idea to any teacher and explain that someone on the internet thinks that this wouldn't have any effect on their ability to do their teaching.

Then he gets back on to the audit office, IT systems and ID cards, and finishes with 'we should hand the Olympics back to Greece'.

Now either this article was half things that Mr Craig knows about to do with IT procurement, and to pad it out he's copied the other half about public services from the Taxpayers' Alliance on the basis that people who want to read about waste in government aren't going to be too fussed if he uncritically includes a chunk of right-wing prejudices and spin. Or, all the rest of what he's got to say is as big a load of nonsense as it is on education, welfare and public sector management. Either way, his article proves the exact opposite of what he is trying to argue - big cuts in public spending will have a significant impact on public services.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

May manifesto

One reason why it would have been good to have had a leadership contest last summer is that it would have offered a chance for leftie ideas to get a wider airing beyond the small group of people who follow left-wing politics closely. This would have meant that Labour had more of an idea about which ones really struck a chord with the public, and which ones are worth abandoning or at least not making a priority of.

This occurred to me again when reading the 'May manifesto' which John McDonnell has circulated. It claims that Labour can win back the support of the people by :

Introducing a fair tax system removing the low paid from taxation and ensuring the wealthiest and corporations pay their fair share
Increasing the basic state pension, immediately restoring the link with earnings, lifting people off means tested benefits and providing free care for the elderly
Building council houses
Keeping post offices open
Not privatising public services
Paying public sector workers more
Abolishing student fees and bringing back grants for all students
Scrapping ID cards, 42 days detention and Trident
Giving trade unions more powers and temps and agency workers more rights

I'm sympathetic to each of those items, but this is more shopping list than manifesto. I have three particular concerns:

Firstly, a back of an envelope calculation adding up all of the above makes that a £15bn + tax cut for low paid workers (depending on what 'removing them from taxation' means - presumably they would still pay VAT, for example?) and extra spending of some £60 bn +, increasing significantly year on year. The government saves a bit from not renewing Trident and not bringing in ID cards, but those are mainly one off savings, which means tax rises on wealthy individuals and businesses of some £70 billion per year. That probably is more like their fair share of the overall national wealth, but I don't reckon they will see it like that, and I'm not particularly confident that it is possible to get that sort of money out of them.

Secondly, if there really is an extra £75 billion of revenue out there which could be raised from scrapping unpopular projects and from increased taxes on wealthy people and corporations, it seems a bit harsh that most of the poorest pensioners, children, disabled people and people who are out of work don't get to see any of it. Why prioritise relinking pensions to earnings, but not out of work benefits, for example, and why should the pensioner on £400/week get more than one on £120/week?

Thirdly, there isn't any common theme to these policies, beyond the fact that different lobby groups want them. The best manifestos are ones where the policies are linked by a common theme, and where together they add up to more than the sum of their parts.

These are just policy criticisms, there is a whole different debate about how to present these sorts of things and what thinking would be needed to answer critics, but the sad truth is that the rich and powerful don't even need to bother criticising this kind of thing because they don't have to worry that it will be enacted.

As a way to signal discontent with the policies of the current government, and as a wish list of policies which lefties would like to see taken up in one form or another, the May Manifesto is perfectly adequate. But it is not the kind of programme which is anywhere near being a viable alternative to the current set of policies of the government, and that is a great shame.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Good Old Boy #56: Brown to superheros "You work for MI13. Like it or not"

This is brilliant. Paul Cornell has written a superhero comic in which Gordon Brown features, advising Captain Britain and helping MI13 deal with the alien race called the Blairites Skrulls, who includes a number of members of the cabinet.

The Daily Mirror reports: "Mr Brown is seen discussing the invasion with superhero Captain Britain and operatives of fictional British intelligence agency MI13. He tells them: 'All British super heroes now work for MI13. Like it or not."

Last night the comic's British writer Paul Cornell said: "I'm quite a fan of Gordon Brown.
"I'm pleased we've given him a PR boost on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world."

Monday, June 02, 2008

Social justice vs the Henley Liberal Democrats

John Harris wrote a good article about Labour's recent success in Oxford, which has drawn forth a response from Oxford Lib Dem leader David Rundle.

David calls for the next election to be fought on the issue of social justice, and which party locally is best placed to deliver it. He cites in favour of the Oxford Lib Dem approach to social justice their decision to close play areas across the city in order to raise council tax by £2 per year less than Labour and the Greens would, Labour's criticism of one of his colleagues who supports legalising heroin and cocaine, and taking environmental concerns into consideration (that bit is pretty convoluted and it's not quite clear what he's referring to, though see below).

Happily, there is an easy way for him and his colleagues to show their commitment to social justice. Under his predecessor as leader, the local Liberal Democrats backed Labour's plans to build a housing extension to Oxford, to help thousands of people who are trapped on housing waiting lists to have a decent home to live in. This extension is on the edge of the city, and is currently in South Oxfordshire district council.

But now there is a by-election in Henley constituency, and there's votes to be had in pandering to local nimbies. So the Liberal Democrats and their newly arrived candidate are attacking Labour and the Tories for 'threatening the Oxford Green Belt' with 'major new developments'.

It's not a difficult issue this - on one side are people living in desperately overcrowded housing or who have nowhere to live, and on the other are some of the wealthiest people in the country who don't want social housing anywhere near them. No doubt David Rundle and his colleagues will come under pressure to fall in line and put the interests of their national party ahead of people in Oxford. Will they instead be true to their new found commitment to social justice and tell Stephen Kearney that he's wrong?

Common ground

Hopi Sen has a good piece on the 'redistribution of hope'. In the comments, he writes that:

"It’s the history of the modern state, a strong activist state, but which is aware of its limitations, can work wonders, from the US to Sweden, from West Germany to South Korea.

Of course that power has to be limited, and the role of the state is to serve the individual, not the individual the state. It is social democracy, not the totalitarian state or the laissez faire market, that has wrought mass literacy, mass healthcare, a social safety net, social housing and a more comfortable society for country after country. We can argue about its precise parameters, but the essential truth is real enough.

The challenge isn’t about how to “extend the reach of the state”, but how to change the state's provision of services to meet the needs of all of us. I believe that having established “mass services”, the next great progressive step is to establish “personal support”.

In the short term, yes, that requires more resources, but you’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope if you think that’s the aim of the exercise. I’d be happier if in a generation's time the lowered cost of social failure meant no-one under average incomes had to pay tax at all."

What's particularly interesting about this argument is that I think most Labour people, whatever they think of 'Blairism' or of Gordon Brown, would agree with this, and most Tories wouldn't. Of course, accepting all the above does not mean people will agree on how it is to be done e.g. whether city academies, involving private companies in delivering healthcare and so on are good ways of establishing 'personal support' in public services or not.

But one of the problems at the moment is that there are fierce arguments in the Labour Party between people who often presume bad faith and motives from each other, but actually disagree on a lot less then they think they do. So instead of discussing the advantages and disadvantages of different ways of achieving the common aim of using an activist state to meet people's personalised needs, we go straight to arguments which go like 'you are no better than the Tories because you want to privatise everything' vs 'you want us to lurch back to the left like we did in the 1980s'.

Good Old Boy #55

I agree with almost none of what Tom Harris MP writes about, but it is always entertaining. He doesn't go in for cut'n'paste press releases, or seem to hold back on what he thinks because he is worried about upsetting people.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

What matters is what works

Ben Goldacre, who writes the Bad Science column in the Guardian, makes a very fair point. In medical research, randomised control trials have been commonplace for many years, whereas in social policy, they are much less common. As a result, policies get announced and implemented which sound like they kind of ought to help sort out a problem, but without there being any real evidence about whether they actually work or not.

There's been a really good example of the power of this kind of research from the USA just recently. Researchers were looking at the important question about how best to improve the health of poor children in rich countries. Previous research has established that there was a strong link between low income and poor health.

So what they investigated was 'the effectiveness of direct provision of additional monies to socially or economically disadvantaged families in improving children's health, well-being and educational attainment'. They used several pieces of research in different American states which looked at welfare policies which offered poor families extra money, usually in return for the families meeting particular conditions.

You can read the research paper here. The conclusion was very interesting:

"On the basis of current evidence we have not been able to establish that direct financial benefits delivered as an intervention are effective in redressing this balance in the short term. It is plausible that studies reviewed here did not offer a significant 'dose' (an interventions of larger value or longer duration). This is in essence a statement of "no evidence of effect" rather than of "evidence of no effect" viewed in the context of the monetary value of the interventions studied. While this review has not found significant benefits associated with low-value, strictly conditional welfare reform, the implications for practice is that increasing family income remains a promising intervention.


The gaps in the research evidence remain in the evaluation of unconditional payments of higher value, with high quality child outcome measures. For those studies completed, data collection for outcomes of children in experimental families should be ongoing." (my italics)

The political consensus, shared by all three main parties in the UK and advisers such as David Freud, is that more 'low-value, strictly conditional welfare reform' is what is needed. It sounds kind of like it should work - giving families more money if they make sure their kids go to school, or if they go and get a job or things like that. But sometimes, things which sound kind of like they should work actually don't.

That's why these research findings are so important, because they suggest that our government is likely to spend billions of pounds on a set of policies when there is no statistically significant evidence that they will work. So what's the chance that instead, we learn from the evidence and try out a more promising line of research, as suggested by the experts - substantially higher payments for poor families with no strings attached. These should be on exactly the same terms, that it is subject to randomised control tests and if it works, it gets adopted, and if it doesn't we try something else. James Purnell, who is in charge of this area of policy, said that he was 'ideologically neutral' about welfare reform - here's a good chance to prove it.