Trade Unions, street marches, and ConservativeHome’s 10 Immoral Commandments

It never ceases to amaze me quite how uncharitable people at all points on the political spectrum can be toward those who don’t happen to share their perspective. Such tribalism isn’t the exclusive preserve of those who occupy any one part of the political terrain. And there’s quite a bit of it about at the moment.

I was mooching around on a couple of right wing blogs yesterday. The overriding narrative regarding the day’s demonstrations was pretty clear. They were being written off as nothing more than the work of lazy public sector trade unionists seeking to protect their non-jobs, which are funded by those hard working tax payers who work in the private sector. It’s all about self-interest.

Yet, the numbers turning up in London and the social composition of the marchers make that position barely credible. Whatever it was, it wasn’t simply a march of disgruntled and self-interested trade unionists scared of the dole queue. Read more of this post

(Mis)diagnosing the problem with access to HE

I tend not to write about policy on higher education, for a range of reasons. But the more I hear about the proposals surrounding the new regime for tuition fees the more problematic I feel they could be. Actually, it isn’t so much the proposals themselves, but it is some of the policy narrative that goes with them. The Government is planning to impose conditions relating to widening participation on any university that wishes to charge more than £6,000. Adherence to those conditions will be subject to annual monitoring. Quite what happens if the conditions are not met isn’t yet clear, but that isn’t the point I have been chewing over.

It is clear that access to higher education is skewed. The statistics are clear – those attending the best state schools and, particularly, private schools are much more likely to attend the better universities. Access to elite Oxbridge institutions is heavily circumscribed. Today I heard senior Ministers invoke a new, more evocative, version of the same story – that more students from Eton went to Oxford last year than from the entire – very large – group of students who receive free school meals.

No one can sensibly deny the broad picture painted by the statistics. But what is the nature of the problem? It is here I think things are rather less clear. At the very least, a very simplistic story currently seems to be dominating. Read more of this post

The mundane malfunctioning of markets – a tale of life and death

We are currently awaiting the fourth visit from a well-known high street electrical retailer to fit a new hob in our kitchen. The first two visits led to a new hob being fitted, only to discover that the new one was faulty. The third visit occurred on the wrong day. No one was at home. When my partner phoned to point this out the company had no record of the booking. They couldn’t revisit on the date we’d agreed (today) because there were now no available spaces. So they are coming next week. Fourth time lucky?

Clearly this is not the end of the world. Rather more salad is being eaten than is normal for this time of year. And there is more oven-based cooking than typically happens. But it isn’t a disaster.

This is the mundane reality of markets. They don’t always work very well. And sometimes the consequences can be considerably more significant. Read more of this post

Economic liberalism and public service reform

[Originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 22/02/11, and ranked most read post of the week]

Are the Liberal Democrats a party of untrammelled ideology – sorry,“principles” – or do ethics and evidence also play a role in thinking? This question struck me forcefully when reading David Cameron’s article on public service reform in the Telegraph. It appears that the imminent Open Public Services White Paper has been formulated with collaboration from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Nick Clegg is fully ‘on side’. We await the details, but if Cameron’s article gives us an accurate sense of what is to come then I think there is – or should be – a significant battle shaping up. Cameron’s position would appear to be “The answer is marketisation. Now what’s the question?”. Is it appropriate for Liberal Democrats to be complicit in this agenda? Read more of this post

Mr Ed’s fishing expedition

Ed Miliband’s speech to the Fabian Society conference today was intriguing. That isn’t to say that I agreed with it all. But it was a fascinating step in the political game and a piece of political rhetoric worth examining. Mr Ed has come in for a bit of criticism for the low-key start to his tenure as Labour leader. This was significant speech to a set-piece event. People were eager to hear what he had to say. And what he had to say was interesting in at least two respects. First, in its attempt to dissociate itself from the legacy of New Labour and chart a way forward. Second, it was a transparent attempt to articulate a route for Labour that will also appeal to left-leaning Liberal Democrats. It was a supreme exercise in triangulation. It was, quite clearly, a fishing expedition.

The strategy had a number of components. Read more of this post

Tribalism and coalition in a media-saturated political environment

We still have a lot to learn about Coalitionland. It is, certainly for Westminster politicos, a foreign country. As Mark Thompson pointed out at MarkReckons last Thursday, Labour seem unable to grasp the concept of compromise, which lies at the heart of successful coalition government. The idea that someone in the Lib Dems or Conservatives could simultaneously support both their own party policy and coalition policy, even though the two differ, does not (yet?) appear to compute for Labour. Of course, while Labour may be making a particularly bad job of adjusting to the new political landscape, they are not entirely alone. A while ago at Liberal Democrat Voice, George Kendall posted in response to tribalism from Lib Dems. The thrust of his argument was that it is not sensible politics for Liberal Democrats to engage in excessively tribal responses to Labour attacks on the formation of the coalition and the agenda it is seeking to pursue. After all, it may be that next time around the voters’ wishes signal that the most viable coalition would be with Labour. It would be rather unfortunate if all bridges had been burned. Remaining civil would seem more prudent. Read more of this post

Frickin’ Bureaucrats

The current government is engaged in substantial reorganisations in many parts of the public sector. Frequently these changes are not following up on commitments made at the General Election. Some embody changes that were, indeed, explicitly ruled out. But I think we’ve now learnt the value of such commitments emanating from the mouths of politicians. Some might say zero. It would be fairer to say they are of indeterminate value – is this a commitment they are intending to keep or one being offered for short term electoral advantage?

The other day I was reading comments generated by a relatively positive blog post at Liberal Democrat Voice on the restructuring of the NHS. In a response to comments the author of the blog post noted the reform as “passing power from a national bureaucracy to locally accountable organisations”. That particular phrase is worth unpacking. It taps into the prevailing discourse that uses the term ‘bureaucracy’ as a pejorative. We’ve had governments for thirty years, influenced primarily by the simplistic nostrums of public choice theory, railing against the inefficiencies of bureaucratic administration and ‘red tape’, usually accompanied by a presumption in favour of marketization or some form of hybrid network structure. There is similarly a strand in the literature on private sector organizations that has described or prescribed – it is never quite clear which – the arrival of the post-bureaucratic organisation. Read more of this post

The poverty of Nick Clegg’s “new” progressives

Nick Clegg’s Hugo Young speech last night is already generating plenty of comment in the old and new media. It was structured around a distinction between “old” and “new” progressives which is highly contestable. The characterisation of “old” progressives was not even a gross simplification. It was a caricature which, as Next Left has pointed out, is not readily anchored in any identifiable thinkers or contemporary policy position. Clegg’s view of old progressives – which would appear to encompass quite a chunk of his own party – is that they have both a simplistic and a static view of the world. To say that it was a straw man, or straw person, would be to do a disservice to cereal-based hominids.

On the other hand, “new” progressive policy would appear to encompass everything that Clegg and his new friend Dave are planning to do. Read more of this post

“Us” and “them”. Yes, them over there. The benefit scroungers.

We have yet to feel the full force of the Coalition’s welfare cuts. But we are perhaps now starting to get an inkling of the reaction they will elicit when they finally arrive. One of the puzzling characteristics of much of the discussion of the agenda so far has been the relative absence of effective and vocal opposition. The Coalition has had a relatively easy ride in the press and in Parliament.

The Tories have very successfully pursued a divide and conquer strategy based on deservingness. Consequently a theme dominating the public discussion of welfare cuts is that the Government is right to think that ‘something needs to be done’ about ‘them’ [choose preferred target] – they are clearly taking the rest of us for a ride and are an unjustified drain on resources. This has been perhaps most effective in relation to the restriction of Housing Benefit. The Government has focused on the most egregious examples of the high levels of financial support going to individual households in expensive parts of London in order to justify the restriction of Housing Benefit for hundreds of thousands of poor households. Read more of this post

Cuts, conflict and Alan Johnson getting all mythical

At the RSA last week Alan Johnson gave his second speech on the economy, the deficit, and the direction of policy – both Coalition and Labour. He travelled under the banner “Beyond fiscal fables and Greek myths” (available via @LabourList). This event got rather lost in the fallout from the tuition fee protests and IDS’s proposed welfare reforms. That is unfortunate because there was plenty in the speech that was interesting.

First, Johnson has clearly been doing some background reading of that economics primer he mentioned when he took up his current role, or at the very least he’s being better briefed. The economic content of the speech was rather more plausible than some of his previous pronouncements on the topic. Read more of this post