Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Racism vs Authoritarianism

If there's one thing that is sure in the world it is that the days of "shipping people out of the country" for the colour of their skin alone are long gone. While the odd convicted criminal may be deported along side some perfectly innocent foreigners fleeing persecution, the mass general public is not going to seriously consider that it is sensible when the "Racist Tram Woman (RTW)" says that her various self-appointed enemies should not be in this country.

The rantings and ravings of this person, perhaps in more than one occasion caught on video, are disgusting views...and they aren't to be applauded. The trouble is that they are just someone's views, able to be ignored or challenged as one wishes. Such mature beings are we that we're meant to be able to disagree without causing any harm to each other, save perhaps a little bit of tweaked nerves and a heightened sense of anger. It is depressing then that the woman has been arrested, for something that shouldn't be cause for arrest, as Sunny Hundal says over at the Guardian.

People get wholly unrational when it comes to racism, which is natural given it is such an emotional subject. But the views of this woman are nothing more than extreme and voiced in a anti-social manner. They are, in an objective sense, no worse than when you have to listen to the misogynistic braggings of a guy behind you while waiting to get served at your lunch break, having to hear the preaching of your city centre evangelist, or being with that person at a party that just won't shut up about the state of politics in this country (Yeah, sorry, I'll try to keep it to myself in the future!)

They're opinions, we can ignore them, we can challenge them, we can (ultimately) walk away. Yet unfortunately there is a law that exists that can lead to up to TWO YEARS imprisonment for simply getting on some people's nerves with racist connotations.

Worse still is the growing number of people that are in agreement with each other that perhaps this woman should lose custody of her child. To me this is mindboggling. There is no evidence at all that she is a bad parent, only that she is a woman that we don't really like the look of. I could give up half a dozen names each week to child if the threshold for "being a good parent" was whether or not I personally had a good feeling about them or not, thankfully a persons ability to raise their child is not about such childish and trivial measures.

Yet there are people that would have it this way. She has said a naughty thing, therefore her son is CERTAIN, they will lead you to believe, to become as bad a racist as her, if not worse. Forgetting all of the other influences that a child has, the community around them, teachers, friends, the culture they aspire to be a part of, it is not even certain that a child will take their parents views as their own. Yet these people will assume that this small possibility is a great threat, that needs to be snuffed out.

But why? Even if they're right what is another racist person on the streets, assuming that he has not got violent tendencies (which would tend to be present regardless of world view...but then beating up other same coloured people in a drunken fight because of their class would acceptable to these same masses, no doubt, at least more acceptable than the exact same action committed because of skin colour as the primary factor in target...), what actual harm is that placing us under so much that we need to intervene by breaking up the family unit?

Are we so untrusting of our public education system, of the rest of society at large, that this kid will not have any other scope over the next decade and a half to come to understand the ridiculousness of racist sentiment? It seems funny to me that the same people that fear for how this child has no hope unless the mother is taken out of the equation, and therefore lack faith in both the child and society to be a stronger influence on their own beliefs, also applaud the general public view of the racist outbursts as one of "proof" that people are sane and won't stand for this kind of belief in modern Britain.

Where do these people get off stating that one person telling another that they should "fuck off back to where they came from" is any more morally corrupt than their own statement of "You don't deserve to have your kid so I want him taken from you JUST because I don't agree with this opinion of yours"? Seemingly if the racist woman had shut up and another person on the train had started shouting at her that she shouldn't have her kid, that the state should take him from her, this would be applauded. It would be just as much a "criminal action" (though a slightly different crime), yet I am not sure we would have twitter campaigns to track down that individual and get them arrested.

Such is the danger of the law we have in this country against combative speech. If you offend a lot of people the law will come down on you, if you offend one person then the law...just as applicable...will pass you by.

You'll have to forgive me if I worry more about those that advocate greater state involvement in family life, for tenuous concerns based on opinions alone, than a woman madly ranting on public transport. There are those all too ready to make connections to Nazi Germany, and that we shouldn't "let these views go unchallenged", and perhaps that is where the whole "save the kid from this filth" mentality comes from too. I just find it depressingly ironic that it was just that kind of mentality, stamping out things like homosexuality and religion like Judaism, that we fought against the Nazi's for. The Nazi's thought they were absolutely morally correct too, and used that as justification for their state intervention in the affairs of people's choices and views.

I sincerely hope that the talk of her getting a jail sentence is just optimistic from the "baying for blood" brigade, that she gets a slap on the wrists, a mental health assessment and an obligation to attend anger management classes. In the end we shouldn't cheer people getting put away for offending people, it's all too easy to offend others and we never know when we might be just out of step on public opinion ourselves.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Strikes and November 30th

I don't have a good and generous feeling towards strike action, I have generally agreed with politicians like Cable that have suggested the action of striking needs reform. I'm staunchly pro-worker rights, I think it's disgusting that there have been moves to remove the ability for people to claim unfair dismissal until after 2 years of employment, I don't understand why anonymous applications for jobs haven't become law, and on the issue of pay I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of the minimum wage in an organisation being no worse than a set fraction of the top paid position (for example, a CEO wishing to pay themselves £100k a year would have to ensure the lowest paid workers got no less than £15k).

But strike action just feels to me to be an archaic and blunt weapon used by workers to get/keep their rights, almost exclusively used in an inappropriate manner these days, that fills a void that better legislation towards resolution of conflict could achieve so much better.

Those that strike on Wednesday will be doing so off the back of an endorsement carried by a small percentage of their population. I know..I know...I've heard the arguments about a Tory government being elected on the same percentage, and of the "overwhelming" support by those that turned out. I also think those arguments are disingenuous.

It may well be the case that the vast majority of workers that had the right to vote in the strike ballot, but didn't, do indeed support going on strike. It may also be that they don't. The lower the turn out, the lower the chance of the verdict being 'correct'. Combine this with the fact that those that wish to turn out to these kinds of events are those that are predisposed to striking at the drop of a hat, or feel for the first time that they need to go out and support strike action, as well as the varying shades in between...the "sample" of voters is unweighted and completely biased.

The taking of a strike ballot is akin to YouGov going out with a loaded question such as "The Tories want to give you lots of free money, while Labour are trying to take away your hard earned cash...who will you vote for in the next election", and asking only those in the heart of Witney.

We don't take abstentions during General Elections to mean support for any one party, indeed abstention is a mark of "don't care", or of actually voting against the process in general. Yet the union leaders will put a completely different spin on abstention during strike ballots, I saw one article or blog in passing (didn't keep the link, sorry) that suggested that not voting wasn't a vote for the status quo. How they worked that out I will never know.

And so people will strike, assuming that no deal is reached between the government and unions...in reality there is little reason for either to give much way outside of trying to build a narrative of "being reasonable" with their respective friendly media outlets. The Unions want to show the Government up as not being in control, of the people being more powerful than the government is (quite rightly so in that respect alone). Meanwhile the Government wants to show the opposite, and that the unions themselves are unreasonable and selfish. With a single strike on the cards both parties can play this card effortlessly, and nothing will change. The die will have been cast before the day's strike action starts, with only a violent clash or two likely to sway public opinion (and then only towards to the government, in net effect).

Strike action is neither effective, nor reasonable...it hits this middle ground of posturing for the sake of it. If the proposed strike action was to go on for days...weeks...as it has done in the past with the firefighter strikes (which I have always, and will always, be morally against) and postal strikes...maybe it would be a different story. The government wouldn't be able to just "write off" a day's worth of economic productivity as they would do with a special bank holiday, and the unions wouldn't be able to meander in to the action without a much stronger and publicly acknowledged stance.

But then, as said above, I don't like strike action. I believe it needs to be a final option for workers, you can't take away their ability to simply protest...but if there are avenues of actual prosecution/fine by tribunal for unfair employment practice the chances of anything getting to that stage would be greatly reduced. Right now we'd be seeing the government having to seriously justify the option they have taken, to have gone through much greater consultation with all of the workers that are affected rather than just putting some sums together and deciding "here's where we save the cash".

In the end I find the prospect of Wednesday's strikes a little "meh", I strongly believe that the workers have a case, Labour already mucked with their pensions and there are significant amounts of public sector workers, especially those who have given service to this country for decades, that are going to be significantly out of pocket. That said, the government has been fair in negotiation to ring-fence those very workers that are set to lose out the most. To me it seems like the two sides could negotiate for much longer before having to break out in to an all out fight, but the environment of how we deal with these disputes in this country aren't conducive to taking this more mature and less disruptive/futile path.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Why the Tories will live to regret their anti-AV campaigning

UKIP polled 3% of the national vote in 2010, and yet their stock has risen to nearer 6% in latest opinion polls; a rise fueled in no small part because of the Tory party becoming a little more moderate in coalition and certainly because of their cooperative stance on the EU.

My calculations are far too rough and laden with assumptions to publish fully, but taking the notional results based on the 2010 elections under the proposed new boundaries for Scotland and England (assuming equal changes for each party in Wales, as their review isn't out yet to my knowledge), and attributing a rise to the UKIP vote of 3% universally at the expense of the Tories in it's entirety will mean the difference in 2015 between another Tory/Lib Dem coalition, and a Labour/Lib Dem coalition (or minority governments of either of the leading parties aforementioned).

In simple terms, the rise in UKIP support does nothing but split the vote of the "right" of the political spectrum, i.e. the Tories. Given also that we know that the Tories are suffering in marginals where the Lib Dem vote is holding it's own (most likely due to tactical voting by Labour supporters that still understand ends justify the means in a FPTP system). The effect of this is that such a rise of the UKIP party's vote shifts about 20 seats to Labour as it loses it's marginal Labour/Tory fights even more easily than the current rise in Labour support would suggest.

The future is less than certain and all kinds of changes could happen in what is a very volatile political landscape over the next 3 years, so none of this is a given. UKIP support could fall back as the Tories find a way to placate the far right, or it could rise higher as disenfranchisement grows. Lib Dem's stock could be anywhere in 2015 and the battle between Labour and the Tories is far from over with the cuts and growth outcomes uncertain.

One thing is very probable though: When taking in to account UKIP's numbers, if those people were to put the Tories as their second preference under an AV election, the Tories would have a narrow but absolute majority of their own, even if Labour was as popular at the next election as they are currently in the polls.

I think that the Conservative party will come to rue standing against the idea of an AV system in the end, and perhaps AV supporters like myself will end up having the last laugh after all.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Greece: More reasons against direct democracy

So the Greek Government want to give their people a referendum? How very "democratic". How very wrong.

There's a time and a place for all kinds of different aspects of democracy, and referenda, a form of direct democracy, only really stand relevant in one place; a referendum is needed when the law of the country is changing as to how the people are governed, or interact with being governed. Outside of that, it is used as a tool by governments crying "democracy" to get their own way.

Take Iceland. They were loaned money by the UK and Denmark to get them out of a similar spot to which Greece find themselves in, to be able to fulfil their legal obligation to provide a safety net for savers in their national banks. Then they held a referendum to ask the people if they wanted to pay it back. This is both democracy and not democracy. Asking people what they want, but on a subject where the people (unfortunately for them) have no right to a say without bringing in a wider audience...namely the public of the countries that loaned them the money to get them out of their mess.

This is what is happening now with Greece. Papandreou, realising that he is on a knife edge, if he hasn't completely killed all chances of his party's re-election in 2013 already, has turned to a referendum to hold a politically cowardly position. To the EU he can say that he wants to get this situation resolved as quickly as possible, to the people he can say this is their opportunity to put a stop to the austerity plans that will be increased.

What he doesn't care about is the ongoing effect of this political cowardice, and those that are championing this route of "democracy" are out of touch with how much democracy has gone on to this point.

The people of Greece don't need a referendum to make it clear that they don't like the route their government is taking, they've made that clear already. But then who would like it? Higher taxes, cutting services, this isn't a time to be asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.

But let's say that the pro-referendum people are right, that it's correct to follow through with this most obvious of direct democracy. We have no date, we have no question, we have no clue about where this is going. In the mean time Italy is going to the brink, and the question has to be asked as to how many other countries are still under threat of being pulled under.

It could be weeks, if not months until the referendum is actually put to the people. Will it be about accepting the bailout or not, as Papandreou has suggested, or will it actually have meaning? I say this because simply phrasing the question as a "accept this or not?" question doesn't solve the problem of stabilising markets. So you don't want the deal, but you do want to stay in the EU? Or don't you? Or is it just the Euro you want out of? Or do you want the money but not the austerity? Do you want to have your government find another route out of this without leaving the Euro?

Edit: I've just read that there are assurances this referendum isn't about the Euro. Perfect. A pointless referendum that serves only to weaken the system as a whole. The only problem with Papandreou shooting himself in the feet over this is that he's using piercing rounds, and lying on his back with his feet facing towards Italy.

A referendum, blunt instrument as it is, will not provide the answers that can accurately portray the will of it's people. Condensing the options down to two extremes may be best, but will also risk ignoring the preferred wishes of a more moderate majority.

Then once the referendum is done, what next? Hopefully it would be an issue of simple constitutional due-process. But the reality is that a referendum like this is a political football, and it is also non-binding until the parliament and president of Greece sign it in to law. Will the opposition play ball? Will the president? One PASOK MP has resigned, others have said they will if this referendum goes ahead. If this is true then the government would no longer have a majority to push the referendum result through, regardless of how together the cabinet may be on the subject.

It should be as simple as not going against the wishes of the public and may well go that way, but if the referendum is put in as vague and potentially extreme way as it seems it must, then there is plenty for those in power to argue about it's very legitimacy.

Even if there was an option on the question paper that led to immediate action, the politicians could still try to use it as a further bargaining chip while the Euro burns.

And this is the reason why Germany and France haven't already jettisoned Greece. A lot of stability for the Euro relies on people being happy to use it. If Greece is able to be got rid of, or leave when the going gets tough, there are serious questions over the value of the Euro to financial markets. It would seem that the high powers of the Eurozone would want the Greece problem to go away quickly, but they're powerless to make this happen without undermining their own power base.

If Papandreou wanted to do the best for Greece then he would be a real leader and make decisions, ideally based on some kind of knowledge of what his people want through the perfectly adequate representative structures that exist in his country. He could soldier on, or he could go down a different route...and he could do either of those today.

A referendum just draws this out, doesn't necessarily provide a definitive answer at the end, and damages all involved while indecision and bickering takes priority. This is why direct democracy simply isn't the answer to all of our political ills, and may in this case actually be fuel on the fire.

Friday, 28 October 2011

EU undemocratic?

Is the EU undemocratic? I don't think so...here's why...

Election of representatives
European Council - Prime Minister or equivalent of each EU member state is automatically a member, thus indirectly elected by the public
EU Parliament - MEPs elected by public vote
Council of the EU - Relevant ministers automatically appointed from each EU member state, thus democratic accountability varies
House of Commons- MPs elected by public vote
House of Lords - Lords selected by leaders of parties, or by pre-conferred "right" to sit in the House

Formation of "cabinet*"
European Council - The European Council is it's own cabinet, so is indirectly elected by the public
EU Commission - Council of Europe and President have discretion over who is in the commission, but must be approved by the EU parliament
UK - Prime minister has sole discretion over who can be in the cabinet

Election of political "heads of state**"
EU President (colloquial term) - Elected by representative body of heads of EU member states
Commission President - Elected by representative body of heads of EU member states, and further ratified by the EU Parliament via a vote (second election of sorts).
Prime Minister - Elected by unrepresentative body of members of a single party

Removal of political "heads of state"
EU President - able to be removed from office by super-majority (not just over 50% of the votes, currently over 75%) vote of heads of EU member states at any time
Commission President - Can be removed through a vote of no confidence by the EU Parliament
Prime Minister - Only removed through fixed term changes of party in power, or prime minister's choice to stand down

Powers of political "heads of state"
EU President - Cannot make policy, can only help bring consensus on discussions
Commission President - Controls most of the policy agenda for the EU, policy must be voted on by Council of Europe and EU Parliament
Prime Minister - Controls most of the policy agenda for the UK, policy must be voted on by House of Commons and House of Lords (though House of Commons can force the House of Lords to be ignored).

So in the UK we elect one chamber out of two, this helps to decide who is the person that chooses our policy direction (though that person is elected by a tiny subset of a completely unrepresentative sample of the UK population). This person, along with other party leaders modify who sits in the second chamber, the House of Lords. The Prime Minister then decides who he or she wants to help him form policy, and that group of people entirely unelected by the people put forward new laws. These laws are voted on by those MPs we voted for directly, and then by Lords whom we have had no say in their "make-up".

We can't get rid of our Prime Minister, our MPs can get rid of our Prime Minister with a super-majority (which means those who are in the party of the prime minister would also have to vote them out), and so effectively the only way to change our policy direction is for the Prime Minister to volunteer to stand down, or to elect a new government at the next election.

By contrast the EU system is more complex, but more democratic. The European Council is made up by political heads of state, and as such the nations interest on the European Council always reflects the current wishes of that nation's public as of the last general election. The EU Parliament is directly elected just as our House of Commons is.

Comparison: The European Council is a psuedo cabinet for the whole EU, but unlike the UK where the head appoints his cabinet in a top down fashion, the EU functions on the indirectly elected heads of each country deciding who their President will be. A more democratic situation. The EU parliament is very similar to the UK, MEPs elected by the people, and a second chamber that are appointed. The difference is that the Council of the EU is still supposed to be representative of the will of each member state (since the minister involved at any one time should be following that country's policy direction). The House of Lords is representative to no-one, though supposedly should be representative of the power balance in the Commons. This too is very slightly more democratic in the EU, though could be counted as more democratic simply through MEPs being elected in a way that ensures a much closer accuracy to people's political beliefs through proportional representation.

The European Council decides who should be the EU Commission President and the European Council President (The former more like a "Prime Minister" the second more like a "President" though without the wider powers), they do this with a democratic vote in a system designed to try and forge a unanimous decision. The Commission President then needs to be ratified by EU parliament.

As said above, the presidential role in the European Council is a bottom-up appointment. As for the Commission President, unlike our Prime Minister who is only determined by members of their party, the Commission President has to be approved by both the "Cabinet" of the EU, AND your elected representatives in Europe.

In short, the systems in the EU are fundamentally more democratic than our own in the UK, and where there are potential weaknesses in the EU on the front of democracy it is only because individual member states (like the UK) have poor democratic structures when considering integration in to Europe, and because Europe does not tell those member states what they most democratically achieve to be included in it's processes.


*It's worth thinking about the Council of Europe as a small version of our House of Commons, with each head of state being an MP. They automatically have a say in policy direction in some areas for the EU, and if anyone else such as the High representative of the Union for foreign affairs and security policy is elected in to this sphere of "cabinet member" by super majority, though they have no voting rights. A Cabinet in UK terms is the body of people that decide policy direction for the country.

**I'm fully aware the Prime Minister isn't technically our head of state, but for all intents and purposes (s)he is to be regarded as one.

Monday, 24 October 2011

UK Parliament? When do we get our say?

In the 13th Century the landscape of Britain would change forever as the Magna Carta was introduced, and started the process of a terrifying removal of powers from the king and in to the hands of self styled "representatives" around the country.

Over centuries the powers of the monarchy were eroded away with no direct say by the people of England as to how they wish to be governed. The nearest we came was in 1642 where a Civil War forced the debate in to the open, and despite some early gains the supporters of the Monarchy ended up being soundly defeated, public opinion...it seemed, though was controversially never measured, to be in favour of this abhorrent new way of thinking around governance.

Moving on to 1707 those people that were in favour of Parliament perhaps never realised that their "English Parliament" dream would turn so sour, as a union was made with the Scottish by the English to have a British parliament.

Was anyone consulted about this? Were they asked if they wanted it? No!

To add further insult to injury, in 1801 Ireland was added to the mix to create a UK parliament. Again, no-one was asked if they wanted this, those that fought and died for the monarchy must surely be smiling in heaven right now because at least they could have seen this gross abuse of constitutional rewriting would be the end game.

"But we just wanted English representation for English people" the descendents of the Roundheads might cry. "We never wanted it to go as far as this!"

The fact is that generation after generation has never been asked the question of if they want Westminster, the center of the UK political landscape, to be our government. There have been fundemental constitutional changes, not limited to the increase of unions with other countries but also including giving women the vote, allowing the POOR to vote.

It's sick, just sick that our leaders are riding roughshod over our wishes for a simple say in how we're governed, not by them and their sham gathering of pompous "representatives", but by a glorious monarch in all his or her glory.

All we want is a say, our descendants may have agreed with the setting up of parliament, but it's constitutionally gone too far and it's about time we had an In or Out referendum on Westminster.

Who's with me? #WestminsterReferendum on Twitter, I hope you'll join me on the #No2Westminster side and tell these charlatans that we're not going to take it any more and let them amend, improve and enhance our representation any longer!

Friday, 21 October 2011

Who do we want to be governed by? The EU?

The following comment was made on Liberal Conspiracy (and my comment is reproduced and enhanced below):

“The real ponit though is who we want to be governed by. I think our parliament and courts should be supreme in our country, yet we have a situation where our vote is watered down time and time again in Europe. We only get to directly elect our MEPs, but they are near enough powerless. The actual levers of power we have absolutely no say in. Did anyone on this site vote for Herman Van Rompey, or anyone else in the European Commission? Wasn’t Baroness Ashton simply appointed?”

The real point is how astoundingly people misunderstand representative democracy (and why it's better than direct democracy). Lets just break this down…

Who do we want to be governed by, or rather who don't we want to be governed by? For EU-sceptics it's "Not the EU" because "UK matters should be dealt with by UK government". But where do you stop with this? Why do I get represented by westminster? Why haven’t I got a regional South West government that negotiates on policy with the rest of the UK while maintaining an agreed trade system between regions? Why not town? Why not street level crime policy?

I’m not going to claim one level over another is correct, because it is arbitrary. There are countries in the EU with governments that preside over less of a population than my local constituency, this doesn’t mean that my constituency should be an autonomous EU member state, nor does it mean those small countries shouldn’t be.

You think our parliament and courts should be supreme, yet there is no discernible reason why they should be other than through some kind of nationalistic pride. To argue that the parliament should be supreme is also to argue that a town council should supersede the authority of parliament. If you don’t argue this it’s only because you’ve chosen your own personal and subjective limit of where to draw the line on where authority should reside. But it is just that, subjective…arbitrary.

Our vote is not “watered down” in Europe, it is proportionate. Sure, it may become less strong as more people join the representative party, but it’s still a fair vote. There is no reason why the UK should be getting more favourable treatment than other countries when it comes to european wide trade and regulatory agreements. We already dislike that potential for a German and French bonus from the on going "crisis talks" yet we also want to give ourselves an unfair edge?

To talk of MEPs as powerless is ridiculous. There are about as many MEPs as there are MPs in this country. Do you believe that MPs are powerless in this country? They have got more and more power as treaties have been amended, taking more and more away from the less accountable Council of Europe (or at least requiring that both arenas agree). Again, to state that MEPs are pointless is to state that our MPs are pointless, the model is entirely comparable.

Then we come to the crux of the whole representative democracy thing. For a start you’re overly simplistic on the realities of the “election” of the president of the council of Europe. The European council is every head of state for those in the EU, and has the responsibility for political objectives. It is therefore entirely democratic that heads of state (either directly elected, or indirectly elected) then go on to “elect” their own president, in this case through a unanimous decision by all heads of state.

In essence the president of the EC has one of the best mandates of any politician in the world through representative democracy. And yes, Ashton was also “appointed” but only by in practice getting a majority of “votes”.

It’s time to start thinking a little bit more maturely about the EU (or perhaps to simply start thinking). In the UK we elect an MP who does little but bring our concerns to parliament as a very influential lobbyist (at least if a member of the ruling party), and has a small say on implementation of policy. That MP then helps decide which party wins, and that party democratically decides who will lead them. All the EU does (outside of the situation of MEPs, which is exactly comparable to MPs), for the purposes of European wide political direction, is then extend that party (through their leader) to be our voice amongst other nations. It’s not an alien concept, and it’s readily embraced in this country within our own borders.

So who do we want to be governed by? We decide by who we vote for to decide the policy direction of the country, and therefore what type of policy direction we want to take on to be considered in Europe. If we have a problem with how we’re governed in the EU then we better tear up what constitution we have with our own national governance and try again, because if the EU is not working then neither is our own democracy here at home. They are, after all, as close to being identical models of representation as can be.

Finally...is it really worth all this fuss? The EU probably influences about 15% of all of our laws, a far cry from interfering in everything that we do in this country, and doesn't even consider how much the UK has a say in how EU laws that affect that 15% are created either.

Again, to go with the tact above, is it wrong that national government imposes as much law as it does over the South West? Over individual towns? Streets? At what point do you say "These people, with our involvement in a proportionally representative system where I get a fair say, have no right to tell me what to do" and why?

If one of the best arguments EU-skeptics have is that they don't feel why they should be governed by the EU, then it's their duty to say why we should be governed specifically by Westminster instead, and not one of the other many ways we could provide governance for ourselves. Just don't be surprised if those reasons don't have anything other than desires and "feelings" to back them up.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

GCSE results: Getting worse?

In 2000 there were 401,685 total students in the 16-19+ age bracket for all secondary schools in the UK. This has risen to 528,395 in 2011, an increase of 24% in total student numbers. This is not necessarily an increase in Full Time Equivalent (FTE) numbers, though part time students are a tiny minority of all students.

By contrast in the same period the number of full course GCSE exams sat (GCSE's as we would talk about them) has dropped from 5,481,920 to 5,207,790.

This is an actual drop of just over 5%, but a real terms drop of 27.8% compared to the 2000 figures. Students in the UK are taking over a quarter less normal GCSE exams than they did a decade ago. More students than ever that are noted as being in education that year are not taking a full GCSE (or are taking significantly less full GCSE's).

I don't say this as an absolute negative, as the routes through education have changed, IGCSEs have started to pop up, and there are always vocational routes that could be getting more popular (I don't have data to hand to say they are or not). However GCSE short courses (half length, half reward), though more popular, in real terms have only increased in sittings by 2%; Entry level (Certificate of Achievement) sittings have cratered. To me, where these students are going isn't sitting in plain sight, and outside of a significant number of students taking far fewer exams, it simply seems that less students are taking exams full stop.

Now the current headlines are about the rise on last year of pupils getting 5 good GCSEs. In the UK 69.8% of exam results were A*-C, a rise of 0.8% on 2010. Good news?

The trouble is that the total exam sittings in 2010 was 5,378,159. What we have here is a situation where in 2010 each student was sitting 10.8 GCSEs (from 496,850 pupils), yet in 2011 they were taking 9.8, one less exam each. Clearly less students are taking exams, with short courses also dipping in number of sittings.

Is it that students are dropping out across the spectrum of ability? Are schools truly making their brightest and most capable students cut down on the number of exams as well as the least able? Statistics from 2000 through to 2011 show that the percentage attaining only the lowest grade "U", a complete fail, has dropped from 2.2% to 1.2%. G has gone from 3.3% to 2%, F from 7.1% to 4%, E from 12.1% to 7.8% and D from 18.3% to 15.1%.

Simply a case of education working well a decade on? The increase in percentages in the top results as well may suggest this...but the drop students taking exams is a shadow hanging over everything. If those students, deemed not to be good enough to take exams (and clearly not going elsewhere to take different qualifications), were refactored in to the figures then the "rises" in attainment look a little different. It all comes down to whether students now not doing GCSEs are bright students simply taking a different route (such as the International GCSE) or not.

It's interesting to note, however, that the Department for Education is saying that IGCSE's could account for a 2.6% increase of A*-C results in England (may be less in the UK as a whole).

If the increase in pupil numbers was mirrored in the number of exams taken (with those not taken counted as grade D or less) then the number of Grade C's would be (difference on 2010 results in brackets) 22.4% (-3.5%), B's 19.6% (-1%), A's 13.9% (-1.2%) and A*'s 7% (-0.5%). This is the equivalent of just 62.9% A*-C passes, a 6.1% drop from last year.

I'd like to see how this spreads across subjects, but if the reports are right then it is in core subjects that we are seeing this kind of decline of participation too, and that it isn't just the more "woolly" subjects that are being dropped in an effort to provide a more focused education on the subjects employers really want to see.

To me it seems clear that our rise in attainment over last year, and since 2000, is more down to a manipulation of which students are taking the exams. If an equivalent number of exams were taken in 2011 as 2000 then the attainment of A*-C grades would have fallen from 57.1% to 53.1%. Even including the IGCSE effect, this is not an improvement, and is still a very possible decline.

Note: This article is based on figures to do with GCSEs, but doesn't necessarily follow alternatives.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Boundary Proposals: a review

I just wanted to take a look in to the real effects of the proposed boundary changes. Using data that I've visualised up at Boundari.es to represent the boundary changes I'm assessing not only which parties lose out in terms of seats, but also in terms of notional vote shares. Where have parties taken a hit (or been handed a life line) while not necessarily gaining or losing extra seats? Which areas seem to have confusing decisions made regarding constituency area?

It has to be stressed, this data is notional and so is a reflection of how it is likely (but not guaranteed) that constituencies would look in 2010 if the boundaries had been as they're proposed now back at that election. We know that in terms of opinion polls the Lib Dems are polling differently (lower in general, though much less lower in seats they're battling the Tories), and that Labour are doing slightly better than 2010 while the Tories are about the same.

I will be editing this post as and when I get time to do more analysis.

Cornwall loses about half a constituency through the changes, which may be a source of concern to the Cornish who, at least in the West, see themselves as very separate from the rest of England, especially Devon. In terms of seats Cornwall notionally gains a Lib Dem seat from the Tories in the process.

Cornwall remains an extremely marginal county, with differences between the Tories and Lib Dems in the area continuing to reside on a knife edge. If things have improved for the Tories it is only be a percentage point here or there and the electoral landscape for the constituencies will remain similar to that of 2010.

The major change is the loss of what was Truro and Falmouth in to the new Truro and St Austell and Bodmin and Newquay constituencies. What small majority the Tories had in either area is eaten up by the more Liberal tendencies of those in Mid to East Cornwall. On the flip side Cornwall North, just getting out of being a marginal constituency, is split up in such a way that a new super marginal Bodmin and Newquay is made, with the majority staying put in the new Devon and Cornwall constituency, Bude and Bideford. The Lib Dems sit with notional majorities of just 0.3%, 2.5%, 2.7% in 3 of their 3 and a half Cornish constituencies.

This means that while the Lib Dems may be happy with the outcome in Cornwall, it also requires a big fight from them in 2015. How many of those Lib Dem votes will remain, and how many were Labour tactical votes? Will more Labour voters go tactical to help the Lib Dems steal a marginal Falmouth and Camborne from the Tories? More importantly, will a potential resurgence in the Labour vote hurt the Lib Dems or Tories more in the county? Should the Labour votes rise at the expense of the Tories then it's feasible that the Lib Dems could, as in 2005, claim the whole of Cornwall...but on the flip side a deserting of the Lib Dems could see a sweeping move to net the Tories an additional 3 seats.

The electorate numbers look good compared to the ideal of around 76600, with only St Ives really breaking away from the average significantly. I can't initially see any reason that this should be rectified, with local areas quite well partitioned and the scope for future population increases in the mid to east of Cornwall rather than the far west of St Ives.

All in all, for Cornwall, the Lib Dems should look happiest in as exciting an electoral landscape as their usually is in the area. They do better where they're fighting marginals historically, and some sensible political moves by Labour supporters combined with natural flow back from the Tories to Labour could result in gains for the party. However similarly the Tories have to see this county as an opportunity, and as the party that tends to have more money to throw at marginals they could really hurt the Lib Dems if successful. The question is if they would be able to in a post-coalition landscape in a clearly more liberal and "locally-thinking" area. The prospects for Labour remain poor.

Devon's 12 constituencies become 11 and a half, losing half a constituency to the Bude and Bideford merger with what was Cornwall North in 2010, and with the redrawing of boundaries the seat winners bring about a single Tory seat lost as Devon South West effectively gets squeezed down and merged in to Plymouth Sutton.

Devon remains fairly close to the ideal number of electors, with Plymouth Devonport alone standing out as a slightly larger than average population. Marginality does change, however. While most areas stay the same, the loss of half a constituency helps to make constituencies held by the Tories more likely to be quite safe. Devon West and Torridge was almost marginal at over 5%, but thanks to being split with Cornwall the resulting Tavistock and Plympton has a notional majority of over 20%.

The old Devon South West very safe seat (over 30% majority) may be gone, but as a consolation for the Tories the marginal Plymouth Sutton and Devonport is merged in to the safe Plymouth Sutton with a notional majority of 20.1%. Newton Abbot moves to slight marginal away from marginal status, while Central Devon gets a little less safe but still on the very edges of a significant swing (now 13.5% down from over 17%).

Devon is a county with a mixed bag through these changes. On one hand there are several constituencies that are literally untouched, or that are changed very little, yet on the other where significant changes have happened they have tended to significantly solidify a party's support base. Labour will be happy that in the seats that they control, Plymouth Devonport and Exeter, they are no worse off (a little better off in Plymouth), and the Lib Dems are untouched in the county aside from that Cornwall and Devon constituency creeping in from North Cornwall. The Tories will no doubt be disappointed to lose an MP, but they have at least not lost it to another party and have shored up support elsewhere.

Somerset has actually gained a constituency, up to almost 10 from 9. I say almost 10 as it has taken a very small part of what I would personally consider to be outer Bristol. In doing so the Tories are gaining a seat out of nowhere for the county.

There are some significant boundary movements, but little changes on marginality. Tory majorities in the region stay the same while the new constituency, Kingswood & Keynsham, makes a slightly safe seat at around 10% majority.

The Lib Dems, while shifting their area of representation out of the Wells area and more to the area around Bath, can be happy that they slightly increase their strength of standing. Their marginal seats are still marginal, but a percentage or two less so, and their only real loss in majority is Bath, where they can afford to lose the 5% to a notional 20.4% majority.

Electorate numbers are more interesting. Somerset is a county that, through the addition of the new constituency perhaps, has a lower number of electors than the threshold in large areas. Yet at the same time Weston-Super-Mare and North West Somerset have a couple of extra thousand. This is arguably the right way around, with more likelihood of population moving in to the larger constituencies and thus allowing for a rebalancing that avoids drastic boundary changes in the future.

Could the extra 2-3000 extra people over the threshold in those two constituencies be better represented in other constituencies, or is it (as is more likely) that being able to split just that amount of people out of these larger constituencies would provide too complicated when trying to adhere as much as possible to previous separations of populations such as at local council level? I tend to think it's the latter in most cases, your mileage may vary.

Somerset really doesn't feel like it is affected by these changes, indeed it may be a benefactor through an extra MP for the area in a scheme designed to reduce MP numbers! Marginality stays the same, and while there will be changes to make to local campaigns the status quo is mostly upheld.

Dorset sees a slight reduction in representation, losing about half a constituency to share with Wiltshire to the north. In a process that sees Dorset North cut up to help enlarge Christchurch, Dorset Mid and Poole North, and Wiltshire South West the net effect is the Lib Dems losing their seat in the area, though no-one picks it up since it disappears.

The already super marginal Lib Dem seat shows that the Lib Dems really don't have a chance in the area under the new desired populations for each constituency, their support is simply too low. The only hope for the Lib Dems in the area is a slightly reshaped Bournemouth West that is held by a 6.4% majority. Labour on the other hand are as shut out of the county as ever, with Tory majorities being largely untouched aside from that part of Bournemouth, and the new constituency of Blandford & Wimborne being an almost straight Tory vs Lib Dem fight, unlikely to be lost by the blues.

When it comes to population there is a question that hangs over just why both Bournemouth seats need to be so overpopulated (over 80,000 electors in each constituency) when Christchurch and South Dorset are both significantly under the ideal threshold. In my mind it is worth asking why areas of the Bournemouth seats couldn't be pushed out to their neighbours, with a view to increasing the size of Dorset South to the West and Christchurch to the East.

Dorset is, if anything, a score draw for all parties. The changes are significant in the center of the county, but don't serve to make many changes. Even the Lib Dem loss is arguably a Tory loss, as the margins were such that it would surely be one of the main targets in the country at the next election.

Gloucestershire and Bristol Area:
I have a bit of a personal interest in this area, it's my current "hometown" as it were! Bristol is what I would define as the 6 constituencies around the city center, including Kingswood and Filton & Bradley Stoke. This distinction gets blurred under the new boundaries as Thornbury and Yate gets split in half, encroaching on the old Kingswood constituency, and Filton & Bradley Stoke join with Thornbury to become Filton & Thornbury.

Further north, in to Gloucestershire actual, the remaining 7 constituencies in this area are unchanged aside from the already mentioned breaking up of Thornbury and Yate, and a small boundary shift between The Forest of Dean and Gloucester.

The overall effect of all this is that Kingwood and Keynsham is now more of a Somerset constituency than before (see above), essentially being lost from the area, leaving 12 constituencies compared to 13 before. This is a net change of one Lib Dem seat to a Conservative one, however.

I have my own concern in the area, it seems ridiculous that Filton has been extended to join with Thornbury, and in doing so created the largest constituency in the area in population numbers. This is an area which has very active housing development next to the Filton Airfield that could bring hundreds, if not thousands, more people to the area. The North of Bristol is being constantly redeveloped and the boundary commission seem to be ignoring this when choosing where to pitch their numbers.

Is it right that the Filton area keeps getting cut up and redistributed 5 years because a little forethought can't be put in here? This is aside from the fact it makes no sense to put what is an edge of the city urban area in the same catchment as a countryside town.

Bristol North West and Bristol West both have population numbers under the threshold from this review, in areas where people are certainly not going to be moving in at vast numbers. Bristol West is a mixed constituency, with a large student population as well as inner city residents, while Bristol North West has it's own mix of both poor and affluent residents as it spreads out to the west.

To my mind, moving Filton and Frenchay and Stoke Park wards in to the Bristol North West constituency, while moving Avonmouth (further from the city center than Filton, and partly crossing the M5) in to the Thornbury "outer Bristol" constituency would both make more sense from the point of view of the MP representing people with similar issues, and would have a net effect of making "Thornbury and Filton" or whatever it would be called near to the ideal threshold, while Bristol North West would grow to be about 2000 people over the ideal.

This alone would be acceptable, given the population growth to the north of Bristol as I said before, but it could also be even further balanced by swapping Stoke Bishop and Bishopston wards between Bristol North West and Bristol West.

Elsewhere in the area Bristol South seems a little over subscribed, but has little easy way to balance this with the Kingswood and Keynsham constituency next door. The Forest of Dean could easily do with a larger area, but with wards so large in the mainly rural outskirts to the constituency there is little prospect to do this without significantly (and arguably needlessly) messing with the already established constituencies that remain unchanged from 2010.

Gloucestershire itself has very little to show from the review, barely any boundary changes and thus no real change of marginality. Bristol's outskirts, however, get a thorough overhaul. Do the Lib Dems need to lose their seat in this way? It's another of those situations that is more complex than it seems, as a strong Tory and Lib Dem seat is turned in to a weak tory seat and better than halves the previous Filton area majority to 6.2% making both very attainable to the Lib Dems. Labour suffer slightly on Bristol East, but remain in a good position in a three way marginal (of which Bristol has two, lucky for us!)

Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire:
Herefordshire somewhat loses it's identity through the changes. A simple county of two constituencies only has one within it's borders after the provisional changes. In technical terms though it now becomes three constituencies, two shared with neighbouring Worcestershire and Shropshire. The overall effect of this is a single seat lost across all three counties.

While the Conservative constituencies get shunted around quite a lot, the loser in this area is Labour who's Telford constituency is the one that effectively disappears. This isn't much of a surprise given how small a majority Telford was held on, and concentrated in to such a small geographical area. This won't lead to anything more interesting, however, majorities at a safe level and beyond even any reasonable tactical voting thresholds the worst that can be said from a Conservative point of view is that a few very safe seats have turned to merely being safe.

Electorate sizes are fairly well balanced given the largely rural nature of the counties, and aside from the loss of a Labour constituency there is little interesting that is happening through these changes; there are simply too many Tory supporters in the area to make the changes significant, despite some fairly drastic redrawing of boundaries.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

unfair unfair dismissal laws

You're a dilligent worker, you like your job, but recently your manager has been forcing you to do things that are outside of your job description and threatening you with the sack if you don't comply. You've gone along with it for a while, perhaps it's an opportunity for progression. A few months later you feel you've proved something, you ask for a pay rise...instead you get sat down and told that you're being fired.

Under proposed changes by George Osbourne and Vince Cable, if you were previously a victim of this kind of abuse after your first year of emploment but before your second year at the business, you will now be unable to make any kind of claim against their former employer. They'll be unemployed, without a decent reference, in a worsening job market.

Apparently this is necessary to help our growth because businesses feel not being able to sack people without justification is stiffling their ability to employ. A cynic would suggest in the short term the Lib Dems and Tories feel that empoyment figures will look much better with a more revolving under-class of workers that are hired and fired at intervals that would usually be known for careers taking the next step up the ladder.

The trouble is...there's no benefit here to the state or society, aside from perhaps some statistical manipulation. The number of people it will affect currently is small, though this could worsen if the law is relaxed...and the cost it would save the government is so negligible at less than £6m per year, the state equivalent of change down the back of the sofa...certainly a small amount to pay for equality between employers and employees.

Don't get me wrong, employers need to be protected at the start of contracts, it's all to easy to lie on your CV and to be smooth in your interview, yet not be able to produce the goods in the actual job. There has to be an ability for adequate probation in roles where there isn't an extensive training/induction process to allow the employer to let someone go who simply wasn't what was expected. But this should be apparent in 3-6 months, not 2 years.

At 2 years without being able to claim unfair dismissal the prospects for employees are worsening conditions at work, lower job security (which results in lower morale), and the potential for the wage market to be stifled while business profits and productivity continue to rise.

Worse still is the idea of there being a charge to make a claim to be introduced. Not only will we make it so that young people have all of their power stripped from them for two years while they fear any non-submissive action might have them fired with no recompense, but if they manage to last longer than 2 years then they need to find at least £250 for the privilege of seeing justice done.

Would we be happy if the families of murder victims could only bring their cases to court if they paid a fee up front? The introduction here of fee's is a blatant attempt to limit access to justice in this country, along side the already dubious plans to remove legal aid for many.

These proposed changes aren't about rebalancing anything, the law as it stands is balanced. You can employ who you like within a fair selection process, and you can get rid of them if their job is no longer required as a role or the person is disruptive, incompetent or under-qualified. Equally the employee knows that once they have a job if they do the job, the business doesn't downsize, and they act appropriately, they can't be fired. Where exactly does this balance need to be redressed?

Look out for a consultation to come around in the next couple of months, and for calls to write to the Business Secretary to let him know how callous and unethical it is to draw power away from employees at a time when they need it the most. This government said it was going to be the champion for civil liberties. With these various changes on access to the justice system, and talking about the removal of the Human Rights Act at the Conservative Conference, they're sounding less and less like that government every announcement.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Ed Miliband's speech: Fail

One of the things that you're advised when trying to get elected in Students' Unions is to not state the obvious, and to not make promises that are obvious. While those keen on you might be encouraged that you're telling them what they want to hear, others will be sceptical that you have no content, no meat behind your claims; That you are just trying to sound good without being good.

This is the trap Ed Miliband fell in to today.

See below some examples of the reverse of claims Ed made...and then see if you could see either David Cameron or Nick Clegg supporting them.

"I am determined to prove to you that the next Government will only spend what it can't afford. That we won't live within our means."

"we won't manage your money properly."

"So I’m going to tell you lies"

"I’ll tell you what I’m interested in.
Not winning back the trust of the British people.
Not winning the next general election."

"To the young people who want to get on and contribute to our country my message is simple.
I will let you be priced out of your future."

Then there was the stilted and awkward delivery, the hammy jokes, and the clear lack of any charisma, a situation that he attempted to mask by doing some strange rapper style delivery of his speech...not in terms of the words, but his body movements, and his stance. It all felt so fake, so forced.

And then the few opportunities that Ed had to actually say anything legitimate, he squandered by making a hypocrite of himself or by letting himself down with simple untruths.

First he reiterated the policy claim from his interviews at the start of conference, that he would cut the cap on tuition fees to £6k, an act that does nothing but help the richest graduates richer. Then he would go on to say...

Only David Cameron could believe that you make ordinary families work harder by making them poorer and you make the rich work harder by making them richer.

Well, sir, it would seem you believe that too.

Finally.. "New Bargain". What the hell is up with that phrase? Who came up with it? Do Labour just want to relaunch the New Deal but can't call it the same thing? New Bargain, it sounds...dirty, imbalanced. Is it to be followed by Newer Haggling?

To use a frictionless slope, you have to get on (Facebook "Frictionless Experiences")

"I gave them express permission to slap me in the face...imagine my suprise when they slapped me in the face!"

This is what the current outcry about Facebook's new push for "frictionless experiences" with third party application developers, some of the most high profile being the likes of Guardian or Independent newspapers, sounds like to me.

Somewhere along the road with this announcement it seems people have forgotten that in order to be sharing "everything you do" into your timeline (a new Facebook feature that is being rolled out) can't be achieved without you clicking a button that, in not so certain terms, "share everything I do with this site/app".

Privacy warriors, a vital set of people in the online world as companies like Facebook seek to test the boundaries of what is acceptable or even legal on a seemingly daily basis, may not realise how difficult it actually is to just use people's information from Facebook.

Those people that have left all of their details open to the world may be able to have some of their personal detail harvested by application developers, but those who employ even the most basic of privacy settings shield it all until they actively go through a process that says "let this application see my details".

And so it is with "frictionless experiences", if you're going to have that smooth ride you need to give yourself a push first.

Privacy is something you can do with as you wish, and as such it is not a privacy concern when what you're doing is being published automatically when you have approved this behaviour up front. If facebook was allowing all users data to be used by third parties for the purposes of this experiment then those with concerns would have genuine reason to have those concerns.
It is not.

And then there is concern about "noise" and lack of considered sharing. "Frictionless experiences" doesn't appear, at least for the time being, to replace the Like button. Or the share this functionality. People will still be able to post links to things they think are cool, or articles that are interesting reads, as much as they always have.

On top of this Facebook will start to log your activity on sites that are running apps that you have approved to do so and will keep that information in the background. It will get posted to that inconsequential news ticker that no-one actually reads, but it won't go in the timeline/newsfeed. It might, if it algorithmically sees a trend, push something to be shared as if you'd "liked" it...but this is a far cry from you happening to read that article about porn and it being put in to a prominent position in your friend's news feeds!

Unless you always read about porn.

I also would argue this is a positive thing. Obviously when you feel the need to hit a like button you know this is something you want to share with people, that you think they want to see. What about all the things people want to see, or that you should be sharing, but don't realise? If Facebook can get the algorithms right then you could find yourself looking at the feeds and thinking "Yeah...why *didn't* I share that?".

If you don't like the privacy implications here, then don't approve the apps. You don't have to take part, and in all honesty your experience of Facebook and the web is not going to be knowingly dampened by not approving those apps. If you are worried about the noise...well...let's watch this space. Facebook have given strong assurances over controlling the number of updates, and this should be obvious as the last thing Facebook wants to do is drive people away from using their platform. Your concerns there may well, hopefully, be unfounded too.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Lib Dem's and *that* pledge.

It's time to accept it, the Lib Dem's have not really broken their pledge on Tuition fees. Reframing higher education funding in a way that the Tories and Labour were likely to do anyway, they have reduced the cost of tuition for the majority.

Cheaper degrees than those from 2006-2010, and more accessible than any system since tuition fees were first introduced, the cost of going to university hasn't been this low for a decade for those that need that cost to be low.

Preface: All figures below are calculated using the Money Saving Expert calculator on their standard assumptions. It assumes a retention of current student numbers at around 1.8m Full Time Equivalent (FTE) undergraduates in Higher Education (HE) in any one academic year, of which about 800,000 take out a maintenance loan of a average of £3,650, and all take the average university cost of £8,600 per year over a three year course. It assumes the average graduate salary is £20k. It assumes all values rise with inflation. It also obviously assumes the policy won't change in the next 30 years, as unlikely as that may be.

The Lib Dem plan... what's the problem?
The real problems with the system coming in to effect are as simple as the system is overly complex. The rich still have a way of getting out of contributing "their fair share", the system is not truly progressive in that those graduates who earn more money, earlier in their career, will pay back a much smaller total amount than those who earn the majority of their money later in their career or don't achieve high salaries.

It also relies on up front payment by the state for HE, with a significant lag before the majority of the funding is recouped, creating a form of deficit at a time of deficit reduction. A strange choice for a supposedly deficit reducing government!

These issues, along with the issue of the system being complicated and hard for people to understand as more progressive and *cheaper* than previous systems for funding HE, would be solved if funding was provided for purely through taxation in some form or another; graduate taxation, or general taxation.

There is also the problem that is the main reason for the Lib Dems taking a beating over this issue; the chance and perception that students will pay more than they had to when fees were capped to £3,000. In part this is true, for those who take out loans and earn above average wages. Students have long wanted education to be funded from general taxation. In this sense a graduate tax does not solve the final problem of the Lib Dem funding system, that of not shelving a burden on the students themselves for their own education.

However that is, as I say, a perception issue. It is only partly true. Educational costs have been passed more on to students themselves, but not all students...and it is certainly not the case that a tripling of fees is leading to a tripling of cost. The problem that is most often cited by angry students isn't really a problem at all.

Niggles, not problems
The reality, not accepted by the NUS who's official line is "FEES BAD (nswf link)", baulked at by those who have failed to return from their knee jerk break up from the party when the plans were announced in 2010, and ignored by Labour supporters that would rather deceive ex-Lib Dem's to keep their new found support, is that the system is fundamentally more progressive than anything Labour have brought forward in the last decade.

This system is better for poorer graduates than anything that's existed since tuition fees were first introduced to fund HE, in relative terms.

More than this, it in practice gives any student that doesn't earn over the average wage in this country a free HE education. Not just free as in the bursary scheme that Labour introduced, free as in they won't have to pay for their education, they won't have to pay for the maintenance loans they took to help pay rent and buy food during those years. For the first time graduates that earn money, but not enough money to put them in to the "better than average" bracket, will have a completely free university life.

This system, in all it's ugly convolution, is closer to "free" education than any system since Labour started us on student contributions.

There has not been a time since 2006 where so many will have a free education. Since 1998 we will not have seen as low a cost for education and living for the majority, with the benefit of repayments being more manageable than their upfront nature.

There are losers of course, but only where the losers can afford to subsidise those who lose out in their own way of not taking the premium that they were idly promised before they enrolled.

University degrees and three years rent, only £12k!
The only people interested in keeping the focus of this discussion on £9k tuition fees and £4k maintenance loans each year, and the "debt" that it accrues over three years are those that wish to make political capital out of it. They know that such a stance is now disingenuous, but they find it easier to try to confuse supporters of free education with scary sounding numbers.

In particular it's hard to make the new system sound evil when the amount that most would repay under this system is just £12k, while those paying under Labour's "cheaper" and "less debt" system would pay back all of their roughly £22k loan.

The reason for this is the values, the "debt", have been increased to such a degree that we're now looking at something much closer to a graduate tax, and a tax that has it's thresholds set fairly for earners. "Tuition fees" are dead for the majority, and it's time we should call a spade a spade.

Yes...graduate TAX
Debt this is not.

Debt does not disappear after a set of time before it is repaid, debt doesn't even disappear if you are unfortunate enough to die before you have repaid it. Debt repayment isn't based on your ability to pay.

What other system is there where you pay a set percentage of income, as long as you're over a threshold, to the state as standard? Income tax, of course...national insurance too. Both taxes, but could be described as hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of "debt" that you are continuously paying off at a set rate dependent on income.

By increasing the amounts that universities can charge, and fundamentally reforming the way that we pay back loans, a tax system has been created for all but those who choose to pay off the loan early or earn a significant sum of money. It is a clear move away from the situation of tuition fees and even loans as a principle. Instead, the focus is now on long term funding through a taxation model.

Why is this something that is worth praising rather than deriding? Progress. We need to move the language of fees away from loans and payments to that of taxation. Until we start to enter the realms where a tax, even a graduate tax, is the most effective solution, we cannot re-enter the cost of HE funding back to general taxation.

The future
We have to consider where this system will take us in the future. With 1.8mil FTE students in education at any one time there are loans that will be going out every year in excess of £15.5bn of loans delivered to institutions on behalf of students, and £9bn in maintenance loans. Each year (after 2015) a certain proportion of this will be paid back by the students. With a cut off point of 30 years we will be looking at having accrued over £475bn+£280bn (at today's money values) going out. That's £755bn.

Coming in is much harder to define, but an "average" student would likely pay back £12k over the course of their 30 year loan term. Over 30 years this would work out at £268bn paid in. This is, of course, just a "guesstimated" likely minimum. We know from the "top fliers" survey that an average salary of £25k is earned for the top 6% of graduate earners, but wage progression is also likely to be better than for average students too (in the medical profession we know this to be true). I can only guesstimate more that these people would certainly bring another £28bn, by assuming a most cost scenario for wage progression (that is RPI +6%, any higher and the amount they pay back actually decreases as they repay their loan quicker and thus interest is reduced). By doubling this I hope to conservatively get a likely average for loan repayments over 30 year of £325bn;

It's not as simple as saying this apparent large shortfall is a problem though, as 30 years worth of loans should be paid back over 60 years of repayments. In this sense the figures roughly, maybe with a slight shortfall, add up (at least £650bn brought in versus the £755bn out).

The problem is if the system continues then we will have a constant deficit of around £400bn that will have to be borrowed from somewhere to service HE funding year on year. This doesn't make sense from a government that has put their flag in the ground of deficit reduction.

In general taxation terms we could cover this quite easily. With graduates being forced to pay 9% tax on earnings over 21k it's just a case of how the yearly £15.5bn cost of HE (other sources say £12.5bn, I'm being conservative) could be shifted on to taxpayers that will, over time, largely be graduates anyway. At around 2.5-3% of the total current income tax receipts the amount of additional tax needed isn't insignificant, and it's true that this would likely be seen negatively by the public at large.

However the negative view of tax being increased is only masking the fact that as time goes on most people in this country will be paying tax rates of 29% and 49% rather than 20% and 40%. Could it go up to (for example) 22% and 44%? A tough sell right now, to change either of those rates...or to add an additional layer of tax band in between the two, but in the future? Perhaps not so tough.

It is an improvement, it is better, it is to be applauded
Anyone that is annoyed at the Lib Dem's breaking their pledge not to raise fees has some right to feel aggrieved. I am. Or at least I was. We also have a duty to see things as they really are. Rich graduates have their fees increased, in that sense the pledge has been broken, but poorer graduates have had their fees reduced, even middle income graduates will see no change to the amount they end up paying, if they're not lucky enough to still pay less than 2006 prices in real terms as well.

Are we really to cry over the Lib Dem's, in a de facto manner, keeping their pledge for the majority of students, but breaking it for those that earn significantly more than the average worker in the UK?

I'd prefer absolutely that the pledge was never made, the politics since has been complicated and the simplicity of the message was begging to come back and bite Nick Clegg and his team. However the coalition have moved us in the right direction, an it's what we do next that is important.

If we accept and applaud this situation within the confines of graduates providing repayments, but criticise the fact it is confined to graduates at all, we have never had as stronger footing for an argument to remove tuition fees since they were first introduced over a decade ago.

Next stages
The important thing now is to make it clear what the real cost of university now is. Students should not be told that they will face £60k of debt, this is irresponsible and simplistic. If poor people are getting put off from university it is because politicians are letting them get dissuaded. It's a no brainer that those that understand the value of money will be put off by a large figure being put on their back.

Tell them, however, that if they earn an average wage in this country that their debt will effectively be just £12k and they might have a different stance on whether to enter university. Tell them that they will likely have to pay just 1-1.5% of their income each year as long as they earn a middling wage and they might see the "debt" as less threatening.

Let them know that if they are unsuccessful, choose a low paid path in life, get unlucky...that the real cost of their university life, fees AND living cost loans, could decrease even further from £12k to maybe not needing to be paid back at all and their perceived threat of penalisation for not achieving, of having huge debt with nothing to pay it off with, must surely be swept away.

Let them know that there hasn't been a better, more financially managable, less risky time to try to get a university education.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

The art of pledging: Ed Miliband and tuition fees

There was a law that was set in stone in the strongest possible terms in late 2010...don't make pledges that your party can't cash. Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems paid a heavy price that may end up doing long-term damage to the party by promising to do one thing (not raise tuition fees) before the election, and then being forced in to a situation where that promise was broken.

Need, tact, tempering or two-facedness aside...whatever your view on the reasons...abandoning a pledge and a promise is not something to do lightly when you are aiming to garner the trust of the electorate. So when Ed Miliband promises that he'll lower tuition fees if Labour get back in power, is he playing with fire?

Monday, 19 September 2011

The bitter partisanship of a Labour supporter

I read Darrell Goodliffe's stuff with interest, when it's in the realms of fact his views are excellent and I highly recommend them. By contrast when the issue is pure politics his views are beneath that usual standard. Take his recent "musings"


"Geroge Orwell would probably love a visit to the Liberal Democrat Conference. He would find enough examples of Newsspeak to convince him that rather than being a work of satirical fiction, 1984 was in fact a grimly ironic prophecy of things to come."

Maybe it's not his intention, but I think the idea of a Labour supporter citing Orwell as being prophetic through the actions of Lib Dems will do nothing but set the red rag to the proverbial bull.

"Orwell would have found Nick Clegg’s speech particularly laden with it. Clegg, as is becoming usual, spoke with his forked tongue; look at the pledge to ‘veto the abolition of the 50p tax band’ – made as if Clegg will not already know that there are, in fact, no proposals to abolish this band, in the next budget at least. Que much spinning about a ‘famous Lib Dem victory’."

Well talking of "spinning", Clegg didn't talk about the 50p tax rate in his speech. he did, in an interview where he was asked specifically where he stood should George Osborne press on with the much reported and alluded to plan to bring forward the cutting of the 50p tax rate, say he would veto such a plan if it came up.

Not so much spinning of a famous Lib Dem victory as much as spelling out the realities of consensus politics in a coalition, if you read the interview in question.

If Clegg is at all shaping up for "famous Lib Dem victories" it is on his desire to push for greater tax free allowance limits for low earners, and to shift taxation for the rich on to wealth...things that would be truly praise worthy if implemented well.

"This is the point, for all the rhetorical flourishes about the Conservatives being the “political enemies” it is still just a show being put on for recalcitrant Lib Dem members and the dwindling band of Liberal Democrat voters to convince them that they are still loyal to a Party that exists in more than theory."

How's this for theory?

Lib Dems run on policy that is, unlike other parties, actually decided by their membership.
Lib Dem manifesto's are created from these member approved policies.
Currently the Lib Dems have some 75% of their manifesto enacted, or being enacted, as government policy.

And this doesn't even scratch the surface of the nuances of tempering of conservative policy.

"Clegg’s speech and the whole conference will have been carefully calibrated in close consultation with the David Cameron and his clique within the Conservative Party as the same will be true of the Conservative conference. Cameron will make his carefully worded attacks on his allies to please his right-wing and the Daily Mail blue-rinse brigade and it will generate exactly the kind of media kerfuffle that both want."

This much is obviously true, indeed already the Daily Mail are doing what they feel they need to, the Lib Dem words of Farron and similar being portrayed as the deaths knell of the coalition when the reality will be far less interesting.

"Many Liberal Democrat’s are now so crazed in their hatred of Labour that it is unture. They are so much so that one rather shockingly accused Labour of being complicit in the killing of Baby P due to its “love of bureaucracy and red tape” on Twitter last night."

Indeed, the rantings and ravings of one individual are of course a fair representation of the entire membership's view...

"She also went onto to call all Labour members “deviants” and “vipers”. Red-eyed, demented and totally detached from the real world, you are left wondering at what Clegg has done to inspire this kind of fanatical loyalty."

The same could be said of any of the party leaders and those members of that party, who may be in the minority or not, that seem to attack other parties without actual basis in fact. It could be also questioned whether it is fanatical loyalty to one party, or an actual fanatical hatred of a party instead.

It would seem that hating the Labour party for what they did while in office is an illegitimate reason, and must be fueled instead by some kind of idolization. Hatred of the Tories for everything they did in the 80's on the other hand, is legitimate, and not at all fueled by a devotion to an ideal or an individual.

"The amazing thing is that the same Liberal Democrat’s then wonder why Labour activists heap bile on them. We are ultimately the ones who were first betrayed by a Party which pretended to share our values as long as it garnered them support."

Betrayed? The Labour party never reached the threshold of what the Lib Dems stated in advance of the election in order to become coalition partners. The fact talks were held at all shows how much the core membership and backbench MPs care about the shared ideals, and it's more than abundantly clear that it was Labour that shot themselves in the foot on this note. Betrayed isn't even close.

"This is a perfect example of why Labour cannot work with the Liberal Democrat Party as it currently exists."

Indeed, because there seems to be a core of party members, activists, and MPs, that all fail to be able to see common ground through differences within the Labour party itself. This post being a fine example of one of those viewpoints.

From my view point, speaking to Lib Dem supporters and Labour supporters before the election result...there was lots of common ground, some distrust, but little hatred. That has changed, and it's not been because of the Lib Dems suddenly turning on Labour. Quite the opposite. The fickle childishness of Labour supporters, in an essence sounding every bit like they were entitled to be handed power once again in 2010, is what has turned a lot of Lib Dem supporters' moods so hostile.

"Having said all that, there are good Liberal Democrats left. My plea to them is to leave their stinking corpse of a Party and government and if not join Labour, then at least join the opposition to the government and open up a conversation with the rest of us about the way forward."

'Leave a party that is delivering what you agreed to do, and join one that has generally failed to deliver those same wishes, and has actively gone against your core principles and hasn't yet faced up to how wrong doing that was'

Yeah, that'll work.

"Your Party is driving this country into the ground and is part of the problem. Not even your vaunted tax proposals are helping the poor, in fact, they are helping the rich,"

Really? The tax proposals still to come that could well bring more taxes proportionally from the wealthy than current taxation rules? The ones Lib Dem brought to the table that are reducing the marginal tax rate of going to work? I'd be interested in seeing where these tax proposals are indeed helping the rich.

"which is why the Conservatives are happy to implement them."

That'll be why the rich are, in the Tory press, on the back benches, and even through actual minister's words, praising current taxation on the rich and wishing it could have been like this sooner.

"Nothing is as it seems with your Party and I know you want to believe for the best of reasons but the facts are the facts."

Funny, I've not seen any facts here so far, only that "bile" that is detested so much by Mr Goodliffe.

"Leave government and join the opposition so we can overturn this government of the social elite and replace it with one that governs for the many, not the few, the country needs and deserves nothing less."

And so ends this Labour marketing pitch to do exactly what Nick Clegg warned about in his speech...

The Liberal Democrats are a family. There are those who wish to drive a wedge between us – our opponents, the vested interests in politics and the media who want to put us back in our place. They won’t succeed. Because whether you consider yourself more of a social democrat or a classical liberal, whether your hero is Gladstone or Keynes, Paddy Ashdown or Shirley Williams, we are all, to one degree or another, all of the above.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The NHS reforms: Not bad

I find myself surprised at the surprise in the actions of most Lib Dem MPs with regards to the NHS Health and Social Care Bill, passed for consideration by the House of Lords yesterday by a narrowish margin of 65 votes. Obviously this figure of 65 gives fuel to the ire because it's a number that could have been reversed by a strong Lib Dem rebellion.

It also would have spelled the end of a coalition at a time when the country least needs it, with the Tories the only party that can truly afford an election right now (if "the word on the tweet" is true), and Labour completely unprepared for taking the reigns as they rediscover what they actually bring to the table.

But I find myself more surprised at the Lib Dem supporters themselves that are aghast at the actions of their MPs doing what they agreed to do when they signed the coalition agreement in 2010; not least because this is a very "Lib Dem" bill, and, if you believe that it can be achieved, is actually better for providing a progressive and improving health service than our current legislation.

Profit driven decision making

A possible hangover from the bill before it was paused and rewritten, there was a real fear that we would be continuing down the path that the Blair administration set us down which is privatisation of public services to the lowest bidder. It's clearly a system with huge risks, doesn't deliver adequate results, and leaves devastation in it's wake as we are unable to reclaim the standard we knew before.

Thankfully the new version of the bill specifically veers away from such plans. (Section 23 14Q)

The whole point of the bill as amended is that the commissioning consortia have to improve standards in care. It's common sense really...the people that are tasked with running a good health service are legally required to ensure the service is good. They aren't, as councils and similar have been in the past, mandated to go with the lowest offer and so it is not in the interest of private bodies to put in a low ball offer, the evidence has to be there that they can do as good a job as what is currently provided, or better, and that the service is value for money on top of that.

It's decision making with the needs of the public's health put first, not how much money can be saved.

Lack of public interaction

Not all concerns are so baseless, this concern is one that is centered on a lack of real information or clarity within the bill. The bill fairly loosely talks about involving patients in their own care...the intent for this is that patients will have options presented to them of how to achieve their care, and to be part of the decision making process for the journey ahead.

It also talks of a "Health and Wellbeing" board, that operates with the overarching commissioning board that oversees and regulates the numerous, yet all that the bill talks about is these bodies giving "advice" to the various commissioning bodies.

There is also a requirement for commissioning consortia to consult those affected by any changes that they make to healthcare provisions. (Section 23 14Z).

However the trouble with all three of these things is that without further embellishment they could let lazy elements within the NHS off with doing very little to engage with the public. Indeed the wording of consultation is right along side "provide information", and if commissioning bodies are able to get away with "consultation" simply by putting leaflets on a desk in GP offices then the spirit of the legislation isn't being followed.

Inequality of care

There are concerns voiced about two tier systems of care, the charge of "cherry-picking" of profitable services by the private sector while others languish. However it is not as simple as to say that, as the GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey claims, that old and vulnerable people will be treated differently.

It would be a breach of the law if there was an active decision made by commissioning bodies to split the same service in terms of profitability, and hand some patients to a superior care provider, and retain others on lesser conditions. For example, there could never be a situation where it was actively sustained to have elderly cancer patients dealt with by one service, and young cancer patients by another, without there being a clear comparability between the two in terms of quality and effectiveness. (Section 23 14S)

There is a problem with the differences between services. Will mental health patients get a comparative level of funding and care to those treated for cancer? The truth is that the situation on that front is not equitable right now, nor is there any framework to try to ensure that it becomes more equitable. If people want better standards of mental health care right now it appears there is no route they can rely on to try and force the matter...aside from lobbying politicians.

Under the new system there is a duty for the new commissioning consortia to try to improve standards year on year, obviously it is not a requirement to always improve as sometimes that will be impossible even with the greatest of wills behind it. If this duty is not followed, then the consortium can be told to act differently, members of the consortium removed or added, and even the consortium itself dissolved in cases of severely abandoning that duty.

If we're looking for more equal patient care then we have a much more robust framework to discuss that issue with in the Lords. Before there was nothing to stop ministers actively "running down" areas of healthcare for whatever reason, now there is.

Privatisation of healthcare

An obviously big concern is that of private companies taking over our hospitals and services, at least where there is no need, with no consultation and with no patient choice. This has been, I believe unfairly, highlighted by recent reports of considerations made for a German company to run 10-20 hospitals.

Yet the reports have no bearing on the future of the NHS, as strange as that may sound. The idea of ministers contracting in private companies to deal with healthcare would actually be impossible under new reforms, where local autonomy of commissioning bodies is paramount.

It helps to be more specific about what we mean by the dangers of privatisation, as surely it cannot be argued that if the best value for money (note: I didn't say cheapest) provider happens to be a private organisation, then that organisation should seriously be considered for provision. The downside comes when that choice is made without the patient in mind, when it is done purely on cost, and when the structure of any agreements are such that we risk running down an avenue where we lose all ability to provide services as a state because expertise is lost to these private organisation...all of which have long term effects of *not* being value for money.

Simply throwing out scare stories isn't an argument of why the reforms are wrong, or dangerous. In fact part of the reforms is to extend the scope of the body "Monitor", who will take on the task of being an economic regulator for providers of health and social care in England, and in doing so will be responsible for dealing with anti-competitive behavior. (Section 57)

What's interesting though is the that language talks not only about anti-competitive behaviour, but in the sense of behaviour "which is against the interests of people who use such services". Does this mean that there is a loop hole for the co-operation of GPs with established local bodies even if such co-operation were to be "anti-competitive" as long as it can be shown that it is for the benefit the public?

This is another area that needs to better clarified; adequate provisions must be made to stop businesses following the anti-competitive behaviours that could lead to a lack of choice further down the line. This bill is essentially about competition, and about choice, so to allow any chance of the opposite occurring but for the benefit of private companies instead of the public sector must be shut out.

In the end we should accept that privatisation can, in some cases, improve our NHS; not privatisation as Tony Blair helped push through while Labour were in power, but a new way of approaching it where the contract cost isn't king.

"Free" NHS on the way out

Put simply, there are no provisions in this bill for charging for services that aren't already being charged for (Dentistry, for example). However there is the wording that leaves such an option on the table. There's not much to read in to this, it's the kind of catch all "Just in case" wording to make legislating easier in the future. (Section 1(3))

I don't see this as a threat for the now, if there were a time in the future where additional charges were intended to be made then that is an argument for that particular time, and it isn't responsible to oppose this bill on decisions that would have to be democratically taken in the future.

Lack of accountability of government

Slightly more abstract is this issue of "accountability". Accountability comes in many shapes and forms, however it seems a lot of people just don't care about accountability unless it's via an election. It's, in my opinion, a terrible stance to take when talking about having decisions made correctly, not decisions made in the most popular manner.

The Health Secretary will no longer have responsibility for providing a health service in the UK, in a sense we're turning from a National Health Service to a National Health Franchise. But this isn't necessarily a problem. When I say above that this is very "Lib Dem", the very nature of taking decision making out of the power of the central governing body of the country and devolving/distributing it to local cells is a natural Lib Dem position for most issues.

And so accountability doesn't disappear, though it does change. Gone is the rather blunt force manner of changing the direction of the NHS, i.e. electing a whole new government with all the various OTHER changes in direction that comes with, and instead comes much more local (regional at least) bodies that take over from where Primary Care Trusts left off with better regulation but also more local autonomy.

Of course the reality is also that the Health Secretary hasn't had the direct legal duty to provide services since 2002 anyway, when Labour decided that those PCTs should be the ones that carry the duty. Sure, the Health Secretary could call back his legal duty, but in practical terms the authority and accountability of decision making with the NHS isn't really going to change.

The change the bill provides on this is only a problem if you believe that you need to elect everything in order to make them accountable. I, on the other hand, don't believe that we get better decision making through elected officials, nor do I think areas like policing or health benefit from the public having ultimate control over strategic direction. Quite frankly very few of us are crime, safety and health experts, and it's not our place to interact with those areas in such a direct manner.

Freedom of information

A concern across all areas of outsourcing and privatisation is that of lack of transparency within the organisations contracted to do the work. Freedom of information is a tool that is supposed to ensure that the public can see what is going on behind the scenes of public bodies, but some are concerned that not enough is being done to ensure private bodies would also be accountable to relevant freedom of information requests.

A lot of new approaches to how competition is approached are taken in this bill, it would also be the perfect time to quash this concern and start a new trend of telling companies that wish to get involved in public sector work that they have to accept public sector responsibilities too.


The ultimate question that should always be asked of reforms is "are they necessary?" and "How does it benefit us?"

It seems to me that the bill isn't quite selling itself as "necessary", but it does have interesting ideas on how to help make the health service more relevant to patients, to embed a culture in strategic direction that drives improvement and progress. These are ideas that, if they do work, could seriously benefit us and our healthcare; and given the practicalities of the duties are very similar to what we already have with regards to Primary Care Trusts and Foundation Hospitals there's a certain element of not taking a huge leap to get there.

I am not going to say I think that these changes will definitely work in improving our health service, I have deep reservations any time that the issue of privatisation and competition come up in areas that need such consistent and improving service. However I also can't take many of the criticisms leveled at the bill seriously, some seemingly out of date accusations of a bill that was clearly much worse before Lib Dem interventions on rewriting it to what it is today, as some of these criticisms simply do not stack up against the reality of what is being proposed.

The Tories were always going to reform the NHS, and the Lib Dems have come in and saved the country from a continuation of Blairite privatisation methodologies that have lead to tensions and problems where such a model has been applied. They've developed a robust framework for checks and balances, and as long as some more elements are improved through the passage through the House of Lords, there is a strong argument to be made that these reforms will help make the health service in this country more relevant and more progressive for patients.

Quite frankly, the reforms aren't bad, they have great potential...and I'm happy to "blame" the Lib Dems for that fact.


Been made aware of this motion for Lib Dem conference that goes quite a way to dealing with most of the concerns that are legitimate above, and is worth a read.