Monday 24 September 2012

It's not about the ologies

One of the core tenets of Thatcherism was that competition is inherently a good thing, because competitive markets drive costs down and efficiency up.  That was the underlying argument for the marketisation of the health service, for instance – and of course the examination boards.

In the latter case the expectation was that instead of each examination board having a monopoly within its own geographical area as was previously the case, they would compete for ‘customers’ (or ‘schools’, as they are more usually known).  It was always understood that the probable result would be fewer boards each having more customers; but the aim was that the overall cost would be less.
I’m not in a position to state definitively whether it worked; but I suspect that it did - in that narrow economic sense at least.  There are two problems though.
The first is that whilst the purists regard the way in which costs are reduced and efficiency increased as irrelevant as long as it actually happens, it is far from being irrelevant in terms of its other effects.
And the second – as could and should have easily been foreseen – is that marketplace competition doesn’t operate solely on price.  Once they’ve done all they can to reduce costs, competing organisations start looking for other differentiating factors.
In the case of the examination boards, the obvious differentiating factor was always going to be pass rates.  When the schools are being judged on league tables of exam results, then choosing the exam board most likely to help them climb the rankings becomes more important then the cost comparison.
At first sight, the surprise is not so much that that system is now unravelling, but that it’s taken so long to reach that point.  But if we consider the motivations of all the different stakeholders, it’s no surprise at all.
Governments, of all parties, want to demonstrate that their policies are working.  What better way to do that than regular increases in pass rates?
Schools want to demonstrate that they are improving their performance and climbing the league tables.  What better way to do that than regular increases in pass rates?
The examination boards want to grow their ‘business’ and attract more ‘customers’.  What better way to do that than regular increases in pass rates?
Pupils, of course, always wanted to get the best results possible, and their parents (otherwise known as ‘voters’) want the same thing as well.  What better way to demonstrate that than regular increases in pass rates?
‘Teaching to the exams’ is nothing particularly new, but all the incentives have been for schools to do more of it.
Effectively, there’s been a collusion by consensus in which all of those stakeholders’ aspirations have apparently been met, with no stakeholder having any real incentive to ask too loudly the difficult questions about whether the inexorable rise in results actually reflected any real underlying improvement in knowledge and skill.
In principle, it is surely right - indeed overdue - for the UK Education Minister to challenge this process.  And recognising what he called the ‘malign’ impact of Thatcher’s reforms is equally overdue.  But changing the rules part way through an examination cycle was a spectacularly cackhanded way of trying to address the issue, and incredibly unjust on those pupils in England who don’t have a Welsh Government to reverse the decision.
It now looks inevitable that Wales and England will be taking different examination routes in future.  Doing that in a rush as a result of a spat doesn’t seem the right basis for such a major decision, but we are, as they say, where we are.
What I hope will not get lost – but greatly fear will indeed get lost – in this debate is more detailed consideration of that issue about ‘teaching to the exams’.  There still seems to be far too much emphasis being placed on the rigour of the exams, and far too little on whether and to what extent examination results tell us very much about the knowledge and skills of the examinees. 
And in so far as employers and others are complaining about the output of the education system, it is surely about knowledge and skills, not the number of passes in ologies.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Leanne has been a naughty girl...

… or so the WesternMail would have us believe.  And they’re not alone; Leanne’s political opponents (and possibly even some in her own party) seem to have been quick to heap on the opprobrium.  For my part, I’m having some difficulty working out what exactly is the heinous sin which she is supposed to have committed.

It surely has to be more than the mere fact of her holding republican views.  After all, there are many republicans in all parties, even if many of them are afraid to admit it.  It’s a much more mainstream viewpoint that any reader of the press would imagine.
‘Avowed republican meets with other republicans’ doesn’t strike me as being a particularly shocking thing to have done.
‘Politician attends meeting at which other attendees hold some rather different viewpoints to her own’ also doesn’t strike me as a particularly serious crime.  And if it were, there wouldn’t be many politicians left.  There have been many occasions over the years when I have inwardly cringed at some of the things said in meetings I've attended - and I do not think for one moment that that makes me untypical.
Perhaps it’s the oath of allegiance to republicanism which she took.  The Western Mail described it as bizarre – I can only assume that they’ve edited out the most egregious parts of it, because nothing in the words quote struck me as being particularly bizarre.  It's not even as if she took the oath with one trouser leg rolled up and a dagger held to the chest.  Now that would be bizarre, although I understand that many middle-aged males might consider it entirely normal.  What is normal and what is bizarre all depends on perspective.
The timing and provenance of the story is actually odder than the oath itself, as Gareth Hughes points out. At heart, it seems to be little more than an attempt to avoid debating substance and resort to smear by association.  It’s a sad reflection on what politics has become.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Logic and Reality

According to a report in the Sunday Times, a group of MPs have come up with a wizard wheeze to overcome the potential difficulty of relocating the Trident base should the people of Scotland vote yes in the independence referendum.  They have suggested that the base, at Faslane, should be redesignated as the sovereign territory of the RUK, and thus not part of Scotland at all.
This would not only mean that the SNP would achieve their aim of removing Trident from Scottish soil, it would also save the RUK from having to spend £20 billion or so on building a new alternative base.  (To say nothing, of course, about saving the blushes of Carwyn Nuke-Em Jones if his suggestion of moving the base to Milford Haven were to be resurrected.)
The MPs’ logic is impeccable, but somewhat dwarfed by the extent of their failure to understand or grasp political reality. 
It’s not clear whether they were proposing to simply ‘deduct’ Faslane from the rest of Scotland before ‘granting’ the rest of the country Independence, or whether they were proposing to negotiate this proposition.  I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they were proposing the latter rather than some sort of post-colonial dictat, but it still leaves two rather obvious questions.
Firstly, do they really believe that the first act of a Scottish Government would be to cede control over part of their country to the RUK in order to avoid having to implement a clear and explicit promise?
And secondly, do they really believe that even a verbal wizard like Alex Salmond could get away with arguing that ceding Faslane to England amounts to implementation of his promise to remove Trident from Scottish soil?

Friday 14 September 2012

Pseudo-legalistic bunkum

I’ve seen a few references recently to the question of EU membership for an independent Scotland.  According to some opponents of Scottish independence, any territory seceding from a member state would have to apply for membership anew, with no guarantee of acceptance.

They may be right about that as a conclusion, in legal terms at any rate.  Whether “secession from the UK” is the right way to describe Scottish independence is another question entirely.  Since the UK only came into existence as a result of the union between Scotland and England, there’s at least an arguable case that Scottish independence amounts to the dissolution of the union; leaving, in effect, two (or more) new countries, both (or all) of which might then have to apply for EU membership.
The situation with Wales is rather different.  Since Wales was incorporated into England, secession may well be a more accurate description (notwithstanding possible arguments about the legality of that original incorporation).
In reality, however, I’m fairly confident that realism rather than legalism would prevail in either case.  Whilst one or two member states might do a bit of huffing and puffing because of their own problems around territorial integrity (and of course Spain leaps to mind here), the member states would in practice accept the will of the people, and the details would be negotiated during the period (I’d guess at around three to five years) between a “yes” vote and actual independence.
EU membership is but one of a whole host of international agreements and structures which would require negotiated change.  The assumption that one part of the then former UK would automatically inherit all rights and obligations whilst others would need to start from scratch is an interesting perspective but seriously flawed.
More interesting to me is the political thinking behind the raising of this particular bogey.  Do opponents of independence really believe that they can counter the arguments of independence supporters by appealing to pseudo-legalistic arguments, and suggesting that the EU will somehow block the democratic will of the people?  It demonstrates a lack of understanding of what’s actually happening in Scotland as well as of the realistic attitude which tends to prevail in the EU - and a failure to engage with the underlying arguments.  It’s almost as though they are trying to lose.

Thursday 13 September 2012

Looking beyond the scare-mongering

There’s at least a little scare-mongering in some of the statements made by Labour AM Mike Hedges on the devolution of tax-varying powers to Wales earlier this week.  That’s a pity, because some of the points he makes are far from being easily dismissed.
His claim that money and people will flow across the border if the tax rates are different is clearly nonsense.  Most of the countries in the EU have free movement of people and money, and manage to retain different tax rates without some countries emptying as people flow to other, lower tax regimes.  And there is no hard evidence that people are moving between local authority areas in Wales to seek out the lowest council tax relative to the value of their homes. 
The claim that a higher rate for one tax will drive people elsewhere is something often heard from those who want their own tax bill to remain low, but few actually act on it.  The reason is, or should be, pretty obvious; decisions on where people choose to live aren’t based on a simplistic comparison of a single tax rate.  They’re based, rather, on a range of factors (including a sense of identity and belonging) and, insofar as the reasons are financial, on a comparison of the overall financial position, not the difference in rate between a single tax.
So far, so invalid.  But, if the only difference between two jurisdictions is the rate of a single tax, and if the difference in that tax rate is substantial enough to mean more than a few pounds over a year, and if there are no cultural, family, or other reasons to select one jurisdiction rather than another, then there may be the germ of a point there somewhere.  The problem is that many opponents of devolution of tax-varying powers are looking at each tax in turn in isolation, rather than looking at the overall fiscal position.
It’s not a wholly invalid stance to take; in an environment where any tax devolution is going to be reluctant and gradual, probably involving one or two taxes only at any one time, the opportunity to rebalance the raising of revenue across different taxes to suit Wales’ needs will not be there.  I’ve written before that limited devolution of tax powers would well turn out to be a double-edged sword.  If governments fear the consequences of setting different tax rates to such an extent that the powers become unusable in practice, then there is little point in having the power.
I share his concerns about the potential impact of devolving the power to set Corporation Tax.  Again, looked at in isolation, there is a real danger of a ‘race to the bottom’.  If it’s not part of a wider devolution of a range of tax-raising powers, then there is much to commend the alternative put forward by Gerry Holtham, which is that the UK Government sets the rate, but sets it differentially for the different parts of the UK based on relative GVA per head.
If we’re serious about the Welsh Government taking more responsibility for raising the money it spends, and attempting to create a fiscal climate which does more to localise and diversify the Welsh economy, then we need a whole range of tax-varying powers, not a very limited set.  My own preference is for all taxes to be set in Wales, with, for as long as Wales remains part of the UK, remission of an agreed sum to London each year for ‘central services’, offset by a degree of redistribution to allow for differential need.  The ‘block grant’ could then be positive or negative, depending on relative need over time - that would be real financial responsibility, as well as providing a needs-based alternative to Barnett.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Have they nothing better to do?

I probably shouldn’t ever be surprised at any aspect of Westminster’s government processes, but I’ll admit that the news this week that there is a potential problem with bilingual ballot papers for the police commissioner elections in two months’ time really did come as a surprise.

It’s not so much the fact that they’re late in the day thinking about it that comes as a surprise.  Much of what our own government in Cardiff does seems to treat the Welsh language as some sort of add-on extra; a simple translation job once all the real discussion has finished.  And if the Welsh Government can’t treat the Welsh language as an integral part of its activities, there is no reason to hope that the far-removed Westminster Government will ever be any better at it.
No, the part that surprised me was that it is necessary for the UK Parliament to pass an order ‘allowing’ the use of bilingual forms in Wales.  Given that bilingual forms for elections have been very much the norm in Wales for decades, and given the legislation which has been passed over the years in Westminster and Cardiff normalising the use of Welsh for official purposes, and giving the language, allegedly, equal status, why does a specific form for a specific election still need further legislation at all?
Has the Westminster Parliament really got nothing better to do than authorise what should be no more than a minor organisational detail, requiring nothing more than that relevant officials give to Welsh the equality of status which legislation claims it already has?  I find it utterly incredible that we need to seek the consent of a majority of the 650 MPs from across the UK (or however many of them bother to turn up for such a riveting agenda item) before a single form can be made available bilingually.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

The answer is still blowing in the wind

This report a couple of weeks ago demonstrated:

a) that using wind energy leads to significant carbon savings, and
b) that use of wind energy at a level of up to around 20% of the UK’s electricity needs poses no threat to security and reliability of supply.
Neither of these conclusions will come as any surprise to those of us who support the inclusion of wind as part of the overall energy mix.  And I suspect that neither will be believed by those who oppose wind energy and prefer unsubstantiated assertions to the contrary. 
Indeed one reaction which I saw to the report in the letters column of the Western mail simply dismissed the report on the basis that it was written by individuals who had a vested interest.  Now clearly, having a vested interest in the outcome of a particular proposition means that one should read very carefully what people have to say on the subject, but it is not enough in itself to dismiss a report with which one disagrees.
Part of the problem in reconciling opposing views is the difficulty in putting precise figures on some aspects of the calculation.  The report itself can only estimate the CO2 savings, and provides a clear explanation of why that is so.  (And in fact, that makes it no different from many other areas of policy; it is invariably the case that while some things can be precisely measured, others always have to be estimated.)  I don’t doubt that the lack of precision will be seen as a cloak from behind which the naysayers will continue to use words such as “useless”.
On a related note, one anti-wind letter writer to the Carmarthen Journal last week came up with a “solution” to our electricity needs which avoids the use of wind energy completely.  He said that we should use electricity to produce steam to generate electricity, and that
"… a water screw producing enough electricity for just a few thousand homes can instead be used to produce enough steam to turn turbines which produce electricity for tens if not hundreds of thousands of homes ...”
In essence, his argument seems to be that small amounts of electricity can be used to generate steam, but that steam can then generate 10 or even 100 times as much electricity as was used to generate the steam in the first place.
If that were true, it would be a simple and elegant solution to the world’s energy needs.  Indeed, by simply repeating the process several times over, a small mountain stream in mid Wales could meet the entire world demand for energy.  Which sort of exposes the basic fallacy in the argument.  Unfortunately, power to amend the first law of thermodynamics has not yet been devolved to Westminster, let alone to Cardiff.

Monday 10 September 2012

Revealing old news

I’m not a big fan of newspaper stories which contain the words “we can reveal” in their first sentence.  Rarely, if ever, is that which precedes or follows the words (depending on journalistic style) much of a revelation in practice.  The Western Mail has excelled itself today, however, although only the inside story seems to be on their website, not the more senstaionalist front page intro.

Their ‘revealed truth’, which is that councils can and do sell copies of the electoral register, turns out not to be ‘news’ at all.  In fact, as the quote from the WLGA spokesman confirms, this has been done since at least 1832, and maybe longer.  I would not have believed that any newspaper would present news which is at least 180 years old as such a big story if I hadn’t read it myself.  And they submitted 22 FoI requests to councils as a basis for this story.
I think that I can safely ‘reveal’, without needing to submit a single FoI request, that there has been some wastage of public money involved with these FoI requests.  I don’t expect to see that story splashed on the front page though.

Friday 7 September 2012

In our name?

The situation in Syria daily goes from bad to worse.  It’s clear that the position is a good deal more complicated than sometimes appears to be the case, with an opposition which is far from being a single united or easily categorised grouping.  Nor are all of those who are part of the opposition forces any more enlightened in their approach to human rights and the lives of civilians than the supporters of the existing regime.
Faced with such a tragedy, I think that the UK government has been absolutely right in offering and providing humanitarian aid to those affected by the conflict.  Indeed I cannot think of any circumstances in which it would not be right for a government to provide humanitarian aid to people who are suffering.
I’m a good deal less certain about the other types of assistance which the UK and other Western governments have been providing, such as intelligence information.  It’s been rather euphemistically described as ‘non-lethal’ assistance.
It leaves me feeling more than a little uneasy.  There is a serious danger that Western governments are effectively providing enough aid and assistance to keep the conflict running, but not enough to give the opposition a decisive advantage.  The net result could be an extension of the conflict and an increase in the numbers suffering as a result.  And it’s being done in our name.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Of mice, men, and politicans

"Tough decisions".  It’s one of those phrases politicians in power love.  It generally seems to mean that they want to do the opposite of what they said that they would do before they were elected. It’s a very macho thing; apparently doing the opposite of what they promised shows great strength whilst keeping a promise is a sign of weakness.
At least, that seems to be the interpretation of a number of prominent Tories.  According to Tim Yeo and an increasingly vocal group of Tories, keeping to the promise which both the Tory party and the Lib Dems made prior to the last election not to build a third runway at Heathrow makes the Prime Minister a mouse.  To become a man instead, he has to do the opposite and build the runway. 
And to listen to some of them talk, once would think that sacking the minister who’s implementing the party’s pre-election promise is somehow enough to free the PM of any responsibility to keep to his word.
Another of his alleged ‘supporters’, Nadine Dorries has accused the PM of being a sheep in wolf’s clothing.  Again, it seems that she wants him to take decisions which run directly contrary to what he’s said he’ll do, and contrary to the agreement which he signed with the Liberal Democrats.
On the specific issue of the third runway, with his Chancellor of the Exchequer apparently wavering on the issue as well, David Cameron certainly looks to be losing the support of his own party, other than those who won their seats on the basis of that specific promise.  (Even his party’s leader in Scotland – somewhat bizarrely I thought – last week claimed that a third runway at Heathrow would be good for Scotland.)
But the question that strikes me is this.  Which is the greater sign of weakness – sticking by a clear and explicit promise, or rolling over at the first sign of internal criticism?

Wednesday 5 September 2012

The bumbler and the mumblers

The mumblings against Nick Clegg from within his own party are growing stronger, or at any rate more public.  Given the probable loss of most of their seats at the next election, it’s hardly a surprise that some of those around him are starting to look for liferafts.  

It’s not clear what his specific political crimes are, other than being an apparent election loser, but unless his party are certain that any potential replacement stands any better chance of salvaging something from the looming disaster, it’s hard to see how changing leader will do more than expend another political career on a lost cause.

Entering into a coalition with political opponents requires a willingness to compromise and make concessions.  It’s unrealistic for any party to believe that a leader who succeeds in doing that, and in selling those concessions and compromises to his party in order to enter coalition, would then turn out to be a man of steadfast principle during the following five years of government.  It is surely much more likely that a natural compromiser will continue as he started, and make compromise after compromise to secure the government’s success.  And it will always be the junior partner which has to compromise most.
The implications of going into a government with a natural compromiser at the helm, and the implications of the convention of Cabinet collective responsibility under which ministers are duty bound to accept and support other Ministers’ decisions, even if they were never even discussed at Cabinet, was almost certainly not spelled out to the party members.  It should have been obvious of course, but optimism and the mandatory rose tinted spectacles which accompany entry into government after interminable opposition probably blinded them to both until it was too late.
I suspect that Clegg will hold on, not least because anyone taking over control of the ship at this stage would probably need to have something akin to a political death wish.  And then he’ll go quietly just after the next election.  In the meantime, his party’s public mumblings will serve only to increase the scale of their losses when the election eventually comes.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

We all need enemies?

I’ve often heard it said, or seen it written, that the Labour Party have a vested interest in Wales remaining comparatively poor, and that they will never, as a result, actually do anything about it.  I’ve tended to dismiss that as just a piece of political rhetoric.

A week or so ago, however, Chris Dillow drew attention to this paper, which actually provides some statistical backing for the idea.  The maths is complex, and the specific situation to which it applies – the continuation of a guerilla conflict in Colombia – doesn’t immediately strike me as having a great deal of resonance in Wales.
However, the hypothesis which the research set out to test has a more general application, and the fact that the researchers found evidence to support their hypothesis makes its applicability to Wales an interesting conjecture at the least. 
Their hypothesis in essence was this.  “We develop a political economy model where some politicians have a comparative advantage in undertaking a task and this gives them an electoral advantage.  This creates an incentive to underperform in the task in order to maintain their advantage”.
Applied to the proposition above about the Labour Party, one could paraphrase it as saying “as long as Labour gain electoral advantage from the perception that they are the best party to tackle poverty, they have an incentive not to tackle that poverty too effectively because to do so would be to remove that electoral advantage”.
Similarly, by defining itself largely in terms of “not the Tories” the Labour Party has also given itself a vested interest in ensuring that the Tories remain a credible electoral threat.
It’s not only Labour that this applies to though.  One could equally say of the Tories that “as long as they are perceived to be the best party to tackle economic problems, they have a vested interest in the perpetuation of those problems”.  If it were not for the inconvenient fact that the perception of their ability in this area is rapidly evaporating, the Chancellor’s cack-handed handling of the economy might even start to look like a stroke of political genius.
But why stop at Labour and the Tories?  Could we not equally say that any politician who pitches his or her appeal on the unfair way in which Wales is treated has a vested interest in that continuing unfair treatment of Wales.  And by the same token, those who seek to define themselves by opposition to the UK state have a need to ensure the continuation of that state. 
There are three things which would mitigate against reaching the conclusion that politicians have a clear incentive to perpetuate the existence of those people, parties, and institutions which they claim to be against.
The first is to do with the underlying assumption that most politicians are more interested in the pursuit and retention of power then in what they do with it once they get it.  Whilst there are exceptions to every rule, observation suggests that exceptions to this particular rule are fairly few and far between. 
The second would be if more politicians started to define themselves and their parties more in terms of what they are and what they stand for than in terms of what they’re not and what they’re against.  Given how much easier the negative argument is, I don’t expect that to happen any time soon.
The third of course is that we could simply see through them, and stop believing that they are ever going to act against their own interests.

Monday 3 September 2012

Just sleeping?

The closer we get to election day for the new Police and Crime Commissioners, the less well thought through the whole process seems to have been.
The government had expressed a strong desire to see strong non-party candidates coming forward.  But that aim has been fatally undermined by the cost barrier.  Not only do candidates have to find a significant (£5000) deposit, they also have to fund the production and distribution of any promotional literature.  The refusal to allow the usual election privilege of free distribution has simply put another hurdle on the route.  It apes the worst aspect of US politics – that so many elected roles are the exclusive preserve of those who have the wealth to contest them, albeit with the caveat that few are likely to try it in practice.
The suggestion that candidates should instead promote their candidacy through public meetings local newspapers and electronic media is surely unrealistic – as it is also unrealistic to expect any candidate for such large areas to be able to have direct contact with more than a tiny portion of the electorate.
By default, most of those who bother to vote – and I suspect turnout will be extremely low – will end up voting along traditional party lines, knowing little about any of the candidates.
In effect an attempt by the government to move towards a more American-style of electioneering where the individual counts more than the party, will end up achieving precisely the opposite.
Then we have the restrictions on candidature, of which a number of potential candidates have already fallen foul.  Whilst I can see the rationale of banning somebody who has just been released from his third term for armed robbery from setting police priorities, the idea that an otherwise model citizen who committed a youthful folly 30 years ago should be similarly treated seems draconian.  And at least one could say that such a person would have had some direct experience of the Criminal Justice System.
But apparently this was a restriction agreed by “all parties” in the House of Commons, and challenged by none during its passage through the legislature.  Were they all asleep, or just not paying attention?