Wednesday 30 August 2023

Not doing as we do

It says a lot about the current state of the Conservative Party that the living, breathing refutation of the concept of nominative determinism is rising through the ranks of those considered possible next leaders, with the party’s internal league table showing only two ministers ahead of him: one who is obviously mad and another who is leaving parliament at the next election. As if being appointed to his current job was not adequate proof, in itself, of the dearth of talent in the party.

He's taken himself off to China this week to ask the country’s leaders very politely if they will please be a little nicer in their relationships with the rest of the world, stop being quite so friendly with Russia, and perhaps think about respecting the human rights of Chinese citizens. The last part of that is something where he feels himself to be under some sort of obligation to say he’s raised the issue, but it may actually be more akin to a study trip, to enable him to make a better contribution to the next cabinet discussion on restricting the rights of UK citizens. Indeed, I wonder how long it will be before leaders of other countries visiting the UK will be obliged to excuse their visits by saying that they’ve raised the issue of human rights abuses with UK ministers. Perhaps they already have; but it isn’t the sort of thing we should expect to be reported here, just as the People’s Daily is unlikely to report that particular part of Cleverly’s discussions with the Chinese government. Whatever he himself might learn from the trip, he’ll probably be hoping that those travelling with him will not be studying the way in which the Chinese government can make Foreign Ministers disappear, whatever hopes some of us might harbour.

In a move which will surely help Cleverly in his attempts to influence China, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons chose today to publish a highly critical report on China, including a statement which implies recognition of the independence of Taiwan, although whether it will influence China in the desired direction is open to debate. The Chair of that committee said it was crucial that Cleverly communicated during his meetings that “we will not stand for transnational repression or drift towards authoritarianism”. As a statement of the UK’s position, it’s only a half-truth – the sub-clause, “unless it’s in or by the UK”, seems to be missing. That omission helps to underline, however, that the whole basis for the visit is the deranged belief that a middling size state actively isolating itself offshore from the most integrated continent on the planet can seriously hope to influence a country rapidly becoming the world’s biggest and strongest economy by appealing to a set of values which it itself is busily abandoning. It’s a classic piece of English exceptionalism in action.

Tuesday 29 August 2023

Sharing the magic


August is generally known in political circles as the silly season; a time when there is a lack of hard political stories to fill the news. Nature, however, abhors a vacuum, and fortunately both the Tories and the Labour Party have people on hand to make vacuous statements to fill the gap. I’m not entirely sure who got there first, Braverman or Streeting, but both seem to have chosen the Bank Holiday Monday as the ideal occasion to put forward their own version of magical thinking.

Streeting, for Labour, promised that patients would be able to see the GP of their choice rather than the one who happened to be in the surgery at the time, although how he plans to co-ordinate the timing of people’s illnesses with the GP’s holidays and days off was left unstated. Probably wisely. Implementing this policy will not, apparently, require any extra resource. Instead, those surgeries meeting the promise will be given extra financial incentives for doing so, and those incentives will be paid for by reducing the cash given to the surgeries who fail to comply. There is a rather obvious logical flaw in the argument: if you’re paying some doctors to provide this service by penalising those doctors who don’t, delivering the ‘promise’ to some people depends, inherently, on not delivering it to others. Still, why bother with mere maths when you can work magic on this scale.

Braverman, for the Tories, promised that police forces will follow all reasonable leads in investigating all crimes, rather than failing to investigate some at all. She also subscribes to the same sort of magical thinking, somehow believing that restoring some of the police numbers cut since her party entered government in 2010 will enable the police to provide a better service than that which they were under-resourced to provide before her party got its hands on government. I’m not sure how politically wise it is to present the days before her party came to power as a policing success story (particularly since it wasn’t), but then political wisdom and Braverman are not really words which belong in the same sentence. It’s also not entirely clear that her promise is any more universally applicable than that coming from Streeting – there will be many who will have at least a sneaking suspicion that suspected crimes allegedly perpetrated by a better class of criminal will remain less than fully investigated.

We probably shouldn’t take anything either of them says too seriously, though. In Streeting’s case, based on recent history, his leader will have reversed the policy within a month or so anyway, and in Braverman’s case she really isn’t expecting to be around long enough to implement anything – it has more to do with the leadership election expected in the wake of the next election. Assuming that the next general election is held in May next year – which is what many observers seem to expect – next year’s silly season could well be devoted to (yet another) Tory leadership election and, in celebration of the season, the silliest candidate might even win.

Friday 25 August 2023

Is the Earth flat if the majority say so?


For most of us, the idea that the Earth could be flat (to the extent that the idea enters the consciousness at all) is something of a joke, a subject for mockery. Yet, apparently, support for the idea is growing (particularly – of course – though not exclusively, in the US). It seems to be partly about religious fundamentalism – making literal interpretations of key bible passages – and partly about a distrust for ‘authority’ and a preference for conspiracy theories. Whilst physicists struggle with ways of countering the growth in support, it seems to me that there is a simple way we could either dismiss the idea or else embrace it enthusiastically: hold a referendum. No, I haven’t gone completely bonkers (or at least, I don’t think so); bear with me a moment.

Holding a referendum wouldn’t change the facts, of course. It would merely enable the government to behave as though the earth were indeed flat and pursue policies appropriate to that belief. It might not work out entirely brilliantly, but hey, the will of the people and all that. Conceptually, it doesn’t seem to me to be hugely different from holding a referendum to decide that erecting trade barriers with our neighbours is a better economic proposition than trading freely with them. But there’s another, more recent, parallel as well. Some Tory MPs have been calling for a referendum on net-zero policy. Sunak has ruled it out very firmly (which probably means that it will be in his manifesto for the next election). Taking a democratic decision not to work towards net zero wouldn’t change the fact that climate change is happening, but it would absolve the government from having to do anything about it, and enable it to pretend that it isn’t really happening. The will of the people is a powerful force, indeed.

Holding a referendum to decide whether something is or is not a fact is a silly idea, of course. But we’ve done it once already, so we can’t rule out it happening again. And the idea that one opinion is as valid as any other, and that opinions and facts have equal validity, is growing in strength – it increasingly underpins political debate, particularly on what many call ‘the right’. Of all the different ways in which one can imagine the human race destroying itself, blurring the boundary between opinion and fact and allowing the former to determine the latter may turn out to be the most insidious of all. Best start planning that trip to the wall of ice at the edge of the disk we mistakenly call Earth before it's too late.

Tuesday 22 August 2023

Leaving a vacuum is a mistake


Conventional wisdom decrees that Labour lost the Uxbridge by-election because of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), and Labour and the Conservatives alike have since been furiously back-pedalling on anything that looks like a commitment to halting climate change. I wonder, though, whether there is rather more nuance here. Did they, in fact, lose because people thought that the charge was going to affect them, and didn’t understand just how few vehicles were really going to be affected? It seems likely that the number of people who thought that it was going to affect them is considerably higher than the number actually going to be hit by the charge, and the Tories won by playing on that unjustified level of fear. None of that alters the fact than those most likely to be affected were those owning the oldest vehicles, and thus likely to be relatively less well-off, or that the scrappage scheme seems to have been inadequate. And the information about whether they would be affected or not was readily available, but depended on people seeking it out rather than being informed more directly.

The Welsh government may be putting themselves in a very similar position with the 20mph zones being widely introduced next month. Like ULEZ, this was a scheme initially supported by the Tories, but they have seen an opportunity to make mischief and attract support by now deciding to oppose it. Just as with ULEZ, the impact on people is likely to be much less than many are assuming, because of the large number of exceptions. And, just as with ULEZ, information on those exemptions is freely available (although in this case much harder to interpret; the website is far from being intuitive), but, again, people have to seek it out rather than being notified in a more direct fashion. The way the Tories are seeking to use the policy is simultaneously shameful and shameless, but they’re pushing at a door left open by the Welsh government. If a party devoid of principle or consistency decides to campaign in this way, playing on or exaggerating people’s fears, part of the responsibility, at least, falls on those whose woeful failure to communicate effectively what is happening has enabled the Tories’ innate dishonesty.

Given a choice of how to get from A to B, my choice is generally likely to be ‘as quickly as possible’: the ideal would be for Scotty to simply beam me from A to B in a few seconds. In the absence of Star Trek technology, there is always going to be a compromise between various factors, including (but not limited to) speed, safety and environmental impact. On balance, the Welsh government have probably got it about right, and can tweak it as necessary in the future if the need arises, but they are dismally failing to explain or persuade. That leaves a vacuum which is largely being filled by disinformation and distortion. And those are Tory specialities.

Monday 21 August 2023

Replacing the triple lock


Prior to Thatcher’s 1980 Social Security Act, the state pension in the UK was clearly and automatically linked to average pay levels. In practice, that meant that pensions generally maintained their value in relation to the pay of those in work. The link was broken with one, and only one, aim in mind – cutting the cost of state pensions to the Exchequer. From that point on, until 2001 when Gordon Brown promised to increase pensions by the rate of price inflation or 2.5% per annum, whichever was the highest, the basic state pension, as a proportion of average wages, fell. It was the Cameron government which amended the double lock to a triple lock by including a link to earnings in 2010, finally undoing the damage to pensioners’ income done by Thatcher 30 years earlier – but at a much lower starting point. In theory, the minimum 2.5% element of the triple lock should allow pensions to catch up – eventually – with the relative level at which they stood in 1980, but that depends entirely on the number of years during which 2.5% is the highest of the three elements. The other two only allow maintenance of the current position at any time, a situation with which both government and opposition seem entirely content. Both parties have attempted to mitigate the effects of their policies of deliberately holding pensions at a lower level than in 1980 by introducing things such as pensions credit. But these were, and are, little more than sticking plasters to avoid facing up to the big question. And, due to the miracle of compounding, the real beneficiaries of the triple lock (assuming its continued existence into the long term) are the pensioners of the future, not those of today. People refer to intergenerational unfairness, but the ones being treated unfairly are today’s pensioners, not tomorrow’s.

The big question referred to above is, of course, ‘what is the right ratio of basic state pension to average earnings?’. Only when that question is answered is it really possible to discuss for how long the triple lock and the associated sticking plasters should be left in place, and over what timescale (at the cost of leaving many pensioners in relative poverty in the meantime) should that level be reached. It’s a question which all the talk of the ‘unaffordability’ of the triple lock, and the various suggestions about abandoning it, stubbornly refuses to address. But a single and direct ratchet mechanism which links basic state pension only to average earnings would be entirely adequate if that ratio was initially set at the right level, and would also ensure equity between pensioners and others during inflationary periods. The reason that they avoid the question is the obvious one – any rational discussion would set the basic state pension at a significantly higher proportion of wages than it is today. The UK has one of the lowest levels of pension in the developed world, with the basic state pension representing less than one-third of the average wage. Bridging that gap would be expensive, yet other countries – apparently poorer, measured by GDP – manage it.

Comparisons aren’t straightforward, of course – not least because the UK has a well-developed system of occupational and private pensions which many receive in addition to the state pension. Those don’t apply to everyone – although the people doing the discussing and making the decisions are invariably actual or future beneficiaries of those additional sources of income, and it is all too easy for them to lose sight of the fact that the poorest pensioners are entirely dependent on the state pension as their only source of income. That often leads to suggestions of top-up benefits for which people can apply or else some system of means-testing; but those are over-complex ways of addressing a situation which can quite easily be addressed by a properly progressive system of taxation – to say nothing of closing those loopholes which enable the very wealthiest amongst us (including the wealthiest pensioners) to take some of their income as capital gains at a lower rate of taxation.

So, what is the ‘right’ level? Half? Two-thirds? Three quarters? It’s certainly not ‘less than one-third’ if we want our pensioners to enjoy something approximating to the standard of living that they enjoyed when they were working (and is that really the unrealistic aspiration as which so many seem to see it?). Seeing pensions only as a ‘cost’ rather than a question of providing that standard of living is avoiding a proper debate. Yet it’s where both the government and the opposition are currently sitting.

Friday 18 August 2023

Drawing the right comparisons


The course leader on a training session I attended many years ago made the dramatic assertion that anyone who claims to have more than three priorities actually has none. Whether ‘three’ is the right number in this statement is open to discussion, but his basic point was that having too many priorities leads to a lack of focus on what is really important. What brought it to mind was the changes to NHS targets in England, which highlighted just how many targets the NHS is actually trying to meet. And a huge problem with a target-based approach is that people end up managing to meet the targets rather than to deliver the best outcomes.

Another example which comes to mind is a time when I sat through a meeting of a local authority committee which was seeking to find what are euphemistically (but wholly inaccurately) referred to as ‘efficiency savings’. The work overseen by this particular committee was subject to, as I recall, 97 different ‘key performance indicators’. Most of them set, apparently, by the Welsh Government in Cardiff. One of them concerned dog fouling, and more specifically the percentage of incidents cleaned up within a defined period after receiving a report from a member of the public. The authority concerned was achieving a clear-up rate of something like 95% against a target of around 80% (my memory of the precise figures may not be entirely accurate). Anyway, the point is that the officer leading the discussion pointed out that the council got no extra credit for achieving such a high level and could make an ‘efficiency saving’ by deliberately reducing the level of service down to the targeted level. The target was effectively being presented as an absolute, not a minimum, service level to be met, and the targets were being used to make comparisons between different authority levels, in a situation where spending more than strictly necessary in order to exceed the target was as big a sin as not spending enough to meet it. It’s a petty example, of course, but it underlines the dangers of trying to manage large and complex organisations by setting large numbers of targets.

People sometimes assume that the private sector, motivated by an exclusive focus on profit, is somehow different, but my own experience suggests otherwise. Whilst there might be an overarching profit target to be met, large and complex organisations often end up splitting that target down into divisional and departmental targets. I have in the past found myself obliged to argue about whether my department or another should carry a particular cost (which was actually rather less than £1,000) when I thought my time might be better spent trying to increase income.

Whatever, and back to the NHS, it seems as if the English Health Minister is more concerned with demonstrating that the English NHS is doing better than its Welsh and Scottish equivalents than he is with achieving satisfactory patient outcomes. And he’s not afraid of using invalid comparisons (because the figures are collected on different bases) to support his argument. He did call for ‘more transparency’ from Wales and Scotland (translation: keep your statistics on the same basis as England or else), but the English numbers aren’t exactly transparent either, and keeping the numbers in a format specifically designed to enable the English Health Secretary to attack his Welsh and Scottish equivalents doesn’t look like the most attractive option for Wales and Scotland. More importantly, neither does it actually help to improve outcomes.

The health service in Wales is far from perfect, we all know that. And comparisons are an important way of learning, of course they are. But if I wanted to assess comparative Welsh performance, I wouldn’t choose England as the best, let alone only, comparator for everything. There are many other places which do some things better (as well as some things worse); learning from them and applying those lessons where applicable is a sensible exercise. But it’s about a lot more than reporting numbers against arbitrary targets and using the results for political point-scoring. It’s not a point that I’d expect an English nationalist like Barclay to understand – if you start from the unshakeable belief that the English NHS is the best health service in the world and has nothing to learn from anyone else, trying to force others to do as you do is the natural default. It is not, though, a default into which Wales and Scotland need fall. We have the opportunity to be more open to doing things differently and should take it. Ignoring Barclay is a good starting point – it’s not as if he’s going to be around much longer is it? My bigger concern is that Starmer seems to see managing NHS performance in the same terms.

Tuesday 15 August 2023

Seeking fulfilment, not just work


Wales’ Education Minister, Jeremy Miles, told a meeting of business professionals in Wrecsam yesterday that children should start learning about the world of work from the age of three. He also argued that children should be helped to get off the educational ‘conveyor belt’ which sees progression to a university place as the natural aspirational outcome for the education system and look instead at more technical and vocational qualifications. The latter is a common argument, advanced by Tory and Labour politicians alike; and the idea of early contact with the world of work is hardly a strange one either, although whether it should start as early as three is open to rather more question.

They are both arguments which leave me uneasy, however, because they both raise questions about the purpose of education. Both seem to start from the point of view that the aim of the education system is – and should be – the production of ‘employment-ready’ workers; people with the skills, aptitudes and attitudes required for them to fit into the roles which employers have to offer. There is a lack of any understanding of the potential value, both to the individuals themselves and to society as a whole, of education, learning and a wider skillset not necessarily immediately applicable to any particular job. And although they skate round the issue and prefer to avoid facing up to it, the idea that some children should be encouraged to follow a more ‘vocational’ pathway is, in practice, to argue that higher education should be reserved for the privileged. We have decades of knowledge which tells us that it effectively means (with a few exceptions which enable people to talk vaguely about ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘social mobility’) separating middle class and working class children into two different educational pathways. They always claim that such a separation is based on ‘ability’, but that ability is assessed on the basis of an educational system which consistently allows children from more affluent households to progress further than the rest. It’s not that I disagree with the notion that a university education might not be the right route for everyone, or the notion that there should be more parity of esteem between a degree and other forms of qualification; it’s just that the economic inequalities of the society in which we live largely predetermine which children follow which route and end up preserving those very inequalities as a result.

It would be far better to start encouraging children from an early age to think about what a fulfilling life might look like. For some – particularly the middle class children who enter the well-paid professions – their future employment might be a large part of that, but for many, work will be a necessary but largely unfulfilling part of their future life. Giving children the means and the skills to seek their fulfilment outside of their working life would be doing more for them than turning them into mere ‘resources’ for employers to exploit. It would also make for a more balanced society; not every worthwhile human activity has an economic value. There is, though, one other thing it would probably also do, which is why supporters of the current economic system – Labour and Tory alike – will shy away from it: it would lead people to question the whole basis of an economic system which sees children as young as three primarily as future workers whose role is to serve the system. Not all of us would see that questioning as a bad thing.

Friday 11 August 2023

Maintaining the human stock?


Population size is one of the hardest questions for politicians to tackle. But using the simple and obvious truth that it is impossible to make unlimited use of limited resources, the relationship between an ever-increasing human population and the impact of humanity of the planet is inescapable. Malthus may have been wrong with his specific prediction two centuries ago that rising population would necessarily lead to famine, but he had a point with the underlying principle.

Just a few days ago, Jake (or ‘Sirjake’ as we should probably now call him) was telling us that the UK needed more babies, and he had done his bit by producing six. It was now time, he said, for younger people to take over and produce more children. We should perhaps be grateful for small mercies – it’s hard to think of much that the world needs less than a few more Rees-Moggs. He probably thinks Boris Johnson has also done his bit by producing eight children (other numbers are, apparently, available). Given his support for the two-child cap on Child Benefit, he presumably wants to limit large families to the wealthiest in society, rather than encourage just anyone to have more children, echoing the concerns of the late Keith Joseph about the breeding proclivities of social classes four and five, which, as a later acolyte put it in even blunter terms, threatens the quality of the ‘human stock’. Quite apart from the racist and exceptionalist undertones, I can’t help thinking that they haven’t really thought this through. Coupled with their aversion to immigration, a population growth imbalance between the poor and the rich means that either the children of the rich have to do the jobs which the poorest are usually expected to do (Sixtus Rees-Mogg and Wilf Johnson flipping burgers or sweeping the roads together for the rest of their lives makes an unlikely picture) or see such jobs go undone. But then, people living very comfortable lives and measuring everything in terms only of its cash value have never been able to understand the real worth of the myriad of tasks performed by ‘the little people’ which are necessary to sustain their comfort.

What we do know is that the wealthiest countries in the world sustain their life style by using more than their fair share of the planet’s resources – and we find the same imbalance within the populations of those countries as well. Whilst there are arguments to be had about the methodology and assumptions used to arrive at the detail of such conclusions, there is no real argument about the basic message: if everyone lived the lifestyle of the richest, the earth’s resources would be depleted instead of sustained for the use of future generations. For those of us who can see that obvious truth, it is clear that continued population growth – particularly amongst the ‘most entitled’ demographic groups – depends on maintaining and increasing inequality and inequity (and that is, of course, core to the political philosophy of the Sirjakes of this world). From their perspective, human aspiration in the many is to be resisted at all costs; people should know their place, and stay there. Comfort and wealth for the few, drudgery and poverty for the many, is the golden thread of their political philosophy – it underpins their attitude to refugees, wages, cost of living pressures, public services and much more. They get away with it by persuading the slightly less poor that the even poorer are the problem, and the extent of their success in doing that was underlined by this article in the Guardian on Tuesday. It should be shocking to realise how many believe that the poorer should not be allowed any luxuries, hobbies, or leisure, as though poverty is entirely their own fault and sufficient to deny them any sort of life outside of their existence as workers. But it actually merely underlines how easy it is for those who control the levers to manipulate opinion and turn us against each other.

Tuesday 1 August 2023

Adapting to Year Zero


Defending his decision to fly by private jet to Aberdeen yesterday to announce his new plans to encourage more global warning, PM Sunak defended himself with the words, “Every prime minister before me has also used planes to travel around the United Kingdom”. This would probably have come as news to those who held the office prior to the invention of powered flight, such as Pitt the Younger, who apparently never set foot in Scotland, Ireland, or indeed most of England. Like all of Sunak’s statements, it requires a degree of adjustment or qualification before it begins to approximate to the truth. The simplest adjustment which can be made to turn this into a true statement is to replace the words “before me” with the words “since October 2022”. Choosing the right start date makes it entirely true to argue that every PM since has used private jets and helicopters intensively. Even if the phrase ‘every PM’ is then covering only a very, very limited range of people. One, to be precise.

Choosing a start date for history – rather like Pol Pot did in Cambodia with his ‘Year Zero’ – has other advantages as well for Sunak. Indeed, treating October 2022 as the beginning of Year Zero makes sense of a lot more of what Sunak says – all decisions taken (to say nothing of promises made) before then were taken by other parties and are nothing at all to do with him. Grant Schapps may well be a member of his cabinet today, but he only became a member of that particular cabinet in October 2022. He cannot be held responsible for decisions taken by someone called Grant Schapps (on Mondays to Fridays at least – he went by other names on his days off) prior to that date as a member of a completely different government. Such as the decision to impose ULEZ on Sadiq Khan as a means of raising revenue from motorists, for instance.

Enthusiasm for global warming isn’t limited to Sunak, of course. Frosty was at it as well just last week, claiming that a bit of global warming was a good thing for the UK, where more people die from the cold in winter than from the heat in summer. Evening out the numbers of excess deaths by moving some of them from the winter to the summer is probably one of those elusive Brexit benefits, this one being for the undertaking industry which would be able to expect a smooth flow of excess deaths all year round rather than having to gear up to deal with winter peaks and summer troughs. You can probably expect to see your local undertakers being bought up by Tory donors with dodgy Russian connections in the near future. What Frosty had to say has been fairly comprehensively debunked elsewhere, although he will never be convinced. Lurking behind his views is that strange sense of English exceptionalism, which allows him to consider only the costs and benefits for the UK and ignore both the impact on the rest of the world, and any consequences of what happens elsewhere for the UK. After all, the only accurate use of the word Global is as a prefix for the term UK. It’s an ailment from which Sunak also suffers, as he so ably demonstrated yesterday.

Anyway, the Tories’ new-found willingness to express their desire to maximise growth and profit now and to hell with the consequences for future generations seems to stem, at least in part, from the outcome of the Uxbridge by-election, which they have chosen to interpret as a result which went against the trend. I wonder, though, if they’re interpreting it correctly. The winning candidate himself has declined to give any credit to either Sunak or the government for his victory, and there were reports that his campaign literature didn’t even mention the Conservative Party. Another interpretation is possible, which places Uxbridge as part of the same phenomenon as the other two by-elections held on the same day. In this interpretation, all three elections were won by the candidate who mounted the strongest campaign against the Tory Party and its policies. It's just that, in Uxbridge, that candidate happened to be the, er, Conservative candidate. Could it be that Sunak’s best chance of winning a majority in 2024 (or Year 1, as we should probably now know it) would be for him to advise all his party’s candidates to campaign against him and his government? Stranger things have probably happened in politics, although I can’t immediately identify when.