Monday, 28 March 2011

Reflections on Saturday's big march

So I spent Saturday with my hand up, committed to a political cause. It's not a pose that comes particular naturally to me, to be honest. Years and years of a 'detached', 'fair' and 'balanced' historical training have made it impossible for me not to say, 'well on the one hand this, on the other hand the other'. And temperamentally I'm not about to smash any windows. But I did indeed trudge through the March for the Alternative. I managed to turn my hips to concrete, a-stop-starting on the tarmac and standing around for five hours. But it seemed worth it in the end.

The Coalition's deficit reduction plan seems so half-baked, so reckless and so rapid that the feeling is growing among many unradical people that 'something must be done' - as the more sensitive media observers, such as Newsnight's Paul Mason, observed when they went on the march. Whole coachloads of officeworkers, public servants and just worried citizens disgorged themselves in London for hour after hour, pushing up estimates of their numbers to between a quarter of a million and half a million. As he noted, the tens of thousands of parents pushing buggies, older people leaning on sticks and single people who'd just come along on their own showed that 'something is up'. Given that people were still arriving in Hyde Park at dusk (about 6.30pm) from the official start on the Embankment, the likely number of marchers was probably closer to the bigger figure than the smaller.

Most of it was good fun. I set off from just behind the British Library in a 'feeder' march filled with lecturers and students (above) and it was one of those days when an Englishman or woman might turn and speak to a stranger. Jokes filled the throng. Banners saying 'easy there' and 'hello mum' jostled with those from the Socialist Workers Party. Smiling policemen, doing their best to jolly people along, grinned when observers noted that they never thought they'd see the Ritz with its windows smashed (above). Stewards mingled with people of all creeds, colours and classes. As Michael White of The Guardian observed, it was all for the most part 'wholesome family fare'.

The whole event will probably do little to change the Government's view that they have to wipe out £122bn of borrowing in under three and a half years - a feat never before achieved in the OECD, and a well-nigh imposible task, and one opposed by the last three Nobel Laureates in Economics. Recent polls show that the armed conflict in Libya and the relatively favourable press given to the Budget have allowed the Conservatives to narrow the gap with Labour - or even take the lead again. The detailed numbers demonstrate just how much the public still blame the previous government for austerity. Scroll down any public comments page and you'll see entry after entry dominated by idea.

Still - there was a community atmosphere of mutual support that eased the pain of being shouted down by economic ignoramuses that have never looked at a real balance sheet in their lives. Only the thought that seeing two other historians and friends in the massive crowd demonstrated the narrow section of society out protesting diluted that warm feeling just a little.

Many sympathetic observers were frustrated by anarchist dust-ups, and voiced their outrage that the more moderate ideas of Middle England's public sector workers at least should have been drowned out. To be honest, I think they've got the wrong target there. It's the media that's managed to fasten on the violence elsewhere in the city - which really enjoyed only a parasitic relationship with the march itself - while simultaneously saying 'everyone's talking about the violence'. Talk about a meta-narrative that enforces itself. What about interviewing some of the marchers themselves and shoving that in your highlights package? Not a single such voice came across in the BBC News at Ten, or on ITN. It's a deeply concerning ideological blackout that needs addressing.

I used to be a journalist. I know that smashing windows and firing paint at the Ritz makes good TV - and print copy. It calls out for big headlines and big photos. Fair enough. But so does the anger of great swathes of the public - and that's not coming across. Saturday on the news looked nothing like Saturday in real life. That's a problem - for journalists as well as those of us who oppose the Coalition's agenda.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Budget sweeteners don't mean the Government has changed course

The Chancellor's rhetoric today lauded a 'Budget for jobs' and a 'budget for growth'. Which would have been nice.

In fact, what this really represented was a stand-still budget that held to the general course mapped out in last year's Comprehensive Spending Review, with a few sweeteners thrown in. Taxing oil companies to pay for an immediate small cut in fuel duty was smart politics - if not particularly advanced economics, since the price of those taxes will have to be passed onto consumers somewhere and at some time. Ministers have spent the day denying this, which strains credulity and is one reason why everyone in the Treasury should at least have some form of economics training.

As a historian, I'd compare it to James Callaghan's nautically-themed 'steady as she goes' Budget of 1967 - which ran the economy straight into devaluation when the Labour government of the time refused to accept the reality that the pound was overvalued. Instead of deflating more sharply, adopting selective interventions that might have helped the foreign balance, or indeed announcing an orderly revaluation of the pound, Callaghan shut his ears to all advice and tried to shout down the doubters. It didn't work. It never does.

Some of the measures announced today may indeed speed economic growth a little - a bit of tax simplification here, and some speeding up of the planning system there. From a micro-economic point of view, there's nothing wrong with that. Flat rate pensions may end the 'incentives trap' for people in their 50s - meaning that there's no point saving more, because your pension won't be topped up through the labyrithine Pension Credits system. Mind you, the sums involved won't be very generous whoever's in power. The Green Investment Bank, though shorn of some of the Liberal Democrats' more innovative ideas, is one hopeful sign that innovative thinking still goes on behind the Treasury's black door. More money must be welcome. Keynes' great biographer Lord Skidelsky recently called for a National Investment Bank that would leverage private sector spending and, though the examples of the 1960s Industrial Reorganisation Corporation is no recommendation, the Green Investment Bank may one day turn into such an institution.

But the strategy, as opposed to the tactics, is still the same. It still involves ploughing straight into an iceberg-laden stretch of water with as much aplomb and as much speed as the Chancellor can muster. And it's still going to hurt. A lot.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

American trade unions under attack... Could it happen here?

Keen America-watchers among you (this certainly includes me) will have noticed the furore in Wisconsin, where the Republican Governor Scott Walker has secured the passage of a new bill to take away most of public sector unions' negotiating rights. Weeks of tens of thousands protesting in the streets of Madison had little legislative effect in the end. In future state employees will only be able to bargain collectively over below-inflation pay rises. The measure passed in committee, via a procedural dodge, while thousands of aggrieved public employees tried to storm the chamber - while Democratic State Senators hid out to try to prevent their opponents reaching a quorum. Cries of 'betrayal' rang out - for good reason.

Now Wisconsin, like most American states, faces a financial crisis and a huge black hole in its finances, especially as the Federal government's stimulus is being progressively withdrawn this year - and as anti-spending Republicans have just taken over the House of Representatives in Washington. There did need to be public sector pay restraint - and possibly even falls if jobs were to be preserved.

But this is taking a great big axe to a sapling. All of the mechanisms whereby stagnating or even lower pay can be negotiated - shorter hours, days off, flexible working, job shares - depend on negotiation in these types of jobs, which rely on the goodwill, productivity, and unpaid overtime of teachers, policmen and firefighters. So of course employers, for instance School Boards, are now scurrying to put wage and conditions deals in place while they can still negotiate with familiar faces who can deliver. Perhaps that stuff's all too 'soft' for self-appointed hard men such as Governor Walker to take on board. Compare Germany, a country that's grown much faster than the USA for the last five years (surmounting the financial crash with ease), and its greater level of social effort and activism in the workplace. Sagging American productivity? Perhaps it's the fragmented, low-cost, low-effort equilibrium of pushing people round all the time. It's an economic history argument that so-called 'new institutionalists' introduced into the British literature during the 1980s. I haven't seen much more convincing work since. Certainly the bombastic literature so prevalent at the turn of the century, condemning 'sclerotic' Europeans and praising 'flexible' Anglo-Saxons, seems to have disappeared. I wonder why?

Could the assault on collective bargaining happen here? Certainly some Conservatives would like to see ballots requiring more than half of all workers in a union - not members returning their polling card - before strikes can be launched. Even that wouldn't be as draconian as the Wisconsin experiment, but it will still be another step forward for anti-union legislation that was slightly eased during the New Labour years.

In practice, all this is rather unlikely to jump the Atlantic, at least in this Parliament. The Liberal Democrats probably wouldn't wear it, and neither would the European or British courts under the European Convention on Human Rights. A government fighting on so many fronts at once just can't take the strain of another policy war. Last night's Newsnight focus group battering of David Willetts, Minister for Higher Education and Skills showed how much middle-class and white-collar workers are hurting. They're in a mood to ally with anyone else getting trampled in the rush to the deficit altar, and Downing Street insiders can see the tough battle that faces neo-liberal 'reformers' even in union-lite America. The last thing the Government wants is another bare-knuckle fight to go alongside the universities, Child Benefit, the NHS, Disability Living Allowance, and on ad infinitum.

But yet again people who played no part in making the crisis are having to pay for it. This process is reminiscent of the 1930s, when a stock market crash, commodity price falls and consumer flight froze the world economy - only for governments to whack more taxes on investors and consumers by raising government revenue and slashing spending.

It didn't work then, and it won't work now.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Disability Living Allowance reform: worrying elements

This column has returned again and again to the idea that the Coalition government's reforms are not necessarily ill-judged (that's for another day and perhaps another blog) but are often objectionable on quite another set of grounds: they are hasty, ill-tested, poorly thought-through and sometimes downright bad.

It's a good area for a public policy historian, because the long view lends perspective - and a sense of the politically wise and unwise.

Today's is disability allowance reform. I'm now old enough (and have the painful knees and shoulders to prove it) to remember the dying days of John Major's government of 1990-97, an administration that was often well-intentioned but blundered its way into a series of minefields. In the end the Disability Minister's own daughter turned on him and Downing Street was besieged by disabled protestors in wheelchairs. What a public relations disaster that was.

As is so often the case with a government keen to do everything in the five years of momentum it thinks it has, there's a sense of 'here we go again' on disability rights.

The Department of Work and Pension's new 'Employment Support Allowance' has some admirable aims. In theory, these are threefold: (1) replacing a complex set of allowances with a single payment that will eventually stand alongside the Universal Credit; (2) getting rid of a subjective test with an objective set of indicators covering whether you can work or not; and finally (3) supporting employment rather than dependence. Altogether the Government hopes to save a good proportion of the £12bn DLA budget, and to boost the economy by a similar amount as some disabled people move back to work.

Leave aside the idea that disabled people being supported by taxpayer-citizens are 'dependent'. One of the most worrying elements of the whole scheme is that it starts from assumptions - the main and overriding one being that many people on DLA could and should work. Perhaps some of them should - though taking away vital transport and advice services, as many of the Coalition's cuts do, is hardly the way to go about it. Disability Alliance, a charity that has laboured long and hard in just this area, is extremely sceptical about the whole botched structure. It's just as likely to push disabled people into poverty, by shoving them back onto Jobseeker's Allowance, than break the chains of immobility, depression and prejudice.

Stories proliferate of private companies employed to conduct the new 'tests' finding terminally-ill and very weak people 'fit to work' because they can hold a pen or stand up.

It's an unfortunate spin-off of yet another example of how not to do public policy:

(a) Very quickly and with little consultation, so that employers and others are hopping mad about being ignored in the project's design;

(b) Starting from financial or other assumptions that may or may not be true;

(c) Bringing in providers with little experience of a sector of economy or society. One hundred social care academics have just written to the Minister responsible to say so.

Another storm cloud on the horizon? You bet.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

What does Jamie's dream school tell us about teaching?

Jamie Oliver's recent venture into 'reforming' 'troubled' young people (there are a couple of value-laden phrases) is extremely revealing - but not for the reasons Jamie and his teachers thought it might be.

What it actually tells us is how important it is to be a good teacher, to be pedagogically aware, and to be able to get your point over in a calm, measured, respectful manner that in its turn elicits respect. And to listen rather than talk all the time. It doesn't matter how much you know about something once you're in the classroom - it matters whether you're a good teacher. This can to some extent be trained into you, though your personality type probably plays a role as well.

What you can't do is shout at young people from a position of strenth, power and knowledge. They'll just yawn and look at their mobiles - or fight back in just the same way you've bullied them, as actual teachers have pointed out.

The most awful example of this was David Starkey's turn as the school's History teacher. You squirm as he shouts at them. You hide behind your hands as he patronises them. You get angry when he's nasty to them, dismissing one poor kid because of his weight. What sort of actual teacher would do that? It's an object lesson in how not to do it - and a warning of thinking that intellectual ability or an academic post must mean you're good at teaching. It, er, appears not...

Even some of the teachers who gave the kids some respect, and had thought about some of those elements of a successful lesson - think of Simon Callow taking his pupils to The Globe theatre to evoke his passion for Shakepseare- fell flat. That was a start, though some of his other ranting was a bit of a drawback. And at least he showed some passion for the children's views themselves. But he admitted that he'd failed to reach many of his aims, a self-awareness that would have stood him in good stead were he an actual Drama teacher.

The most worrying element in all this is that the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, buys into some of this stuff - witness his reforms to the PGCE qualification, designed to cut down so-called 'theory' and get students 'into the classroom'. Recall his fondness for lining kids up in lines, getting them into blazers and teaching them Latin. Wonder at his enormous enthusiasm for schemes that get 'top graduates' into teaching - a good idea within bounds that he now wants to push and push.

Well, all I can say is: good luck with that.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Could and should this be the last census?

So, here's my census form (with my hand over the confidential details) - it plopped noisily through my letterbox yesterday morning, rudely disturbing my consideration of how many words I need to cut from my latest book draft! Anyway, that aside, this prompts the question: will this be the last time I get these forms?

It looks like it. The Conservative-led government has decided to get rid of the census altogether - an idea that came out of the same think-tank world that's giving you the abolition of PCTs and the ongoing farce of Higher Education 'reform'. Some of their more radical activists argued that the 2011 effort should be scrapped as well, though to no avail.

Now the census isn't perfect. In fact, the 'disappearance' of many tens of thousands of citizens who never fill it in, or appear on the electoral roll for that matter, has been having deleterious effects on statistics as far apart as immigration, population levels and crime for many years. And many governments are thinking about new ways to gather this data. Last year another minority Conservative administration - Stephen Harper's Canadian government - made the long form of the census voluntary, to great controversy and some resignations.

But the end of the census is still a self-inflicted national wound that'll hurt for many decades to come.

It'll be impossible for historians like myself to look back to street, village and town levels of data - something that 'microhistories' of the past forty years have really drawn on to make history come alive. And the recent vogue for finding out 'who we are' - family history - will be dead and buried from now on. Want to know exactly where your family lived, and with whom? You won't be able to. These are academic concerns, to be sure - but they're non-trivial. What's the point of living at all if no trace of you is to be left? What does it mean to be 'British'? What if you want to conceptualise and order your past, but you can't? That's enough of the rhetoric questions, but you get the point.

It makes us citizens rather than images and numbers captured by mobile phone companies and supermarkets. It gives us rights to match the responsibilities we record. It captures our history. It gives us more accurate sub-national data. Try as you might, it'd difficult to argue with those four welcome capacities and advances. Abolish the census at your peril.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Why the LSE scandal should be no shock to anyone

So Howard Davies, Director of the London School of Economics (above), has resigned following a string of allegations about the institution's acceptance of Libyan money. The whole affair has made the LSE look foolish at best, and negligent at worst.

Three things spring to mind about this - and none of them make comfortable reading.

First: it's not so much the money - £1.5m isn't much, and anyone who's ever worked for a charity or sat on any sort of voluntary board will recall such dilemmas, though it must be said of much smaller scale and scope. Not many Women's Institute board meetings are gatecrashed by a nasty dictator trying to hand over bucketfulls of cash. It's the deep, abiding and personal links that LSE forged with a regime they must have known is deeply unpleasant. Board members were worried about causing Gadaffi's media-friendly son any 'embarrassment'. Academics were vetted before meeting the dictator. And what a dictator. He makes Mubarak look statesmanlike. At the time of writing, Colonel Gadaffi and his loyalists are clining to power by using air power against civilians, organising 'disappearances' throughout Tripoli, and sending tanks into confined urban spaces. One of the reasons he's held out for so long - and will probably continue to do so - is that he has dissolved most of the state structures that were able to lever tyrants in Tunisia and Egypt out of the way (and are now trying to consolidate their grip on power once more). Libya doesn't have any of that - no trade unions, no even partially free press, no political parties. How can the LSE have got in so deep? It's a mystery, but it perhaps speaks to an academy that's now completely instrumental - in the sense that it'll do what it's told whoever's doing the telling. After years and years of 'Quality Audit' and 'Research Assessment', maybe some lecturers just follow orders without thinking.

Second: it's a bit unfair to pick on universities. Plenty of oil firms, arms companies, engineering and financial service exporters are in bed with all sorts of nasty regimes - witness the Prime Minister's keen approval of the arms dealers he took with him to the Gulf at the height of the recent crisis in Bahrain. Political parties are no angels either: witness the long 'cash for honours' affair that so sapped New Labour's energies. As some management experts have pointed out, universities are just more transparent, placing them directly in the firing line when a dictator wobbles or is toppled. Big money has always challenged our moral norms - though its bigness in our present lopsided and divided world makes the problem worse.

Third: this was an accident waiting to happen. What other British universities are going to be red-faced if other regimes fall, particularly in the Gulf? I'll leave that question hanging in the air, because no-one really knows. But since the 1988 Education Act, universities have been told 'to go out and look for work', in Norman Tebbit's famous phrase. They've been hugely underfunded in international terms - as Simon Szreter has pointed out in the Times Higher. They've still managed to secure 14 places in the world's top 100 universities. But they've had to turn this way and that for cash - as the long debate about the funds for the Said Business School at Oxford showed. American institutions aren't immune to this sort of thing. But they can at least draw on a long tradition of local philanthropy and alumni giving. Without such a network of donors, some British universities appear to have gone where the money was - wherever it was.

Want to know what the 'Big Society' can look like when the state is hollowed out as quickly as right now? Er, look no further.

Friday, 4 March 2011

So what does Barnsley really tell us?

So - Labour has won another by-election pretty convincingly. The Liberal Democrats have been humiliated again - getting a 'kicking', according to their candidate.

The Lib Dems came sixth. It's got to hurt, this - all the more so because this used to be the party of the by-election... Remember Eastbourne in 1990, which hastened the end of Mrs Thatcher? Remember Christchurch in 1993, at which Diana Maddock overturned a huge Conservative majority on a 34 per cent swing? Ah, glory days. They must seem so long ago. Some bloggers have taken to calling their leader 'toxic Clegg' and, while this seems rather strong, he's certainly not the electoral asset he was so briefly last year. With some polls (for what they're worth) showing the Lib Dems' desperately-needed Alternative Vote reform now way behind, the storm clouds have continued to mount up for the Yellows.

Nor will the Conservatives rest easy. Their vote fell precipitously too, slinking away to UKIP and the BNP - both right-wing parties who'll be crowing that the Tories' new liberal face has lost them votes among right-thinking citizens.

Even so, Labour will hardly be punching the air this morning. In a solid working class northern town, they beat a neo-liberal government cutting services on a low turnout. Excuse me while I stifle a yawn. In fact, the danger for Labour is that they retreat further into the comfort zone that the election of Ed Milliband as their leader perhaps suggested. Everything we know about the polling suggests that Labour's lead is rather small, reactive and soft - that it is made up of people defecting from the Lib Dems, yes, but also from 'don't know' or 'don't usually vote'. Unless Labour's really careful, all that will melt away again if and when the economy recovers.

The test for Labour is not how well their message goes down in Barnsley. It's how it goes down in Crawley, Hemel Hempstead, Harlow, Dover, Swindon South, Hove and Reading West - all seats in the south of England they've held in the last ten years, and all seats they must win again to hold power in their own right. Will voters there warm to the soft left and the defence of public services per se? I doubt it. There is absolutely no doubt that the public want the deficit addressed, and that, rightly or wrongly, they think the last government overspent and overborrowed. Labour has to change that perception, or more likely, change the question and the subject. By-elections don't force you to do that. General elections do.

So what does Barnsley tell us? Not much.

We'll have to wait until May, and the Scottish and Welsh national votes, the AV referendum, and English local authority elections to look deeper into our crystal ball. Rest assured we'll be doing just that.