Thursday, 30 May 2013

We can entertain you wholesale

There are some gaps in the clouds, now and again. Last week wasn’t just taken up with my Research Excellence Framework ‘impact statement’ (be thankful that you don’t know what this refers to, if those words have left you none the wiser). Nor my role as Faculty Chair of Research Degrees. Or marking. Second marking. External examining. Chasing administrative glitches and paperwork mess-ups here, there and everywhere. Or even (perish the thought) researching and writing.

It’s not all work, you know. Oh no. On two different weekday nights I was able to get out and go to the cinema to see massive old American blockbusters: Iron Man 3 (above) and Star Trek: Into Darkness, to be precise. So far, so unremarkable. Big deal, you might think, except it both experiences got me thinking... About postmodern, late capitalism, and the art of sensation.

Now I know what you’re thinking. What a pseud, eh? What do those big-bangs megafilms have to tell us about the state of human society?

Well, quite a lot, I think. Bear with me on this one.

The most remarkable thing about both films was their fullness. Their sheer bursting-at-the-seams, screaming-at-the-sky, shouting-at-the-stars, mad, bad, overfull ripeness. Want a bit of ironiccomedy? A few sarcastic one-liners? Some romance? Action? Adventure? You’d have come to the right place. Not particularly surprising, those headers. But these films wanted to have it all. They veered around like a drunk driving the wrong way down the motorway. References to other films? Check. A strong sense of their own referential (and reverential) canon? Tick. A liberal politics of threat creation – ‘we create our own demons’, and all that? Yes – combined with a two-fisted, up-and-at-‘em conservative blow-everything-up-and-to-hell bloody mindedness that helped to undercut liberal speechifying (and sustain two of the luckiest heroes, in Tony Stark and Jim Kirk, that you’re ever likely to see).

This blog could go on for days (trust us) just listing the mix n’ match discourses and genres that were being thrown into the blender. Buddy films. Affecting dad (or stepdad) movies. Romantic comedies, even, evident both from Stark’s relationship with a rather chilly Gwyneth Paltrow and Mr Spock’s with a fire-breathing Uhura. The switcheroo half way through Iron Man 3 is particularly breathtaking, cheeky, funny, disreputable – and ridiculous.

It was like being hit with a filmic power shower. Invigorating, fun, admirable – and somehow not quite so satisfying as a long old bath.

What was going on? I’m tempted to say that all this was a reflection of the vast writing and production teams that work on these films – legions of experts and choreographers that all want their vision recognised. But there’s something else that’s important here: a late capitalism that thinks it can throw everything into the mix and still come up with something coherent, an incoherent mishmash or collage of styles and ideas that involves the appropriation of just about everything that pre-modernity, modernity and post-modernity can throw at the dream machine still run by Uncle Sam, smiles, and then sells it back to you. It’s a politics of everything, chucked at the wall to see if some of it will stick. Except that a wall would be better – than the mind and the head of the audience, subjected to the full panoply of emotions and the entire gamut of feeling every ten minutes.

You’re left crouching and weaving, enjoying the sensation of being right in there with your heroes, only to be left spinning, reeling, giddily weaving out of the cinema, wondering: ‘what the hell was all that about’?

That’s a good summary of where we are in the developed world right now. Which is not a bad recommendation for any story, really, if you don’t mind your fun scrambled and your confections confusing.

Me? I’d rather not mix my sweet pineapple with my savoury pizza quite so much, thank you.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Academic history and the ideas that could never fly

Public policy analysts - including The Historian - don't like to gloat. There's no point. To be honest, weeping is often more appropriate when policies we said would never fly go right off the rails. We don't want to say 'we told you so', with a wag of the finger and a sad shake of the head; we want to punch the air when things go right. When good, sound, historical and evidence-based ideas work.

But calling policymakers out when they roll out some stinkers is also part of the job.

So today, dear reader, we give you (yet again) two policies that are busy disintegrating before your eyes: university tuition fees and landlord checks on the immigration status of tenants

We've condemned these again and again - and again. Why? Well, in the first case, because the money was obviously just never going to turn up. Treasury estimates were far too optimistic: about real wages; about the possibility of recouping loans from non-UK citizens; and about the Government's ability to hold down fees in the first place. What did we say, all the way back in February 2011? Well, take a look:
The problem here is that the new system bids fair to completely bankrupt the Exchequer, while delivering very few quality or efficiency gains. It's a slow-motion car crash - a system that won't work and can't work... The Treasury has assumed very high and rising graduate salaries, going up by 4.47% every year. They have rarely touched such dizzying heights, even in the booms of the 1980s and 1990s. If that figure sinks down to four per cent, or even three per cent, the whole scheme's sunk. This at a time when the system will probably expand, due to the dropping of the 'cap in detail' on each institution's numbers - so the relatively value of a degree will sink.
What do we find now, right up-to-date in 2013? Er, this blog was right all along. There's a massive black hole in the very structure of tuition fees. We're now edging towards a 40 per cent loss on this scheme, and think tanks and policy gurus of all sorts are scrabbling to think about how the UK might make up the shortfall. Cheaper courses? Shorter courses? A graduate tax? Your guess is as good as mine - and as good as Ministers', too.

Now let's move on to the stupid, ludicrous - and totally unworkable - idea that landlords would check the immigration documents of their tenants. Well, what could we possibly say about this so-called 'policy' that wasn't immediately evident? Who was going to enforce this? Who was going to train landlords? How could propertyowners possibly tell what was a real document, and what was a forgery? Here's 'Public Policy and the Past', now quite recently, raging on this one:
So let me get this straight. A supposedly liberal-conservative government wants to create a new bureaucratic array, a ragged army of snoopers, checkers, form-fillers and listeners-in... All for absolutely no purpose whatsoever. For anyone who believes that a single one of these ideas will change one migrant's idea about coming or not coming to the United Kingdom is deluded. What counts on that front is work - its absence or presence both here and in people's countries of origin... But it's worse than that, really. These proposed laws are ridiculous even given their own presumptions... Who's to look at tenants documentation? Agents? Landlords? How will the Government check if you've done it?
Now we learn - surprise, surprise - that this policy is being quietly abandoned (£). Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary (above), is letting it be known that this idea will only be applied in 'certain boroughs' - by which they mean London. Listen out, quite soon, for this concept to be quietly put out of its misery.

It's important to know your history - to know what is possible and what is likely, the potential shortfalls of promised govenrment revenue and the limits of bureaucracy in the real world. That's why groups such as History and Policy exist, beavering away at King's College London on drawing comparisons between past and present debacles. That's important in these specific cases, just as it always is in the generality.

But ask yourself: how did Special Advisers, civil servants and Ministers sign off on policies that were so obviously going to fail? Was it obedience? Wishful thinking? Over-ambition? Or just plain old-fashioned sloppiness?

Yours guess is as good as mine. One thing's for sure: I'm going to have a great time in the midst of these official papers, when they're released to the National Archives in between 18 and 20 years' time.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Atrocity reporting - a difficult balancing act

After yesterday's horrendous killing of a British soldier on a Woolwich street, it's more and more important to analyse our responses; to watch our words; and to exercise restraint and caution in our words and judgements. The family of the dead will be distraught; there will be commentaries and theories of all sorts flying around; nasty fringe groups will be trying to make political capital out of the tragedy.

So it was probably a mistake for the Sun to splash this morning with 'Muslim Fanatics' as its sub-headline, and the Daily Mail (above) to try to lever in the word 'suburban' in its front page coverage. Since when, exactly, has Woolwich been 'suburban'? Both phrases give away rather more, perhaps, of the latent fears and terrors among their staffs than those running amidst the general public, and may generate just that sense of hysteria that the perpetrators desired.

Still. It's difficult to get a handle on these things in the heat of the moment, especially in a crowded and a caffeinated newsroom when events are unfolding just as rapidly as last night's printers wanted to get to work. So we should, perhaps, on this occasion, not be too judgemental. Most of the papers went with fairly sober readings. 'Soldier hacked to death' doesn't seem to have been too far from the truth in The Times; 'Terror returns to Britain' was pretty restrained on the front page of The Independent's shorter stable-mate, the i. London's own Evening Standard has been pushing a message of unity and defiance today, echoing some of the Prime Minister's comments on the risk of social, ethnic or religious divisions.

It'd be easy on these occasions for a jaundiced observer to say 'pah, the papers never put Afro-Caribbean or Asian victims of racial violence on the front page'. There's just been a potentially racist killing of an elderly Asian man in Birmingham, and there wasn't much national coverage at all.

But there are more structural than racial elements to the different types of coverage. The Woolwich killings were committed in broad daylight, by two men who hung around, bloodied hands raised, to make their 'views' clear. They are explicitly and immediately linked to politics, rather than arising out of any more murky sea of as-yet unkown motives; they are a frightening new departure in an ongoing conflict that has been with us for some years already, and shows no signs of abating immediately; they will lead to questions being asked about police and security service readiness; and they touch a deep vein of affection and loyalty for the armed forces, evident among all sorts of Britons, and so vividly evoked by the Help for Heroes campaign. Looking back at the history of these things, we can observe similar trends in coverage of the 1982 Hyde Park bombings, or indeed the events of 7/7 in 2005.

So some of our newspapers might have gone over the top, deploying language and images that would have been better left on the shelf. No fan of some of these newspapers, 'Public Policy and the Past' thinks that was a mistake - though on this occasion, a rather more understandable one than others.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Downing Street's crazy panic

Europe? Gay marriage? Swivel-eyed loons? The Conservative Party has taken leave of its senses, after a spring when things seemed to be heading back their way. It's ill-judged, insensitive, distracting and downright self-destructive. The whole thing has a last-days-of-Pompeii feel to it, akin to Labour's fratricidal blood-letting in the early 1980s. And we all know how that ended.

The division between David Cameron and his ever-smaller band of followers owes something to the Prime Minister's own laid-back persona; more to the schisms of social class that bedevil all English life; and lots to the poisoned well of a post-Thatcher Conservative Party taught to love the smack of 'firm leadership' (for which read: refusing to listen to anyone who disagrees with you). Not it's all come out into the open. Conservative MPs are even scurrying to their local newspapers and denouncing their colleagues as 'loons' - something hardly calibrated to lower the temperature. There's a ready-made Right-wing alternative to turn to if you don't like a reformist Cameroon Conservatism that is clearly wilting, just as thousands of Right-leaning Labourites deserted their party to join the Social Democrats in the eary 1980s. And it might be that the Right is beginning to efface itself from any serious claim on adult governance, just as the Left did for so many years in the late twentieth century.

It's just crazy. British Conservatives seem determined to head down the same rabbit hole that US Republicans have plunged into, valuing intellectual probity and ideological commitment (of a sort) over electability. Over issues that are not central to most voters. All at a time when the economy does, at long, long, last, seem to be showing signs of life - and when medium- to long-term political opportunities are there to be seized. All right, some of those signs of a pickup - like rising house prices - are exactly the wrong signals one would want to see if we're to break out of consumer growth and boom-and-bust economics once and for all. And it will take many years for the hole blown in real incomes to be made up. But business activity is up; inflation is down; GDP forecasts are getting slightly healthier; graduate job opportunities are not looking quite so dire as they did.

That might still constitute a not-so-shabby platform for re-election in 2015. Not as a majority Conservative government, mind you - if Scotland stays inside the United Kingdom, there is almost no chance of that whatsoever - but at least as a minority with a strong chance of governing for a while.

That's not such a bad target to aim at when your party brand is so polluted. But for now Conservatives just can't see it. They're embroiled in The Tory Wars - which look set to run and run.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

The great university tuition hours controversy: you read it here first

The latest news from England's ongoing student fees debacle is as predictable as it is depressing.

Briefly, the latest manufactured 'row' amounts to this: universities are now charging nine times what they charged just a few short years ago (in the times of plenty, rather than austerity and dearth). And yet teaching and contact hours have gone up by only a tiny little bit. Now, don't get university lecturers started. You and they know that the number of contact hours doesn't relate to the quality of the education received at these august institutions. You and they understand that most higher education must be self-directed research and learning - otherwise, students might as well stay at school for a few more years.

And we all know that universities don't have all that much more cash than they did when fees were as low as £1,000. The UK government has removed almost all of their teaching grant (or is in the process of doing so), so undergraduates may be paying a lot more, but there isn't a vast increase in cash pouring into Vice Chancellors' coffers to deal with all the extra expectation that might mount with a higher price tag. This would hamstring any attempt to push up teaching hours and the number of lectures, even before we take into account that there's no simple correlation at all between higher spending and more academic productivity.

We know all that - and we've known it all along. Still, the less sophisticated among the commentariat are up in arms.

It's important in this context to remember where we've come from, and where we might be going. You might have a slight feeling of deja vu here if you're a regular reader of this blog, because it's what we've predicted here all along. What did we say here at PPP, way back in October 2010? Let's take a look:
The main problem... will come about because of the withdrawal of most government funding for tuition. Most of the extra money will simply be swallowed up by [a] funding ‘black hole’ – a fact explicitly accepted by the [Browne] Report, which recommended a £6,000 soft cap for fees to drive ill-defined (and unlikely) ‘efficiency savings’. Students are not going to see any return for their extra outlays, even if they pay £12,000 per annum. 27 per cent of that charge will pass directly to the government, leaving only a small increase in funding over the total unit of resource even at ‘elite’ institutions. In fact, just the reverse – buildings are going to deteriorate, they are going to see their tutors less, IT investment will slow, and research laboratories will be slimmed down. They are unlikely to take all this in good humour.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it, in the context of student and parental complaints about 'quality' and the amount of teaching received in universities? Just nod, it's okay. To drive the point home, there was also this, that I wrote at about the same time:
This is a very high-risk strategy - something that should come as no surprise given the Coalition Government's decision to simultaneously revolutionise the NHS, the constitution, local government and macroeconomic policy. If it goes wrong, there may be little political capital left to reconstruct universities that have gone bankrupt. Academics' discussion should focus on the redistribution of risk: from the old to the young; from the collective to the individual; from government to the university managers and teachers who will have to manage student unrest. It is this new and bitter game that will dominate the years ahead.
Yes, well, don't give me any medals for prescience just yet. But it's not a bad record.

Marketising Higher Education, while giving it no more money overall, was always a recipe for tension, dispute and downright arm-wrestling within academe. For if they are encouraged to think of their university years as a consumer product, with a price-tag, and measured by its quantity as well as its quantity, who is to blame anyone for taking our universities to task when there seems no relation at all between actual costs and provision for the individual?

Remember: you read it here first.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Devolution: more dynamic, but more complex

I've just spent a very enjoyable few days in North Wales (lovely, thank you), during which I spoke at a Workshop on 'Community Building Governance' at Bangor University (above).

It was a very enjoyable day, attended by politicians (such as Anglesey MP Albert Owen), representatives from the charitable sector, third sector organisations such as Housing Associations, and - of course - the inevitable academic or two.

I won't bore you too much with the details. But what struck me the most was just how rapidly the United Kingdom's constituent elements are diverging in their constitutional and policy practice. I should know most of this, of course - but life's sometimes to short to hang onto most of the detail. Fixated on the Scottish independence referendum due next year, we sometimes fail to look at Wales as an example of a small country trying to do things differently on the other side of Offa's Dyke.

Devolution is dynamic. Following a 2011 referendum, the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Assembly Government now have many more powers than under their original late-1990s remit. And resultant policy differences are growing. It was evident just from a few hours at Bangor that the entire political culture is different. There is a very different constellation of forces contending for power within the policy-making landscape. Local government is more powerful; the National Parks are bigger players, at least in relatively remote, rural North Wales; the state is bigger and more confident; four parties have entrenched power bases in way that UKIP can only dream about (for now) in England.

Take one example: Communities First, a series of grass-roots partnerships that have been attempting to tackle poverty at the ward and local level since 2001 - surely one of the longest-running policy initiatives of all, unheralded across the rest of the UK. A series of organic contacts between different groups too often sundered in England - acting of course in a much smaller country - its recent re-orientation towards a 'bottom up' rather than a relatively mechanical and statistical 'top down' approach was subject to both praise and controversy on the day.

It's an interesting example of multi-centred policymaking, and we're all going to have to get used to it. One of the few benefits of Bill Clinton's 'aboltion of welfare as we know it' was the handing down of much power to the individual states, meaning that they could learn from each other and experiment much more easily than previously.

Can we grasp that nettle here? It looks unlikely for now, especially given the three different parties in power in Cardiff, Edinburgh and London, but more events like Friday's Community-Building Workshop might give grounds for hope.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Queen's speech: dog's dinner

Domestic public policy shouldn't make you too angry, really. At least in the developed world, where we've got time - and cash - to think things out. Football? Yes. World poverty? Yes. Tinkering with the machinery of the mixed economy? Not so much.

Yesterday's Queen's Speech (above) may, however, be an exception. For it contained immigration 'reforms' so crasss, so ignorant, so eye-wateringly, bladder-emptyingly turgid, messy, stupid and downright ill-conceived that any of us with a brief on the public policy circuit should be smashing up seminar rooms and howling at the moon. We're going to tut and write blogs instead, but there you go.

The speech from the throne contained some good ideas, though many of them will never be actually implemented - partly because the Coalition itself is running swiftly out of steam, and partly because they're not radical enough. Reforms to social care, trying to stitch the NHS and local authority responsibilities together, and increased probation for ex-offenders, come under this heading. 'Not bad: try harder' isn't too bad a summary of these well-intentioned proposals.

But when we get to immigration 'reform' - well, excuse my brevity, but the announcement was a turd. Doctors are to check immigrants' length of stay, and charge short-term residents. Councils are to give priority to local people for housing - though they're already allowed and encouraged to do this. Most absurdly of all, landlords are to check tenants' papers. So let me get this straight. A supposedly liberal-conservative government wants to create a new bureaucratic array, a ragged army of snoopers, checkers, form-fillers and listeners-in... All for absolutely no purpose whatsoever. For anyone who believes that a single one of these ideas will change one migrant's idea about coming or not coming to the United Kingdom is deluded. What counts on that front is work - its absence or presence both here and in people's countries of origin. Economic growth will both bring people in, and be boosted in its turn, by the arrival of hard-working foreigners. That's the crux of the matter, and that's why immigration has fallen recently. There's no evidence, and there never will be any evidence, to prove the contrary. Evidence-based policy? Cutting red tape? They've gone out of the window in order to placate Conservative fears about the rise of the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party.

But it's worse than that, really. These proposed laws are ridiculous even given their own presumptions. Will GPs really want to see your passport? Who's to look at tenants documentation? Agents? Landlords? How will the Government check if you've done it? Will doctors or councils listen to what the Government says anyway? It seems unlikely that a doctor is going to be asked to turn people away, or make them pay, when they're acutely ill.

It's bad law gone wrong, with legislation lurching from the absurd to the absurdist. It's the unenforceable and ineffective 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act all over again, brought in at a time when sensible public health measures, from minimum alcohol pricing to plain tobacco packaging, are being left to gather dust on the shelf. The same amount of people will be able to come - in particular, from the European Union - and the economic and social determinants of people's movements will remain exactly the same as they were before this ludicrous set of non-laws were sort-of enacted. All in all, it's an indictment of our entire political culture that the laughter today has been limited to polite, behind-our-hands sniggering.

Well, it's not sniggering that's coming from this blog, that's for sure. It's snarling.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Labour's baby steps are not good enough

So England's local elections made it a night for celebrating the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party - if you had a mind to.

But remember the bar we set Labour on Tuesday. That was for the party to win 300 council seats, and show that they could win in places from which they had retreated in disorder under Gordon Brown: Harlow in Essex, for instance, a 'must win' seat if they are to hope to govern on their own anytime soon.

How did they do? That's the real question. There's a psychodrama taking place on the Right of British politics, one we'll address in further posts, but it's Labour progress and Labour's presence on the ground which will decide who sits in No. 10 Downing Street after the next election. Remember that UKIP has only bought an admission ticket for national politics, and won as many seats as the Greens have, regularly now, for many years. And on just about any measure, Labour came up a little bit short short. The fog of battle has not yet lifted, but the party seems unlikely to make it to 300 gains. In Harlow (above), they made two gains out of the three seats on Essex County Council (PDF) that could have fallen to them, but they fell short in a third they might have claimed - all with the help of thousands of UKIP voters who siphoned support (for the main) away from the Conservatives. Essex as a whole warmed to the populist UKIP message, and not to Labour, which still has only nine seats on the council (compared to 42 Conservatives).

Labour did take some good steps forward, and it was by no means a disastrous night for them. They held on to a safe seat in the North of England, a seat where their vote held up fairly well. They pushed their drinks cabinet that little bit closer to the offices of real power in Whitehall among the streets of Hastings and Lincoln, where they picked up seats (for instance Lincoln Moorland) where they must do well next time. They gained control of Derbyshire, in general making up ground they lost so precipitously in their 2009 debacle. In general, First Past the Post looks to be helping them because they're able to focus their efforts on areas with vulnerable Conservative MPs, who must know look nervously over their shoulders at the UKIP insurgency.

But Staffordshire, at the outer edges of Labour's ambitions, stayed Conservative. Labour pushed  Warwickshire into no overall control, but couldn't take control of the council. Nor could they gain a decisive upper hand in Cumbria. They made six gains in Bristol, but weren't able to get close to controlling the council chamber there (though that was, admittedly, never really on the cards because the whole council wasn't up for election). 

Let's sum it all up. Labour is crawling towards power, shuffling forwards across the broken glass of low public esteem and trust. On this showing, they might well be the biggest party come the aftermath of the next General Election. The idea that anyone is going to win an overall majority has now been clearly exposed as a fantasy. But what sort of mandate would a Labour Government have if it won 33 or 34 per cent of the vote, when the Conservatives and UKIP had split over 40 per cent between them? Well, you could say the same sort of mandate that Margaret Thatcher had when she won a First Past and Post landslide in 1983. But that's another debate, for another day.

For now, our conclusion about Labour's path to power must be this: it's long, rocky and uncertain. And, as far ahead as 2015 at least, it may be leading nowhere at all.