Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Our less and less perfect Union

President Obama speaks often about the making of a more perfect Union. Well, recent events have shown both the possiblilities and the limits of such an approach. The racially-motivated Charleston shootings showed the ugly, dark, impossibilist, hateful side of the USA; the generally favourable and sedate reaction to the Supreme Court's decision on gay marriage the way in which even a written Constitution can change and bend with the times (the Court's evocation of the history of marriage itself demonstrated that this was the majority view there, too).

Britain is a strange comparator here, for it is both extremely united (for instance in social attitudes, very similar for instance in Scotland to England) and increasingly politically fragmented. The two trends can coexist, of course, and they do across the UK. But the extent of our political divides are now trending towards the worrying.

David Cameron won his majority by scaring some Liberal Democrats and Labour voters enough to come over to his side, fearful of the 'economic chaos' of a Labour government, and of the Scottish National Party. He also prevented enough United Kingdom Independence Party defections to hold on to most of his own vote. So far, so obvious.

But look geographically and the story is much, more more complex. The UK is shattering into five or six different political spaces. Not only did the Four Nations elect four leading parties (the SNP in Scotland, the Conservatives in England, Labour in Wales and the Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland), but the clustering and conglomerations in each country are themselves now very advanced.

This wasn't the main shock on election night. We'd been expecting that. The real shock was the results in England, where Labour moved forward strongly in seats they held with big majorities, University towns, London, the North generally and in cities where they could see off the Liberal Democrats. Elsewhere, and especially in working class areas in the South (areas, often, with large UKIP votes), they went backwards - think of Plymouth Moor View and Southampton Itchen, both lost to the Conservatives on not-insubstantial swings. That's not the end of it, either. The whole process goes down to the sub-regional level. The Conservatives now enjoy enormous majorities in seats that used to be pretty marginal, or indeed were held by their opponents. Think about a city like Bristol. Labour increased their majorities in Bristol South and Bristol East, and took Bristol West from the Lib Dems, but trod water or went backwards in surrounding suburbs, whether they were well-to-do (Bristol North West) or much further down the income scale (Kingswood).

Put that together with the near-annihilation of the Liberal Democrats, and what you get is large blobs of red on the map next to huge swathes of blue (especially in the South East of England) (above: the map comes from ukelect.co.uk). Look at Oxford: in middle class Oxford West and Abingdon, held by the Lib Dems until 2010, there's now just a great big pile of Conservative votes. While in studenty Oxford East, Labour increased its majority. It's the emergence of two political nations. And never the twain shall meet.

None of this looks good for Labour as it approaches the next and inevitable boundary review, for the existence of such huge contiguous blocs of support means that they won't be able to chop bits off neighbouring Conservative seats as their seats shrink in size - a trick they pulled off, to some effect, in 1992-97. This time, Labour MPs are going to shrink in number (especially if the House of Commons is reduced to 600 seats) because they're going to have to fight each other to hold on to their constituencies. The more widespread apparent outliers occupied by Conservative MPs - Cardiff North, say, or Stockton South - have got more chance of retaining their present identity, and either absorbing nearby Labour voters while still returning a Conservative MP or taking in Conservative-leaning chunks of their hinterlands.

But what it says about the country is even more worrying. The SNP's huge majorities are going nowhere. Labour might be able to win a handful of Scottish seats back in 2020 - Renfrewshire East, say, Edinburgh North and Leith, Paisley, Aberdeen South, or Edinburgh South West - but anything above that requires a probably-unrealistic swing of over eight per cent at a time when first-time incumbent SNP MPs will be enjoying a boost enjoyed by many newish MPs. And the majorities in the SNP's new Glasgow fortress are so enormous that Labour might as well not bother campaigning there. Scotland's electoral politics are now irrelevant in the battle for power at Westminster. They're going to return about 50 SNP MPs, and that's the end of it. That'll only be important in a Hung Parliament where Labour can get to the finish line with the SNP's help. Otherwise, the UK parties will just ignore Scotland.

In Wales, the main challenge to Labour is undoubtedly UKIP, hollowing out the traditional ruling party's vote stage by stage, and step by step, in exactly the same way that the SNP once did in Scotland. UKIP's apparent implosion since the election may give Labour a breathing space in the Principality: if they don't use it, it might be Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalists, and the Conservatives who pick up all the pieces. Even so, Labour's Westminster electoral dominance in terms of Welsh seats looks secure for a while yet.

So there we have it - a country divided into nations, between the cities and their suburbs and far ex-urbs, between North and South, and on the basis of sociological and ethnic population trends that those schisms in part reflect. The cities, increasingly cosmopolitan, socially relaxed, relatively young, trending towards liberal views of the world, using Twitter, enjoying what you might call a 4G lifestyle; the suburbs, reading the Daily Mail and building old peoples' sheltered housing. England, booming in its South East corner; unhappily segmented and conflicted elsewhere; Wales and especially Scotland increasingly going their own way. The interwoven patchwork quilt of a more mixed up, coalition-era politics ripped up and thrown away, replaced by an overwhelmingly geographical, national and spatial politics that will be nothing like so multi-hued or complex. And remember: the SNP will hope to take the remaining three seats in Scotland next time, while the Conservatives will hope to mop up the four or five remaining Lib Dems that survive boundary changes. The big battalions are on their way.

It's not a recipe for success in terms of a more deliberative, more considered public policy, a fixed politics of settled electoral gulfs and seat-by-seat trench warfare that is increasingly hemming in the British parties' imaginations and ability to reach out to new voters. We are, in short, becoming a less-and-less perfect Union.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

What next for Higher Education in England?

The election of a majority Conservative Government in the UK probably came as a shock to most academics and students. Most students voted Labour or Green (or, in Scotland, for the Scottish National Party): most academics probably sympathise more with Britain's Left than with David Cameron. But Mr Cameron it is who's continuing in No. 10, and now he's now not encumbered by those troublesome Liberal Democrats who he always used to bring on stage when he wanted to stop his party doing crazy things.

So he's got to carry forward Conservative policies in the area where they've already done quite a lot of economic and financial damage: Higher Education. What might this mean, especially in England?

Now Labour, the SNP. the Greens and (to a lesser extent) the Liberal Democrats were all committed to a pretty similar spending path in the next Parliament: that there need not be actual in-path cuts beyond 2016/17, and there need not be an overall, as opposed to a current, balance, at all until the next Parliamentary term in 2020-25. So that would have allowed them to basically pull back on the cuts pretty quickly. Not so the Treasury team that's now drawing up July's 'emergency' Budget, and which will be seeking about £4bn from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. You want that in context with your fries? If that all fell on HEFCE, the universities' funding body, and on science and research, those two spending headers would lose nearly two-thirds of all their cash. Widening participation; teaching expensive subjects; grants rather than loans; science and research: much of it would be annihilated.

Now, that won't happen. No-one's that stupid. But big, big cuts are coming, at a time when teaching has had no increased unit of resource since 2010. That means redundancies, closed departments, slimmer teaching staffs and much higher staff workloads. It cannot mean anything else. Now, Ministers can allow fees to rise, and that might fill some of the gap. Say they allowed them to go up to £11,000 or £12,000 - an increase in resourcing of about 20%. That won't fill in (after inflation's taken into account) for the loss of what remains of the state-funded teaching budget, and expensive and/ or unpopular subjects - Chemistry, perhaps, or Modern Languages - are going to feel the pain more than most.

Even if more money does come in from fees, Ministers are not just going to allow universities to name just any old target. That'd be all right for now, because the spending goes in the black part of the Treasury's ledger - totted up as assets - but in the long run, as projections of how much students can or will pay back continue to fall, that means that the taxpayer will be fleeced. There's a limit to how much you want the loan book to drip with the red ink of long-term losses, especially when you probably want to sell it off at some unspecified time in the future. Hence Ministers' unhinged suggestion, in the last Parliament, that universities themselves might raise the money to push fees up, loaning it on to plug the gap. Er, no. Anyway, suffice to say that just raising fees to make up for lower government spending (or, that answer to Russell Group prayers, taking the cap off altogether) seems unlikely.

What remains? Well, forcing up 'productivity', for which read: making lecturers work harder. Now, everyone can always squeeze efficiency savings out of somewhere, but one has to be careful when an industry's main input is a stock of notoriously fragile (and rebellious) human capital, and when the balance between teaching and research is so delicate - and economically beneficial, in the latter case. Push too hard, and productivity will go down, not up. Still, Ministers look likely to push ahead with the idea of a 'Teaching Excellence Framework' - a pedagogical version of the dreaded Research Excellence Framework, that lumbering and well-past-its-sell-by-date monster of an academic audit that decides where some of the Government's research cash goes. In some ways this might be an opportunity for less prestigious institutions - where everyone knows a great deal of excellent teaching goes on, despite Russell Group propaganda to the contrary - to prove their mettle. But should it prove to just involve a load more form-filling, with some imaginary and forever-delayed pot of gold waiting for you when you get a certain number of good feedback forms from students or high scores in the National Student Survey, then it's likely to become another hated instrument of that centralising control that all good conservatives (and Conservatives) should reject and resist. Our last-but-one Universities Minister, David Willetts, has recently accepted that publishing more information, and 'more focus on high-quality teaching', will have to be part of any fee-raising package. That sounds like a much more likely part of any overall deal.

Lastly in terms of the financial hits, immigration policy will get much more restrictive - a mad and bad policy when most students will go home after their studies anyway, and just downright national self-harm in the one of the country's most important industries. But there you are: it's a popular and easy-to-implement headline and vote grabber, and it's coming. That'll throttle off another source of cash: as will a possible exit from the European Union, another source of student recruitment (although not one that's nearly so lucrative as non-EU tuition, given that there's no limit on how much you can charge for the latter) and especially a research funding pot that the British have been very, very good at profiting from in the past.

As the financial weather gets colder, the sector's uniform character will begin to break up. Universities will increasingly focus on what they're 'good' at - especially in terms of vital student recruitment, if research money is going to be scarce - and lop off the bits that are making a 'loss'. Fields, departments, whole faculties will go. It'll probably happen more slowly than in the 'car crash' that some Vice-Chancellors worry about, but they'll still be gone by 2020 or 2025. There just won't be the will to keep the blood travelling around the patient's body, as poorer and more financially marginal parts of the sector move into the life support ward.

What's even more worrying is how even gradually rising rising fees will affect the sector in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There different fee regimes are in place (there are no tuition fees at all in Scotland, though up until now the living cost support system for students from low income backgrounds has been much less generous to make up for some of that spending). With some English universities poised to make much more money, by taking in many more students even if the fee cap is only gradually raised, the situation in those countries will become increasingly unsustainable without the injection of large amounts of new cash. With the Scottish Government already embroiled in a series of rows about university freedom and accountability, having already cut Further Education to the bone and got rid of a good deal of its up-front assistance to students for living costs, that may be impossible without tax rises there. In Cardiff and Belfast, where of course the opportunities to raise money are much more limited, academics even at 'elite' institutions such as Queen's and Cardiff might have to resign themselves to a slow process of managed and relative decline.

So the implications of a majority Conservative government for Higher Education are these: gradual declines in funding across the board; more bureaucratic 'monitoring' of teaching and increased amounts of form-filling; a loss of some key science and language skills; more specialisation and differentiation; a threat to European student recruitment and research funding; and a gradual drifting apart of the four nations' universities as cash and kudos flow towards the English parts of the Russell Group. Some of these trends were locked in anyway, and some specialisation might be desirable. But, overall, it is hard to conclude anything other than that the sector is headed for a tough, cold, nasty old reckoning - years of butchery that will test management and staff to the utmost. You have been warned.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Our deficit worries are as nothing compared to the next generation's

Take a look at the chart above. It's the projected figures for the UK's public sector spending balance over the next few decades, run up by the Office for Budget Responsibility and adapted by the Financial Times.

Notice anything clear? Yes, it's that after just five years of surplus late in this Parliament and early in the next, it plunges further and further into the red. Even with most of the real public spending cuts still to come. It's a grim picture.

The three main reasons for this deteriorating situation are all simple: more health spending, more social care spending, and increased state pension payouts, which ramp up from 5.1% to 7.3% of GDP. It's all to do with our ageing population - and Britain is ageing at an alarming, alarming rate (Scotland is about to age even more quickly, and its deficit figures are even more grisly, but that's a tale for a different day).

So what to make of it? Well, you could say that this picture reconfirms the Chancellor's view that our deficit is too high for what are becoming more normal times. Run a surplus for a few years, and you're better equipped to deal with shortfalls in subsequent decades.

Except that our real long-term challenges dwarf anything that Mr Osborne can do with cuts and savings. The British need to face up to the fact that austerity is a glib, unsatisfactory and ultimately useless tool with which to meet this challenge. It's won an election, by discrediting Labour as a bunch of free-spending socialist throwbacks who can't be trusted with the economy, but it won't meet this challenge. All the real answers are macroeconomic, and they pose really big policy choices. Wielding the axe is simple. This slow-burning crisis is anything but.

What do we need to do, then? Well, we will need to raise the UK's absolutely abysmal labour productivity. Then, to plug this massive funding gap still further, we have a choice of two options most Britons will find unpalatable: much higher immigration, which tends to be of the young and hard-working, to pay for all these pensions and all this medical care; or much higher National Insurance and Income Tax to stave off all this borrowing on the revenue side. Or, probably, a mix of both. The OBR's figures already assume an annual net influx of 165,000 people, while some form of deal involving older voters paying more for all this - via charges on their vast holdings of property and capital - may be inevitable, whether or not they're mandated to happen via public or private sector provision.

But we've just had an election in which the United Kingdom Independence Party gained 12.6 per cent of the vote, mainly on an anti-immigration platform; and in which the Conservative Party bent over backwards to please voters over 55, a strategy which worked very, very well when they backed the party in huge numbers and basically decided the election all on their own.

So even limited moves towards a series of actually sane labour market, immigration and taxation policies may be very difficult indeed. Let's face it: we're likely to plunge ever-further into the red between the 2020s and the 2060s.

And all the cuts you're about to endure - all those grandmothers waiting in vain to an agreement on nursing care in their own homes, all those crime victims wondering why the police are taking so long, all those low-income workers toiling longer and longer as Tax Credits are scaled back, all those students paying more and more once their grants are converted into loans, all those queuing in the clogged-up and collapsing courts system, all those Further Education students crammed into ageing buildings - will have been useless. Our debt burden as a country will end up, if anything, quite a lot higher in the 2060s than it is now.

All of that pain will have been for precisely nothing.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

So where does Labour go from here?

The UK Labour Party is in a mess. It has just got hammered by the electorate, at a time when many high-ups in the party believed (or professed to believe) that they might be on the verge of returning to power after just one term in opposition. It is a stunning psychological blow, and Labour is still reeling.

All the party's ideas - about community campaigning, about 'uniting the left', about a sophisticated, 'triangulated' and multi-layered policy offer - were wrong. Just wrong. So wrong, in fact, that we need to reach far back in history (as is our job) to remember a time when Labour seemed to be in the same amount of trouble. At the 1931 and 1935 elections, perhaps, in which it was first shattered by defections and reduced to a mere rump, and then recovered only in the reddest of its heartlands. In 1959, perhaps, when all the trendlines of economic and social change appeared to be against it in a conservative (and Conservative) society of affluence and ease. And 1983, when Michael Foot's party (above) was nearly obliterated by a post-Falklands War Margaret Thatcher and left-of-centre defectors to the new Social Democratic Party.

Now on all those occasions, Labour recovered. It dug deep. It retreated to its heartlands. It (eventually) renewed itself under a credible leader and a new programme. It returned to power in 1945, 1964 and 1997. For long periods of time (1964-79, 1997-2010) there has even been talk of Labour as 'the natural party of government'. It can do it again. It can come back. But only if it begins to think about its problems in a historical manner. Not to 'learn from history' - such a trite recommendation would be easily and rightly laughed off, for no new political situation is just like another - but to set its difficulties in context, and try to develop a map or typology of its true problems. What follows are just a few thoughts - an initial list of historical indicators - but they might be instructive.

Realise what a disastrous mess you're in. Labour is now in a mire deeper even than 1959 or 1983, because it has lost control of what it once regarded as its Scottish heartlands. Doubtless in many ways the party deserved that fate, for it had taken Scots for granted for far too long, and ignored all the warning signs that the Scottish National Party was gaining control of Scottish civil society and the Scottish national imagination. But it still came as a shock. And it means that, unlike in 1983, it cannot retreat to its Caledonian fastnesses to lick its wounds. There aren't any - and they don't look like being rebuilt any time soon. That means that the party would have to win 100 seats in England and Wales, almost all of them directly from the Conservatives, to gain even a tiny overall majority. And if they fail next time to win a single seat from the SNP, they have to win Chingford and Woodford Green as well as Filton and Bradley Stoke (majorities: 8,386 and 9,838) on swings of about 10%. It's not going to happen easily, and it probably won't happen soon. And this is all before the Conservatives' planned boundary reforms and granting of the vote to all older ex-pat voters who've been away from the UK for more than 15 years. A Labour victory in 2020 is a very, very, very, very tall order. Have we made that clear enough now?

Pick a leader who chimes with the voters. This is probably the most important element of Labour's renewal. Each of the three leaders who have delivered Labour from the wilderness have sounded and looked liked swing voters in English marginal seats. Clement Attlee, clipped and military and short of any 'unnecessary' words and phrases, all order, parsimony and the cricket results; Harold Wilson, Yorkshire and chip suppers, scientific slide rule, gannex max and all; Tony Blair, full of 'y'knows' and 'I means', drinking-coffee-from-a-mug and Mondeo-driving personification of Middle England. This is not a question of policy. Wilson had come from the Left, Attlee from the centre, Blair from the Right of the party. But very few voters care for policy, and most of them don't listen to them even when they're adduced if your leader hasn't gained you the right to a hearing. Sympathy, efficiency, likeability and credibility are more important. On this basis, out of four not-particularly-inspiring candidates, straight-talking Liz Kendall, born in Watford, and educated at a 'normal' local state school, looks, acts, thinks and sounds most like the type of voter Labour must capture, assuming all the while that Scotland is gone forever and isn't coming back. Yvette Cooper might work, at a push: Andy Burnham won't. It's that simple.

Rebuild from the bottom up. This is what Labour did in the 1930s. It took control of (for instance) the London County Council and made it into a beacon of what tough-minded, responsible socialist administration could do. Build houses. Build new schools and roads and hospitals. Keep the finances tidy. Keep the lights on. You know the sort of thing. Under Herbert Morrison, who later went on to become Home Secretary in the wartime coalition, the LCC was trusted, competent, powerful - and Labour. If only, Labour people must wish, Labour administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh had been such beacons of what a social democratic politics might be and then become. For one of the key problems in the 2015 General Election was Labour's lack of credibility on the economy. Conservative barbs about the struggles of the devolved National Health Service in Wales also struck home. Running a big city (by - for instance - winning the London mayoralty), as well as holding onto control of the Welsh Assembly and upping Labour's game there, will be central to creating a sense that Labour can be trusted again. Hundreds more elected councillors who can do the hard work of engaging with voters on the ground, day after day and week after week, as well as campaigning in actual elections, won't hurt either.

So that's it then. Realise that you're disliked by most of the electorate. That you have no cultural connection with vast swathes of working people - and that even if you did, you might still go backwards at the next election. Pick a leader who looks and sounds and acts like the voters you want to give you a hearing. And rebuild from the grassroots.

It can be done. Labour have been deep in the wilderness before. Without Scotland, the path becomes much steeper and rockier, but it's possible. There's no sociological explanation about changing views of class, no argument based on rising living standards, no weight of deeply comfortable suburban England that means that the decent, mainstream, conservative-minded, silent majority of the English are incapable of being stirred, roused and awoken by an Attlee, a Wilson or a Blair.

But it's still likely to be a hard, hard road - made no easier by being the only road.