Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Waiting For the Great Leap Backwards?

I had been wondering exactly what the Coalition now expects to happen. They've pushed through the budget, they've handed down the pain to the operational bits of the public sector in eye wateringly-tight financial settlements and they've (just about) got through the first really tricky Commons vote, the one on tuition fees.

Were they, I mused, now hoping a spirit of grim, 'post Dunkirk-like determination in adversity' to take over the country and we all pull together through these straightened times till the sunny uplands of a private sector led recovery are reached? That we collectively roll up our sleeves and build the Big Society out of whatever happens to be at hand?

Andrew Rawnsley says not: they want to unleash revolutionary cultural change on the country, and especially its public sector. He makes a rather far fetched analogue with Mao,

"I have heard one important figure in the government talk of unleashing a "cultural revolution" in the public services and another hailing devolution of power away from the centre using Mao's old slogan: "Let a thousand flowers bloom."

.... I have actually heard more than one member of the cabinet explicitly refer to the government as "Maoist".

Just about anywhere you look in Whitehall, there is a secretary of state unleashing upheaval. Ken Clarke challenges two decades of orthodoxy about the criminal justice system. Michael Gove battles the educational establishment to create his "free schools". Iain Duncan Smith has ambitions to be the man who definitively reformed welfare. Chris Huhne is dramatically recasting energy pricing. Nick Clegg wants to rewrite large parts of the constitution. Over at health, Andrew Lansley proposes the greatest upheaval in the NHS since its foundation. They are urged on from within Number 10 by the prime minister's principal strategist, Steve Hilton, who is probably the most Maoist person in the government. He has been heard to tell colleagues: "Everything must have changed by 2015. Everything."

Rawnsley manages to weave into his case the blurted out remarks of one Nick Boles MP , who claimed that chaos in local government is not only coming but is to be welcomed, as it is an alternative to intrinsically impossible planning. (In other news: Tim Worstell manages to work this up into a moment of Hayekian purity, somehow implying an obscure linkage between butterflies flapping their wings in the Amazon and the socialist calculation debate. Or something like that.)

Rawnsley's wrong. He's looking in the wrong bit of Marxist history for his analogies. I think I'm coming round to the view that what this lot are doing is much more akin to Stalin's scorched earth policy in WW2. They're not engaged in a 'regressive modernisation' as Stuart Hall so famously called Thatcherism. They're simply trying to lay waste to territory they don't expect to occupy for very long, to make it unusable by their opponents.

I suspect, deep down, they know their moment is passing, that the political and economic conditions which allowed neoliberal economics to become the default consensus of governments throughout the Anglo-American world have come to an end. The Great Moderation is over, it went down the pan in the Credit Crunch. The systemic default modes of managerial and political thought based on neoliberalism continue for want of a positive alternative, but the old certainty is gone. This may be their last chance to shrink the state for a long, long time. They're going to take it, come hell or high water.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Two Things Worth Browsing Today

The graphic is from here: it shows the changes in relative compensation between executives and average workers in the US over the last fifty years. Click on it to get an enlarged picture.

Keeping that image firmly in mind trot on over to Will at Potlatch, and consider his sharp eyed linkage of bankers compensation and last night's student protests.

"If bankers had just managed to keep a limit on their already-extreme levels of personal appropriation, then the financial crisis may not have turned into a fiscal crisis. Banks may even have remained a private industry, independent of the state. If George Osborne were just willing to treat higher education as a public good amongst many - in need of a harsh squeeze, but no more (he is, after all, a Tory) - then Churchill's statue may not be dawbed in graffiti this morning. But at a certain point, you have to consider the possibility that going too far is an economic and political strategy in its own right."

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Student Revolt Against Tuition Fees and the Limits of Public Choice Theory

For what seems like decades the Right has claimed that markets or quasi markets in social goods and services protect the interests of consumers, and that public services are inherently subject to being run in the interests of the producers rather than the people who use them unless they are subject to such external discipline. These assumptions have been hard-wired into policy debate to such an extent that they have become all but invisible. In other words, they've become hegemonic.

The problem is defined as the constant danger of 'rent seeking' by public sector providers - exploitation of a monopoly position to rip off or under serve 'consumers'*. The implication is that we need 'contestability'.

Much of the middle level policy debate that takes place around 'public sector reform' in either its New Labour or Coalition manifestations can be boiled down to an argument about which services should be subject to which different kinds of such contestability; how immediate or regular such threats should be; and the degree to which the boundaries between third sector not for profit alternatives and the private sector itself can be blurred in defining potential alternative managers of public services.

Political and policy 'creativity' gets defined as thinking up new ways in which this basic underlying default assumption can be packaged as empowering consumers. Hence the change of emphasis from direct efforts at privatising state services such as we saw in the 1980s to more nuanced emphases on consumer choice of services, as evident in the drift of schools policy over the last decade or the shift to user controlled (a misnomer) budgets in social care. This social care development has the added 'advantage' of blurring another key boundary: between what the state should pay for and what each individual should pay for.

The Browne report is shot through with this kind of thinking, as Stefan Collini so tellingly analyses in the LRB,

"Browne proposes to scrap most of this. In its place, he wants to see a system in which the universities are providers of services, students are the (rational) consumers of those services, and the state plays the role of the regulator. His premise is that ‘students are best placed to make the judgment about what they want to get from participating in higher education.’ His frequently repeated mantra is ‘student choice will drive up quality,’ and the measure of quality is ‘student satisfaction’.....even in its own wildly optimistic terms, this report proposes a hefty cut in funding. In suggesting that the standard fee should initially be set at £6000 (which particular institutions might choose to exceed, though there will be various disincentives, including a ‘levy’ which would claw some of it back), Browne acknowledges that this would not fully replace the value of the block grant even for the most successful institutions. .....‘The purpose of starting the levy at a lower point is to instil a focus on efficiency throughout the system.’ Lots of courses may have to be closed and lots of people sacked, but that must mean, by definition, that they weren’t offering a product the consumer wanted, so good riddance."

This is, of course, manifest nonsense: ask the students. They seem to have a fairly good grasp of the fact that it is the providers - especially the Russell Group - not themselves, the putative 'customers', who benefit from the tuition fee rises. In fact the whole tuition fees plan arising from the Browne report could be seen as a form of provider capture: but one based on introducing quasi markets and 'consumer choice' - the very mechanisms which so called Public Choice theory tends to recommend as antidotes to provider capture. So here we a have an apparent case of the empirical/practical dog eating its own theoretical tail as it were: the whole approach collapses into incomprehensibility, at least when applied in this particular circumstance.

All theories have limits to their applicability. It may yet prove to be the Coalition's regret that public choice theory in Britain reaches its' limits just at a time when they're committed to slashing the state. But then that would leave them 'ideologically naked' as it were, simply cutting for cutting's sake. & that's not a good place for any government to be.

*Does this ever actually happen? Yes. I have direct personal experience of it happening. But does it happen often enough to be thought of as a structural problem which demands wholesale 'public sector reform'? No, I don't think this is proven in any sense, despite various Public Choice theorists having won the Nobel Prize for Economics. So I suspect we dealing with one of those 'true but trivial' issues which have engaged Chris Dillow in recent weeks - but one which is being used, systematically, for directly political ends.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Haircuts All Round?

A GUBU Day if ever there was one, I'd say : little Ireland threatens to crash the Euro simply by not rolling over immediately to the idea that they should all go back to potato farming and emigration. It's that pesky democracy thing getting in the way of sensible business decisions again. Cowan is surely done for, his reputation as well as career in tatters, surely now seen as little more than a pet Quisling of the IMF/ECB.

Fintan O'Toole is calling for a caretaker administrative coalition and a Italian 'Mani Pulite' ('Clean Hands') style re-founding of the State. Remarkably, he is calling for this to kick off with a national-popular show of strength based round the Trades Unions:

".... the people of Donegal South West have to refuse to vote for Fianna Fáil – at all. They can deliver a clear message that this Government has no mandate to conclude any deal.

.... hundreds of thousands of people have to get out on the streets for the Irish Congress of Trade Unions demonstration on Saturday. Forget what you think about the unions – this is the one chance citizens have to demand a choice. Whether you agree with Ictu’s alternative plan or not, the idea that there should be a coherent alternative is crucial to the survival of our democracy. Without it, an election will be an empty ritual.

.... I intend to put up on my website (fintanotoole.ie) by the end of the week a list of 10 basic demands for changing our political culture and system.

If people agree, they will be able to put their names to the demands, which include a €100,000 salary cap for public officials, a change in the electoral system, a shrinking and overhaul of the Dáil, and measures to kill the toxic three Cs: clientelism, cronyism and corruption.

What matters most is that we cease to be an invisible people. That our government is irrelevant is their fault.

That the people are irrelevant is ours.

Sovereignty belongs, not to the State, or the government, but to the people. We have outsourced it for too long to an incompetent, amoral and self-serving elite. Now we face the starkest of choices: use it or lose it." (my emphasis-CMcM)

Now, see these stirring words in the light of the news from Moody's, the rating agency; The FT is reporting that they now think that some European infrastructure and utilities companies are more creditworthy than their parent States because they are less likely to default.

The 'rescue package' being forced on Ireland is one that brings the country to the very brink of default - and much of the money is actually simply passing through the hands of the Irish State and the (predominantly state-owned) Irish banks to flow back to their foreign creditors in London and Frankfurt. Much of the discussion in the British left blogosphere - even at sensible places like Duncan's and Chris'- seems to ignore this dimension. A lot of that £7bn Osborne is coughing up 'for a neighbour in need' is actually going to end up in RBS and Lloyds.

&, yes, just in case you think I'm being simple minded here, I do understand money circulates: but it circulates under very precisely defined relationships of power- and the money is being provided to tighten those relationships in a way that erodes the democratic freedoms of the Irish people and maintain, at all costs, the capital of the European and City bond markets that made so many dodgy investments across the Irish Sea.

Whatever happens - poverty, mass emigration, the destruction of a State - these City Institutions must never, ever have a 'haircut' as their slang has it. (A haircut being the prospect of them losing money.) Whole economies must crash and burn before that happens.

I say: it's time for the Irish people - the people of all Europe - to pick up the scissors and advance towards the barbers chair. But not to ask if the bankers need 'anything for the weekend': democracy or bankocracy is the question.

`Addendum:& the inevitable xtranormal comment

The Death of Fianna Fail in Two Quotes and a Headline

John Naughton reminds us of Eamon De Valera rebuking the Brits for criticising Ireland's neutrality in WW2:

"Mr. Churchill is justly proud of his nation’s perseverance against heavy odds. But we in this island are still prouder of our people’s perseverance for freedom through all the centuries. We, of our time, have played our part in the perseverance, and we have pledged our selves to the dead generations who have preserved intact for us this glorious heritage, that we, too, will strive to be faithful to the end, and pass on this tradition unblemished."

From the Guardian at 2.45pm:

"Irish bank shares fell again today 24 hours after the government announced restructuring was on the way and the governor of the central bank confirming the Irish banks are "for sale".

Shares in 36%-state owned Bank of Ireland fell 23% to 30c giving it a market capitalisation of around €1.77bn (£1.5bn), half what it was a month ago. Allied Irish Banks, whose government ownership will rise to around 95% after a planned rights issue, traded down 13% to 35c.

Irish Life & Permanent, the only Irish-owned bank to so far not have received any state aid, fell 4.5% to €0.80, following a 27% drop yesterday.

"The market is on its way to deciding there is no equity left in the banks," said Gary McCarthy, head of Quest, the quantitative research unit of broker Collins Stewart."

So, we have a government who announces it wants to sell its banks -and the market immediately tells them that they're worth sod all.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Why Academies (or Any School) Shouldn't Control Their Own Admissions

Here's the lead story from the front page of my local free sheet newspaper:

"A disabled 11-year-old girl has been rejected by an academy school because she poses a “health and safety risk” to other children.

Idayah Miller, from Norbury, was told she could not go to the elite Harris Academy in Crystal Palace because her wheelchair would restrict the movement of other children in the crowded corridors.

In a letter to her parents, headteacher Steve Kenning also said the little girl would suffer low self-esteem because her “academic ability is quite low” and Harris is “a high pressure, high performing academy” where she would struggle to keep up with her friends"

The school's primary admissions criteria seem to be based on a banding system structured by distance, although the precise nature of the banding test, and what proportions of clever/middling/less clever kids they take, is not very clear. 10% of places are reserved for those with a 'aptitude' for technology, the school's specialism. The admission of kids with Special Education Needs (SEN) is described as 'a concession', even though all schools are legally obliged to take a certain proportion of such children unless they can show good reason otherwise.

Plainly, this case would seem to be a decision which offends against the Disability Discrimination Act. But I'm aware of the perils of making legal judgements on specific cases based only on newspaper headlines, so I'll leave that one to the lawyers.

I want to ask a broader question about admissions. 'Banding' is, in certain defined circumstances, especially in big cities, a perfectly reasonable way of allocating school places. It just means you test them and then, assuming equal proportions of kids with different ability levels have applied to different schools, allocate them places which leave each school with a broadly similar entry cohort. It can be a way of attempting to slow down the drift back towards a covert form of the old Grammar/Secondary Modern divide which is so evident in so many inner city areas.

But doesn't this case illustrate that if you let individual schools do the banding that they'll just use it as means of covert selection and rejection of 'low ability' pupils? As someone comments in the local newspaper article - would the school have rejected Stephen Hawking if he was in a wheelchair?

Meet the Academy Sponsor: Cameron's favourite carpet fitter it would appear.

I'd quite like it if one of the more mainstream leftie blogs picked this up, so I'm going to link to Liberal Conspiracy, Hopi (who, like me, doesn't live that far away), TCF and Don Paskini in the hope of attracting more coverage of this case and the general issue.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Every Picture Tells A Story

The green postbox tells you the picture has been taken in Ireland. We have the Guardian's word for it that the bloke on the left is the deputy director of the European department of the IMF. All in all, I think that bloke begging is going to have to get a bigger cup....

Let's be clear about what's going on today. A small country has attempted to take on the debts of a disproportionately sized banking sector and has been unable to support those debts. It is teetering on the edge of sovereign insolvency. That can't be allowed to happen as, by absorbing the debts of the Irish banks, the Republic finds itself owing huge amounts of money to the British and German banks, and to banks across Europe. Once all the arcane jargon of high finance is stripped away the basic reality is that Ireland cannot possibly pay this money back. It's gone. Kaput.

So the High Priests of European and now World finance are arriving to attempt to avert the crisis whereby rich institutions in rich countries might have to suffer losses. Expectations on this front are lowering: even the editorial in the FT is saying that the centre cannot hold and that its time for those institutions to bear a slice of the pain. But so will Ireland, so will Ireland....

Addendum, from the Irish Times:

SAD NEWS just in from Our Lady of the Eurozone Hospital: After a sudden worsening in her condition, the Irish Patient, formerly known as the Irish Republic, has been moved into intensive care and put on artificial ventilation. While a hospital spokesman, Jean-Claude Trichet, tried to sound upbeat, there is no prospect that the Patient will recover.

It will be remembered that, after a lengthy period of poverty following her acrimonious divorce from her English partner, in the 1990s Ireland succeeded in turning her life around, educating herself, and holding down a steady job. Although her increasingly riotous lifestyle over the last decade had raised some concerns, the Irish Patient’s fate was sealed by a botched emergency intervention on September 29th, 2008 followed by repeated misdiagnoses of the ensuing complications.

With the Irish Patient now clinically dead, her grieving European relatives face the melancholy task of deciding when to remove her from life support, and how to deal with the extraordinary debts she ran up in the last months of her life . . .

Thursday, 11 November 2010

On Watching Some Windows Getting Broken as a Family Group

Interesting times last night - not just at Millbank, but here at Chez McMenamin. Now, time was when Mrs. McM and I would have happily sat watching a few broken windows at Tory HQ on TV, chugged away at the Merlot and gleefully quoted Jim to each other ('If there's a lesson in life we should all learn is that students must never break windows unless they're members of the Bullingdon Club.').

We are both behind the students, both recall that sometimes - but only sometimes - riots do work and, lets be frank, we are both perfectly aware that there seemed to be almost as many camera operatives in Millbank as there were occupiers so the world was getting a rather skewed view of the demonstration. The violence was all a bit small scale to be truthful - not a Poll Tax Riot in miniature at all. We both have memories of being caught up in .....well, lets call them 'spots of disorder' in our youth and early adulthood: she still dines out on the Greenham fence she pulled down and we both have various memories of seeing bottles, bricks and fireworks being tossed around on various demos - and of running away, frightened, from police charges. So our reaction to the events was perhaps entirely predictable.

But what was different last night was the presence on the sofa of a young master McMenamin who is fourteen tomorrow. Now he is a well behaved boy with a lifetime's training in doing the decent thing and a default assumption that violence only really happens in video games, despite living in a not entirely salubrious part of South London. He knew the students were marching - and indeed rioting - for him. He was wide eyed with excitement as the glass window broke, cheering on the students as if they were his football team, just high on the apparent disorder.

His mother and I shifted in our seats uncomfortably, and started murmuring things like,

'...that lad with the wedge haircut has made a mistake not to have a scarf over his face, he'll be nicked before the end of the evening and probably chucked off his course as well...';
'...have we ever explained what kettling is?' ;
'..of course its important to have a spare battery for the mobile if you do get into a sticky situation, just so you can ring someone.."and
'...actually, it's really frightening when things kick off like that and you don't know how to get away from it..."

He calmed down and asked us what we really thought of the TV news pictures. I looked at his Mum and she looked at me. I cleared my throat to launch into some lengthy dull diatribe from half remembered EP Thompson on the long English tradition of 'negotiation by riot' when Mrs.McM quietly spoke up,

" I wouldn't want to smash windows, and I wouldn't want any of my family to do it...but I'm glad it has happened".

We went to our beds a family united on that thought.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

QE2: Pass the Parcel Redux

Blimey: Mason has explained it in a way even I can understand. Hard to believe he was originally a musical academic.

My precis: basically the Western financial system remains sitting on a time bomb of unacknowledged (i.e. unwritten off) debt. Quantitative Easing is a potential path - actually, the only potential path - out of this. But with that comes the real possibility of other bad stuff. Not inflation - suddenly, that's not the Big Bad Wolf any more (well, not for the moment) - but stagflation and, as seems to be already starting, a currency war. Oh, and no one can explain why QE might work.

But QE isn't enough on its own:

"There needs to be a defibrillating moment where ... large amounts of bad debt are written off in the private sector - above all in the housing market. Then consumers suddenly get access to credit again and then the big cash mountains of the private sector get thrown into the economy in the form of investment.

But for that to happen somebody has to take losses who has not already taken them. That means the banks: they have to take the big hit on mortgages and commercial property they have refused to take; that in turn hits the government, which in the US and UK has "guaranteed the losses" on hundreds of billions of bad debt for the cost of a few tens of billions.....

On top of that, once the final cathartic moment is over, the central banks then have to get out of money printing in an orderly way, allowing quite a bit of inflation to avoid choking off the recovery. One way to do this would be to temporarily abandon inflation targeting - to say: we will keep printing money whatever happens to inflation, until growth reaches a set target and stays there. Bernanke has toyed with this, and it will be interesting to see if he keeps the idea alive.....

QE2 will buy time. But in that time the governments have to act at micro-level to restructure the finance system so that it starts working again."

I think he's saying its time for another round of pass the parcel: when the music stops, someone is going to have huge losses in their hands. Mason says it has to be the bankers if this QE thing is to work - but this government seems to want it to be everybody else.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Social Housing: the End?

The graphic is from this week's edition of the housing trade mag, not some alarmist leftist publication. It refers to the end of public subsidy for the capital costs of building social housing. If the Tories really mean what they say, we're in uncharted waters.

Housing finance is notoriously difficult and dull, so let's strip it back to its essentials: to cover the costs of building houses you can either pay a lot upfront to cover the initial costs or borrow that money and pay the loan off by hiring it out on a periodic basis. The smaller amount of money you sink into the scheme upfront the higher the periodic charge. This is not rocket science.

Since the late 1980s, we've not had 100% capital subsidy for social housing - indeed, housing associations have bid for funding partly on the basis of how little capital monies they need to deliver any given project. Naturally, the first result of this system was to send rents - the 'periodic charge' - through the roof in the early 1990s.& high rents do tend to produce very high Housing Benefit bills.

So a decade or so ago the government introduced a system of 'target rents' which apply to both council and housing association rented stock. Basically, this system sets the rent of any given socially rented property, new or existing, in accordance with a formula based on the size and value of the property and relative local manual wage rates. So this reined in the tendency to produce low capital subsidy/high rent schemes.

The Tories have decided to rip this system up: they want rents to be capped at 80% of the local market rate for all incoming tenants, even those going into existing social housing, which has enjoyed past capital subsidy. This is laughably called 'affordable'. Public capital subsidy is being reduced to more or less nothing. The promised 150,000 new 'affordable' social tenancies are supposedly going to be financed primarily from either these higher rental streams or via loans mobilised by big housing associations on existing stock where previous capital subsidy means the debt is now largely paid off.

Wake up at the back there - I know this is boring and detailed and rather more than you perhaps want to know. So let me put this in context: this means that rents for a two bedded socially rented property in Islington would rise from £91pw to £232pw: a three bed social rented house in Cambridge would go up from £93pw to £128pw. I can only assume that the application of the word 'affordable' to such rents is some kind of sick joke.

& what's more this means that the Housing Benefit bill is going to go up, not down. The housing associations' trade body is saying that, in Hackney, you'd have to earn £54,000 to escape HB eligibility and be in a position to keep the bulk of your additional salary and be better off in work.

For all the dull, grey complexity of housing finance it really is that simple: higher rents= deeper benefit traps for wider numbers of people. No amount of huffing and puffing about a Universal Credit is going to change that.

Nor is this simply a problem for the minority of the population who live in social housing. House prices are now such that it is increasingly difficult for people to get their foot on the ladder. A new report from the Home Builders Federation puts this pretty graphically:

"...the average first time buyer (FTB) would have to save every single penny of their earnings for more than two years to have a chance of getting a foot on the housing ladder. In London it would take three years.

Even over five years, young people have to save almost half of their take home pay every month to save a deposit for a house, with some areas even higher."

So rents matter: even if you're in the 70% of people who are currently home owners your children are probably not going to be any time soon if they live in London and the SE.

Addendum: the definitive explanation of the impact of the Housing Benefit changes, found in possibly the most unlikely place on earth for sensible comment, CIF.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Coming Cuts Chaos: A Small Case Study

Supporting People? It’s the best little government programme you’ve never heard of: according to the CLG’s own study its' £1.6bn of expenditure on preventative support services saves the nation- well, England in this case - a total of £3.4bn. Basically, it saves over £2 for every £1 spent on it. Think of it as the 'stitch in time..' programme.

How does it do this? Very largely by putting in places services which help divert people from more expensive services, or delay their entry into/speed their exit from such services. (We’re talking about how to keep people out of care homes, hospitals, prisons, emergency homelessness facilities and so forth here). Good stuff you might think - surely a priority even for this cost conscious government?

No. They're cutting it by 12% over the next 4 years.

You might feel that's not very much at all if you work in Higher Education which is facing 80% cuts in undergraduate funding, but the cuts themselves are only the most obvious part of the problem. The real problem is that the money is no longer going to be separately identified - it's going to be rolled up into something called Formula Grant paid to local authorities. This, we're told, is cutting down on bureaucracy and giving local councils 'unprecedented freedoms and flexibilities'.

The problem here is that pesky word 'prevention' - it's very hard to give any specific legislative meaning to prevention that impacts on individual circumstances: prevention is not about measuring current need per se, but about stopping that need developing into something worse.If you're successful you've prevented a counter-factual situation developing. There are clever ways of measuring this at a prevalence level, but none that work at the level of the specific individual. So the vulnerable people who benefit from SP funded services have no legislative right to them.

On the other hand, councils do have a legislative duty to provide services for people who meet their increasingly stringent social care criteria, or the criteria which determine the eligibility of homeless people for social housing. So they have no choice but to fund services for these people.

So imagine you're a hard pressed local councillor or Chief Executive. You have to provide services for specific groups in priority need but not specific preventative services. There is nothing now to say you can't provide for those people defined as being in priority need by using monies originally intended for preventative services. & your core funding is going down by 7% a year. You join the dots.

Scaremongering? Not really. The Isle of Wight has led the way on this front and put through a massive SP cut last year. 8 months on, the results seem to be:

  • That more tenancies are at risk
  • Anti-social behaviour has generally increased
  • The lack of support available has deterred some landlords from providing accommodation
  • Accommodation placements are breaking down sooner
  • There is evidence of increased homelessness, offending, self harm, substance misuse, increased health issues and financial problems
  • Issues are becoming more difficult and long term to overcome and therefore more expensive.

SureStart: A Marxist Approach

From, via

Friday, 22 October 2010

NW Business Interests Unite To Save Key Turkish Airlines Advertising Strategy

But he'll still go I think, 'cos he's had his feet held to the fire. I mean look at this picture from Weds game and note the correct use of the apostrophe. That's not the Stretford End we all know and love, is it? That somehow has a ....well, slightly more corporate feel don'tcha think? I think his rather low rent agent got stuffed by the PR machine of a large organisation who had fought the world class Spice Girls/Beckham PR machine to a high scoring draw some years before. That's gotta hurt and is no basis for a long term relationship.

Plus, of course, both the dressing room and the fans now detest him and no amount of goals are ever going to restore those relationships entirely.

But he's more likely to go in the summer than January. In either event, the club is going to make a fortune when he does go and he's passed up the chance to ever be the front man for a insurance company TV ad trying to project a subliminal message of reliability.

Addendum: final comment, via that weekly footie photoshop competition at the Guardian

Localism: Politics and Management Collide

Three currently Tory led West London Councils are considering merging services. This sort of thing has happened before in small local Districts, but never with authorities of such size. Collectively, they serve a population of getting on for 600,000 people. The three are already merging their children's services departments - aka education and social care for kids - and now they seem to want to go further and bring together their environmental health and corporate services. Savings of £50m-£100m are being claimed as possible, though I suspect this is more total Bollix than Total Place.

This stands somewhat in contradiction to any political narrative based on the 'localism and devolution of powers' theme aka the Big Society. Flippy Rick has covered this general subject more than once and, at a general level, I'm more on board with his entertainingly-jaundiced managerial eye for all the things that can wrong with either localising or centralising initiatives than absolutely convinced that Bigger is always Better. Nonetheless, I would concede that it is not inherently impossible that savings can be made through economies of scale in various areas.

What's interesting here of course is that two of the councils - Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea - are solid true blue Tory heartlands but the third, Hammersmith and Fulham, swings back and forth between Labour and the Conservatives every few years. Conventionally, it has generally been considered that electing a Council of a different stripe might, just might, mean that something changed. But if your Council is locked into long term contracts to jointly employ staff with other bodies who deliver an integrated service - whoops, sorry, to offer a common package of consumer choices (sic) - exactly how possible is this going to be? Doesn't it threaten to reduce the role of Councillors to funny people who shout at each other in the Council Chamber for no readily identifiable reason while the slick professionals get on with their terribly efficient way of doing stuff?

Now, let's be clear, I'm not coming over all dewy eyed and 'Heimat' in contemplating any of the existing London Boroughs. Most of them have existed in their current form for less than 2 generations and few command any real deep seated affection from their populations. I've never considered myself a 'Lambethian' for instance and I'd rather snigger at anyone who did. It would be like feeling patriotic about one's Water Company.

But the traditional deal is that, every generation or two since the late 19th Century, central government sets up a commission to look at all this and take soundings and proposes new boundaries - this may often take account of appropriateness of scale but also is driven by politics and community identity. What these West London Councils are seemingly proposing is very different from that - they're creating a permanent Tory controlled Local State with default Tory policies hard wired into their key services. It's management trumping politics.

And it's wrong.

Friday, 15 October 2010

University Fees: Driving Down House Prices in the Long Term

Righty-ho: as widely prophesied, it has come to pass: the state isn’t simply cutting stuff, it’s withdrawing from whole areas. Specifically it is withdrawing from funding most undergraduate tertiary education.

Frankly, this is a surprise to me - in its' sequencing at least. I thought they’d first go for Social Care for the elderly. But the same three card trick is likely to be played in that field as well: first issue ominous but anonymised threats of financial Armageddon; then set up a commission or special study to look into creating opportunities for creating individual debt obligations to cover the gap; and then sit back and wait for the providers to conclude that their only hope is to persuade the ‘consumers’ that the only serious game in town is to take on additional financial risk personally. Bingo! You’ve re-defined the boundaries between the obligations of the state and the basic social finance requirements of individuals. Something similar happened in pensions and housing a generation ago.

& therein lies the problem. Well, therein lies the problem if, like me, you’re 52 year old father of two kids who’ll go to Uni in the next seven years and also the son of a 88 yr old in a registered care home. Oh, and did I mention that the mortgage doesn’t get paid off till I’m 63? Don't talk to me about the 'squeezed middle' matey, I got there some time ago...

I can pay my mortgage. I can make a contribution to Mum’s care home fees. I can even give the kids a bit towards their Uni costs (crossed fingers). But, fuck me, I’m going to struggle to do all three things. & I got an essentially free tertiary education, and Mum does qualify for quite a bit of public subsidy in that care home.

So how is it going to be for the next generation up - the people who’ll enter working life with huge debts from tertiary education, increasingly ageing parents (that’ll be me, I suppose) and the need to somehow acquire a mortgage and a home in their late twenties or early thirties? Not so wonderful I’d guess. In fact I really doubt that people in my position in 20 years time will be able to bear such a triple burden of debt. So they’ll box and cox, like we all do. They’ll not be willing to risk quite so much in any particular debt obligation.

So: who’s volunteering to tell the Daily Mail that this move to cut Higher Education funding is going to drive house prices down?

P.S. 'Course, if I were one of those bug-eyed Marxist wallahs,I might make some point about the way unproductive (aka finance) capital constantly seeks to re-order the world to create more opportunities for it to reproduce itself. But that would just be extremism of a most old fashioned stripe and hardly welcome in today's Big Society. I'll leave that to the entirely non Marxist Richard Murphy.

Friday, 13 August 2010

My New Favourite Pop Song: Pass It On...

Stolen shamelessly from Stroppy.

P.S. I did consider whether I was too old for taking enjoyment from this sort of fantasy revenge. Then I listened to the song and it made me so happy, I decided not....

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Centre Stirs...

David Marquand:
I'm worried, not because the Government is departing from New Labour's legacy, but because it's sticking to it. Here, I believe, both Government and Opposition are engaged in a phony war. Despite all the furious charges and counter-charges that echo through the Westminster air, they are both on the same side. They both want to return to business as usual as quickly as they can. They disagree furiously about the route, but they agree about the destination. They want to get back to the sunlit uplands of ever-rising material prosperity, fuelling and fuelled by ever-rising consumption, both public and private. Both are dominated by short-term policy wonkery. Neither seems to have grasped the need for a new politico-economic paradigm, post-Keynesian, post-socialist, post-Thatcherite, post-national and above all post-affluence. I don't carry such a paradigm in my knapsack, I hasten to add. But I feel in my bones that this is what used to be called the left should now be working on.
Now, ignoring for a moment the rather impressive number of usages of the prefix 'post' in that, er, post, isn't this interesting? We have the primary academic representative of the line that runs from Crosland to New Labour (via the SDP) saying the game is now up, and the current froth of politics represents little more than a churning of outdated verities.

I think he's right. I just don't think that prefixing the word 'post' before every previous paradigm is particularly helpful. Challenging the inherited meaning of 'affluence', for instance, seems to me to be pretty vital - re-defining it as meaning something different: an 'affluence' of equality, resource sustainability and greenery springs to mind as the objective. &, of course, I'm not willing to concede we're in a world that is, by definition, post socialist.

Famously - and I can recall getting a lot of stick for this 25 years ago - Marquand, despite being then in the SDP, wrote regularly for Marxism Today. Quite who was trying to exercise hegemony over whom might still provoke a pub argument or two with friends to my Left. But if the would-be generals of the -so far - imaginary armies that are supposed to resist the coming cuts are to put flesh on their 'strategic' posturings, they must find a language which calls people who conceive of themselves as 'centrist' to the banner, as well as the thin ranks of the more committed Left. So it is always worth maintaining that dialogue with people like Marquand in my view.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Red Meat for the Tunbridge Wells Conservative Club Lounge Bar

Cameron has floated plans to take away basic security of tenure from new entrants to socially rented housing. This is a big step - and an important one.

It's important but not, of course, practical in any way - he's just fired the starting gun for a hail of factually based correction from Shelter, the Churches, the Chartered Institute of Housing and every Tenants' Organisation in the land and we all know what happens when 'factually based correction' hits the fan.

If implemented, this idea would create homelessness, hugely increase routine housing management costs in social housing, increase rather than decrease the benefit traps Ian Duncan Smith is supposedly unpicking, lead to all sorts of undesirable 'hard cases' making unwelcome new housing law and - here's the rub - almost certainly increase the number of people in the private rented sector, which, not being subject to rent control, is more expensive than social housing. In short, it would cost the state more money. So it ain't going to happen.

My best guess is we'll see a familiar cycle of small pilots followed by a range of minor tinkerings with tenure law and a dribbling away of the original political motivation that reduces to some small funding programme designed to produce a few hundred, at best, specially designed new tenancies that automatically convert to shared ownership when and if the family income reaches a certain point.

No, the importance of this announcement is that it the first sign of the end of the 'glad confident morning' for this government and the harbinger of the shit-storm they are going to face once the autumn budget is announced.

This idea is really not like the 'Free School' initiative where Tory plans can be arguably claimed to be seeking to mobilise the positive aspirations of the Daily Mail reading classes. I don't actually think that's true, but the fact that Gove has undoubtedly played his hand very badly so far doesn't mean it remains anything but a positive hand in principle. The Education policy tries to reach out to so called 'aspirational' Britain.

This housing policy doesn't: it seeks to mobilise the prejudices and ignorance of the Tory heartland.It's red meat for the Tunbridge Wells Conservative Club Lounge Bar. It offers a 'tin-ear' to every other strand of opinion and, indeed, to the pesky constraints of reality. It is therefore important in a symbolic way: it ain't going to happen, but it is a way station along the path to what a contributor to one discussion over at Blood and Treasure described as 'Thatcherism without the Falklands'.

Shiny Dave looks a little less shiny this morning. That moderate veneer is starting to peel.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

By Grand Central Primary School I Sat Down & Wept

Coming to a status conscious household near you: a chance to spent $1000 preparing your 4 year old to get into the kindergarten of your choice. (via). These people are the market leaders it seems:
There are so many things to worry about when applying to top public and private schools in NYC. We, at Bright Kids NYC, will take away the anxiety associated with prepping for the appropriate tests so that you as parents can focus on the rest of the admissions process.

It is brutal out there for parents with young children. The public gifted and the private school entry in New York City is getting increasingly competitive, particularly for young kids. If you are serious about gaining admissions to a top school, you must get serious about preparing your child for the appropriate tests.

They say social mobility stopped more or less dead with the cohort born in 1970. That makes a kinds of sense - those were the last people who grew to maturity as the West went through the shift from needing lots of both skilled and unskilled manual jobs into a world where there are many more white collar workers, more and more layers of which get deskilled or simply routinised into 'call-centre type' work experiences as the years tick by. The opportunities for advancement out of routine or dirty or dangerous or simply boring family work traditions are not widening as they were when I grew up - they're narrowing. & no amount of guff about 'the knowledge economy' coming to save us is going to change this fact.

So education becomes a frantic, scary, elbows-out-push-your-neighbour-aside scramble to get on that ladder. 'Cos now it's one-in-and-one-out for the class with the nice life.

& 4 year olds start studying for tests - and the class that can afford it bribes its way to the top.

This is a human disaster.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Doing the Lambeth Walk

Down here in the former LB Leninspart on Thames we've seen a fair few political fashions come and go (Ted Knight anyone? Linda Bellos?). Sandinista and ANC flags once graced the Town Hall. Back in the 1980s I returned some overpaid Housing Benefit and got a letter back starting ," The People of Lambeth thank you...". There are people a few years older than me who swear it used to be possible to get paid a day's wages to go on strike if you worked for Lambeth - as long as it was a strike against something Ted Knight disapproved of. And that's just a taster of the directly political stuff - I won't go into the tales of former senior officers in the Housing Department making porn films in the now closed Town Hall social club after hours. Nor the homelessness funding crisis enlivened by bailiffs arrive to confiscate council property because finance hadn't managed to pay the B&B bills of the homeless families they were supposedly assessing.

But for the past few years they've all been really moderate and well behaved down in the Council Chamber in Brixton which, to seasoned observers like myself, has frankly been something of a disappointment.

So imagine my excitement when news of Lambeth becoming the 'John Lewis Co-operative Council' reached my ears at the beginning of the year. This was the model that would take on the evil 'Easy Council' of Brent and win back the people to the Labour banner! Henceforth local services would be mutual rather than municipal, co-operative rather than Council.

At first this seemed just a slogan, but now we have a 52 page first stage blueprint. It's the New Labour version of the Big Society, so it may be worth those of you unlucky enough to live elsewhere taking a glance. It aims, after all, to prefigure a 'new relationship between citizens, community and public sector'. Big stuff, at least potentially. Big enough to have its own bloomin' wiki no less.

Who on the left could be against this ? Who could argue - at the level of principle - for the continuation of state provision over community and employee controlled models? Not me. Without quite adopting AVPS's starry eyed account of the world I'd like to see, or Boffy's relentless co-operative enthusiasm, I do fundamentally believe that ordinary people should run the world, and that politics should be, in part at least, about searching for new ways in which this hope might be realised. I just understand that this might, just might, still be via some form of state provision or control at times, especially at a local level. Letting individual schools control their own admissions, for instance, just ruins things for everyone else.

But as I struggle through the limpid Web2.0/sub-Californian management prose of the so called 'white paper' put out by Lambeth Council, three thoughts keep coming back to me.

Firstly, this is a reform for austerity just as much as the Big Society is supposed to be. There's going to be less money around, savings are going to have to be made and giving co-ops control over certain services is a kind of mutualist gloss on hard choices which would have had to be faced anyway. This fact is acknowledged, but softened by a touching faith in the potential for a Total Place approach to realise savings. Well, I'm all for only processing a piece of paper once and for the NHS to share Social Services offices. I just don't think turning Council services over to potentially scores of separate organisations, co-operative or otherwise, is a particularly promising way to start. So the idea may yet share many of the Big Society's assumed problems in basically boiling down to people being asked to take on services for nowt, or near to nowt, or just lose them completely.

Secondly, this really is just a gloss on the existing default model of the commissioner state:

Strategic commissioning goals would be agreed by a single senior management team drawn from across the borough’s public services, although this group could include members of the private and voluntary sectors as appropriate. The risk of professional capture and bureaucratic expansion would be contained through collective agreement and challenge by these senior commissioning managers. The
commissioning process would explicitly involve local political leadership through the council’s Cabinet and this will ensure direct and clear political accountability for all strategic decision-making of a much broader scope than at present. Further, this would be augmented by radically enhancing the role of scrutiny by local councillors and residents to hold delivery agencies to account for their operational effectiveness. This new group would be responsible for all strategic commissioning decisions in the borough which would then be made real by a range of delivery agencies" (emphasis in the orginal)

Note the local councillors and residents are holding the delivery agencies - i.e. the mutuals and co-ops - to account, not the strategic commissioners. How very modern: the monkey is fully and transparently accountable whilst the organ grinder sits untroubled.

Lastly, though, the big thing is the paper seems to only use the word 'procurement' once. Commissioners don't just wave their hands and magically commission - someone has to go out and procure. Don't take my word for it, go check the EU regulations that Mr.Mandelson was so keen to push through before being enobled. Now, personally, I think this is classic Emperors New Clothes territory: the traditional alledgedly sclerotic local government bureaucracy that these marketised relationships were supposed to destroy have been replaced by......a vast and increasingly sclerotic procurement bureaucracy disproportionately based on various forms of competitive tendering.

But you don't have to necessarily agree with that observation to accept my main point - regular competitive procurement exercises are incompatible with giving local people organised into co-ops and mutuals control over the services which affect them. I mean, they might lose the tender, might they not? & some would say this is a good thing if their services weren't up to much, or the tender criteria were simply too difficult for them to meet on - to pick a factor entirely at random - price.

The basic question is: if co-ops are so great - and they could be, I really think they could - how do we protect them from the circling sharks like Capita? I can't find an answer in our local white paper...

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Nationalism and Globalisation: Two Snapshots in Time

Mason's blagged his way into a party:

Another obvious social and political fact resonating off last night's events is how Spain has modernised socially. I watched the match in a bar full of Catalan people, some of whom had been on the million strong demo in favour of independence from Spain the day before, carrying banners saying "Adeu Espana". As they surged onto the street last night they were all for Spain, and they were met by the entire staff of a Pakistani-owned pizza shop called Al Capone's, who surrounded me shouting (in English): "We are Spanish, we are Spanish. We Love Spain!". On the streets where the Catalan flag and language were once repressed, people used both to celebrate the Spanish victory. In a landscape shaped by inquisition-era Catholicism, gay men leapt around in the fountains wearing only bathing trunks bearing the word "Espana".

Basically, as in the Facebook profile option, "it's complicated" - and there is no going back.
But, ah, it ain't so complicated everywhere. Or at least not complicated in the sense of seeing new juxtapositions of attitudes and identities emerging, which manage to be both dichotomies and overlaps. Hyper-modernity carries with it a trailing gown of history's unfinished business in some places.

So we have football fans acting out their (temporary) role as joyful nationalists in one place, and the representatives of two* national traditions acting out their role as anything but joyful football fans in another.

(*No, I've not signed up to the BICO line. But you have to admit that in Northern Ireland it's taking a while for 'all that is solid to melt into air' as Marx put it, and a grudge, held long enough, looks powerfully like a nationalism to me....)