Friday, 29 April 2011

You don't have to be a republican to find the Royal Wedding offensive

Today billions of people worldwide will be watching the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton .  It’s indisputably an historic event as the likely future head of the British state, William Windsor, marries his future Queen Consort.  The blanket, unquestioning media coverage will no doubt grate with republicans - who wish to see an end to the British monarchy - but it should also sit uneasily with a much wider audience.  The wedding is a celebration of all that is wrong with Britain today; a lack of democracy, support for despotic regimes and inherited privilege.  

Alarmingly the wedding endorses the flouting of human rights offenders.  As is protocol for such events, several representatives from nations that regularly flout the human rights of their subjects will be in attendance at Westminster Abbey.  We don’t only sell arms to dictators, we also invite them and their contemporaries to Royal Weddings.  Its like Greenpeace inviting former BP head Tony Hayward to its Christmas party.  At the eleventh hour the Syrian ambassador has had his invitation withdrawn due to the ongoing state sponsored violence taking place in Syria, but representatives from Bahrain and other Middle East governments will still be in attendance to fly the flag for despotism.

The Royal Wedding is not an official state event and as such there are no official rules or conventions on who should be invited.  Therefore extending an invitation to representatives of unsavoury regimes is indefensible.  The counter argument to this is that the wedding should avoid becoming politicised or influenced by current affairs.  But the guest list has been openly politicised already; former Prime Ministers have been invited based upon partisan association.  Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, both former labour Prime Ministers have not received an invitation; unlike former Conservative PMs Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

The monarchy is anti-democratic.  The current Queen and future King of Great Britain have no democratic mandate to be Head of State, having been neither elected nor appointed by the people that they supposedly represent.  In fact, numerous despots from around the globe such as Robert Mugabe and Colonel Gaddaffi can at least claim that a portion of their populations have voted for them at some point.  It’s a terribly poor mandate with little or no legitimacy, but its more than the  British monarchy can claim.

The British monarch may have limited actual power, but they are still the head of the British state and play a central role in its constitution.  It seems contradictory that a nation can claim to be democratic and conduct military operations overseas to ‘spread’ democracy yet persists in having an unelected head of state.  It’s incredibly hypocritical; any organisation that has as its head a person that goes against its fundamental principles should not be taken seriously. 

The Royal Wedding is anti-meritocratic.  William Windsor will be the next king of Great Britain because of his parentage, not his achievements, qualifications or suitability for the role.  The medieval concept of hereditary power runs contrary to the notion that Britain is, ostensibly, a meritocratic nation.  The Royal Wedding is ultimately a celebration of privilege and how by marrying Prince William, Kate Middleton and any future children stand to inherit incredible opportunity for generations to come.

The wedding is also anti-meritocratic for its propagation of the myth that Kate Middleton is ‘normal’ or ‘one of us’.  I won’t attempt to define what ‘normal’ actually means in modern Britain, but it’s worth considering the educational history of Kate Middleton.  Those born to parents in professional occupations are 60% more likely to go to university in the UK.  Kate Middleton attended private school, something only done so by 7% of the British population.  This in turn increased the chances of attending prestigious university such as St Andrews which takes approximately 40% of its intake from private schools. Those attending state school therefore face a significant challenge in winning a place at universities such as St Andrews and having the opportunity to romp around with a prince.   

Kate Middleton hasn’t had a proper job since 2006, other than working for her millionaire parents' mail order company.  A good life for those that can get it, though again, not particularly meritocratic.  The idea that she is normal, and therefore it could happen to you or your friends or family, is not only laughable but damaging.  It reinforces the sexist message that the only true way for women to achieve social mobility is by marrying a prince, or more latterly, a wealthy footballer.

The wedding has sadly also overshadowed the ongoing debate on electoral reform.  Admittedly electoral reform is a dry subject compared to the glamour of a wedding, yet the former is infinitely more important as it is a chance to make Britain more democratic. That such a frivolous spectacle should find greater traction with the British people is not only sad, but reveals the worrying prevalence of deference in Britain.  We’re prepared to celebrate the marriage of our ‘betters’, yet when offered more democratic control over government we’re simply not interested.

The most spurious claim in defence of the wedding and the Royal family is their supposed economic benefit;  they attract tourists providing a major boost to our economy.  There is a clear economic benefit from such occasions and the Monarchy in general, but the same can be said of the legalisation of Heroin.  Just because something makes money, doesn’t make it right.  Strangely, the palace of Versailles still attracts thousands of tourists each year, despite the fact that France has been a republic for the best of part of the last 220 years following the beheading of its monarchy. 

Friday, 22 April 2011

the fallacy of private sector efficiency

Privatisation equals efficiency, according to its greatest exponents.  An efficient organisation is a successful organisation, delivering value for money.  The public sector is inefficient in comparison to the private sector, ergo, public services must seek to increase their efficiency, reduce waste and cut costs.  The key to achieving this is competition, the introduction of markets.  The market will drive out waste and reduce costs.

This argument contains many fallacies but before addressing them it is worth noting that it goes largely unchallenged.  It seems to be generally accepted that the private sector is as a rule much more efficient and the public sector languishing in a mire of 'non-jobs', good benefits and astronomical waste.  There is a little or no evidence to support this view.

The central fallacy of this theory is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of public services, though the clue is in the name.  The private sector is more efficient at generating surplus income (i.e. profit), because that is its primary aim.  The bottom line of all private sector organisations is profit; service is a mere by product of the quest for greater profits.  If the private sector can generate profits while delivering poor service, it does.  The moving of call centres to the Indian subcontinent despite their near universal derision is clear evidence of this.

The bottom line of the public sector is service, not profit.  It’s a huge distinction and shapes public sector organisations from top to bottom.  Surplus income should it exist is merely reinvested into improving services and it’s an obvious truism that service can always be improved for someone.  This leads to a cash hungry public sector, often able to spend its full resources and find a home for much more.  I doubt there is a single school or hospital in the UK that cannot be improved with the influx of more resources.

This is not to say that there aren't needlessly inefficient and wasteful practices in the public sector - there are - but the same is true of the private sector.  'Non-jobs' exist there too, the PR and marketing agencies employed by big business to distort the truth perform no beneficial function to anyone but shareholders, unlike those employed to encourage equality and diversity in the workplace (often picked out by public sector critics).

If we seek high quality public services then privatisation is not the only answer.  Reform and improvements can be delivered without resorting to the enrichment of shareholders at the expense of service levels.  The utility companies are an excellent example; artificially inflated prices, confusing bills and a lack of competition.  In the days of public ownership the utilities may well have been less efficient at generating profit, but the prices were not inflated and service was similar to what it is now. 

One of the more self-defeating criticisms of the public sector (which also feeds into the myth regarding its fundamental inefficiency) is the level of pay and benefits.  Less skilled jobs may be better paid than the private sector, but there isn't scope to earn a million pound a year working for the local council, unlike a financial service provider. 

Further, the truth is that compared to our European neighbours we work the longest hours for the least pay and we are relatively inefficient  in comparison (this includes the private sector, which means on average European public sector workers are more efficient than our private sector).  It’s those in the private sector that are underpaid and granted too few holidays and effort would be better placed in campaigning for a levelling up of benefits, not down.

Sadly this particular fallacy is politically convenient and provides cover for the Neoliberal policy of shrinking the state and mass privatisation.  In this way its much like the narrative formed concerning benefit cheats (who cost the Treasury some £1 to 2 billion a year or so); they are the scum of the earth yet major corporations that can afford to pay tax but instead find ways of avoiding it (to the tune of £25billion a year) are left to continue undisturbed.

Shattering these myths is incredibly difficult; it requires a balanced and subtle analysis and a willingness to question perceived wisdom.  Just because some areas of the public sector are inefficient does not mean that they all are; the same applies to efficiency in areas of the private sector.  Just because final salary pension schemes are hard to justify, it doesn't mean that all public sector benefits cannot be.  Private is not always better, but neither is public.  In modern liberal democracies there needs to be a mix of private, public and third sector organisations.  Crucially, we must remember that profit is not everything, every time.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Not worth the paper on which it is written?

There are some post-16 qualifications that are simply worth more when applying to university

It’s an argument that most students will have heard at some point, usually in conjunction with the claim that A levels are getting easier and that standards have fallen.  According to the popular trope there are proper, traditional subjects such as history, maths and English; then there are their ‘Mickey Mouse’ equivalents such as media studies, communication studies and performance studies.

For a long time the argument deployed to defend these ‘softer’ subjects has focussed on the different method of assessment employed, noting that the key skills developed are equally transferrable as those earned studying traditional subjects. 

Whether or not these ‘soft’ subjects are actually any easier than their ‘traditional’ counterparts is irrelevant; if they are perceived to be easier by those that matter – universities and their admissions teams – worth diminishes.

The recent publication of Informed Choices, an admissions guide supported by the Russell Group universities is designed to increase transparency and fairness in the application process.  Many applicants will find themselves at a disadvantage if at 16, following their GCSEs, their school or college is unable to provide crucial advice on which subjects grant access to the most competitive courses at the best universities.  

Research suggests this is one reason why applicants from private schools have traditionally been more successful at gaining places at the top universities; their tutors simply know how to play the system.  This guide is a welcome step toward greater equity in the admissions process.

But the guide is not all good news; it spells out in no uncertain terms that admissions tutors at top universities believe that some subjects simply do not prepare applicants with the skills necessary  for university study.  In laymen’s terms, soft subjects do exist and they are the more or less those subjects that have been maligned all along.

In order to gain a place at a top university applicants will ideally be studying at least two traditional subjects, with one A level in a softer subject permissible, but not preferable.  There is also some suggestion that universities prefer A levels over other qualifications such as the BTEC, applied A levels and the Extended Project.  It goes without saying that most top universities will not accept general studies or critical thinking A levels.

This begs the obvious questions, why have schools and colleges offered these courses for study?  Why has it taken a decade of promoting participation in higher education for this crucial information to emerge?  What now for those young people studying these soft subjects and their ambitions of gaining a place at a top university? 

A lot of this information has long been in the public domain; the University of Sheffield publish a list of preferred A levels on their website.  Admissions tutors may prefer those subjects with which they have greater experience, or it may have taken a decade for the truth to emerge; the softer subjects simply do not prepare students for university.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to this information emerging is the sharp reality of inequality that it illustrates.  Universities are likely to be aware that some schools and colleges don’t offer traditional subjects - such as history and philosophy - because they simply cannot attract the necessary teachers.  Instead they offer the soft subjects for which they can attract sufficient staff.  

There is also a suspicion that schools are implicitly encouraged to promote the easiest qualifications to their students in order to boost their league table standing.  Either way, making this information public would have confirmed that those attending poor performing schools do not have a fair chance of accessing the best universities. 

The election of the Coalition government has also been an important factor.  The insights from Informed Choices explicitly support the government’s shift in education policy toward a greater focus on traditional subjects.   Had these insights emerged during the more inclusive reign of the previous government - who encouraged the proliferation of softer subjects in the first place - universities may have found their admissions procedures subject to further criticism and scrutiny, rather than a knowing sense of acceptance.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Tyranny of the minority: A vote for AV is a vote for democracy

For those that want a more democratic Britain, a vote for the Alternative Vote on 5th May is the only option

The campaign for the Alternative Vote has continued to sink into the mire in recent days, becoming bogged down in disputes over funding and personality clashes.  As Paddy Ashdown points out, its mudslinging at its worst, attempting to distort the real debate that should be taking place.  Electoral reform is a hugely important issue that should arguably have been passed without referendum; it’s about making politics fair.  Britain has a long way to go in this area; from the monarchy to the House of Lords; AV represents another small step along the path.

The motivation to mudsling is obvious; the Alternative Vote is indisputably more democratic than the current First Past the Post system (FPTP).  Despite this, the ‘yes’ campaign have struggled to get this deceptively simple message across, instead focussing on ‘clearing up’ politics and other appears to the ire of the public in the wake of the expenses scandal.  

The ‘no’ campaign have resorted to scaremongering and smear as their arguments for FPTP cannot withstand vigorous examination.  Before considering why they are so weak, it’s important to point out the virtues of AV as an improvement on FPTP, but also note that it is far from a panacea to the ills of democracy in Britain.

The classic justification for representative democracy (whereby you elect someone to make decisions on your behalf) over other forms of government (such as dictatorship) is that it is the least worst system.  Democracy as we know it is imperfect, the best of a bad bunch as it necessitates the ‘tyranny of the majority’.  Simply, a majority of people impose their views and or beliefs on the remaining minority.  It’s an unavoidable and undesirable consequence; in a perfect pluralistic world everyone’s viewpoint and beliefs would be acknowledged and implemented.  Practically, this just doesn’t work.  But most can agree that majority rules is probably the best system available, utilised as it is in homes, playgrounds and workplaces on a daily basis across the Western world.

Sadly, FPTP actually helps to deliver a ‘tyranny of the minority’, a situation whereby a minority impose their views and beliefs on the remaining majority.  Minority rule is clearly not the best of a bad bunch.  The Labour landslide of 1997 was achieved with 43% of the popular vote; therefore 57% - a clear majority – did not vote for Labour but were saddled with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for thirteen years. 

Under FPTP only one vote per person is counted, so more often than not where there is a plurality of candidates the vote is split so that no one person receives over 50% of the votes in any one constituency.  Therefore, the candidate with the largest minority wins, the overall majority lose. 

AV changes this; by counting second (and third, and fourth etc) preferences it ensures that over 50% of the electorate – a majority - have had a say in the result.  Their ‘say’ may be a second or third preference vote, but it is still influence over the result and some form of endorsement for the winner.  Admittedly this is not a perfect system or as fair as Proportional Representation (PR), but it’s certainly fairer than FPTP.

FPTP is an outdated system that is designed for elections in which the majority of individuals vote for two major parties.  That stopped happening in the UK from the 1980s onwards; where once 90% voted for Labour or Conservative now it’s just 65%.  It discriminates minority parties at a time when more and more choose to vote for them.  Some have derided Liberal Democrat support for electoral reform as mere self interest.  That may be the case but it is also true that a party that wins 20% of the popular vote should have 20% of the seats in parliament, not less than 10% as they currently do.  AV would not fix this anomaly entirely, but it would redress the balance at least partially.

One of the chief criticisms of AV is that it could deliver more hung parliaments and coalitions (this is a fallacy, FPTP has delivered several hung parliaments in the UK and more in Australia than AV has).  Somewhat comically, this has left David Cameron arguing against something he proclaimed barely a year ago to be positive.  The truth is, coalitions are often fairer as they consider a wider range of views; a majority of the UK voted for Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats.  Therefore a majority of the UK have been able to shape government.  And the idea that coalitions are unable to push through policy has been debunked by the success of Michael Gove’s potentially radical education policies, for example.

Supporters of FPTP also claim that cost should prevent us from implementing AV; we shouldn't switch to a system that costs more than the current one.  What they fail to point out is that having a dictator would be cheaper than FPTP, but that doesn't make it desirable. 

The other draw backs of FPTP include its ability to create MPs for life, who sit in safe seats with a comfortable largest minority.  Although AV won’t eliminate this situation, it will reduce the propensity for it to happen.  FPTP also creates an adversarial dynamic in British politics which at worst precludes and at best discourages multilateral approaches to policy.  AV will at least encourage candidates to consider the views of their opposition’s supporters in the hope of collecting second preferences.  Therefore policy will hopefully be more nuanced and considered and require robust justification.

The history of constitutional and electoral reform in Britain stretches as far back as the Magna Carta and has been a journey of incremental change for the best part of a thousand years.  The Alternate Vote is far from perfect, but it is another small improvement and a further step toward a fairer way of conducting politics in Britain.  The AV referendum should be elevated above petty concerns of giving Nick Clegg or David Cameron a kicking; the consequences of the referendum will still be reverberating long after both of their careers have ended.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Big Society and the redistribution of debt

An exact definition of the Big Society is difficult to pin down; it’s still a relatively loose concept whose detail has had to be pieced together over time.  It was difficult to sell ‘on the door step’ prior to the election and its difficult to explain to the electorate now that its supposedly in action.  But an examination of the Government’s economic policy provides much insight.

My own definition of the Big Society is the transfer of risk and responsibility from the public sector to the private or third sector (voluntary and charity organisations); the privatisation of risk.  Providing public services becomes the responsibility of individuals or in the last resort, private companies.

In short, services such as running libraries will no longer be done by local authorities but by third sector organisations or community groups; where they are unable to fill the void the private sector will step in.  The aim is to encourage individuals to take on more and more responsibility and become more active in society, giving up their time to better their communities.

A noble and logical aim, but the whole concept is rendered unworkable by economic policy.  Funding for third sector organisations has been slashed, personal incomes have been squeezed and legal aid reduced.  Individuals now have less disposable income, have less legal protection and less third sector organisations (that provide knowledge and resources) to work with; hardly a recipe for mass community participation.  Instead we are likely to see the private sectors step into the large number of gaps where communities are unable or unwilling to tread; but only where a decent profit can be gleaned.  For those areas that aren’t profitable and services have been cut, responsibility will fall on families, friends and neighbours regardless of their ability to fill these roles.

The Office for Budget Responsibility has published data that predicts that household debt (including loans, mortgages and credit cards) will increase from an average of £66k to around £77k per household by 2015, increasing significantly as a portion of income.  As the deficit begins to fall the debt burden – regardless of who created it - will be loaded onto households, it will be privatised, transferred from the public sector to individuals.  This is the Big Society in action.

The deficit is not being cut, but simply moved.  Without a clear growth strategy households and individuals will have no choice but to turn to credit to maintain standards of living as wages and public services are cut.  As the Government saves money by cutting back on services households will have to borrow to continue living as they are now.  Should mass privatisation of public services take place, this debt will rise yet higher.

The net result of this is that individuals will be forced to take on more debt or increased risk if they want to access decent public services, yet individuals are the least well placed to do so.  They have neither the legal protections nor the expertise and resources of the public sector nor private or third sector organisations.  To think that individuals will involve themselves in volunteering without our culture of litigation being tackled, is wishful thinking.  The risk is simply too great.

The public sector is best placed to provide vital services, such as support for the elderly or libraries.  They are not driven by profit and so can undertake activities that are expensive, but vital; they have significant resources as they are funded via general taxation and they also possess the capacity to take on risk, being professional organisations with properly qualified staff.

The Big Society is privatisation, of both risk and ultimately public services.  Though it may be dressed in the rhetoric of community action, the coalition’s economic, health and education policies all conclusively point to privatisation as the key driver in their policies.  The redistribution of debt will not only define this government, but also the generation that are saddled with it.