Today there has been an alarming headline that 1.6 million children in the UK live in ‘severe poverty’. Examples of the reportage can be seen at the BBC and Guardian. Every now and again a news stat sets off a little alarm bell in my head. This was one of those times – according to the Office of National Statistics there are somewhere around 12.1 million children in the UK (2000 census, I suspect little variation since then). So according to today’s reports approximately 13% of children in the UK must live in ‘severe poverty’. That little alarm in my mind was making a coughing noise which only thinly disguised the words ‘bull-shit’. I usually go off on one when pointing out the rotten state the UK was left in after 13 years of Labour but even with blue-tinted specs on I would never claim that they left us with 13% of all kids living in ‘severe poverty’. This figure needed some sniffing.
The original report is from Save the Children. It can be downloaded here. It’s pretty hard to find how they technically defined ‘severe poverty’ for their ‘research’. After a bit of digging it turns out they define it as those living in households with incomes of less than 50% of the UK median income (disregarding housing costs). A median single income in the UK is circa. £20k. I have no idea how they then use their methodology to ‘disregard’ housing costs – but the top and bottom is that a couple with two kids who, after housing costs are paid, have an income of £12.5k a year are classed as in ‘severe poverty’.
When you look at the methodology the metric they use is not about poverty – it’s a about income distribution. Without wishing to belittle the quest for more equitable income distribution- I can’t help but think that such loose use of language cheapens the words ‘severe poverty’ and so insults those millions in the world (including in the UK) who, very literally, do not know where their next meal is coming from. We could have a very important national debate about income disparity and this data could be used to support the case of those who believe the gap is too wide – however to hijack the language ‘severe poverty’ is a distraction from all that is valid in that debate.
Now don’t get me wrong: that couple with those two kids on that income are going to have a horrible time. The report does do a good job of highlighting the very real issues they face. I am also under no illusion that genuine severe poverty exists in this country – the kind were parents go and beg on the street to feed their children – I see some of this here in Birmingham. Some stories that happen right now in my City would make you weep – but to say ‘severe poverty’ is anything other than at the very margins of our society is a fantasy. To suggest, as the words they have chosen do, that 13% of all children live in squalid, desperate circumstances is ludicrous. By overstating it, all Save the Children have done is muddle two debates and distract some focus from tackling those very real cases that do blight our society.
So that’s that then*. A solid result for Labour. A hold with an increased majority. I think the result was about as expected – you could, I suppose, argue the Tories did slightly worse and Lib Dems slightly better than expected – if that is correct then it is a function of:
- The Conservative CCHQ seemed to do no more than the bare minimum to support their candidate – there is suspicion that a tactical decision was taken not to allow a result that would undermine Clegg and this meant not fighting too hard. I’m sure there will be some angst between the grass-roots and the tacticians in the Party about this over the coming weeks.
- Partly as a result of the above, and partly regardless, many Tories will have tactically voted Lib Dem this time around. Clearly not enough to compensate those switching Lib Dem to Labour.
- The turnout was down but I would expect this to be spread evenly between the parties.
All in – no real news. Easily a good enough result to keep Ed knockers in the party on the leash, but not quite good enough that they wont still be straining on it. As by-election swings go it is pretty undramatic.
*Full Result: Labour: 14,718 (42.1%) Lib Dems: 11,160 (31.9%) Conservatives: 4,481 (12.8%) UKIP: 2,029 (5.8%) BNP: 1,560 (4.5%) Green Party: 530 (1.5%) Monster Raving Loony Party: 145 (0.4%) English Democrats: 144 (0.4%) Pirate Party: 96 (0.2%) Bus Pass Elvis Party: 67 (0.1%)
Tim Montogomerie’s reflections on Iain’s Dale’s departure from the blog world got me thinking. Tim says the right previously enjoyed being in front on web campaigning but now risk falling behind if they haven’t already. He points particularly at ‘Movement Activism’. This surge in leftist web-based ‘movement activism’ is something I’ve only recently started to worry about. The Centre-Right (of which I count myself) tend to be quite individualistic beasts. We don’t need, nor wish, to be led. We don’t suffer fools gladly. Gather too many of us together and you typically get too many Chiefs and not enough Indians. Collaboration therefore tends to be loose, short , sharp and limited to specific issues. The discipline to slavishly follow a party line simply isn’t there outside of the General Election. Meanwhile the left are getting far better at that ‘discipline’ and all the while are starting to create a sense of being part of a real ‘movement’ for those who use the net to engage with them.
Does this matter? Up until very recently I would have argued it didn’t. Let’s face it, the people in the blogosphere endlessly retweeting the same political articles to each other would always have been died-in-the-wool supporters of whichever party regardless. The political blogosphere draws-in political anoraks like moths to a flame. The floating voters who matter simply give it a wide berth. My gut instinct was just to let the left get on with their ‘Slacktivism’. Those banal campaigns consisting of “click on this to express your rage at the cuts” or whatever. They’ve confused bleating into the ether with meaningful action. They’ve kidded themselves they’re doing good with empty gestures. My attitude has always been if it makes them feel worthy, they’re doing no harm so let them get on with it. Meanwhile, as they are retweeting each other, us grown-ups can go out and take real action to make our schools and hospitals or whatever else around us better.
Recently though, they seem to have reached a critical mass and realised that they were achieving little. They are finally making the giant leap to real ‘action’. Suddenly it is quite scary. We have a single line in Private Eye hinting in its usual mischievous style that ‘Vodaphone owe £6bn in tax’, and then via a web campaign this leads to real direct action on the streets. Not ‘action’ in the sense of working through the norms of society (investigative fact checking, lobbying, getting legislation etc.) but ‘direct action’ in the 1960s/70s “let’s have fun causing trouble” sense.
Folk self-select their fact sources from the internet – as they do with newspapers – to confirm their prejudices. People who read the Guardian will also tend to bookmark ‘Left Foot Forwards’, ‘UK Uncut’, ‘False Economy’, ‘The Other Taxpayers Alliance’ etc. You could make a similar self-selecting list for those who lean to the right. The thing is that those who lean to the left are, by nature, happier to run with the herd. Once a leftist feels part of ‘a movement’ they can be far more disciplined at toeing the party line. ‘Solidarity’ and ‘Unity’ have always been more crucial to the left than ‘free thinking’ and ‘reason’. Those who understand the power of all this seem to be gleefully manipulating it to edge the mainstream left even further left. Once they’ve got their new foot-soldiers engaged – which they are doing well – they can wreak havoc. That £6bn ‘tax-dodge’ figure for Vodaphone from Private Eye is a powerful example. Clearly it is a dodgy figure based in little more than tittle-tattle – and yet it is accepted as an absolute fact by a whole ‘movement’ to the point that people are willing to commit criminal damage in outrage. We have also seen the power of this ‘Movement Activism’ with the student protests.
I’m not sure what the proper response from the centre-right should be but I do know what the wrong response would be: The last thing we need is for the mainstream right to blindly drift further right as a anxious response to baiting. My idea of how politics should be conducted remains through the normal channels and ballot box – not by violent confrontations with leftist thugs having a jolly day out at a demonstration/riot. We are living in testing economic times. Testing economic times have always created an environment to radicalise people. New technology can be a real catalyst to that radicalisation process. We need to watch it and keep level heads.
There will not be a single Coalition MP went into politics to triple tuition fees. Yet here we are. A depressing truth of wielding power is often-times the only responsible choices boil down to picking ‘the least worst thing’. I wont repeat in any depth my own sad feelings on today’s vote – you can see them here.
In all the noise we’ve had on the subject you can break down the core theme into two parts:
- The fact of a raise in the cap on fees three-fold (Boo)
- The funding arrangements for their payment (Yay)
The removal of the cap stinks for everyone who will be impacted. I have two kids to think about and the figures terrify me. That said, given the nation is skint the realistic choices were always to either:
- have fewer people go to university (when it was free for all we only sent 10% of the population)
- keep aspiring to allow 50% of the population to benefit from higher education but revisit funding to ensure we can afford it.
- no change, keep the current funding arrangements regardless and keep adding to the structural deficit
Only 1 & 2 above were realistic (unless we wish to end up like Ireland). We chose 2 (as would Labour). And here we are. Even the right choices can have unpopular consequences.
Which then brings us to the arrangements for payments. One of the things that has got lost in the debate due to the understandable focus on the headline price increase is the new repayment regime. This is a great leap forward from what we currently have in place. There is an excellent website here which covers this in depth and debunks an number of the myths floating about.
Away from the nuts and bolts of the proposed legislation the other thing that fascinates me about today’s vote is the Lib Dem position. They really are between a rock and a hard place. As I noted last week they need this Coalition to work. One of their fundamental beliefs is Proportional Representation. PR would make coalition government the norm not the exception. Coalition requires compromise. They either stick to their coalition agreement, vote with the Government and take an electoral beating else they pander to the public noise and surrender any future argument on the viability of governing under PR. It must be a nightmare choice for them. I’m hopeful that Clegg will carry them over the line in choosing to do the right thing over the popular thing but have no doubt that if an election was called tomorrow they would be wiped out as a result of this issue. This means if the vote does pass then they will need distance between today and the next election so that they have positive achievements to point to as counterbalance to today’s resentment. For this reason, IF the fees vote passes today I am more confident than ever that this Coalition will go the full distance – any Lib Dem recovery will depend upon it.
On Tuesday I attended a fascinating seminar at Portcullis House on the nuts and bolts of the Coalition negotiations in May. The speakers were Lib Dem David Laws and Tory MP Rob Wilson, both of whom are peddling their respective books on the subject*. For me, it was a unique chance to get a perspective from people who were ‘in the thick of it’.
A blow-by-blow account of the evening has been done by a Lib Dem blogger here and I wont try to better that. I will just summarise my take-away points:
- The Lib Dems were genuinely knocked backwards by their election showing. Nothing in their private polling had led them to expect so few seats. Before polls closed Danny Alexander (then Clegg’s chief-of-staff) was briefing his colleagues to expect 80-85 seats. He was way out.
- The Lib Dems were between a rock and a hard place. Although many of their key players would have felt more comfortable in a ‘progressive coalition’ with Labour – the Parliamentary maths and Labour’s attitude made that a no-go. At the same time if they couldn’t form a coalition with the Conservatives we would enter a period of unstable Government with another election in November. They reasoned a) they would do worse and b) a short-lived impotent hung parliament would be very damaging to their long term aspiration for PR – a system which would lead to hung parliaments as the norm rather than the exception.
- The Labour party machine seemed to have done literally no planning for the eventuality of a hung parliament. Laws had the sense they were making it up as they went along – a sense that Wilson confirmed through his interviews with the key players on their team.
- The Conservatives had done proper planning for the Hung Parliament scenario. They were very quick to produce a document that conceded so much the Lib Dems had no choice but to take them seriously. Laws’ view was that the Tories essentially came into discussions with a ‘cut-to-the-chase’ final position. The only thing that was unacceptable in the first offer was on electoral reform (the proposal being to simply to set up another Commission to look at the subject). I pressed Laws on whether with hindsight – if the Tories showed they had wiggle room on Electoral reform, perhaps there was wiggle room on other areas had he pushed harder. He didn’t think so. I personally do wonder. Wilson made the point that for many, if not most Tories the ‘key concessions’ – the no tax on first £10k and the pupil premium were not any wrench to concede – most would have loved those policies in their manifesto in the first place.
- Laws and the Lib Dems struggled in the negotiations to figure out how to navigate so much so quickly whilst still staying within their internal party processes. When Laws observed the Conservative Party was spared these constraints with the leader being an effective ‘absolute monarchy’ William Hague knowingly shot back that the check and balance was “our monarchy is qualified by frequent regicide”.
- On the final day Brown had lost the plot so much he even offered the Lib Dems 50% of Cabinet seats.
It was a good event and the second time that I have heard Laws speak. He does impress and seems a very good counter-balance to the more loony fringes in the Lib Dem party. It underlined for me the sadness that through his wrong-doing he excluded himself from Cabinet. If you do the wrong thing for the right reasons, you still do the wrong thing. His replacement is not half as able. I noted yesterday that Cameron was asked if he wanted Laws back: “Yes, and soon” was the reply. On reflection, I could live with that.
* Rob Wilson has released 5 Days to Power while David Laws book is 22 Days in May.
New Labour used to do this thing. If they wanted to do something they knew would be unpopular with the Unions they would ‘leak’ that something far worse was in the planning. Once it was time to officially announce the policy they would then ‘retreat’ from the position that had been leaked to what they always wanted to do in the first place. So if they wanted tuition fees of £3000 they would first leak that they would be £6000, let people rage about it for a couple of months, and then announce the £3000 figure. Folk would think that this didn’t sound so bad and it would feel like a compromise. The passion would then be taken out of any opposition. They could then implement exactly what they had always planned. They did it again and again throughout their reign. It was quite a trick.
I can’t help but wonder if the Coalition has learned well from this technique. For months we’ve had this 40% figure of expected cuts out in the wild. Today we learned the figure is actually 19%. It really doesn’t sound that bad now does it?
The more tribal Labour supporters have had 20th October circled on their calendars for months. It was supposed to be the day that the ‘True face of the evil Tories’ would be demonstrated by these ‘savage 40% cuts’. Winter fuel for pensioners would go. Schools and the NHS would be slashed. October 20th was going to be Armageddon. If you believed the hype they have been spouting then today was supposed to be about the Tories rolling back the state all the way to Feudal times. Instead, we find out that the intent is merely to roll back the state all the way to the public spending we last saw way back in……………. 2008. Yes, for all the bluff and fluster public spending is going back to the same level it was at after 11 years of Labour rule. School spend is protected. NHS spending will increase.
The appropriate response today from all the doom-mongers should be relief and a slight feeling of churlishness. Not a bit of it. Instead a quick search of the blogosphere shows they are wallowing in a curious mix of disappointment and denial. My personal hopes that a spell of Coalition government would edge us away from our tradition of tribal politics sadly seem as unlikely now as at any point since May.
Our failure to pull everyone into a new ‘grown-up politics’ means that for our politicians the ‘X-Factor’ still matters. This is a problem for Osborne. He has little love from the press or public and his delivery today was cursed by a frog–in-the-throat that we haven’t seen since IDS was in his pomp. In comparison Alan Johnson stood up and was a Mr Charisma Snake-Oil salesman. If you were to score Osborne and Johnson you would give a 10-nil win to Osborne on substance, but you would have to give Johnson a 10-nil win on style. In 2010, for right or wrong, style impacts the voters more. We should be pleased that AJ did not stand for the Labour leadership as he has an almost Blair like capacity to get the public to trust and like him. I even, strangely, like him myself – I couldn’t help but chuckle at his shot at Clegg about his change of mind ‘between the close of polls and opening of ministerial car doors’. And on a chuckling note, I also laughed out loud at some random lefty’s ironic twitter shout that “We need these cuts so that people like the contestants in the Apprentice don’t leave the country”.
All said, the medicine has been dished and it doesn’t seem as bitter as we have been steeling ourselves for. Time will tell if we have held back too much and perhaps should have cut deeper. The challenge now having announced the cuts is to get out there and deliver them and get this country back on its feet quickly.
We don’t need a Ministry of Paper-Clips, Open Data is the Answer.
Sir Philip Green’s report on government spending is now online. Unlike most Government reports it’s a succinct thirty page slide deck in big print that can be read in five minutes. If that’s too much then I’ll give you the gist: he finds the government wastes money then concludes we must centralise buying.
I’ve no issue at all with his findings. The examples he cites confirm everything we already suspected about wasteful and lazy Government procurement. Some of the examples are jaw-dropping. I’ve also no issue with his central theme that the Government has failed miserably to take advantage of its scale or credit rating. On that he’s right. He obviously knows a trick or two about keeping hold of money so I feel a bit cheeky calling him out here – but I have to: The findings might be good, the theme sound, but his conclusion is wrong.
It is nuts to propose that a problem of poor or lazy administration will be solved by more bureaucracy. The Coalition Government is rightly extolling the virtues of localism at the core of its agenda. There is an obvious intellectual contradiction between pushing localism and enforcing centralised procurement. The last thing we need to do now is set up yet another Government Agency that would literally be the ‘Ministry for Paper-Clips’. No matter how well intentioned it would fail. I’ve spent long enough working with big business watching the pendulum swing back and forth from localised business models to centralised models to know that the prize of lower procurement costs will come at the expense of agility and innovation. It is in this agility and innovation that the very biggest prizes lie.
The diversity of Government activity is not comparable with running a chain of identical Top Shops. If the proposal goes ahead you can imagine the scenario – a nimble cost-cutting government department identifies a new way to deliver a service at a fraction of the cost of the existing way. The project to implement it will need new kit. Being new stuff, the central agency doesn’t have it on its catalogue – cue a tedious process to get into the approved kit list, another process to approve possible vendors, another process to then raise the purchase orders. All these no doubt delayed because the new ministry is dealing with back-logs from every department and school and council and prison in the country for their regular stuff. At the same time you would also be crushing the ability of SMEs to tender for government business as there is no way they would have the scale to operate at a whole government level rather than at a smaller niche. Hurting that part of the British economy is not something we should be engineering. Instead, we’re supposed to be marching into a brave new post-bureaucratic age and Green’s proposal runs counter to that end.
No, the answer to all the issues that Green has identified can be solved by removing the veil of bureaucracy and accelerating proposals for complete transparency of Government data on-line. Every single contract and purchase order for more than £500 should be there for everyone to see. It is our tax money so the spend data is our data. Arguments by vendors about contract ‘commercial sensitivity’ are a sham ,they don’t want it exposed they are ripping us off. The public has a right to see that vendors are not charging the government more than they charge in the high street. Overnight, by publishing all this data you would free-up departmental procurement officers to see what is the going-rate or a fair price. More importantly you would allow commercial competitors to see the price they need to compete with. This more than anything would continually drive prices downwards. Rather than a procurement officer going to a vendor and saying “I need 10,000 of x what is our agreed price?” You would have vendors ringing procurement officers and saying “I see you bought 10,000 x and paid y – in future I can do it z cheaper”. You would stop at once the procurement officer who buys the slightly more expensive stuff because he gets more air miles or because the vendor sent him on a nice day-at-the-races during the bid. The armchair auditors (or the press) would not allow it. Transparency is to everyone’s advantage. It will retain our localism agenda and leave space for agility and innovation in departments. It will also mean we don’t need to waste time or money setting up a Ministry of Paper Clips.