Thursday, 18 December 2014

Blair's 'modernisation' of local government has been a disaster...

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The Association of Public Sector Excellence (APSE) - which for connoisseurs of local government used to be the Association of Direct Labour Organisations (ADLO) - has published findings from a survey of councillors that asked about the 'modernisation' of 2000 that introduced the leader and cabinet system of administration:

Almost two-thirds of decision-making councillors believe the modernisation agenda for local authorities – which heralded the introduction of cabinet systems of governance – has been a success. Just 37% of backbench members agreed.

Two out of three non-executive councillors felt the changes had marginalised their role with 43% believing they could personally help to improve local services compared to 87% of executive elected members.

In simple terms people with front bench jobs believe the system is just great and that they can really influence what's going on but the rest of the councillors feel left out. This is a reminder that Blair's modernisation of local government was half-baked and ineffective. It began with lots of typical Blairite stuff about the committee system being a 19th century system unsuited to the challenges of decision-making in modern local government and ended up (because Labour councillors successfully lobbied to prevent the imposition of directly-elected mayors) with the rather undemocratic and opaque system of cabinet administration.

So the situation we now have is one where most councillors (Executives and/or Cabinets typically contain fewer than ten members) are no longer involved in the decision-making that their residents actually elect them to do. Once every four years there's a vote to choose a leader and this person hand picks the chosen few who will make the decisions. The rest of the council languish on mostly purposeless scrutiny committees or toil away on regulatory panels deciding planning permissions, licences and so forth - knowing that their decisions are subject (quite rightly) to challenge and external inspection.

The findings from APSE's survey shouldn't come as a surprise - any conversation with backbench councillors will reveal a genuine frustration about being able to influence the system. Instead we're fobbed off with a ludicrous role of 'community leader' - in the view of senior officers and council leadership, a role that tasks councillors with the job of communicating their better's decisions to hoi polloi. All this is made worse by the continuation of the system of 'special responsibility allowances' - extra payments to councillors who chair committees, run panels or do some other task deemed over-and-above the normal job of being a councillor.

APSE chicken out of proposing any substantial change - preferring instead to suggest stroking backbenchers and sympathising with their grumbles:

‘This study shows there is a need to find a way to better recognise the contribution of councillors who may be focused on serving their communities but feel disconnected from decision-making.’

So rather than change the system so councillors actually are involved in decision-making, we cobble together some form of words that says all the stuff we do is just as important. Except, of course, we know that it isn't as important. Being able to explain to a resident whose bin has vanished that the Council charges for a replacement is not the same as being able to make a decision about whether or not such a charge is warranted.

Perhaps we need to consider whether we should complete Blair's botched modernisation - I'd support elected mayors but even without them the current system clearly has too many local councillors - or else to go back to a system where all the councillors we elect are actually involved in doing the thing we elect them to do. That is to make decisions on our behalf about the administration of the local council and its services.

The present system lacks open-ness, is not especially democratic and produces a lot of councillors who feel like spare parts. Going back to the committee system would give those councillors a real role to play (and allow for them to develop genuine knowledge on a given area of service -something the cabinet portfolio system precludes). Alternatively we should reduce the number of councillors significantly, pay them all the same regardless of position, and eliminate the disconnection between front- and back-benches.

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Tuesday, 16 December 2014

We know what happens when a developed nation has no immigration

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We know the answer to this because of Japan - here's a report in New Geography:

Japan’s working-age population (15-64) peaked in 1995, while the United States’ has grown 21% since then. The projections for Japan are alarming: its working-age population will drop from 79 million today to less than 52 million in 2050, according to the Stanford Institute on Longevity.

Since hitting a peak of 128 million in 2010, Japan’s overall population has dropped three years in a row. These trends all but guarantee the long-term decline of the Japanese economy and its society.

Bear in mind that Japan's population is 127 million today - it will fall but the precise figures are hard to predict because of longevity. The New Geography article sets out some of the consequences:

...by 2020, adult diapers are projected to outsell the infant kind. By 2040, the country will have more people over 80 than under 15, according to U.N. projections. By 2060, the number of Japanese is expected to fall from 127 million today to about 87 million, of whom almost 40% will be 65 or older.

Put simply Japan can't afford to do this. It can barely afford the cost of health and care today. And this is the reason why Japan's economy is struggling. Moreover, it points to the reason why the UK, Germany and the USA stand an outside chance of affording health and social care costs at least for the time being. We have had relatively open borders allowing us to maintain the size of our working age populations - without this immigration we would be facing the same time bomb as Japan faces.

It's not just a fiscal time bomb it's a social one too:

Japan’s grim demography is also leading to tragic ends for some elderly. With fewer children to take care of elderly parents, there has been a rising incidence of what the Japanese call kodokushi, or “lonely deaths” among the aged, unmarried, and childless. Given the current trends, this can only become more commonplace over time.

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Poking, sneering, moralising and despising - the defining character of Fabianism

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Let's get one thing out of the way. I'm not sure I agree with limiting child benefit to two children but there does need to be a debate about said benefit and whether it is the best way to support children and especially children who live in what we've defined as poverty. After all a significant chunk of child benefit is paid to mothers who have no need for it (again this isn't to say the benefit isn't welcome but that no-one will lack for basics by its absence).

So I understand Iain Duncan Smith's point:

The work and pensions secretary hinted the move was being examined by his party despite previously being vetoed by Downing Street over fears it could alienate parents.

Asked about the idea on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, Duncan Smith said it could also “help behavioural change” in what appeared to be a suggestion that it could discourage people struggling with their finances from having more children.

Leaving aside that the Guardian is putting words into IDS's mouth, this idea probably has significant support amongst the population.  There is a widespread view (that I don't share) that having more than two children is somehow irresponsible and that child benefit provides either a reward or an incentive for such foolishness.

However, to describe what IDS has said as 'eugenics' is stretching the point well past breaking point. Yet - in a typical piece of bravado nonsense - this is what Polly Toynbee does:

Some themes deep in the heart of Toryism just never go away. Up they pop, over and over. Control the lower orders, stop them breeding, check their spending, castigate their lifestyles. Poking, sneering, moralising and despising is hardwired within Tory DNA.

The problem with this is that these days most of the proposals for controlling the lower orders come from the left-wing establishment, from the sort of people Polly approves of.

It was a Labour government that introduced the Anti-Social Behaviour Order as a way to criminalise things that aren't criminal. It is use to enforce a sterile environment that, in effect, permits the police supported by the magistracy to arrest anyone for any reason.

It is great figures from the left - H G Wells, J M Keynes and, most recently, Jonathan Porritt and David Attenborough who have been advocates of enforced population control, of eugenics. It is the people that Polly has dinner with who enthused about communist China's one child policy and socialist India's bribes for vasectomies.

It is the left with their moralising about debt and lending that wants to check the spending of the working class. It left-wing writers like Naomi Klein who put about the patronising lie that ordinary people are manipulated by corporations into something called 'over-consumption'.

And it's the left - including the last Labour government - who led the charge against people's lifestyles. Banning smoking in the pub, whacking a duty escalator on beer (while exempting wine and champagne), imposing planning restrictions on fast food takeaways and trying to ban gambling. It's the left that want taxes on fizzy drinks, bans on added sugar and salt, restrictions on portion sizes, the ending of multibuy offers and a host of other nannying interventions in people's lifestyle choices.

My party is not immune from these problems - you only have to look at Tracy Crouch and Sarah Wollaston to see this - but despising the worker is not 'hard wired' into Tory DNA. It people like Polly Toynbee who patronise and exploit ordinary people so as to prosecute their disturbed and disturbing political opinions. Political opinions we can trace back to that great Fabian socialist, H G Wells:

...the ethical system of these men of the New Republic, the ethical system which will dominate the world state, will be shaped primarily to favour the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity - beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds, and a growing body of knowledge - and to check the procreation of base and servile types, of fear-driven and cowardly souls, of all that is mean and ugly and bestial in the souls, bodies, or habits of men. To do the latter is to do the former; the two things are inseparable.

And that equally renowned Fabian socialist, G B Shaw:

...If people are fit to live, let them live under decent human conditions. If they are not fit to live, kill them in a decent human way. Is it any wonder that some of us are driven to prescribe the lethal chamber as the solution for the hard cases which are at present made the excuse for dragging all the other cases down to their level, and the only solution that will create a sense of full social responsibility in modern populations?"

Or the ever so progressive Margaret Sanger:

 "... Degeneration has already begun. Eugenists demonstrate that two-thirds of our manhood of military age are physically too unfit to shoulder a rifle; that the feeble-minded, the syphilitic, the irresponsible and the defective breed unhindered; ... that the vicious circle of mental and physical defect, delinquency and beggary is encouraged, by the unseeing and unthinking sentimentality of our age, to populate asylum, hospital and prison. All these things the Eugenist sees and points out with a courage entirely admirable"

Eugenics was always a ghastly creed. But is was a creed - along with directing and controlling the lives of workers - that was at the very heart of Polly's Fabian socialism.

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Seems that nutritionists and basic economics don't mix...

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Whatever we may think of proposals for a 'sugar tax' (I think it a thoroughly bad idea) this observation from a 'top nutritionist' takes the biscuit for ignorance of economics:

“If you make things that are desirable more expensive, this has no impact on purchasing,” Dr Carrie Ruxton told FoodManufacture.co.uk. “Similarly, if you make things like fruit cheaper, that doesn’t incentivise people either.”

I'm guessing that the study of nutrition doesn't include any economics. There are, I'm told, exceptional circumstances where making something more expensive doesn't affect demand but generally speaking making stuff more expensive means less of it is bought. Dr Ruxton (who has a PhD studying the relationship between children’s eating habits, socio-economic status and growth) clearly thinks that the laws of supply and demand don't apply.

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Monday, 15 December 2014

Things that just aren't true...

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Planning has played a transformational role in improving the quality of life of all of our communities. In the past, planning has proved itself capable of dealing with overcrowding, poor quality housing and public realm, creating jobs, improving infrastructure and most importantly, securing greater social equity.

OK the author of this staggering piece of nonsense is the boss of the Town & Country Planning Association. But really!

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Mantel's 'Assassination of Margaret Thatcher' remains a work of utter bigotry - and the BBC should know this...

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When there was an earlier brouhaha about Hilary Mantel's deliberately egregious story, 'The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher' I wrote how it revealed more about Mantel's bigotry than about the character of Maggie:

What we see here from Ms Mantel is something that, in truth, is foreign to those of us who share Margaret Thatcher's lower middle class background. Taking the trouble to construct a fiction based entirely on your hatred of a caricature of a women you have never met is something peculiar to the bien pensant left. What this short story tells us about Hilary Mantel - bitter, bigoted, ignorant - is far more important than any flicker of insight into the motives of the Provisional IRA or the character of Margaret Thatcher.

The kerfuffle has return as the BBC chose this (to be fair the Thatcher story is just one in a series of short pieces) for broadcast as 'Book at Bedtime'. Again, in and of itself, there's no problem with this except that the BBC will have known exactly what the response would be. This is the 'official' response (I gather):

“Book at Bedtime offers the best of modern and classic literature and, in doing so, presents a wide range of perspectives from around the world. The work of Hilary Mantel – a double Booker prize-winning author – is of significant interest to the public and we will not shy away from the controversial subject matter that features in one of the four stories read across the week.”

Here we see 'Booker prize-winning author' being used in the same manner that the tern 'Nobel prize winning scientist' is sometimes used. Mantel didn't win (and isn't going to win) the Booker prize for 'The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher' - any more that Sir Paul Judge got his nobel prize for stuff about climate change - yet the fact of her winning said prize for a different book is presented as some sort of defence by the BBC.

The BBC chose this book in order to provoke. It really is as simple as that - rather than any one of a thousand other books of great merit (including some by celebrated winners of book prizes) that could have been chosen, they chose this rather second-rate story; a thing of shallow stereotype, bias and bigotry rather than something bringing insight or understanding.

If, dear reader, you can suspend disbelief for a paragraph or two imagine this. I'm an award-winning writer and I write a brief polemic masquerading as literature about a conversation between a lawyer and a politician, a conversation leading to the execution of Nelson Mandela for terrorism. And a conversation that is sympathetic to those who held - or hold - the view that Mandela was indeed a terrorist. Do you think that any newspaper would publish such a story in full? And would there be any chance of it being chosen - from all the literature available - for broadcast on a national broadcaster's flagship speech radio channel?

This wouldn't happen. Yet we're told by the BBC that:

"...our audience is sophisticated enough to accept a broad range of viewpoints, and we are loth to censor or avoid significant works of literature because they might be controversial.”

What we know - from the discussion of climate change, from the manner in which some people are given sainthood and from the presentation of the arts in general - is that the BBC will only entertain controversial views if they either attack the BBC's cultural enemires or conform to the rather snide and certainly bigoted world view of the bien pensant left.

The BBC knew exactly what is was doing when it chose this book. That is exactly why it made that choice. And exactly why the decision reveals the corporation's bigotry.

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Friday, 12 December 2014

Who won Nigel or Russell? The x-factorisation of politics

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Like most of the British population I didn't watch the Nigel Farage and Russell Brand show on last night's BBC Question Time. I have now watched the popular clip of a bloke in the audience asserting that if Brand was so keen on changing things maybe he might consider standing for parliament. And I've also read selections from the avalanche of commentary about this occasion.

However, I remain - politcally at least - depressed about the whole thing. Not because of the opinions that Nigel and Russell express - I like people to have opinions, even wrong ones. My sense of gloom stems from the nature of the programme and the way in which our national (and state-owned) broadcaster presents politics. Question Time is the BBC's flagship political debate show, yet they run it as if it was part of their light entertainment offering. Which is why getting Farage and Brand on the same show was important - not because they offer thoughtful and considered analysis of complex questions but because they have a 'brand' (pun entirely intended).

And the media entirely buy into this x-factorisation of political debate - the reporting of Question Time isn't about what anyone said except where it's couched in terms of who 'won' between the two personalities. In the Metro, that throwaway newspaper we read on the train the report even ends with a vote!

Won what exactly? The argument - surely the point of the show isn't to have a winner but rather to allow politicians (and people who aren't politicians but have something to say - like Brand, I guess) a place to respond to questions from an audience. Indeed there were five panellists not just the two - or should I call them contestants?

Even the questions selected last night played to this artificial contest - starting with the 'petty, adversarial nature of politics' (a deliciously ironic question given the petty and adversarial nature of this edition of Question Time) we then ran through privatising the NHS, immigration and grammar schools. A set of question designed to provide some entertaining exchanges between our two protagonists.

Yesterday was a particularly stark example of how politics is treated as a branch of entertainment but we shouldn't think that it is unusual. Indeed the majority of political discussion that we see is either so brief - a two or three minute interview on the Today programme or Newsnight or else structured so as to guarantee contest and confrontation - even when people are crammed onto a too small sofa. The result is that nearly all of political debate is conducted on the basis of sound bite, posture and slogan, which rather explains why a jack-the-lad comedian like Russell Brand finds it so easy - there isn't much different between his political exposition and his stand-up.

On one level I guess this doesn't really matter - we get the politicians and the political debate we deserve. But we should consider what we are losing. In the dumbed down, lights-flashing, show biz world of today's politics there isn't any place for nuance, for looking at the actual evidence (other than trite 'fact-checking') or for trying to explain complicated systems, situations or proposals. And there is no time given for developing ideas, exploring options or properly examining proposals. I know this stuff happens because I do it every day as a councillor but the politics we're presented with by the media is almost entirely one of personalities, of who's up and who's down, gossip, tittle-tattle and the machine-gunning of listeners with carefully crafted slogans.

Which is why I don't watch BBC Question Time, seldom see Newsnight and can only manage very brief snatches of the Today Programme - all they offer is argument without substance, snarky interviewers and the constant idea that all these interactions must somehow have a winner and a loser. The political parties - and the gossip-mongers of the media - pour over the utterings of every politician looking for the clumsy phrase, the hesitation or the words than might offend some group or other. We're routinely presented with allegations of sexism and racism constructed on the flimsiest of grounds. Why? Because it's another win for the opposition or for one or other newspaper or website.

This game - slogans, soundbites and poses mixed with back-biting and character assassination - makes politics seem like, as Paul Begala observed, show business for the ugly. It doesn't matter much whether the actual policies actually work, that can be glossed over. What matters is who wins and who loses. Not just at the election (at least that's a real contest) but in every engagement and encounter. We pull down the opponent - focus on their silly face, their school or their resemblance to Parker from Thunderbirds - rather than engage with what they are saying.

Whatever the truth, it really is pretty sad that the presentation of politics has reached this point - a sort of x-factor for the political anorak rather than a way of helping the public understand what politicians are actually proposing. Perhaps Russell Brand and Nigel Farage - inconsistent, flash blokes from the edges of London with the gift of the gab and a degree of likeability - really do represent the future of politics. After all they don't offer positive policies, just lists of things they don't want and people they don't like.

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