Archive for January, 2013

Fisking the fisker

January 31, 2013 Leave a comment

I’m not blogging much at the moment, but I still abide by my golden rule of blogging:  if I happen to come across some twat misusing PISA results in defence of Gove, then I will always make a point of calling her/him out, if I can be arsed.

So there’s a total twat, Toby Young by name, misusing PISA results in defence of Gove, and I can be arsed.

Young says, in a piece ‘fisking’ the apparently “hysterical” Suzanne Moore*:

Ah. Here we go. Her [Moore's] views are “evidence-based”, Gove’s are “ideological”. Odd line of argument for a former employee of Marxism Today to pursue, but there it is. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to support Gove’s policies. Here’s evidence that standards fell during Labour’s 13 years in office. Here’s evidence that free schools have raised standards in Sweden. Here’s evidence that increasing school choice has raised standards in England. Here’s evidence that the academies programme is raising standards in England.

The first link is to the wikipedia entry on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

And this is what the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority had to say about the blatant misuse of PISA data by Ofsted and the DfE:

While I understand that some users of these data would like to make comparisons between the first PISA study in 2000 and the most recent in 2009, the weaknesses relating to the response-rate standard in earlier studies should not be ignored. The validity of comparisons of national rankings as a result of an increase in the number of countries covered by the PISA study, and the degrees of uncertainty in country scores attributed to sampling and measurement error are also important in this regard.

That is, Young is totally and utterly wrong**.  More on why he’s wrong here***, here, here and, just for completeness sake, the National Foundation for Educational Research review of the PISA 2009 study:

England’s performance in 2009 does not differ greatly from that in the last Pisa survey in 2006.

*  Readers may wish to note James Delingpole’s delightful metaphor on twitter for Young’s attempted fisking of the “hysterical” Moore.   I can’t remember where I put it though.  Anyway, it’s bound to cause a twitterstorm so you may see it before I see it again.

**  Of course, it’s not just that he’s deliberately misusing the PISA data.  His logic is also utterly at sea.  Even valid evidence that England may have fallen down the international ranking wouldn’t be proof that standards have fallen.  It might be as easily explained by other countries getting better (oh, and the huge increase in the number of countries in the rankings).

***  , I note that I asked, in this post about the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority’s October ’12 letter:

Will they continue to peddle the same untruths, secure in the knowledge that the “plummeting down the international league tables” is now well entrenched as a result of lies to date, and much more likely to gain press coverage than a letter from the UK Statistics Authority?

I think we now know the answer.

Why Iain Dale hates politics

January 29, 2013 5 comments

Jon at The Third Estate brings to my attention Iain Dale’s waning love for politics.  Says Iain:

Our public life is being corrupted by a permanent sneer and cynical outlook by those who report on it. Yes, to some extent it’s the fault of those who serve in public life. The trouble is that the way politics is now reported in the print and broadcast media, it’s a wonder anyone wants to go into it.

His plaint puts me in mind of Colin Hay’s marvellous 2007 Why We Hate Politics. While Iain blames the decline of res publica on sociological and agential changes – the idea the people who now collectively make up the body politic and the political media are just worse people than their predecessors – Hay prefers to focus on the political and ideological roots (which are in turn rooted in the material structure of capitalism and its neoliberal/public choice turn):

[T]he systematic questioning of the motives of political actors and public servants has its origins in the projection of instrumental assumptions on to such actors. This, in turn, can be traced to the development of public choice theory within political science in the 1960s and 1970s, and its growing influence on public policy in the 1980s. The extent to which such assumptions are true is an index of the degree to which it is irrational to trust politicians and public servants to act in the collective interest. Consequently, the extent to which such assumptions are believed is likely to be an index of the rational disengagement of the electorate rom the political process. It would certainly seem as though public choice’s theory’s cynicism with respect to the motivations of political actors is now deeply shared (p.4).

So the ideology that drove Iain’s beloved Thatcherism is essentially responsible for the collapse of Iain’s faith in politics. A sweet irony, indeed.

More importantly for our purposes, Hay’s structural explanation is also relevant to Jon’s more politically mature analysis:

The tenor of the complaints about MPs’ expenses has always been anti-political. It gives us no sense of what politics is for, only what we hate about it. It teaches us to hate politicians not for the shitty things they might do, but because they are politicians in the first place. It resigns us to our fate. Furthermore, it is something that has been pushed aggressively by the media elite and members of the business lobby with less than noble motives, something not considered by those who gleefully joined the anti-duck house brigade when all this shit started. We can have a sensible politics conducive to the building of a better society, or we can have a politics based on this childish posturing. We can’t have both.

Agreed.  The question, though, is how we move towards a “sensible politics”.  John’s implicitly agent-focused answer seems to be that we should all grow up, be a bit less “childish”.  Yet the idea that we can just agree to do things differently is less of a realistic proposition than it sounds, given the ideological drag, and the ever-present assumption that, deep down, everyone’s in it to maximise their narrow self-interest.

Perhaps, as Chris has suggested, the only way we can really achieve a grown-up (Habermasian?) politics is to change the economic structure which made those politics how they now are, and how they are now perceived, in the first place.

Categories: General Politics

The quiet high-speed lie

January 28, 2013 2 comments

Alex Massie at the Spectator thinks the government may be gilding the high speed lily:

I suspect the economic case for the proposals is weaker than its proponents allow.

He’s right.

The governnment ‘s Economic Case for HS2: Updated appraisal of transport user benefits and wider economic benefits, published to justify the London-Birmingham stretch says )para 3.5.4)

There may also be significant local effects; for instance, a new station can act as a magnet for economic activity and drive regeneration in deprived areas.


You’d have thought that for a £32bn scheme there might be a bit more than a ‘may’, and some actual research into its possible and likely consequences for the areas concerned.

Not so.

After a few paragraphs of vague wish lists about what ‘wider economic impacts’ (WEIs) the scheme might bring in the form of business clustering and labour markets, we get this at 3.5.8 of the same report:

The WEIs guidance is carefully designed to measure national impacts. However, at a regional and local level the effects of HS2 on the distribution of activity could also be very significant.

Is “could” better than “may”?

Then, finally, we get to the nub (para 3.5.9-10):

[A]lthough there are many examples where growth and regeneration has been delivered around a high speed rail station, there may be balancing effects across the wider area. However, the circumstances in which, and extent to which, this happens is not clear….

These local impacts are considered more fully in the Review of HS2 London to West Midlands Appraisal of Sustainability report.

But if you’re anal enough to go to the Review of HS2 London to West Midlands Appraisal of Sustainability report, it runs out that no such consideration has been given (para 1.3.1):

In undertaking this assessment account has been taken of the socio-economic impact of transport schemes including other high speed rail schemes. It is commonly accepted that the main impact on land use, of new stations or improved services, is located within a 10-15 minutes walking distance of the station, which equates to a catchment area of 1km.

Thus, the report is not by, any stretch of the imagination, an assessment of wider impacts.  That’s not what 1km from a station is.  That’s a local impact assessment. Indeed the report acknowledges this when at para .1.3.5):

The next steps in developing the socio-economic appraisal may be to……investigate the wider regional impacts of high speed rail, for example, how the Black Country region would be affected by the introduction of High Speed Rail to Birmingham (para 1.3.5.).

In summary, then the wider regional impact investigation recommended in the previous report has not been undertaken, but the final report published by the government pretends that it has.

Call me old-fashhioned, but I think that’s lying.

And this is not simply an esoteric point about what is and isn’t in what DfT document.

This is about the spending of  £33bn on a scheme which has the real capacity to wreak havoc on people in towns and cities – most likely some distance from the new stations but close enough to see economic activity “sucked away”.

As I set out here, such concerns are summed up in a 2009 paper ‘High Speed Rail: Lessons for Policy Makers from Experiences Abroad’, in which the authors study the actual post-construction impact of schemes in Japan, France, Spain and Italy:

[F]or regions and cities whose economic conditions compare unfavorably with those of their neighbors, a connection to the HST line may even result in economic activities being drained away and an overall negative impact……Medium size cities may well be the ones to suffer most from the economic attraction of the more dynamic, bigger cities. Indeed, Haynes (1997) points out that growth is sometimes at the expense of other centers of concentration.

Time will tell whether my concerns are justified, but what we can already be certain of is that £32bn of public money is to be spent on a scheme which has not been properly research, and the justification for which is underpinned by quiet, but important, lie in the small print.

Meanwhile, the £60m it would cost (about 1/500th of what’s needed for HSR) to build a rail link to Skelmersdale’s 40,000 residents to any railway at all is still not forthcoming.

Small hitch to Cameron’s EU negotiation strategy

January 27, 2013 Leave a comment

The Sun says:

DAVID Cameron wants power to boot out foreign  terror suspects as part of a  deal to keep Britain in the EU.

The PM’s “bottom line” is to wrest control back from meddling European  judges.

He is furious 3,000 criminals and terror suspects are using human rights laws to fight deportation from the UK.

The issue will be his key demand when he sits down to thrash out a looser  EU deal.

If that is Cameron’s key demand, it may at least amuse his fellow heads of state when he starts banging his fists at the negotiating tablem given that European Court of Human Rights is an institution of the 47 member Council of Europe, and has nothing at all to do with the European Union.

You couldn’t make it up etc. etc.


Categories: General Politics, Law

Could Cameron land us with two referenda by mistake?

January 23, 2013 1 comment

In my main post on Cameron’s EU debacle earlier, I noted how the European Union Act 2011, pushed through by Cameron as a way of deflecting attention from his failure to live up to his “cast iron” guarantee on a referendum, is likely to come back to haunt him.

It occurs to me that one part of his speech illustrates this cock-up perfectly.  Cameron asks:

And I would ask: when the competitiveness of the single market is so important, why is there an environment council, a transport council, an education council but not a single market council?

So Cameron apparently wants an addiitional institution within the EU to coordinate single market policy.  I’m not sure why, but let’s take him at his word.

Now, the function of the transport council, which he refers to by way of comparison, is set out at Articles 90 to 96 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.  Similarly, if a single market were to be established as a result Cameron’s negotiating brilliance, it would also require inclusion within a revised TFEU if it were to have legitimacy

But the European Union Act 2011 makes ot very clear that a change to TFEU which entails “the extension of the competence of the EU in relation to cooridnation of economic and employment policies” (sec 4 (f) will require a referendum for its ratification.

So if Cameron were successful in negotiating a new Single Market coordination function, AND if legislation were introduced for an in/out referendum, we’d be stuck, by law, with two referenda, potentially weeks apart.

Categories: Law, Terrible Tories

Cameron opens the way for a triple Labour victory

January 23, 2013 Leave a comment

Update 3.30pm 23/01/2013: Miliband’s seemingly  statement that he doesn’t want an in/out referendum, this lunchtime at PMQs, merely highlights the need for the tactic advocated here: that whether Labour want it or not, Cameron’s earlier spineless legislation (European Union Act 2011) means that, if any progress is made to develop European treaties as set out below,  a referendum is a legal requirement.

So Cameron has promised a in/out referendum on membership of the European Union sometime in 2017.   Far from being “a pretty effective trap for Labour” (@philipoltermann), this should open the door for Labour both to confirm victory in the 2014 European elections, the 2015 general election, and then help change the European Union for the better via the in/out referendum.  A Labour triple whammy, courtesy of Cameron.  Sounds great?  Read on……

Let us assume, for a start, that Cameron follows through on the promise to draft referendum legislation before 2015, with a view to its enactment after the general election.  This, some pundits will say, is the main trap, because the Tories will be able to challenge Labour to a manifesto commitment on its enactment, claiming victory if it commits, claiming Labour is denying the people a voice if it doesn’t.

This, though, ignores the European Union Act 2011, enacted by Cameron as a panic measure to deflect from his early “cast-iron” commitment to referendum.  While the press have made the Act out to be a safeguard against powers being handed over to Europe without a referendum, section 4 of the Act covers a wide range of European treaty changes which, if agreed at intergovernmental level, will, by law, have to be presented to the British people in a referendum.  some of the changes requiring referendum have nothing to do with transfer of powers  Yet Cameron has today told us that he supports treaty change before an in/out referendum, in the context of his argument that such an in/out referendum needs to be delayed until the EU has got its house in order:

I agree too with what President Barroso and others have said. At some stage in the next few years the EU will need to agree on Treaty change to make the changes needed for the long term future of the Euro and to entrench the diverse, competitive, democratically accountable Europe that we seek. I believe the best way to do this will be in a new Treaty so I add my voice to those who are already calling for this.

Remarkably then, Cameron may find himself either having to use his veto on what he may consider to be good treaty changes, or being required, through a law made of his own spinelessness, calling a treaty-change referendum before an in/out referendum.

So far, so good.  Labour can simply argue that it is compelled by Cameron’s weakness on Europe to enact the draft legislation so as the avoid a farcical situation whereby a treaty-change referendum required under law becomes an in/out referendum by proxy, with a no vote on treaty change meaning a further vote becomes inevitable.

As I’ve set out earlier, a referendum on membership is, in any event, not a bad thing for Labour (on this I agree with Will Straw from IPPR).  The tactical battle won via Cameron’s own incompetence, Labour becomes free to engage with European partners post-2015 on the development of a social democratic alternative/revision to the Lisbon Treaty, and to flag up this pre-general election, and pre-2014 Euro elections, in a way which more clearly distinguishes it from the Tories on Europe than it has managed to date.  Francois Hollande will still be in office in 2015/6, Merkel may be in a weaker position to negotiate, and Spain, Italy, Portugal, Denmark and others have a more than 50% chance, I’d say, of having governments with whom Labour can do business on the development of a centre-left treaty to replace/modify Lisbon.  It is on the basis of a clearly better-for-the-people Treaty that Labour would then call the in/out referendum.

What would a revised, social democratic Lisbon Treaty look like?  Space/time does not permit a full exposition here, but I think six things should be top of the list, reflecting how different a social democratic Europe post-2019 (ie. after the 2019 Euro elections and a leftist majority might look):

1) The treaty should establish the primacy of the European Parliament as decision-making agenda-setting body, with the European Commission removed from its role as one of the three key bodies involved in the current co-decision making process, and developed into a ‘neutral’ civil service operating under democratic command.

This will set Labour and its fellow European parties aside from the Tories, who under Cameron have stated clearly (see PMQs in early January, and repeated again today) that the sole legitimate democratic voice in Europe is the intergovernmental European Council of heads of state, currently presided over by van Rompuy.  Labour should argue that the Parliament, as long as it reforms its election system away from the current regional list system towards one where each MEP represents  distinct constituency, is now the body with the expertise (and Commission support) and legitimacy that is needed to govern the European Union, albeit with due reference to intergovernmental institutions (not just the European Council but also the strangely similarly named Council of the European Union).

This is not just the right thing to do, as it brings into play the importance of parties working across Europe to establish a majority and then coherent policy within the Parliament; it is also tactically useful, because it allows Labour to go into the 2014 European elections on the basis that the Tories and UKIP are actually just putting up ‘gravy-train’ candidates to be members of an institution they don’t even believe in, while Labour candidates actually want to get some work done.

2) The new treaty should create the legal conditions in which the frankly absurd Stability and Growth Pact and the accompanying ‘six-pack’ directive, are subsequently abolished.  These directives are the ones which effectively outlaw Keynesianism by imposing ludicrous constraints on surplus/deficit spending.   The treaty should then set out an alternative framework under which member states are required to use their spending power to maintain and enhance levels of social security, employment and income equality.  Whether this should include numerical targets and some form of sanction for non-compliance, mirroring the surplus/deficit targets/sanctions set out under a neoliberal EU, is open to debate (currently I would favour such).

3) In keeping with this significant change in emphasis to the EU’s role and the legitimacy of the European Parliament, the new treaty should reverse the decision under Lisbon to remove democratic control of the European Central Bank from the Parliament.

4) The treaty should enhance the existing, but ignored provision in Lisbon, to vary single market conditions on a temporary basis so as to allow for a form of artificial devaluation in countries running behind the EU’s economic leaders in terms of citizen incomes in a way which promotes convergence without the self-defeating austerity measures currently being used for that task.  EU structural funds should be used to make this happen.

5) Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in a way which a) gears subsidy to low wealth producers rather than to richer landowners who are able to use the income-based mechanism to rake in the cash; b) creates both long-term sustainability/reliability of supply, in a time of adverse climate change, and affordability i.e. the CAP should effectively become part of universal welfare provision around decent food.

6)  The restatement of the principle of free movement of labour, but with protection  from exploitation enhanced by the enactment of something similar to the UK’s Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, but broadened to encompass existing EU procurement law and to cover multi-nationals.

If the Labour leadership gets its collective head round both the short-term tactics of using Cameron’s own reckless 2011 legislation against him, and then starts setting out its distinctive view of a new social democratic EU shaped by it and its fellow leftist parties, it stands to win the 2014 euros, then the general election against Cameron and then (best of all) a referendum Yes against a Tory party led in 2015 by Gove, or a Gove acolyte, which is campaigning for No vote.

Of course, if Labour doesn’t do that, I guess Philip Oltermann may be right…..

Immigration, education and prosperity: building on the London success story

January 18, 2013 5 comments

Yesterday’s Financial Times leader reflects on its own research, which finds that “pupils  in London’s poorest neighbourhoods are outperforming average students in the  regions”:

Much is still unknown about why London is doing so well. But some credit can  be given to the initiative known as London Challenge, regrettably scrapped by  the coalition in 2010. This helped to create an ecosystem of experts and schools to identify weaknesses and share best practice. Ofsted, the schools regulator,  has praised its impact on student performance.

Government policy has since focused  on expanding academies, which are free from local authority control. But  autonomy alone is not the answer. The world’s best school systems have high  levels of autonomy. So do some of the worst. The experience of London Challenge  and successful academies shows that collaboration between high and  underperforming schools and informal benchmarking are as important.

Successive governments have tried and failed to address the blight of  underperformance in areas such as Doncaster or Yarmouth. There are many  contributing factors, such as a lack of expectations fuelled by a dearth of job opportunities. But it is urgent that the lessons of London’s success be translated to these regions.

Policy makers should test a new initiative in some underperforming cities. Local commissioners could be appointed to co-ordinate education experts, teachers and  business. This group could help to identify weaknesses and foster collaboration  between schools to spread best practice. This cannot be a short-term experiment.  Previous attempts to replicate London’s success were abandoned too soon.  Improving schools is a five to 10-year task, which means there has to be  cross-party consensus on how to deal with these educational deserts. The future of Britain’s children depends on it.

The disjuncture between analysis and conclusion here is stark:  we simply don’t know what the main influence on educational achievement in London is – broadly, whether it’s changing to the education, or changes amongst the cohorts being educated – but the recommendation for action focuses on what to do about schools.

Indeed, the conclusion seems to contradict other recent analysis by Chris Cook, the FT’s excellent education correspondent and data geek hero.  Chris finds that only in a very few schools do poorer children (those eligible for Free School Meals) achieve better than the national average. That is, in the country as a whole, the quality of the school generally matters a great deal less to a child’s educational achievement than does that family income of that child.  Moreover, in another benchmarking exercise, he finds that “two-thirds of the variation in children’s exam results can be explained without any reference to the quality of the school at all.”

So why is it different in London? Are the schools really so much better that they are able to counteract the influence of poverty in ways that so few schools elsewhere are able to?

The answer is a “yes, probably”.  It does look as though the London Challenge, in particular, had a beneficial effect in the way the FT leader sets out, based on collaboration and a virtual circle of best practice, as well perhaps as making the most of London’s undoubted educationalist talent pool.  After all, even children arriving from other English regions after the age of 11 seem to end up doing better than their peers who stayed in the regions.

But, given what we know from the statistics, there must also be other causes – something specific about London itself, not just its schools, which has driven up achievement so much more there in the last 10 years, compared with other regions.

This other something is, I suspect, immigration.  As I set out in some detail here and here, there is already really quite compelling evidence to suggest the cognitive and social advantages of emergent bilingualism and biculturalism has been powerful enough to overcome the economic disadvantages suffered by many of them.  This particularity about the shift in the type of children educated in London in the last decade will, I suspect, turn out to have been a more powerful cause of improved educational achievement than anything that the schools themselves have done.  There’s a PhD or two waiting to be done in the field.

Such PhD findings are likely to be very unpopular with government (of any colour, as it stands), who will be more than happy to stick with the convenient, but wrong, assumption, that improving educational achievement is just a matter of improving schools (and outright governmental corruption currently flows from that assumption).

Nevertheless, it’s important that pro-immigrations keep on making the case for diversity, not just on the basis that it creates a better educated workforce, but because well-educated diversity flows creates a more prosperous, productive country as a whole.  As Alesine et al. (2013) find (h/t Chris Dillow) from their extensive research into the economic effects of birthplace diversity*, there is:

 a positive and robust correlation between birthplace diversity and productivity.  This association is particularly strong for the diversity of immigrants, especially for skilled immigrants in richer countries. Expanding the diversity of skilled immigration by one standard deviation (e.g., from Iran to Ireland, or Ireland to US) increases long-run real income by a factor of 1.2 to 1.5. These results hold for OLS and 2SLS estimators in a dataset of 93 countries and are robust to a wide range of alternative speci.cations. We interpret these findings as suggestive of production function effects of diversity. These effects can theoretically arise though complementarities in skills, cognitive abilities or problem solving capabilities that emerge from the combination of workers with diverse origins in a joint production task. Such positive production function effects have been uncovered in a number of recent empirical and experimental studies at the team and .rm levels, but evidence at an aggregate level had so far been limited to US cities and states.  These results have potentially strong implications for the design of immigration policies (p.21).

In the short term, of course, it’s too much too expect that the life chances of people in South Yorkshire (to take one “poorly performing” area in the FT research) will be enhanced by a new wave of productive immigration with a dynamic similar to that in London (or early 20th century New York); however desirable that may be for the open-minded, it just ain’t going to happen.  Nevertheless, what it’s important for Labour policymakers to bear in mind, as they prepare to take over after Gove’s scorched earth period of misuse of office, is that further initiatives to improve education in such areas need to be developed more holistically than the FT leader above recommends.

We need to develop ways in which schools and the wider institutions of the state are able to instil in whole communities the affinity for educational achievement which currently marks out London from the rest.  Some of this is, of course, related to economic opportunity – the desire to get good results in order to get that job which is actually available, but it’s also about creating a love of learning for learning’s sake amongst children, either through initiatives with parents (e.g. the creation of 21st century ‘reading rooms’ in schools or run by schools) and/or, where need be, in loco parentis.

This, of course, needs money.  And lots of it.  But if there’s one New Labour achievement that One Nation Labour should be keen to celebrate and build on, it’s Education, Education, Education.  The FT agrees.

* The notion of birthplace diversity, as opposed to ethnic diversity, is important, because it is the very newness that creates the kind of surge of achievement we have seen in London in the last decade.  As the study says (p.2):

Albeit loosely linked through immigration, ethnic and birthplace diversity are empirically (perhaps surprisingly) almost completely uncorrelated. Conceptually, ethnic and birthplace diversity also di¤er as people born in different countries are likely to have been educated in di¤erent school systems, learned di¤erent skills, and speak different languages; once gathered in a single country, .rst-generation immigrants arguably form a more diverse group than second and third-generation immigrants (or than people of di¤erent ethnicities) that grew up speaking the same language and, more often than not, learned from each other inside or outside of school: the melting pot does indeed melt!


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